If you're a wine lover like myself, you will enjoy the ritual of uncorking a bottle, pouring a glass of wine, aerating by swirling the glass, breathing in its heady aroma and savor its unique taste. Of course you have felt its effect on the senses, the sense of relaxation and happiness that stays in the body after sharing a good bottle of Rioja with your partner or friends. But perhaps you have never wondered how the grape is transformed into this wonderful elixir. Read on to find out.
To me, the phenomenon by which the grape juice is turned into wine is a mystery. One best-kept secret is still the process by which wine becomes a great wine, adopting hues and aromas which are unique and special. Thanks to my arrival at La Rioja and to a visit of certain wineries, I began to open the doors of this fascinating world of wine. Today I invite you to visit with me the Bodegas Franco Españolas located in the heart of Logroño and along the Ebro River.
The birth of this century-old winery, like many other wineries in La Rioja, is due to the phylloxera plague that almost completely ruined the French vineyards in the mid-nineteenth century. In 1890, the company was founded between partners of the famous French winemakers of the wine making region of Bordeaux and Spanish partners linked to La Rioja. The wines from this winery were highly recognized, kept in the archives are photographs of unique visits such as one of King Alfonso XIII.
Our visit starts at the interior garden, which shows a mini city dedicated to wine with different buildings. We entered the main area of deposits, where grapes are fermented and the wine is assembled according to the season. Temperature is crucial in both processes, and thanks to modern technology, the fermentation takes place optimally, ensuring constant pumping to maintain the cap moist which is formed by the grape skins, which is what gives the wine its violet color. At the back of the room, a glass case reminds us that Spanish-French fusion favors the best wine.
There was not always a modern and controlled process. Before, the deposits were made of wood, the pumping was done manually and most importantly, the fermentation temperature was achieved with bonfires on deposits, for the harvest in La Rioja was later than in Bordeaux, and the harshness of winter in Rioja prevented a proper fermentation. Due to the climate change the problem is shrinking, and can now be done at room temperature.
Once fermented, the wine, if the crop is of quality, is usually aged in French oak barrels or American. Each type of oak gives the wine different tones, with France’s being most prized for its hints of spices. The American offers sweet aromas such as cinnamon, licorice and chocolate. This winery has a park of 15,000 barrels of French oak. The barrel aging is regulated by the Regulatory Council of La Rioja which controls both the size of the barrel, and the length of time it is aged.
One of the keys to a great wine is the racking from barrel to barrel, which consist of emptying barrels, cleaning and refilling. The process of racking usually occurs every six months although some wineries prefer to do each in less time. To ensure that the different vintages of wine do not mix, in the Bodegas Franco Españolas, they are grouped in numbered lines. Other wineries use code to chalk the barrels in their cellar. Previously, the emptying and cleaning were done manually, but now there is equipment that allows a faster process, improving the frequency of the racking. Winemakers also take advantage of these opportunities by tasting the wines and deciding whether it can age through one type of oak or another, in new barrels or ones with years of use, thus achieving the desired aromas and nuances.
After barrel aging, the wine is assembled in the tanks to homogenize and bottled for further aging in the bottle. In our tour of Bodegas Franco Españolas we first visited the cemetery, where the bottles of the best vintages of La Rioja sleep, some even from the first harvest of the winery. Once they even gave space in the cemetery for private owners to store their best wines. But these wines are only a cultural value, historical or collector, for the life of a wine is not as long.
In an authentic wine rack with capacity for more than a million bottles, the humidity and temperature are ensured to be perfect thanks to underground spaces. Yet there are different places where the wine is stored in bottles, some of them are carved into the rock for best results. In addition, the winemaker is an artist who has decorated the tubes that connect the racking machine with deposits to show different colors depending on the wine acquired whether it is young (purple tones), aged for a couple years (cherry and intense reds tones) reserves (ruby red) or large reserves (orange tones). The color change is caused by tannins from the wood, which is yellow, and is combined with violet tannins from the skins to generate this color gamut.
The winery tour included a tour of exhibits honoring the cork which guarantees the transpiration of the wine in the bottle and its seal. The advertising campaigns of the mid-twentieth century, especially its famous diamond and a photo tour through the history of the winery.