For our visit to the Rioja region, we stayed in a hotel Hospederia de los Parajes in Laguardia, a little walled town perched high on an isolated hill. Their cooking was superb; they are trying to promote gourmet touring in La Rioja, and if this place is anything to go by, they are on to a sure thing.
We visited four wineries during the stay, three on the first day, one on the second, varying in size from tiny to large. The techniques used in the different wineries are similar, although the scale varies. The grapes are mostly Tempranillo with some Grenache, and occasional other varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon. Stems are usually removed from the grapes first, but not always. The grapes are not crushed, but the fermentation takes places within the berries. The new wine is then drawn off and then the grapes are pressed several times to extract the last of the juice. Opinions vary as to the quality of wine that comes from the pressings, but everyone agrees that you shouldn't crush the pips. Maturation is in oak barrels, the duration determining the classification of the wine, moving from Crianza (the shortest period) through Reserva to Gran reserva (the longest).
The Muga winery is a medium-sized (about 400,000 bottles/year) and is unusual in that they make their own oak barrels. This gives them improved quality control, and allows them to experiment with different combinations of French and American oak. I didn't know that the insides of the barrels are "toasted" to change the flavour imparted to the wine, with increased levels of toasting producing correspondingly intense or "darker" flavours. Their cooper has been working there since his teenage apprenticeship, and will doubtless stay until he retires.
The smaller winery Miguel Marino is run by the man himself, and he showed us around personally. He used to work for a big wine company and is now realising his dream of producing his own wines. He comes across as someone who would happily live in a tent and eat beans on toast for a year if he had to, to ensure the financial success of his enterprise. It looks like the wine-making is taking over his living accommodation. The whole business is a learning process for him, and he told us with some delight of his brush with death as he was nearly overcome by carbon monoxide/dioxide fumes given off by the fermentation process, one early morning.
The third winery was the Campillo winery owned by the Faustino family. Huge wine producers, the winery is an example of the big architectural projects undertaken in the area. The interior seems designed specifically to impress, with subdued lighting and grand architectural touches. They can afford all this because their wines are popular, which is at least in part because their wines are good. So who can begrudge them?