Quel (pronounced ‘kel’) is a small village in Rioja Baja, located between Arnedo and Autol, in the river Cidacos valley. With a population of 2,000, the houses are piled up under a large rock crowned by the remains of an old castle. This impressive hill 100m high is an excellent barrier against northerly winds.
“The first cooperative in Rioja was founded here in the 1940s”, says Javier Arizcuren. The old bodega district is a clear sign of the long-standing winemaking tradition in the village. Located on the upper reaches of Quel, winegrowers benefited from the steep terrain to use gravity in the winemaking process. Curiously enough, grapes entered from the top through hoppers resembling chimneys.
This nostalgic image hides a gloomy reality. Most bodegas are abandoned or have fallen down; others have been transformed into txokos (social clubs); either way, the wine making tradition is lost. One day, Javier hopes to restore his family’s old cellar.
It would be his most unassuming project as an architect which has progressively moved towards the world of wine. Bodegas Regalia in Ollauri, Finca Los Arandinos in Entrena, near Logroño or, more recently, the recovery of Paternina’s ancient cellars in Ollauri are some of his best known constructions. For Javier, wine and architecture are not interchangeable passions: "What architecture gives to me, I cannot find in wine and vice versa," he admits.
In 2011, Javier Arizcuren took control of the 16 hectares of vines grown by his family and started gauging the potential and unique features of the area. In fact, Quel’s agriculture layout is as clear as its geography, a simplicity that is translated into the village language —El Campo (“the field”) is the flat area stretching north of the river Cidacos towards the Ebro where cereals are grown and Las Viñas (“the vineyards”) lay south with vines climbing the slopes of the Yerga mountains.
Sierra de Yerga is part of the Iberian System, the mountain range that runs south of the river Ebro. It lays at one end of Spain’s main Garnacha territory, stretching from southern Rioja towards Navarra and Aragón and up to the pre-coastal Catalan range in Terra Alta in the province of Tarragona.
Our visit stars in a 1Ha vineyard planted with another variety and destined for one of his wines, called Solo Mazuelo (€25.90 at Lavinia; Mazuelo is the local name for Carignan). This single varietal red is incredibly fresh, spicy, lively and very persistent. Javier’s grandfather planted this Mazuelo vines 33 years ago. There’s no apparent reason behind his choice of grape in a Garnacha-dominated land, at least until the burst of Tempranillo in the 1990s. “Mazuelo was widely planted in Quel in the 1980s mainly because it was what the nurseries were offering at the time,” explains Javier. In his opinion, the sandy-clay soil is key in this plot located on a small, well-aerated plateau with abundant boulders. As Mazuelo is a late ripening variety, they usually remove leaves on the base of the vine in order to reach full ripeness.
His first wines date from the 2013 vintage. Production is tiny: only 1,500 bottles in the case of Solo Mazuelo and 2,000 bottles of its riper alter ego, Solo Garnacha (€25.90 at Lavinia). Both represent a small fraction of the grapes grown in the family vineyards, but Javier only wants to bottle his best plots. He is also trying to buy some traditional Garnacha vineyards in the area; the oldest examples, including some rare ungrafted vines, are grown at over 700m of altitude.
Javier shows me two aerial photos of the Yerga area; one was taken in 1956, the other a few years ago. They are a testimony of the dramatic and progressive disappearance of vineyards, with vines being replaced by almond trees and wild vegetation. He is fighting now to preserve and bottle this heritage, so that people can discover the flavor of this specific area of Rioja. In this way, he is a good example of a new generation of producers across Spain who think terroir comes first.
I couldn’t resist asking Javier about the ostentatious style of some wineries built in Spain over the past two decades. “Many mistakes have been made”, he accepts. “Since the end of the 20th century architecture has been primarily focused on grabbing media attention and has been used as a vehicle by its authors to make a name for themselves. Architecture as a whole has been affected by this overall trend; it’s not something particularly confined to the wine industry”.
For Arizcuren, the biggest problem is that many designs have lost the concept of timelessness which is the basis of architecture. In his view, some buildings now seem to have an “expiry date”, fueled by the disposable culture that pervades our time.
“Winery buildings have lost the connection with the place and the ability to respond to the specific needs of a given site. The most obvious example is the study of the winds and airflows of a particular area to understand the possibilities of natural aeration in a cellar”, he adds.
At the end of the morning we visit Finca Los Arandinos in Entrena, one of the wineries built by Arizcuren. Conceived as a hotel jutting into the cellars —its suite rooms were built on top of the barrel hall— I was impressed by the leading role played by the landscape itself. In fact, the sea of surrounding vineyards is always visible thanks to the enormous windows that almost manage to blur the partition between inner and outer spaces.
Tasting the wines together with owner Roberto Guillén, Javier and I agree on the frankness of the entry-level red Malacapa, a wine named after the border with the neighbouring village of Navarrete. It was a slightly more sophisticated style of the traditional reds made in Entrena.
“Tannins are grippy so we cannot release Malacapa right after the vintage. The popular saying goes ‘The wines from Entrena are to be drunk when it thunders’ (in Spanish “thunders” is “truena” which rhymes with Entrena); they were at their best in August, when storms are frequent here”, explains Roberto. A few days later I heard a second version of the saying —the high acidity of these red wines is apparently what makes them ideal as a summer drink.
Entrena, just 12 kilometers south of Logroño and framed by the foothills of the Sierra de Moncalvillo, lies at 500m of altitude. Accordingly, the wines offer a cool, less structured wine profile. These wines are another example of one of the many unknown Riojas yet to be discovered along the 100+km spanning the appellation.
Incidentally, Entrena has its own bodega district on the cooler, northern slope of the mountain. You can imagine why.