...how wine producers are using architecture to seduce consumers
Although the Phoenicians first bled wine from the river Ebro’s environs, Rioja’s image only recently got a makeover. Motivated by worship of wine, inspired by the edificial dynamism of crowded Napa and showcasing Spain’s purveyors of new wave gastronomy in their chic restaurants, the region’s enlightened bodegas, shimmering sharply and curvaceously in concrete, glass and steel, represent an affluent confidence. Thirsty with ambition to drink in their seductive spectacle, starkly illuminated in the low winter’s sun, I touched down in Bilbao, home to Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim. Although clearing customs swiftly, my progress was soon slowed by the sight of the striking, curvaceous spread of Santiago Calatrava’s paper white terminal, nicknamed ‘the dove’ by approving locals.
Of its three winegrowing areas, La Rioja has benefited most from the building boom. Opened in recession year, 1973, Juan Antonio Ridruejo’s ‘Bodegas Olarra’ was its first winery to declare awareness between architecture and winemaking. Close to administrative capital, Logroño, its most visually arresting feature is best glimpsed from above. The barrel room, requisite in the production of vanilla scented red Rioja, is capped by an oast house like cluster of 111 hexagonal roofs. This nudges a three pronged winery which evokes a Mercedes insignia from above, and, unfortunately, The Overlook Hotel from the ground. It seems clichéd to describe this structure, located close to the road to Santiago, as a ‘Cathedral of wine’ (as the producer insists). But the desire to evoke epiphany through intoxication dates to Dionysus and beyond and is unlikely to abate, as demonstrated by Calatrava’s cutting edge Bodegas Ysios, Laguardia (2000). Named in honour of Egyptian Gods, Isis and Osiris, it gracefully demonstrates a closer parity to its surroundings than Olarra, with sheer toothed, stepped ribbon like gables echoing the steadfast Sierra de Cantabria mountains.
Jagged, sheer and matt white, the boulder-like Bodegas Darien, Logroño (Jesús Marino Pascual, 2007) also attempts to honour its surroundings. Boasting one of the most brazen external presences of any winery, it also evokes then pushes the idea of a Corbusian villa. Interiors are open plan and initially determinedly free from Bacchanalian connotations. Classical music remotely streams along the snow leopard coloured marble lobby, culminating in a steady exhibition of amphorae dating from the 15th century. Gently leading visitors, screens smoothly lower, sometimes in pairs, for dynamic audiovisual shows. Almost as the Terminator’s perspective, these futuristically depict the vine as an organism which is utterly manageable.
Instead of attempting to emulate its environment, Iñaki Aspiazu chose an unassuming facade from which to submerge Bodegas Baigorri (2003). Sparing the residents of pueblo, Samiengo from a vernacular heart attack, all that is initially visible is a 400m² glass box. Save for orange recliners, it is empty, suggesting a pillaged limousine showroom. This apparent waste of space is flanked by a moat, then a flight of pumice terraces. But below, a gently humming manmade cave, which took two years to bore falls seven storeys. The immense, brutal but beautiful dimly lit expanse, much of which is visible at once, serves to show the importance of gravity in gently decanting must and wine. In an emergency, water may also be drawn from the moat to drench out fire.
On a scale which would intimidate aficionados of artisan produce is Bodegas Juan Alcorta, HQ of über, omnipresent brand, Campo Viejo. The vision of Ignacio Quemada Sáenz-Badillos gives the impression of infinite via wood pressed concrete and limestone fringed vistas. These harbour facilities such as Europe’s largest barrel room. The impressive lines and sheer scale serves to eclipse the lack of poignant lustre in the wines - unsurprising given the annual output reaches 36m bottles. Again, with much of the operation occurring below the roots of the vines, one could be very hard pressed to gauge the extent of operations below ground level.
