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Drink up--A Weekend in Rioja

Just a few hours drive from Madrid; Rioja is Spain’s most lauded wine region. Unlike Napa, or to a lesser extent Tuscany and Bordeaux, places more commercial and accustomed to tons of visitors, Rioja is delightfully undiscovered and authentic. Traveling from San Sebastian, (see here) with a stopover first for a lunch to end all lunches at Extebarri (see here), we made our way to our home base at the Marques de Riscal for the next two nights. Hardly enough time to soak in all the compelling wines, delicious food, modern architecture and medieval villages.

Tripper Tips:

Do your research and plan ahead to schedule appointments at the wineries you wish to visit. Most do not have public tasting rooms and only offer limited tours in English, usually one per day.

You have the option to choose to tour the Marques de Riscal winery, it’s included in your stay. The 33,000 square foot complex, including the hotel and spa, is aptly called the The City of Wine. Tours of the winery are 90 minutes.

Another hotel option is to stay at the boutique Hotel Viura, located in Villabuena de Alava, home to over 30 wineries.

Have time for another day tip… dine at the the famed El Portal del Echaurren in the town of Ezcaray for food from chef Francis Paniego.  Chef Paniego is also the chef at the gourmet restaurant at Marques de Riscal.

Have more time…visit the mountain monasteries of Suso and Yuso. Be sure to make a reservation a few days before you plan on going.

Rioja is a vast area, and a useful source is to download the comprehensive Maribel Guides before you go.

Stay: Its not everyday you get to sleep in a Frank Gehry designed building that looks just like the younger sibling of the Guggenheim Bilbao (see itinerary here.) The Marques de Riscal sits high on a hill, overlooking the oldest winery in Rioja, dating from 1858. You can see the hotel miles before you arrive. It looks as if a space ship was dropped in the middle of tiny, sleepy Elcegio. Riscal has put Rioja on travelers’ maps, and indeed the crowds come—but they also leave quickly, and most of the time you have the place to yourself. 

Singular: Frank Gehry brought international attention to Rioja, but he is not alone in creating breathtaking architecture, Santiago Calatrava, Zaha Hadid, and Inaki Aspiazu have all designed cutting edge wineries that stand out in the landscape of rolling hills and fortified towns. It’s so surreal, so fun.

Morning Wake Up: Wander through the streets of Elcegio, and then head up towards the vineyards, you can walk or run for miles. It’s peaceful, beautiful, and the return vistas of Riscal are magical, changing form and color from every angle. It feels like life in Elcegio hasn’t changed all that much, as if untouched, even with the arrival of Riscal. Afterwards, enjoy breakfast in the hotel’s modern bistro. 

Drink: A large concentration of wineries can be found in or near Haro, approximately 30 minutes from the Hotel. We booked a morning tour at López de Heredia, where the Zaha Hadid decanter shaped tasting pavilion and wine shop stands in sharp contrast to the traditional winery next door. The tour begins in the winery, surrounded by men at work making wine barrels, one of the only wineries to handcraft their own barrels. You’ll learn the history of this family run bodega dating back to 1877, before venturing down to the underground tunnels and caves. Itchy at the sight of countless cobwebs, we were amazed at the thick layer of natural mold covering both the cellar walls and the wine bottles. I’ve visited a lot of wineries, and this was a unique and visual experience. Roda, right next door, has one of the rare public wine rooms. Stop in for a tasting, not only of their stellar wine, but also of their outstanding olive oil.  Another popular winery in Haro is Muga if you’d like to do another tour. 

Drive By: Make a stop at Ysios’ Winery, designed by Calatrava. We heard the building was more compelling than the wines, and it was well worth it to walk around and admire the architect’s handiwork. 

Still Thirsty: If you’re up for more touring, one of the more interesting tours is at Bodegas Baigorri. The winery is an architectural gem, a glass box with a multi level winery below, designed by Iñaki Aspiazu. Here the wine rivals the setting; Baigorri was one of our favorite Riojian wines. You can choose to eat here; we heard the set 3-course lunch overlooking the vineyards was a lovely way to spend the afternoon. 

