Rioja and Laguardia – Wine and Basque Country

We visited Rioja on two separate occasions – once on a day-trip from Bilbao and once on our way back to Barcelona, where we spent the night but didn’t have much time to do anything meaningful.

Rioja for the First Time

After lunch and an hour of driving on May 21 (and after our morning Gernika visit), we all reached the Rioja region where we visited several wineries, vineyards, and the pedestrian-only town on a hill – Laguardia.

Our first winery stop was Roda, and we did a tasting of 3 reds – Roda Reserve 2008 and 2009, and the Sela 2010. We all agreed that we liked the Reserve 2009 best. The Sela wasn’t bad either. The hostess also gave us an olive oil tasting – grown locally. I bought one to bring back to Cambridge.

Roda Winery in Rioja Tasting

Roda Winery in Rioja Tasting

Roda Winery in Rioja

Roda Winery in Rioja

We also went down into the cellar and looked around.

Roda Cellar - Rioja

Roda Cellar – Rioja

As we drove to our winery tour in Laguardia, Aitor explained how the Rioja region began. In the 1870s the phylloxera blight on the wine crops in Bordeaux, so the French searched far and wide throughout the rest of Europe for a suitable climate, topography, and soil condition to transplant their grapes and continue their industry until the blight had passed. Obviously the region had been used for wine prior to 1870 (in fact, it had a long history dating back a thousand years), but the French brought the technique they honed in Bordeaux to improve the quality (and competition) of the wine-making craft in the Rioja region as suitable for export back to the French people – the French influence on the wine-making can still be seen today.

Here you can see the Bordeaux train that was used to export the Rioja wine back to France.

Bordeaux Wine Train

Bordeaux Wine Train

At the tiny village of Laguardia, we took a wine cellar tour and had a tasting from the cask and the bottle at the Bodegas Carlos San Pedro Perez de Vinaspre.

Bodegas Carlos San Pedro Perez de Vinaspre

Bodegas Carlos San Pedro Perez de Vinaspre

Most houses in this small pedestrian city on a hill had cellars underground, and part of the reason cars are banned is because the mechanical vibrations damage the quality of the wine in the cellars. The underground wine caves protect the wine at a constant temperature (around 40 degrees F) year-round – no additional heating or cooling is needed. The only addition is the oxygen vent that allows fresh air underground (you can see these from the street on each house).

Tasting - Laguardia WIne Cellar - Bodegas Carlos San Pedro Perez de Vinaspre

Tasting – Laguardia Wine Cellar – Bodegas Carlos San Pedro Perez de Vinaspre

Laguardia WIne Cellar - Bodegas Carlos San Pedro Perez de Vinaspre

Laguardia Wine Cellar – Bodegas Carlos San Pedro Perez de Vinaspre

The cask/barrel wine was very dry and hard to drink – the bottle wine was much better. It was explained to us why this was (aging in the bottle is the final stage in the process and improves the taste and rounds the flavor (i.e. makes the wine more drinkable), however over-aging of course can also ruin a wine).

We also learned that there are only a few grapes used in the Rioja region, Tempranillo being the most common. The grapes used are often a blend. Therefore the wines aren’t named from the grape, but the process – if the grape isn’t listed on the bottle it’s assumed it’s Tempranillo. There are four classifications for Rioja reds:

  1. Rioja, is the youngest, spending less than 1 year aging in an oak barrel.
  2. Crianza is wine aged for at least 2 years, 1 of which must be in an oak barrel.
  3. Rioja Reserva is aged for at least three years, with at least 1 year in an oak barrel.
  4. Rioja Gran Reserva wines have been aged at least 2 years in oak and 3 years in bottle. 

After the tour and tasting, Leslie walked around a talked to several 80+ year old women in our broken Spanish. They didn’t mind – on the contrary they had a lot to say and were very friendly. Here’s one walking away from us:

Laguardia Woman

Laguardia Woman

It was sad to think that the town was probably dying out, and perhaps with it its charming traditions. Later on we saw a group of school children coming out of classes for the day and being picked up by their parents – so then again, maybe the tradition will continue after all?

We also saw some great produce along our ramblings.

Peppers in Laguardia

Peppers in Laguardia

Cherries in Laguardia

Cherries in Laguardia

And signs of the Basque separatist movement….

Basque Independence in Laguardia

Basque Independence in Laguardia

And also a lot of town pride.

Laguardia Pride

Laguardia Pride

Wine country would not be complete without some more gorgeous views. Perfect puffy clouds today.

Laguardia Town Square

Laguardia Town Square

A Great Laguardia View of Rioja

A Great Laguardia View of Rioja

On our drive back we made a quick stop at a paleolithic rock formation that looked like Stonehenge – these are apparently quite common throughout the region. Aitor explained that this particular ruin was an amalgamation of a paleolithic burial site as well as a Middle Ages cave that was built unintentionally right on top of it. Shepherds would use these caves to temporarily protect themselves from the wind and rain..

Stonehenge in Rioja

Stonehenge in Rioja

And we stopped to grab a photo of the Guggenheim in Rioja, which is actually a designer hotel, designed by Frank Gehry for the Rioja region that inspired him when he visited.