The quest for breathtaking modernity need not mean neglect of the past. After turning down numerous proposals on account of their lack of ambition, Jesús Marino Pascual (Darien) designed the museum and gallery of international wine culture at Bodegas Dinastia Vivanco outside Briones (2004). The brief of this owner of seven bodegas and 400 hectares of vines: to honour founder, Pedro Vivanco Gonzélez’s wish ‘to give back to wine what wine has given to us’. The grape’s 8,000 year history is spoken over 9000m2 of underground rooms, elegantly rendered accessible to the disabled and the blind. Alongside a slightly surreal film depicting fermentation from inside a barrel is an amusing aroma machine, bloated pig’s skin wine container, IV century krater recording Dionyssus innocently relieving himself, and a raunchy Picasso jug, arched as a woman’s back. A final rotunda of 5,000 corkscrews becomes surreal in such abundance. Outside, a vine garden showcases 222 varieties.
Although nineteenth century Haro Bodega, López de Heredia is known for its determinedly unfashionable but doggedly adored white wine, exposed to air and released darkly mature (the current vintage is 1993), it too was susceptible to Rioja’s architectural bandwagon. Embracing the vision of Iraqi-born, London based architect, Zaha Hadid, Heredia’s 1910 exhibition pavilion has been cocooned in a winged glass and aluminium tasting room and boutique (2006). It represents, says Hadid, ‘a jump into the future to determine how the present would evolve...’
Of course such striking additions to an already naturally imposing landscape guarantees, like Gehry’s Guggenheim in Bilbao, an ingress of tourists. In contrast to Marques de Riscal’s Bodegas Elciego, dating from 1858 is Frank Gehry’s shimmering Chȃteau and restaurant, overseen by Michelin-starred chef, Francis Paniego (2006). Here, tumbling streams of titanium represent the colours of a bottle’s capsule, the wine within, and the undulations of vine leaves. Like roots, supporting pillars end metres below in the bottle ageing cellar. Across a footbridge a Caudalie ‘vinotheraphy’ spa pampers, although that it currently uses Bordeaux rather than Rioja as its base for treatments seems a denigration. Apparently initially wavering, Gehry finally became wed to the idea of the wine hotel when plied with four bottles of Riscal’s release from his birth year (1929). I certainly found intoxication helped me understand the structure.
Nearby in Villabuena de Álava, Joseba and Xabier Aranburu’s similarly fearless Hotel Viura opened in May 2010. A collage of jaunty, variously coloured rectangles characterise its exterior, abutting, almost humorously, this pueblo’s 14th century church. Wittily, the 400 year-old cellar of a former tax collector’s house has been absorbed into the dining room.
Over three days in Rioja, I had witnessed audacious designs proudly sprouting from historical landscapes. Could this lend the impression of entering a kind of great grape theme-park? Would these conspicuous faces fronting the increasingly less mystical winemaking process age faster perceptually than physically? Regardless, Riojans, determined to outshine rival, Bordeaux, have seen a surge in exports despite the global downturn. Even in an epoch where the construction industry flits from boom to bust, wine by design seems as successful a formula financially as it is aesthetically.
by Douglas Blyde
Tasting beyond buildings:
Viña Tondonia Viura/Malvasía 1989: golden hued curio yields perfume of dried apricots then umami-laden, still fresh, persistent palate.
Baigorri Viura/Malvasia 2006: densely rich nose of tropical fruit (banana, pineapple) sustained on palate with a smooth, almond finish.
‘Dominio’ Tempranillo, Campo Viejo 2006: launched to mark the 50th anniversary of the brand, like all the range, sweetness characterises, from ripe blueberry and milk chocolate nose to round, gentle finish.
Dinastia Vivanco Mazuelo Carignan 2008: left a potassium permanganate trail when spun in the glass with a blueberry nose and a powerful but balanced palate of hemp and cassis.
Finca Torrea Tempranillo/Graciano (Marques de Riscal) 2009: beyond a startling orange label representing Google Earth’s view of the firm’s newly acquired winery was a wine with coffee scents, minerals and precision.
Darien Late Harvest Graciano 2009: illegal to sell because of its peculiarity, it suggested wet clay on the nose then berry compote on the palate against a backbone of bitter tannins and gentle acidity.