Almost 60 years have gone by since Ernest Heminway visited Paternina’s old cellars in Ollauri (Rioja), but neither time nor the change of ownership has changed the feeling of solemnity and history which the author of Fiesta must have felt when he walked along the underground cellars excavated under the Churrumendi Hill in this Rioja Alta town.
Some pictures still remain from such momentous visit —a photograph of the writer with his friend Antonio Ordóñez, a well-known bullfighter at the time, adorns a wall— but most of them were taken away by the Eguizábal family after they sold the cellars to Bodegas Muriel (Elciego, Rioja Alavesa) in 2014.
What was left untouched was the spectacular 250,000 bottle cellar, a unique collection in Rioja which includes 100-year-old wines such as the semi-sweet Paternina whites from the 1918 vintage and reds spanning each of the 20th century decades.
Father and son Julián and Javier Murúa, the new owners, want to take care of this liquid legacy and allow it to be enjoyed by the general public, but they are keen to avoid mass market formulas. “We don’t want to have coaches full of tourists; we plan to open our doors for small visits and always with prior booking”, explains Javier. Details are still being ironed out, but they estimate a tour of the cellars and a tasting —which may include some old wines— may cost around €30.
The group of buildings they have purchased needs some attention and that is what the Murúas are busy with now. The stone manor house where the Paternina brand was born in 1896 will house the new visitor reception area with an open room to host tastings, exhibitions and conferences.
The flowery tablecloths and the faded china that used to adorn the tables of the adjacent restaurant will be replaced by a new, modern space for events connected to the reception area. Negotiations are under way to work with Venta Moncalvillo, the 1-Michelin star restaurant led by the Echapresto brothers in the nearby village of Daroca de Rioja, who could act as consultants in terms of the food service.
As well as the exclusive wine tourism approach of Bodegas Ollauri, the Murúa family wants to revive the production of the famous Conde de los Andes brand, once made popular by Paternina, and market it as a quality wine. Made with grapes coming from the vicinity of Ollauri, the wine’s style will be fresh, modern and with little extraction.
The first vintage, with 35,000 bottles, will be launched on October 2015 and is expected to have the generic, green Rioja back label. It has been vinified at Muriel’s facilities in Elciego but Javier Murúa expects to move to Ollauri for the 2015 vintage, where work is well under way to restore the space next to the mansion house. The old stone and wood building, which housed a tavern a while back ago, will house the new aging area with wood vats for malolactic fermentation. It will be connected to the new production facilities that will be built opposite both stone houses.
Under these buildings lies the impressive bottle collection.Years may have dented the quality of some of these wines, but the storage conditions they have been kept under are enviable —always at constant temperatures in this dark maze of tunnels starting under the cobblestone pavement of this quiet Rioja village and ending on Churrumendi Hill, right where the the highway cuts through the landscape.
Excavating hills to build cellars was a standard practice in the area, but the masons who built the Paternina cellar took advantage of the slope between the village houses and the hill, in a show of craftsmanship which is still visible today.
Dug up at 18 and 40 meters underground, the oldest cellars run along 600 meters and were excavated with picks and shovels at the end of the 16th century and early 17th century. They were built by stonemasons from Galicia, to whom Paternina honored on its Banda Azul labels, which bear the blue and white colors of the Galician flag still to this day, albeit with a renewed image.
The cellars of the now called Bodegas Ollauri were restored in 2005 carefully respecting the original design. They stretch along corridors and interlinked caves in a maze where old vats, ancient vintages and endless rows of wine cages rest. Once the inventory is completed, Julián, Javier and their team will open the doors of this unique space in the autumn. It is a heritage that runs through Rioja’s history, guarding time on its vintages.