Lunch: On the way to the afternoon stop in Laguardia, dine at the charming, small restaurant Hector Oribe in the nearby town of Paganos. The Michelin starred restaurant has quite a following for it’s creative take on traditional Riojian classics. 

Don’t Miss: Book a tour in the late afternoon with Judith of Pepita Uva, to not just see, but to learn and experience the history of picturesque Laguardia, a fortified medieval town, near the Cantabria Mountains.  Judith speaks perfect English, her mom is from Boston, and she lives here in her family’s home—offering you a true local’s insight and knowledge. The two-hour tour covers the historic town center, the church and the Abbot´s Tower. Laguardia is most fascinating for its network of over 300 subterranean wine cellars, all caves beneath people’s homes. These hidden caves, were once used for protection during sieges, now adapted for wine production and storage. Judith took us into her family’s own cave, deep underground. The tour ends at Judith’s shop with--you guessed it--a glass of wine. 

Dinner: Close to Riscal, head to Fuenmayor, it doesn’t look like much from the road, but has a simple, sweet town center.  Here we had one of our most delicious meals in all of Basque county at Asador Alameda. Run by husband and wife Esther and Tomas Alvarez everything is prepared simply using only the finest seasonal ingredients. The restaurant set up was a bit unusual as Tomas grills in an curtained, glass enclosed kitchen right in the dining room utilizing his 2 grills –one for huge slabs of t-bone steaks, and another for whole fish.  He kept smiling at us as he cooked our dinner, his pride fully evident. Later touring the tiny, spotless kitchen we met Esther who proudly showed us what was bubbling on the stove. We left with hugs and a meal we’ll remember for a long time. After many memorable dinners over our ten-day trip, my best bite may have just come down to a simple bowl of baby peas.

Day Two

Morning: It’s not just a winery tour, but also your morning workout. Walk the vineyards at world renowned Remelluri. Using the maps provided, you choose the 30, 60 or 90-minute self-guided walk throughout their gorgeous grounds.  Make sure to book ahead.  Afterwards head to Briones to visit the Vivanco Museum of Wine Culture, the world’s largest wine museum.  All 4,000 square metres are devoted to exploring the evolution of wine over 8,000 years of history. 

Lunch: Wander around lovely Briones before heading to lunch at Los Calaos, a family run restaurant in the old part of town with a traditional Rioja menu.  

Relax: Back at the hotel, book a massage at the lovely Caudalie Spa overlooking the vineyards, with a small indoor pool. You’re in wine country so try one of the wine related treatments such as a cabernet scrub.

Tapas Crawl: Some say Logrono, the capital of Rioja, rivals San Sebastian when it comes to pinchos. Simpler, and less haute, we found them equally delicious. All the action takes place clustered around two narrow streets in the Casco Viejo: Calle Laurel and Calle San Juan. Come hungry: it’s a bustling area with over 50 bars, a real food marathon. The evening crawl gets going around 9 pm, plan on visiting 5 or 6 bars, and sampling the specialty in each place. How will you know what to order? Ask the bartenders, look and see what the locals are ordering, or choose what looks good to you and be adventurous. 

Eat: Bar Angel serves just one thing: garlicky wild mushrooms grilled and served on a toothpick atop a slice of bread, with a small shrimp as a garnish. It might sound boring, but trust me; it was so good we immediately ordered another round. Half the fun is wandering around and finding your own favorites: we liked El Sebas for their tortillas de patatas, Juan y Pinchame’s prawn and pineapple brochettes and Pata Negra for the toasted jamon sandwich or plates of their rich iberico.

Drink: Wash down your pinchos with the inexpensive Txaoli, the popular fizzy white wine or with a local red crianza. At Taberna de Correos for a few extra euros we ordered wines by the glass, sampling some higher end wines from the area. One we discovered, El Pundito, we are now buying and drinking at home. 

Still Hungry: I’m betting you’ll be properly stuffed after a good pincho prowl , but if you want to sit down and eat dinner, Iruna and Matute, both on Calle de Laurel are good choices.

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