Rock Winepresses from Cogote de las Pilas

La Rioja is one of the main wine regions in Europe and arguably the most important in Spain. The Certificate of Origin Rioja includes the great majority of towns in the region, as well as some municipalities of Navarra and the region known as Rioja Alavesa. Wine culture is an essential and inherent part of the territory, its people and its cultural heritage and wine-related products are some of the elements that make up our regional identity.

There is widespread knowledge, along the Certified Origin Rioja region, of the existence of rock winepresses, spread throughout the Sonsierra, Rioja Alavesa, as well as those discovered in recent decades in the areas of Haro, Casalarreina or Briones. In Rioja Oriental they believed these constructions never existed in the area, more so for lack of research rather than a likely fact. In the 21st century new rock winepresses were discovered in Cogote de las Pilas and between 2020 and 2021 they proceeded to excavate the complex, discovering a total of eleven winepresses, preserved in their original size. With these, along with the winepresses found in the Castle of Cornago and the Celtiberian settlement of Contrebia Leucade, we can conclude that wine production has extended for centuries along Rioja Oriental.

Rock Winepresses from Cogote de las Pilas

Here, we can witness an ensemble of eleven winepresses carved out of rock, the biggest one yet found in La Rioja. The main reason why it is believed to be so wide is that the sandstone of Cogote de las Pilas is considered to be soft enough for carving yet hard enough to endure the passing of time. The middle Valley of the Cidacos is one of the few areas that meets these requirements and grants easy access. If we study closely the sandstone on the left bank of the river, it is extremely soft, porous and grainy, which makes it ideal for carving but not so for housing winepresses.

Apart from the eleven winepresses, the lower left side of Cogote de las Pilas hosts a shelter, ideal for keeping supplies for the extraction of grape juice as well as refuge for bad weather. Some traces are still visible that tell of a gable roof that once protected the natural shelter.

What is a winepress?

A winepress is a basin where one treads on or presses the grape to extract the juice that will later become wine. It consists of: a treading floor (lago or pila), the space reserved for the pressing of the grape and the basin (torco or pileta), the deposit the juice flows onto, for collecting and to later be taken into a cellar where it starts the fermentation process. Many of these constructions also had a channel that connected the two.

These winepresses were carved out of rock and generally found outdoors. However, they had wooden ceilings to protect themselves from the sun and the rain while pressing the grapes. These places maintain tracks and holes that indicate the use of posts that would serve as columns holding a roof.

These archeological remains show the common practice of whitewashing the presses in hopes to sanitize them, probably before and after use, so the lime would act as disinfectant and stop bacteria and impurities from reaching the wine. They would apply a fine layer of lime over the rock, which can still be found in the remains. A similar use of lime was common in houses.

How did they use them?

There were two main uses of a rock winepress. With the first and easier method one would deposit clusters of grapes and proceed to extract the juice by treading on them. The second method required the more complicated use of a drain, while the grape was pressed on with the use of a screw.

Why the rock winepresses?

Local farmers, owners of the small vineyards would carve the set of winepresses in hopes to juice the grapes and produce wine for the family to consume over the course of a year. The set of winepresses are made in an enclave that meets the requirements of easy access from and by the residences, as well as the right hardness for carving.

At the rock winepresses, the work was carried out collectively. One must keep in mind that the wine harvest was a collective event.  Therefore, working at the winepresses is understood to have been a communal effort where everyone worked hard to pull off the arduous task.Therefore, working at the winepresses is understood to have been a communal effort where everyone worked hard to pull off the arduous task. 

The grape pressing was not a job for one individual but a group task where everyone was expected to help.

As one can imagine, not every winepress was carved at the same time nor were they in use all at once. It is believed that one winepress would replace another after the damage rendered it useless.

How long were they used?

Its origin dates back to the medieval period. In the area there is the place name Las Viñuelas, documented since approximately the 13th or 14th centuries and which indicates that the main crop in the area was the vine. It is at this time that the first winepresses of the complex would be carved in the Cogote de las Pilas.

Throughout the 18th century, with the appearance of winery neighborhoods, the use of cave winepresses began to decline and, with the arrival of phylloxera in the region between the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, they were definitively abandoned. the use of these structures. The vine is going to be replaced as the main crop, or at least one of the main crops, by other more productive and profitable ones. The olive and almond trees will take over the landscape, giving it its current characteristics. Until the seventies of the 20th century, some vineyards were still preserved in the area but, after Arnedillo was expelled from the Rioja Qualified Designation of Origin for technical reasons, these became testimonial.
During the 20th century, the Cogote de las Pilas winepress complex was covered with earth to make its space arable. First vines were planted there, later replaced by almond trees.
The abandonment of the vineyards due to phylloxera, the transformation of wine-making methods and changes in crops led to the cave winepresses of Cogote de las Pilas being abandoned after centuries of uninterrupted use. Today there are not many traces of its wine-growing past left in the landscape around Arnedillo, but, if we look carefully, the Cogote de las Pilas site or the winery neighborhoods in nearby towns remind us that the vine and the wine occupied an important part of the landscape and the local economy.

How to get there:

From Arnedillo take the LR-115 to Arnedo, after 4.4 km in Santa Eulalia Bajera make a right turn for Préjano and continue down the LR-380 for 600 meters. Make a right turn and after 100 m. merge into the Via Verde del Cidacos for 100 m. Proceed to make a left and continue down that the paved road for 700 m., access the Lagares Rupestres del Cogote de las Pilas on foot for 60 meters.

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