Faustino Winery, Spain, by Foster & Partners
Winemakers in northern Spain hope this futuristic new bodega will put the Ribera del Duero region on the world stage.
Hunkered down in the hollow of a sandy hillside, 150km north of Madrid, a rusting UFO has been unearthed. Nestling in a bend on the A1 motorway – which connects Madrid with Burgos and, ultimately, the French border – Foster & Partners’ new winery for Bodegas Faustino looks more like something you might stumble across in Nevada’s Area 51 than the rolling hills of northern Spain.
And it is a particularly unusual object to find in the vineyards of the Ribera del Duero, a land of shacks, sheds and sturdy warehouses with pantile rooftops. In its poised, faceted form and scaly steel clothing, it is inescapably alien.
And yet this is not the first ultra-modern bodega to spring up in these parts. In 2000, Santiago Calatrava unveiled his Ysios bodega near Logroño in Rioja - a rippling, silvery sea of metallic vaults that rose up among the vineyards, hailing the winery as a landmark and reframing the age-old winemaking ritual as the subject of a hip cultural excursion.
Six years later, Frank Gehry brought the “Bilbao effect”, to a village five miles down the road with one of his rumbustuous clouds of titanium foil, this time in the form of a hotel for the Marqués de Riscal winery. Meanwhile, Zaha Hadid designed a voluptuous, folded visitor centre for another nearby bodega. In their glittering modernity, these architectural baubles stand as physical symbols of the Rioja renaissance, formidable structures to rival the crumbling chateaux across the border in France. These reflected the Rioja region’s winemakers’ lofty aspirations to become the new global superpower of wine.
Over the hills to the south-west, the Ribera del Duero is beginning to take note. A comparatively much younger wine region – the Denominación de Origen was only founded in 1982 – it has yet to match the global acclaim of its long-established neighbour. In the minds of the wineries – now competing on an international stage, in which ever larger global conglomerates lie behind the “local” labels – architecture will play no small part in the myth-making of their brands. And who better to generate iconic totems of mythic stature, than England’s finest two architect-lords.
Two years ago Richard Rogers completed the first of the region’s “starchitect” wineries for Bodegas Protos, a rhythmic row of parabolic timber vaults clad in terracotta tiles, a jaunty riff on local forms and materials. It looks and feels like a winery, only updated and suffused with the optimistic fresh air and light that is the Lord of Riverside’s trademark. Twenty miles to the east, his rival Lord of Thames Bank has done something altogether different.
Half submerged in the hillside, Foster’s Bodegas Portia lurks on the horizon like a furtive military installation, its three low-lying wings extending out into the landscape to form a sinister trefoil star.
Its primary geometry has inescapable connotations of other, more threatening facilities, from the US Pentagon to the pyramid and radar spheres of RAF Fylingdales. If Rogers’ building embodies the downhome, folksy charm of winemaking, Foster’s Bond-baddie lair is the slick new face of the industry.
Its angular wings are clad in hundreds of Corten steel shingles, each weighing 90kg, that are progressively patinating according to orientation – darker to the shielded north, lighter to the more exposed south, and changing colour throughout the day, creating a variegated skin. Save for one area of projecting steel tanks, the facade is completely blank, with nothing to give away the building’s function. Utterly alien to the Foster oeuvre, both formally and materially, it is a compelling, strange object.
“We decided to start from first principles, and reinvent the winery from scratch,” says project architect Jaime Valle, by way of explanation, as we stand beneath the projecting canopy at the entrance to this imposing bunker. “We wanted to make the most functional and efficient model for the production of wine.” And, with supremely Fosterian logic, that is precisely what they have done.
The architect started by separating the process out into its three main stages: fermentation in steel vats, ageing in oak barrels, and finally ageing in bottles. Each stage would be housed in its own wing, radiating out from a central core of holding tanks and services.
“If we laid the whole process out in a line, one person would have to walk three to four marathons every day,” says Valle, quickly sketching me a diagram. “But with this centralised organisation, we create a lot of shortcuts – so each journey of 200m is reduced to only 50m.”
As we begin to walk through the building, it quickly emerges that, beyond pure functional efficiency, the visual clarity of the process was paramount. While illegible from the outside, once within, the building acts as a wholly didactic tool, a spatial diagram of production premised on leading visitors through “the journey of the grape”, from pulping to bottling. Each stage has thus been choreographed as an immaculate tableau, the whole route adding up to a processional narrative, a Stations of the Cross for the devout oenophile.
As every good director knows, controlling the audience’s gaze is key; accordingly, this highly theatrical building has been designed as a sequence of rigidly composed views. Even the car park has a strange baffle wall, which I later realise is designed to ensure your first glimpse of the building is directly on axis for maximum impact, the first sign of this project’s essentially classical bent.
Yet, as well as didactic clarity, there must also be an atmosphere of mystery and suspense. “We wanted the building to embody some of the mystery of the wine-making process,” says Valle. “Not everything should be obvious at once.”
