A little over a year ago, specialist agencies Turismodevino.com and winetourismspain.com published a survey which predicted a 25% growth in income from wine tourism in Rioja over the following five years, mainly driven by the influx of foreign visitors.
This forecast, now shattered by the devastating consequences of Covid-19, was supported by the strong performance of the industry in recent years. According to the 2019 report by the Spanish Wine Route Tourist Observatory, the just under 800 wineries and museums which form part of the group welcomed 3,076,334 visitors last year, an increase of 3.9 % on the previous year, and spent in excess of 85 million euros.
The Sherry Triangle is, with half a million tourists, the most popular wine route in Spain, but in Jerez, as in other parts of the country, 2020 is a time to rethink everything. Beatriz Vergara, director of wine tourism at González Byass, is aware that it will be impossible for them to match the results of 2019 (195,000 visitors, 40% from abroad), but given the current state of uncertainty, and in such an atypical summer, they are adapting to the new situation.
"The little train that normally tours the winery is not operating this summer, we have reduced groups, alternative circuits and we have opened up parts of the winery that have never been shown to the public before. There is a feeling of spaciousness", explains Beatriz, whose team has designed a programme called Summer in the Wine Cellar for July and August, which includes guided tours of the city, the chance to enjoy the city's cuisine in the wine cellar with three local pop-up restaurants, and support for local talent with flamenco and music sessions. In addition, they have recently opened Hotel Bodega Tío Pepe, a boutique accommodation which is almost full in July. "People are now looking for less crowded destinations with cultural activities. We not only have that in Jerez but we are just 12 km away from the beach".
Another important region for wine tourism, which also benefits from its proximity to the coast, is Catalonia. Most of the wineries have reopened to visitors with many experiences focused on the vineyard and the outdoors, such as Alta Alella, where guests can take part in a yoga workshop on the winery's terrace, in the heart of the Serralada de Marina Natural Park with views of the vineyards and the sea. The activity has been running since 2013, but right now, it feels particularly interesting. Another novelty this year looks to the sea, as visits to the winery can be combined with a one-hour sailing experience in the Mediterranean, enjoying the views of Barcelona and the coast near the city.
Further inland, in Priorat, a group of producers led by Celler Vall Llach, together with La Cooperativa restaurant in Porrera, have joined forces to launch an attractive programme for visitors to enjoy the region's food and wine during the month of July. With this aim, they have revived El Colomer, an open-air space in the centre of the town where diners can enjoy lunches and dinners with old vintages of wines from local producers such as Vall Llach, Mas Doix, Familia Nin Ortiz, Mas d'en Gil and Sangenís and Vaqué, cellar tours and get-togethers with well-known personalities such as the singer-songwriter Lluís Llach or the journalist Antoni Bassas.
Roger Simó, of Celler Vall Llach, explains that the initiative has been a resounding success despite the seating restrictions. "We have rediscovered a very pleasant open-air space next to the river that belonged to Lluís's family", says Roger who adds that although they do not plan to repeat the event in August, when visitors will be able to enjoy the good food and wines served at La Cooperativa restaurant, they do not rule out similar activities in the near future.
Recaredo has also launched a new initiative to support local restaurants by opening up its cellar in Sant Sadurní d'Anoia. Some 30 businesses with no terrace or very limited seating capacity are serving dinners al fresco in July and August for a total of 30 people each day. "The pandemic has highlighted the need to help each other and be more humane; together we have to recapture the illusion," says Ferran Junoy, director of Recaredo.
This synergy between food and wine has also been championed by Menade, which lends its vine-lined grounds in Rueda for outdoor themed dinners organised by local restaurants. On Thursdays in July, the space is managed by Atypikal, a restaurant in Valladolid that is offering dishes cooked with regional products as well tuna by Balfegó, who will conduct a live demonstration of ronqueo, a traditional technique to slice a tuna fish.
According to Richard Sanz, one of the three brothers behind Menade, the initiative has been very well received, with double the demand for what they can offer given the capacity restrictions they have imposed. "Here we are in the middle of the plateau, surrounded by hundreds of hectares under vine, but only 30 minutes from Valladolid and one hour from Madrid. We breathe fresh air and peacefulness and we think people appreciate that," says Richard, who anticipates further activities of this type will emerge. "We don't have a problem with lending our space and we think it's a way of sowing a good seed. Now, more than ever before, is the time to be supportive".
Not far from Menade and also in the province of Valladolid, Abadía Retuerta has opened a new outdoor dining space next to its winery with dishes created with organic vegetables grown in its garden and from local produce, focusing on origin. The interesting thing about Calicata is that not only do they offer their own wines, but diners can also try a flight of half glasses from different producers to see how the climate or soil influences the wines.
Also in Castile and Leon, visitors can combine tours of the old vineyard with ancestral varieties that Fuentes del Silencio has recovered with a lunch or dinner at the nearby restaurant El Capricho, which specializes in matured red meats. But the most unusual activity at the Leonese winery, which owns vineyards on land where Roman gold mines once stood, includes a day out searching for the precious metal on the banks of the Jamuz River. It is not just an open-air tourist attraction, according to Fuentes del Silencio: some nuggets were found in preliminary trials, and any lucky visitor who finds one will be free to keep it. For those who do not find gold, there is always the tasting afterwards and surely more than one anecdote to share with friends back home.
The new normal in most Rioja producers, another of the regions that has suffered most from the plummeting of foreign tourists, is also offering a wider range of outdoor activities and reduced group visits to wineries. This is the case at Bodegas Valdemar in Oyón, where the terrace in the vineyard has been refurbished, gaining more outdoor space for the Wine Bar and where visits to the vineyard now take precedence. Meanwhile, the Vivanco bodega and museum, which reopened its doors on 1st July, only accepts online bookings and has replaced all physical and tactile information materials with a QR code, something which is now commonplace in the majority of restaurants and other establishments open to the public in Spain.
Undoubtedly, one of the great attractions of Rioja is its landscape, and in this year of masks and social distancing, walking through the vineyards feels even more appealing. This is why the routes featuring on the websites of La Rioja Alta Wine Route and Rioja Alavesa Wine Route, which range from short walks through the vineyards to long-distance trails on foot or by bicycle across the region, are a useful tool for travellers to the region wishing to combine wine tours and tastings with some outdoor exercise.
We are not aware of any summer opportunities to sleep on tents on the vineyards (although we have heard that bodega Perinet plans to open a Glam Camp for the harvest in October to enjoy a luxury camping stay amongst regir vines in Priorat) but there are several options to sleep very close to wine vats and barrels in Rioja. That’s the case of Bodegas Bhilar, a biodynamic producer which rents rooms in its estate with spectacular views of the vineyard, the village of Elvillar and Sierra de Cantabria, or Finca La Emperatriz, which has three private villas with garden within the grounds of the winery in Baños de Rioja, where guests can also enjoy a few drinks in their wine bar.
We are spoilt for choice to enjoy wine this summer, even if we have to carry our mask with us!