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While the vineyards and the castles of France, Italy, California and South Africa have a long and solid tradition of food and wine tourism, the Spanish wine region of the Rioja has treasured its wine-making like a precious secret. Holding steadfast to their agricultural roots, the winemakers of this ancient and harsh land in North-East Spain chose to focus on winemaking rather than marketing.
Being a proud people and wary of the prying eyes of the competition, for a long time opening their bodegas (cellars) to the public seemed a preposterous idea...until the day it became an extraordinary one.
The story goes that peering through the ruby-red reflections of a 1929 Riscal – the same year Frank O.Gehry was born – the Canadian architect caught a glimpse of the silhouette of what would later be the Ciudad del Vino Marqués de Riscal. Finished in 2006, a wavy honey-coloured structure rises from a land covered in vineyards, like a large whirlwind of titanium ribbons in pink, gold and silver (this evokes the colours of the bottles of Marques de Riscal). This structure rests on a sandstone building, under which lie 8 million bottles of Marques de Riscal.
The owners of the one of the most ancient cellars of the region had to fork-out 50 million Euros and who knows how many bottles of reserve to obtain this starchitect, best-known for the Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao. In fact, the structure of the Ciudad del Vino bears a striking resemblance to the earlier museum; this is impressive considering the contrast that exists, in the rural and hilly landscape of Elciego (Alava, is 1h30 by car from Bilbao), between the architecture and the original nineteenth century bodega and the village behind it.
Now, the structure is a luxury hotel with 43 bedrooms, a restaurant with a Michelin star chef, a bar and a spa with vinotherapy.
This twenty first century castle by Gehry is just one of a series of architecturally adventurous buildings constructed on ancient vineyards. In 2001, in the nearby village of Laguardia, the Valencian architect Santiago Calatrava gave a new identity to the Bodega Ysios.
This building is a succession of steel waves that evoke the hills of the Sierra Cantabrica, but also wine barrels and wine leaves shaking in the wind. Certainly, it blends more into the landscape than Gehry’s futuristic building.
The silver cladding of the Bodega Ysios (named after the Egyptian deities Isis and Osiris) fills the sky with reflections and makes the surrounding irrigation canals glisten: a tribute to the river Nile and to its esoteric charm.
If Spain is the Country with the largest visited surface-area in the world; this is the triangle with the highest concentration of bold architecture in the Rioja: Elciego, Laguardia, and nearby Villabuena with the Viura Hotel. Wine isn’t produced at the Viura Hotel even it shares its name with a type of grape.
Dug in the rocky hill, the lower floor has a foundation made of natural stone that in the indoor rooms has been left exposed (restaurant, gym, coffee bar). On the three top floors, the bedrooms are housed in cubes stacked-up to look like rocks that have just rolled off the cliff. The concrete and the rusty corten steel contrast with the surrounding vegetation; this grows into the structure through internal atriums and lush external courtyards and terraces that form a sort of vertical garden.
After having drunk several bottles of Rioja (a full-bodied wine with a high alcohol content, produced mainly from the Tempranillo grape), you could do with going for something more gentle, like a home-grown Sagrantino di Montefalco. This wine is produced by the Lunelli family at La Tenuta Castelbuono in Umbria, in the towns of Bevagna and Montefalco. In 2012, thanks to an inspirational idea by the Maestro Arnaldo Pomodoro, this winery was turned into a state-of-the-art facility where people live, work and make wine.
The winery is effectively a large copper-clad dome. Its exterior cracks are inspired by rifts in the earth and its interior is an example of Arnaldo Pomodoro’s unique aesthetics. Here, a red arrow-shaped sculpture digs into the ground to indicate the position it occupies in the land. Both shape and title of the piece are inspired by the tortoise, a symbol for stability and longevity, which with its shell shows the union between the earth and the sky.
This is what Pomodoro promised Marcello, the owner of the Cantine Ferrari with whom he has been friends for thirty years, he would build. Marcello didn’t understand what his friend meant at first, but as he didn’t want to show it, he nodded and smiled. Then, as he didn’t want to be a nuisance, he passed the torch to his nephew. Art isn’t for everyone, even though, with this job, Arnaldo Pomodoro has showed that he’s one of the few top sculptors in the world who can translate his work to architecture.
It’s an unforgivable sin to be talking about wine without mentioning Tuscany. Especially, because in Livorno, in the town of Suvereto, among the rows of vineyards and the curves of the landscape, there’s another important cathedral, a pilgrimage for many wine-connoisseurs: the Cantina Petra, or Cantina Moretti, brought to life in 2003 by the Swiss architect Mario Botta.
The structure has a complex plan that in elevation looks like a cylinder cut by a sloping place, surrounded on its perimeter by two wings screened off by long colonnades. The project, which in certain ways recalls the ancient Tuscan country homes, brings together landscape and architectural design: vegetation grows on top of the cylinder, and with its seasonal variations it periodically changes the hairstyle and the expression of the winery. The central body, externally cut by a staircase, houses the tanks for wine-making and, on the ground floor and basement, the barrels used during the ageing process.
Just like the other artistic-architectural homages to Bacchus, impressive feats of modern architecture, in fact even Petra is a perfect machine at the service of wine-making.