Wine growing in La Rioja – tradition with a future

The La Rioja region of Spain is known around the world for its wines. The Soldevilla family has cultivated the winegrowing tradition for 100 years. Winegrower José Luis passes his knowledge on to his sons José Ángel and Guillermo. As members of Viñedos de Aldeanueva, they are part of the region’s largest winegrowing cooperative, which has supplied METRO/MAKRO for 15 years now.

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The low October sun bathes the Soldevilla family’s estate in golden light. Winegrower José Luis strides through the rows of his 70-year-old vines. A gentle wind blows from the mountains on the horizon, drying the grapes after a day of rain. That’s good for the harvest in Aldeanueva de Ebro in northern Spain. The blue-violet grapes grow in compact bunches. They lie nicely in the 65-year-old winemaker’s expert hand. Tempranillo is the most common variety of grape in the wine-producing region La Rioja.

The tips of the first leaves have already turned an autumnal red. Their vivid colours will soon be visible from afar. José Luis squints against the sun, deep wrinkles forming around his narrow eyes. When he is asked what his life as a winegrower means to him, his mischievous smile opens into a wide grin. ‘It’s a privilege to live from this land,’ he responds. ‘It’s my pride and joy. And there’s nothing greater than to be able to leave this legacy to my children, so that they can continue this way of life.’

Wine growing in La Rioja

A 100-year family tradition

The surge of emotion opens a window far into the past. The Soldevillas have been growing wine for over a century. The 40-year-old José Ángel and his brother Guillermo, 7 years his junior, are carrying on the tradition. This means the world to their father, who otherwise tends to speak in a more business-like manner of ‘selling wine’. Back in the 1920s, his father was already producing 50,000 litres of wine per year. Today, José Luis sells 100,000 litres. But he didn’t have his father’s advice at the time he most needed it. José Luis took over the cultivation of the family vineyard in 1981, when he was just 25 years old and newly married. His father had died 7 years earlier.

‘I started very modestly,’ says the old winegrower with a shrug. When he took the helm of the company, the soil was depleted and the vines well past their prime. ‘I had to put in a lot of time and effort to be able to pass the vineyard on to my sons in the state it’s in now.’ And it’s a transition that he – unlike his own father – can help guide his sons through.

The younger generation has a further advantage as well: whereas José Luis as a young man knew only agricultural work and had ‘little interest’ in school, his sons have a broader range of skills. José Ángel is a business economist specialising in finance, and Guillermo is an engineer. ‘They’ve both got a good education,’ José Luis says. ‘They bring in their own ideas. We discuss everything and each side adapts.’

Tradition and innovation

José Ángel stands a head higher than his father, but a family resemblance can be seen in his narrow, merry eyes under their broad black brows, and in his smile. ‘I enjoy working under the open sky and living from our land,’ he says, echoing his father. He has acquired better, more precise machines for harvesting the grapes. He also draws from nature’s bag of tricks: rose bushes and young apple trees in the vineyard serve as an early warning system against fungal infestation. In addition, pheromones – natural sexual attractants – are used to combat the moths whose larvae afflict the grapes.

The young winegrower doesn’t see such natural methods as exclusive to organic wine growing, which his father took up in 1995 parallel to their conventional practices. He also sees in them potential for conventional growing in the future, to cultivate his family’s land in a protective manner and to stay a step ahead of EU pesticide regulations, which are becoming stricter. Not surprisingly, new techniques and the love of the land require additional work: doing without herbicides alone triples the time involved.

Thus far, the conventionally grown wine, which is produced at a larger scale, still sells better than its organic counterpart. José Ángel understands that ‘ultimately, it’s up to consumers to decide what direction wine growing will take.’

Strength through cooperation

In strategic questions and their day-to-day operations, the winegrowers are supported by their cooperative, from which METRO/MAKRO purchases the wine – more than 1 million bottles per year. Abel Torres, executive director of Viñedos de Aldeanueva, still has one of the first bottles of organically grown wine in his rack. He says, ‘The winegrowers are our lifeblood and the vineyards are our treasure.’ This is impressively illustrated during the town’s grape harvest.

One puttering tractor after another queues up in the street. Large ones and small ones, modern ones and some with the patina of age, all as different as the vineyards they represent. Each tractor tows a trailer full of grapes. The steady wind carries their sweet scent of young wine through the town. The cooperative’s membership includes some 900 winegrowing families, but the queue remains short. The reason for this is as simple as it is modern: digitalisation. An app allots each grower a time slot to have their harvest inspected at the head of the queue, and they are informed in real time of any delay. In this way, around 200 tractors can be handled per day.

