A glass of red for elevenses? Why not. It’s a fitting reward for a morning of manual labour. It’s harvest time here at Rioja’s legendary Campo Viejo winery and it’s all hands on deck to pick the grapes before the fog rolls in. So togged up in a high-vis vest and protective goggles, and brandishing a pair of secateurs, I set about earning my lunch.
Perched on the outskirts of Logroño, Campo’s winery is an unassuming stone, bunker-like building set against a swathe of corduroy-neat vines. In the distance, the stern, granite skyline of the Sierra de Cantabria mountains shear through an ozone-blue sky, completing the classic Riojan scene.
Crouched behind the vines, chief winemaker, Elena Adell, and her right-hand woman, Clara Canals — the two ladies responsible for balancing the warm, rich vanilla flavours that Campo Viejo is famous for — test the grapes to see if they’re ready to harvest. “It’s all in the taste,” explains Elena, rolling a fat red tempranillo grape between her thumb and forefinger before popping into her mouth. When they’re ready, Elena gives the nod to head viticulturist, Mario, who then dispatches his army of pickers to the fields. One early frost could destroy this year’s crop, leaving millions of us thirsty and sober. It’s a tense time for all.
I’m allotted a row of vines in the experimental vineyard, which is currently testing out some white varieties in this tempranillo-dominated region. As the early autumn sun beats down warming my hunched back, I contemplate swapping my laptop for a life on the land. However, 20 minutes in and my back starts to ache, I’ve seen four spiders and I’d quite like a sit down. Grape-picking was the original gap year back in the ’80s, when idyllic days were spent toiling under an endless sun, followed by wine-fuelled nights carousing with handsome farmhands. Listening to the chirpy Spanish banter rising between the vines, I’m pretty sure life in these parts hasn’t changed much in centuries.
While the winery is on tenterhooks waiting for all-systems-go, Logroño, La Rioja’s capital, gears up for its annual Rioja Harvest Wine Festival. It’s a charming city whose narrow, medieval streets are crammed with dusty enotecas (wine bar/cellars) and sunken wine cellars-turned-tapas bars. And for six days, el tinto flows liberally in its streets, while parades of cabazudos (costumed figures with huge papier mache heads), live music and traditional Spanish bull-running infuses the city.
The festival kicks of with a ritual crushing of the first grapes. I’d trimmed and buffed my hooves in anticipation of joining in, but it turns out it’s an honour bestowed only on the region’s most esteemed winemakers. Horns blast and the crowd is silenced while two elderly men in traditional dress, trousers rolled-up to their knees, link arms and march with gusto around a large oak tub of grapes. The freshly pulped wine is solemnly offered to the statue of the Virgin of Valvanera, the patron saint of Rioja. Then the drinking begins…