San Asensio (La Rioja), Spain May 2023 (Tour 7)

The previous nights wine tasting session in Cuzcurrita de Rio Tiron saw Parabolas para Volar, a Rioja made with 100% Garnacha grapes, declared the undisputed winner of the ‘Battle of the Wines’ and it prompted Vanya and I to immediately book a wine tour and tasting session with Bodegas Lecea for the very next day.

This was the Parabolas para Volar which prompted Vanya and I to visit Bodegas Lecea in San Asensio. The wine was one of a limited edition of just 500 bottles and was not therefore included in the standard wine tasting session

However, six of these seven wines were included in the tasting session.

This proved a most generous wine tasting event. We were presented with a wide range of wines including a Gran Reserva, a dessert wine and one speciality wine (which I wasn’t quite so sure about, where the grapes had been pressed by the villagers bare feet) and all were served with appropriate nibbles. The tasting session was well managed and enjoyable but it was the tour itself which set this event apart and which I found totally enthralling. Bodegas Lecea is one of just three or four wine producers in Spain where, except for the growing of the grapes, everything to do with the production of the wines occurs underground (in a 500 year old network of caves). We were underground throughout the whole experience except for the wine tasting which took place in the wineshop above ground.

I should explain. Bodegas Lecea is located in the side of a hill in the Las Cuevas neighbourhood of San Asensio. Inside this hill are more than 300 cave cellars which were dug out by local farmers in the 16th century such that their wines could be stored at a constant temperature of 13 degrees centigrade. The Lecea family currently maintain four connected but very distinct cellar systems and continue to make their wines underground in the traditional way in concrete vats.

The caves are many metres underground and stretch in all directions. The tragedy is that no map of the cave systems exist and extending the current caves can be dodgy.

The tour’s focus was towards traditional wine making techniques and included elements as diverse as how and why grape vines are trained (see left) and why wine used to be stored in large pig skins (right).

Left: Large chimneys were dug out to help release the toxic fumes given off by the fermenting wine. Right: Some wines in the cellar are more than 60 years old. The Lecea family open one of these older wines each year although the colour tends to be brown and the wine must be consumed within 15 minutes or it will oxidise.

Our tour of the bodega ended in the wineshop with the wine tasting, which I have already described as being as well managed as any we have previously attended. I would highly recommend the tour and tasting session.

Unfortunately for Vanya the wines were mostly red but I did alright out of that.

What else is there to say about San Asensio? There are a couple of things which are perhaps worth adding.

Firstly, on the last Sunday of every July San Asensio has a wine fight, the Battle of Claret, not unlike that in Haro on 29 June. Some 30,000 litres of claret are donated to the town by the wineries and cooperatives in the area. Town officials supervise the loading of sulphate machines, water guns, buckets and anything else that can hold wine and then commence battle against anyone who passes by. Once everyone is covered in wine (and suitably sozzled) the participants dance their way through the town to the Plaza Vieja to continue the celebrations and tour the local bars for yet more wine and, of course, pinchos.

Secondly, I was told the San Asensio Monastery is worth a visit. We didn’t have time for that after a well meaning employee of the Bodegas Lecea directed me the wrong way out of Las Cuevas through a series of almost impossible lanes and alleys. To make matters worse, the sat-nav in the Van once again chose to play up and completely failed me. I persevered but it took over an hour to navigate my way out of the rabbit warren that is this part of San Asensio. Next time we’ll walk.

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