Growing up in Rioja, Clara Canals always wanted to work in the wine industry.
As the second largest wine region in Spain, the lush countryside produces practically as many vintners as it does bottles of the stuff, and as a little girl, she never dreamt of doing anything else.
“Since I was a kid, wine is part of our lives,” said Clara, a winemaker at the Campo Viejo vineyard in the province. “I’ve seen my parents drinking wine and during harvest we used to help picking the grapes.
“Obviously, in Spain, for us wine is a way of life. It’s in our blood.
“At university, I first studied biochemistry and then when I finished it’s like, ‘Well, this is not for me — I need to be a bit more out’.”
The rioja expert jetted into drizzly Dublin last week to help launch the seventh annual Campo Viejo Tapas Trail promotion, which brings a splash of Spanish colour to Cork, Galway and the capital later this month.
Restaurants including Eco in Douglas and Feed Your Senses in Cork City are set to join forces with the brand to bring guests on a culinary tour of the region without even leaving the country.
Wine lovers can also join trails in Cork and Galway for the first time this year.
But Clara insisted you don’t need a degree in grapes like her to enjoy the event, which kicks off on June 21 and continues throughout July.
“Winemakers are not born knowing how to taste,” said the 34-year-old, who has a European master’s degree in oenology and viticulture. “Anyone can learn how to taste — it’s just a matter of memory.
“If you like coffee, then you keep that in the back of your memory and when you taste another coffee [you think], ‘Ah, but I like this more than the other one’.
“[Within the wine industry], sometimes we speak very technical and people they don’t understand,” she added. “One of our biggest competitors is not the different wine brands, it’s the beer because beer is easy — it’s always cold, you don’t have to taste it and see it it’s OK or not.
“It happens a lot in Spain you get to the restaurant and they [give] you the wine menu and people are intimidated to order a bottle of wine because then you have to pour the wine, you have to taste it, you have to say if it’s OK and that’s wrong.
“We need to make wine a bit more accessible [so that] people are not scared.”
Despite being the tipple of choice of so-called ‘wine o’clock’ women all over the world, today viticulture remains an overwhelmingly male-dominated field.
However, Clara revealed that all that is slowly changing, not least at Campo Viejo, where all three resident winemakers are female.
“It was a very, very male industry,” conceded the expert, who perfected her craft in wineries in South Africa and New Zealand before returning to Spain six years ago. “Now it’s surprisingly a lot of women winemakers in Rioja.
“At university, it will be like half women, half men.
“It’s funny, with the same grapes, if it’s a male winemaker or female, the wine will be different,” she continued. “It doesn’t mean it will be better if made by the woman or the man — it’s just different.
“I think we have a different approach to tastings.
“One of the challenges also is to attract male [drinkers] and to see that it’s not a woman’s drink or a man’s drink. Wine is there to be enjoyed by everyone.”
“People think that we are just drinking every day but it’s a very challenging job,” explained Clara. “For four years, I was just travelling north and south — what we call a ‘flying winemaker’ — following the harvest.
“There are so many things that we cannot control like the weather. You keep the whole year working in the vineyard protecting everything and suddenly one night there is frost and then it’s like what can you do.
“So you work really hard to make the wine, but the reward is that you get to see people enjoying that wine. I love the job because it’s very social also — you get to know a lot of people.”
Meanwhile, the rioja queen revealed she was looking forward to sampling Graham Norton’s eponymous sauvignon blanc while in Ireland and refused to w(h)ine about the country’s gin and whiskey explosion. “I am keen to taste them. It’s great. I think we have to have an open mind and keep tasting new wines and keep learning about new grape varieties and new regions
“I hope we will continue drinking wine. Food gets better with wine and wine gets better with food— that’s the magic thing. It’s not the same if you have a steak with a gin and tonic.”