Guggenheim in Rioja

Guggenheim in Rioja

My favorite part about the Rioja region, though, has got to be the Haro Wine Festival – which is basically the Indian holiday of “Holi”, but with wine. People dress in all white and throw wine on each other until they are drenched (and presumably drink some too). It takes place in the town of Haro in the Rioja region on June 29.

We returned to Bilbao for the evening of May 21, but would be back again the next day (late).

Rioja the Second Time

On May 22 evening, we drove back to Rioja from Bilbao and stayed at Hotel Viura. As I mentioned previously, it is a boutique hotel that was the type of place perfect for honeymooners. Clean and modern design, minimalist but elegant. Thoughtfulness for space and sparsity. Ideal for wine tasting and relaxation. It was a little weird to be there with Marv and Leslie, I must admit (more of a romantic place).

Hotel Viura and the Lotus

Hotel Viura and the Lotus

Here are some pictures.

Hotel Viura Restaurant

Hotel Viura Restaurant

Hotel Viura Wine Bar

Hotel Viura Wine Bar

Hotel Viura Library

Hotel Viura Library

Hotel Viura Lobby

Hotel Viura Lobby

Hotel Viura Room Hallway

Hotel Viura Room Hallway

There was also a terrace on the rooftop with nice views of the town, Villabuena.

Villabuena

Villabuena

View from the Rooftop

View from the Rooftop

And there was a stack of wine that I photographed in the lobby.

Hotel Viura Wine

Hotel Viura Wine

And a picture of the art gallery in the hotel!

Hotel Viura Art Gallery

Hotel Viura Art Gallery

Also captured my first flower pictures of the trip – there were many more opportunities to photograph flowers and foliage in Africa than Spain (but better views in Spain).

Lilacs at Hotel Viura

Lilacs at Hotel Viura

Roses at Hotel Viura

Roses at Hotel Viura

Leaving the hotel was sad since we hardly got to spend any time there, and it was so beautiful.

Our drive back to Barcelona took about 6 hours and we stopped in Zaragoza on the way. Aitor pointed out a lot of Muslim inspired architecture throughout the city, such as the top of this church (built by Muslims for the Catholics):

Zaragoza - Catedral de la Sao

Zaragoza – Catedral de la Sao

Aitor also told us the story of the Virgin Mary appearing in the Zaragoza region over a Roman column, and how a church was built to honor her –  Basilica del Pilar. Pilar in Spanish means “column.”

After Zaragoza we stopped at Lleida in Catelonia for lunch, at a very excellent restaurant – l’estel de la Merce. The waiter came over and explained the entire menu to us in English since it was all in Catalon, which none of us could read.

l'estel de la Merce

l’estel de la Merce

Lleida Wine Route

Lleida Wine Route

l'estel de la Merce - Inside

l’estel de la Merce – Inside

We again ordered the fixed price menu, which came with 3 courses – appetizer, entree, and dessert.  I started with espelte (spelt) wheat prepared with goat cheese in a risotto-like composition. For the entree, I had the chicken curry (the first and the last chicken I’ve had in Spain since it’s considered a peasant’s food) which was pretty good – although I couldn’t taste the coconut milk as advertised. For dessert, I had a meringue tart.

I also took some creative pictures of some wine glasses and tea pots I found.

Wine glasses

Wine glasses

Tea Pots

Tea Pots

And an homage to regional wines in their wood planked reception kiosk and wine cellar.

Wine homage

Wine homage

Corks

Corks

Wine Cellar

Wine Cellar

We got on the road, saying goodbye to our final lunch in Spain. 2 hours later, taking the scenic coastal route, we arrived at our last hotel near the Barcelona Airport, The Barcelona Airport Hotel. We settled up with Aitor and enjoyed a final Estrella beer at the bar before turning in for the night in preparation for our early flight out of the city.

Bye bye Barcelona and Basque Country, until we meet again!

therestlessroad

About therestlessroad

The tar in the street starts to melt from the heat
And the sweats runnin’ down from my hair
I walked 20 miles and I’m dragging my feet
And I’ll walk 20 more I don’t care
And I’ll wander this world, wander this world
Wander this world, wander this world all alone
I’m like a ghost some people can’t see
Others drive by and stare
A shadow that drifts by the side of the road
It’s like I’m not even there
And I’ll wander this world, wander this world
Wander this world, wander this world all alone
Well I’ve never been part of the game
The life that I live is my own
All that I know is that I was born
To wander this world all alone, all alone
Some people are born with their lives all laid out
And all their success is assured
Some people work hard all their lives for nothin’
They take it and don’t say a word
They don’t say a word
Sometimes it’s like I don’t even exist
Even God has lost track of my soul
Why else would he leave me out here like this
To wander this world all alone
And I’ll wander this world, wander this world
Wander this world, wander this world all alone
–Jonny Lang, “Wander This World”

2 thoughts on “Rioja and Laguardia – Wine and Basque Country

  1. JJ1

    Nice trip.

  2. […] We visited Rioja on two occasions – once on a day-trip from Bilbao & once on our way back to Barcelona. We spent the night but didn't have time for much.  […]

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