The grapes arrive at the Winery
This is a critical point in the production process. Wine quality is the sum of many parts, all of which are essential. This is the reason why the winery needs to be perfectly organised in accordance with the arrival of grapes from different spots and plots, the different ages of the vines, which are headed for the different productions undertaken. This requires knowing parameters such as phenolic maturation, percentage of alcohol, acidity and polyphenol content (colour) upon arrival.
The grapes are harvested manually and selectively. Our most select wines (OGGA, NABOT) are transported to SANTALBA (Gimileo) in 12-kilogram boxes, or in small trailers - depending on the requirements of the harvest. This ensures the grapes arrive at the winery in perfect health.
Next, the bunches go through the destemmer, where the stalk (the herbaceous part) of the bunch is removed, gravity taking the grapes down into the fermentation tanks.
In addition to the climate, soil type and composition, characteristics of the age of the vineyard and variety of strains, among others, the quality of the grape also depends on the tasks done over the course of the growth cycle of the vine. The most important of these include:
Thinning or green harvesting: This involves removing a certain percentage of the bunches before ripening has finished. The reduction in the number of bunches per vine improves grape development (increase in substances including sugar and polyphenols [colour]) and key factors which impact the quality of the wine produced.
Ploughing: This involves turning over the soil to improve oxygenation and remove the vegetation competing for water and nutrients with the vine.
Leaf removal: This involves removing some of the leaves from the vine to improve aeration, aid ripening and prevent diseases caused by excess moisture.
Trimming: This process sees the removal of secondary shoots which have grown among the main ones; the goal of this operation is to prevent an excess of branches forming as this would reduce the energy available in the vine to form bunches.
Tipping: Work on the vine which involves cutting away the ends of the shoots to facilitate harvesting, improve the aeration of the bunches and reduce the vegetative load on the vine.
Debudding: In spring, we need to remove the shoots or suckers from the old wood, trunk and branches of the vine, which enables better development of the shoots which grow from the buds and carry the bunches. This work is done by hand.
Pruning: Work undertaken in winter when the sap pulls down to the root of the vine to protect it and the leaves fall as a result of the cold. This involves cutting the branches of the vine after harvesting. Mechanical or manual shears are used for this work.
All of this work is done to improve development of the vineyard, so the quality of the grape at the end of the cycle, when it is harvested, is as high as possible, i.e. so the raw material is the best possible to make fine wines.
Likewise, harvesting - the key task needing to be done in a short period of time - must be done wisely, remembering at all times that we are picking grapes that will later produce a quality stock. This means not all grapes are acceptable. At Bodegas Santalba, we select the grapes by plot and harvest by hand. Some singular vines are harvested in 12 kilo boxes, others in 300 kilo crates or boxes, while the remainder go into 3,000 kilo (approx.) wine trailers. These come to the winery protected from the sun and heat, while the trailers are also cooled using dry ice, meaning the grapes arrive at the winery in optimal conditions.
Production and Fermentation
At the winery, the wines undergo alcoholic fermentation naturally under strictly controlled temperatures, enabling the process to function based on only the natural yeasts in the grapes.
This stage comprises a slow transformation of the grape sugars into alcohol, one of the most important stages in the whole wine-making process. Additionally, the maceration period (the must in contact with the grape skin) provides colour and aromas, contributing complexity and character to the finished wine. In accordance with the type of preparation intended in each tank, maceration can be pre-fermentation (prior to starting alcoholic fermentation) or post-fermentation (during or after alcoholic fermentation).
Moreover, depending on the type of wine being made, various procedures can be used: manual pump over, barrel fermentation, carbonic maceration, etc. At Bodegas Santalba, we have an innovative pump-over system which reuses the CO2 given off during fermentation, plus by using nitrogen, we can protect each tank and render it inert which prevents contact with oxygen.
The time a wine spends in the barrel varies as a function of its quality category.
This is where oxidation and polymerization occur, phenomena which define wine´s character, giving it body and ageingpotential.
At Bodegas SANTALBA, this time-period is from 14 to 30 months. The wine is racked traditionally from barrel to barrel by hand and using gravity, every six months. Our stocks of barrels are renewed at intervals and consist of oak-barrels of different types (French, American and European) and various toasting levels, in order to make each wine subtly different.
Before its release for sale, wine must spend the period of time in bottle necessary for it to mellow and refine until it has reached its maximum potential, as defined by the Bodegas specialists. In the strictest conditions of humidity and temperature, reductive processes take place inside each bottle. These will define the wines aroma and taste in the future.
In the bottle-ageing hall at Bodegas SANTALBA the bottles lie on their sides in large wooden cages, so that the wine in the bottle is always in contact with the natural cork closure in order to preserve the wine during this time.
Depending on whether the wine is in the category of Crianza, Reserva or Gran Reserva, it spends more or less time in the bottle-ageing hall. Together with barrel-ageing and the grape quality of each harvest, this process is all that is needed for the wines ageing potential and maturation during its life.
Depending on the vintage chosen and time the wine has been in the various ageing areas in the winery, the Regulatory Council for the Rioja Qualified Designation of Origin has established four categories. These are distinguished using four types of back label or numbered seals, which are given to those wines which have passed their quality and typing controls:
Guarantee of Origin
This category ensures the origin and vintage of the wine. These tend to be first or second year wines which retain their original fresh, fruity characteristics. This category may include other wines that do not fit in those of Crianza, Reserva or Gran Reserva, even though they have gone through the ageing processes, because they are not certified by the Regulatory Council.
This label corresponds to third year (minimum) wines that have spent at least a year in an oak barrel. With whites, the minimum ageing period in barrels is 6 months.
This label corresponds to select wines from excellent grapes with a minimum oak barrel and bottle ageing of three years - at least one year in the barrel. With whites, the ageing period is 2 years, with a minimum 6 months in the barrel.
This label corresponds to wines from bumper crops that have been aged for at least two years in oak barrels and three years in bottles. With whites, the ageing period is 4 years, with a minimum 6 months in the barrel.
The four back label and numbered seals that must accompany any Rioja wine on the market are not just the documents that guarantee the ageing category, they also guarantee the origin, vintage and quality of the wine. The characteristics of each vintage indicate the amount of wine that the wineries will earmark for each of the categories (crianza, reserva and gran reserva).
With Tempranillo as the keystone, a Rioja red wine is defined as being well-balanced in alcohol percentage, colour and acidity, as having a nicely weighted body and structure with a smooth, elegant flavour, and for the predominance of its fruity nature when young and being more velvety when aged. These characteristics give Rioja wines a great versatility when pairing with the most varied of gastronomies. This, together with its reputation as an agreeable, easy-to-drink wine, comprises one of the keys to their success.