And so, on entering, the first glimpse of the vast steel holding tanks in the building’s inner core is screened by a wall of frosted U-glass, providing only a hint of what is to come. The mystery continues as we rise, in the sleek cylindrical elevator, to the roof level. Accessed along the spines of the two ramping wings, the roof is where the story begins – as grape-laden trucks deposit their load down a chute into the central hopper. “The client has a strong belief that the less pressure exerted on the grapes, the better the flavour of the wine,” says Valle, who admits to being baffled by some of the finer superstitions of the trade. “So we have designed an entirely gravity-fed process,” taking advantage of the 12m drop across the site.
Following the chute down into the first wing, we stand on a gantry suspended high above the majestic fermentation hall, where 50 gleaming tanks march in uniform lines down the aisles of this cathedral-like space. From this pulpit position, the oenologist has complete control over the whole process, surveying every stage from grape selection to fermentation. Double-T beams of prestressed concrete run up the height of the walls and extend across the ceiling, forming a continuous, densely-ribbed structure, adding thermal mass to this space, which is otherwise not climate controlled.
Vast tapering columns line the nave, while linear skylights flood this south-facing hall with natural daylight. A wine-red polycarbonate strip runs around the base of the hall, defining ground level outside and washing the tanks with a pinkish glow – a feature that continues throughout the building to preserve a sense of orientation.
The building acts as a spatial production diagram, leading visitors through ’the journey
The exposed concrete structure has been impressively detailed, and there are clear nods back to the soaring structures of Auguste Perret and Pier Luigi Nervi. The architects’ attention to detail has even extended to the servicing pipes, which, in keeping with the project’s didactic agenda, are clearly separated in varying size for wine, water and electricity, a diagram of the routes and flows around this Bacchian temple.
Valle presses a concealed button, and a set of 4.4m-high Corten-faced double doors, framed in a deeply tapered reveal, slowly glide open to expose another symmetrical tableau. This is the central triangular holding core, the nexus of the facility, where the wine is blended and stored in ten 50,000-litre tanks before being barrelled.
In the opposite corner, through another set of doors, lies the second, south-east facing wing: the hall of barrels. Again, entered on axis, this hall sports the same marching columns and ribbed casing as the previous wing, made all the more ecclesiastical by its complete darkness, save for uplighting along the nave and the ethereal glow of the red polycarbonate strip – which rises up along both walls, enhancing one’s sense of having entered a subterranean bunker.
The ceiling is fitted with narrowly angled fluorescent lights, allowing specific rows of barrels to be illuminated at a time, without contaminating the rest of the slumbering stock. The barrels’ successive, orderly rows mimic the marching rhythm of pews, while a gallery-like glazed banqueting room projects out above the entrance. I half expect a dog-collared Norman Foster to emerge from behind an altar and welcome me into the secret brotherhood of vintners.
We return to the central core, past the bottling room, through the final set of doors into the northern wing, where cases of maturing bottles line the eastern aisle. Just in case you hadn’t realised you were in a cathedral of wine, the central nave is actually devoted to a series of “chapels” lined with wine racks, each devoted to a future vintage. Such bottles are usually just stacked, but the architects have developed a bespoke system of perforated oak panels, through which bottles are suspended from their necks, crucially allowing the corks to remain visible from the other side.
As if this sequence of strangely religious metaphors couldn’t get any more surreal, I am finally led into the inner sanctum, an intimate chamber lined with niches where VIPs are given the privilege of storing their wine. In the centre of the dimly lit space, a vast ledger sits on a plinth, containing the signatures of visiting dignitaries. And on the first page is the quavering hand of Foster himself.
Back in the core, we ascend a chunky oak staircase to return to the gallery entrance level, where a Michelin-targeted restaurant overlooks the vineyards across an infinity pool to the south, while a wine-tasting room and offices occupy the north-western flank. Each of these spaces are kitted out with robust bespoke furniture, hewn from vast slabs of marble and oak, with mild steel fittings. There is a vastly overspecified chunkiness to the whole project – even the gutters are made from 20mm-thick Corten plate – as if to prove that, like the ancient bodegas and chateaux, this is built to last.
There is a vastly overspecified chunkiness to the whole project
As we walk around, Valle proudly caresses these beautiful details, explaining how everything was developed in collaboration with local craftsmen. “I almost learned how to weld,” he says, stroking a flawless handrail corner. The immaculate finish throughout is clearly a result of tireless on site supervision, all overseen from the practice’s Madrid office.
Ultimately, the building is a compelling essay in how to stage an industrial process for both productive efficiency and theatrical presentation, at once didactic and enigmatic, if sometimes rather sinister. And it is a heartening reminder that, when working on industrial buildings of a manageable scale, with access to impeccable local craftsmanship, Foster is still at the top of his game. The Taylorist calculations now mean only three people are needed to run the whole process, a miraculous achievement for a 12,000sq m facility that produces a million bottles of wine per year.
But there is something decidedly cultish about the whole thing; and the architect has undoubtedly succeeded in creating a certain aura around the Faustino company. Whether people will visit this €25 million trophy is beside the point – for, just like the imaginary chateaux on so many wine labels, this building is a myth-making totem in the game of global brand promotion, and in this it will succeed.
Architect Foster & Partners, Local architect Prointec, Client Faustino SL, Structural/M&E engineer Arup, Quantity surveyor DLE, Lighting consultant Claude Engle, Project manager Prointec, Main contractor FCC