This quality control isn’t standard practice for the sector. ‘Winegrowers come from all over Spain to look at our system,’ Torres says proudly. In front of the cooperative’s offices, a mechanical arm suspended from the roof of a building lowers a long metal pipe into the trailer. The pipe, called the pincho (skewer), is equipped with a screw conveyor that takes a sample – a dark-red mash of crushed grapes – that is sent through a tube into a receptacle in the lab, where 6 employees measure 30 different parameters to assess its properties and quality.

‘The secret of good wine is to pay the growers according to quality,’ says Torres. There are 4 key criteria in determining this: the alcohol content, the colour, the degree of ripeness and the general condition of the harvested grapes. To ensure that the various operations, from small part-time growers to large-scale vineyards, get the most out of their crops, a viticulturist is available to advise all members of the cooperative. But success also requires a bit of luck, especially with the weather.

With their total cultivated area of over 3,100 hectares, Viñedos de Aldeanueva is the largest of around 35 winegrowing cooperatives in the region of La Rioja. The individual vineyards are between 0.5 and 10 hectares in size, lie between 300 and 700 metres above sea level and cultivate a range of different grapes – including, in addition to Tempranillo, the red varieties Garnacha, Graciano and Mazuelo, and the white varieties Tempranillo Blanco, Viura and Verdejo. This diversity enables the cooperative to offer retailers a steady volume of wine at a very consistent quality and price. Or, as Torres puts it: ‘A chef composes his dishes from different ingredients. When he has what he needs, and he’s a master of his trade, the result is delicious. The same goes for wine.’ And because all the grapes come from the cooperative, and no other source, the product’s journey from the vine to the bottle remains completely transparent.

The cooperative was founded in 1956. Over the years, it has grown in importance for the whole community. ‘Since we handle nearly all the work steps here, practically all of the profit remains in the town,’ says Torres. The town also benefits from being the site of the cooperative’s headquarters, with its large wine cellar, and a modern event centre with conference rooms. ‘That helps everyone here achieve prosperity and a higher quality of life,’ says Torres. The cooperative’s own bottling plant also contributes to the local economy.

MAKRO – a reliable partner

Of the 20 million litres of red and 2 million litres of white wine it sells annually, the cooperative bottles around 80% itself. ‘We could bottle more, but we prefer to leave ourselves a cushion to be able to respond to fluctuations in demand,’ Torres explains. Standing next to the automated filling line, he almost has to yell to be heard above the clanking of the bottles. He then passes through a heavy wooden sliding door to the wine cellar, where oak barrels are stacked up to the high ceiling. In the dim light, the vast storage room is reminiscent of a church: cool, slightly damp and quiet.

Torres is speaking with the visiting wine purchasers from MAKRO. The company has worked closely with the cooperative for 15 years. Together, they have developed brands and product lines for various stores. The red wines under the label ‘Pueblo Viejo’ (‘old village’) are sold as a 2-year-old Crianza, for example, at MAKRO in Spain and Poland and at METRO in Germany, France and Russia. METRO and MAKRO stores in a total of 14 countries are supplied with wines of this brand. This amounts to nearly 500,000 bottles of Pueblo Viejo per year – in addition to the other varieties from Aldeanueva.

‘Pueblo Viejo is a typical Tempranillo from La Rioja,’ says wine buyer Victor Ballesta. The business partners also developed the new ‘Ecologico’ product line under this label in 2021 – with the organic wine from the vineyards of the Soldevilla family. ‘Pueblo Viejo Ecologico’ has been on the Spanish market since April 2021 and is slated for introduction by 6 further METRO and MAKRO national companies. ‘Organic wines are becoming ever more popular in the hotel and catering industry,’ says Ballesta. ‘And we anticipate that demand will continue to rise in the future, especially among young people.’ Sales of 10,000 to 15,000 bottles of organic wine from Aldeanueva have been projected for 2022 in Spain alone.

The tractor pulls in the next generation

This bright future is extremely important to the winegrowing Soldevilla family, which has paved the way for the coming generation to continue with this tradition, if they so choose. The 6-year-old Isaac, the elder of José Ángel’s 2 sons, still hasn’t developed much of an interest in growing grapes, but he’s fascinated by the tractor. His grandfather José Luis smiles knowingly: ‘The big toys eventually lead to wine.’

METRO's product range

METRO’s product range in Germany alone extends to around 50,000 items, including renowned trader’s brands and some 7,500 own brands. These offer excellent value for money and are sourced from established partners in Germany and abroad. The winegrowers’ cooperative Viñedos de Aldeanueva has been one of these partners for 15 years. METRO/MAKRO sources 1 million bottles a year, including almost 500,000 under the Pueblo Viejo own brand, for stores in a total of 15 countries.

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