Rufino Lecea, 91, has witnessed many changes in Rioja, but the one closest to his heart is the decadence of the old bodega district in San Asensio, the village where he lives.
Since the 16th century, locals in this Rioja Alta village, halfway between Haro and Logroño, excavated caves on the rock of a slope facing Sierra Cantabria to produce and store their wine. It was standard practice in many wine regions of La Rioja, but also of Castilla y León, Asturias, Campo de Borja and some parts of Galicia. In its heyday, remembers Rufino, second generation at Bodegas Lecea, the Barrio de Las Cuevas (literally, the Caves District) in San Asensio had 350 family wineries perched at different heights on the slope.
In the 1970s and 1980s, while Rufino started to bottle the wine that he had previously sold in bulk and his son Luis Alberto joined the family business, the life and look of Barrio de las Cuevas gradually changed.
Many of his neighbours abandoned the caves —it was much easier to take the grapes to the newly established cooperatives in the village; others still made wine for their own consumption or used the cellar for family gatherings but the restrictions of bureaucracy and the lack of interest of following generations contributed to the district’s neglect and abandonment. “The caves are crumbling down; water leaks are not repaired so the damage extends to other bodegas. If we go on like this, it will all fall apart soon,” regrets Rufino.
This feeling is shared in other Rioja villages like Briones, Quel or Alberite as well as in other regions with ancient underground cellars hence Bodegas Lecea, with the financial and organisational support of Dinastía Vivanco and Aula Pedro Vivanco at the University of La Rioja, decided to host earlier this month in San Asensio the First National Conference of Districts with Historical Bodegas.
During the two-day meeting, experts discussed the historical value of these districts as well as their tourism and business potential. The cases of Baltanás, Moradillo de Roa, Mucientes, Fuentespina and Vadocondes were exposed. These five villages in Castilla y León —with a unique landscape of seemingly small huts and protruding chimneys that hide a vast underground network of cellars— all are in the process of being restored.
Each village is a world of its own but all of their representatives agreed that one of the main challenges in the recovery of these bodega districts lies in the difficulty to find many of the owners, inheritors of a piece of real estate that they are unaware of or has no interest for them. They also stressed the importance of engaging, raising awareness and building an emotional link among the neighbours to have a well preserved bodega district. “In Baltanás, we have 374 bodegas on six overlapping levels. A great deal of the entry doors date from the 16th century. We are all co-owners, co-participants and responsible for this heritage,” said Mª José de la Fuente, mayor of Baltanás in the Cerrato region of Palencia.
Unlike others in Castilla y León like Dominio del Pidio in Quintana del Pidio or Dominio del Águila in La Aguilera, most of these caves are no longer destined to make wine. As Ángel Fombellida, an agricultural engineer who has worked in the restoration of Baltanás, many of the bodegas in the village still conserve a beam press, used to slowly extract the must in the old days, but few use them. Most of them are either leisure spaces where families gather at weekends or tourist spots like Mucientes, in the DO Cigales, where two cellars were joined and refurbished to house an open centre for visitors to learn about this historical legacy and even a wine festival in February.
There is a similar example in Moradillo de Roa (Ribera de Duero). With its 157 bodegas and six lagares (presses), locals have forged an emotional bond with El Cotarro, as the district is known. Tourists are gradually coming to the village as the buildings and surrounding areas are restored and cleaned up by neighbors, volunteers and the village council which, as culture councillor Ignacio Rincón explained, has been brave enough to expropriate bodegas with no known owner. To pay for the costs, locals hand in their grapes to make a “harvest beer” and a white wine —with the help of winemaker Alfredo Maestro. All of the profits are later invested in El Cotarro.
In Galicia, rather than districts, there are entire hamlets and villages devoted to wine production, explained sommelier Luis Paadín, who highlighted the importance of this unique heritage in terms of tourism. “The extra value does not lie on a winery’s stainless steel deposits; we have something other wine regions cannot offer”, said Paadín. “The good thing is that, on top of that, we also have the history thats backs it all up.”
As it was patently clear during the conference in San Asensio, for this underground heritage to survive, more needs to be done beyond wine tourism and leisure. The question is to find the right use for them.
“I see a similarity with old vineyards. We are all aware of their tremendous value but we fail to make the most out of them,” said ethnographer Luis Vicente Elías, who lamented that only one of the 170 bodegas in Briones, the village where he lives, still makes wine. ”We should look for a new wine culture making subterranean wines, quality wines with distinctive value so that customers can appreciate their singularity,” added Elías. “If there’s recognition outside, locals will start to see their value."
Agriculture entrepreneur Ramiro Palacios, founder of Trebolar, supported this idea and suggested other ways to generate value taking advantage of the humidity and stable temperature of subterranean bodegas and their reduced vibration and light. Options could include making vinegar, cheese affinage, curing meats, fruit storage and even cultivating microorganisms with commercial interest. “Penicillium is already available and sold for about €500 for 100g,” explained Palacios.
Luis Alberto Lecea thinks it’s important to make wine on a small scale and to open up the doors of the bodega to visitors. In his case, he has not only managed to maintain the family business; over the years, Lecea has recovered the traditional press, expanded the premises and purchased neighboring cellars to make and age their wine. As well as Luis Alberto, his children Estela and Jorge also work in the cellar, where visitors are welcome to join in the fun of treading the grapes in their stone lagar and experience the romantic, familiar side of Rioja wine.
“One can live off this. There’s plenty more room for more people in these old bodega districts,” said Lecea, who calls for “logical” heritage laws to help recover the activity in these bodegas.
Emilio Barco, director of Aula Pedro Vivanco and master of ceremonies at the conference, summarized the main issues brought forward by the 20-odd speakers that took part in the two-day event. “We know there aren’t any easy solutions and that any individual initiative requires a global vision. Bodega districts need to be used in order to be brought back to life; they also need owners who get emotionally involved and are proud of them,” explained Barco. “Finding a productive use alone is not enough; it must have other uses, be it as homes or to make subterranean wines.”
The event finished with the feeling that participants had created a new bond around these underground spaces and everyone agreed to turn this conference into an annual meeting. As entrepreneur Ramiro Palacios said, quoting compose Gustav Mahler, “tradition is not the worship of ashes, but the preservation of fire.”