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.
We also went down into the cellar and looked around.
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.
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.
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).
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:
- Rioja, is the youngest, spending less than 1 year aging in an oak barrel.
- Crianza is wine aged for at least 2 years, 1 of which must be in an oak barrel.
- Rioja Reserva is aged for at least three years, with at least 1 year in an oak barrel.
- 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:
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.
And signs of the Basque separatist movement….
And also a lot of town pride.
Wine country would not be complete without some more gorgeous views. Perfect puffy clouds today.
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..
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.
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).
Here are some pictures.
There was also a terrace on the rooftop with nice views of the town, Villabuena.
And there was a stack of wine that I photographed in the lobby.
And a picture of the art gallery in the hotel!
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).
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):
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.
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.
And an homage to regional wines in their wood planked reception kiosk and 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!