I’m slowly conquering Spain – spending free time to explore different regions. Last month we made it to Rioja…Probably the most iconic of all Spanish wines, the Rioja is enjoying a renaissance thanks to modern wine making techniques, and innovative approaches from some of regions wine makers.
Routes and ways
I find northern Spain one of the most fascinating regions in Europe; with its diverse landscapes and highly distinctive cultures, and languages dating back millennia. The Camino de Santiago or St. James’ Way as it is also known is probably one of the most ancient routes that cuts through the region. Taken by pilgrims over the centuries, the route is now a centre piece of a multi-million euro tourism industry that uses the ancient, meditative way as a focus for the region’s history and gastronomy, taking in beautiful mediaeval cathedral cities along the way.
Yet, now there is a new route bring visitors on a pilgrimage of their own; the wines routes of Rioja and Navarra that take in modern cathedrals; architect designed wineries and bodegas that attract almost as much attention as the wines made within their climate controlled walls.
Flights from across Spain and Europe arrive at either Bilbao or Zaragoza where one can pick up a rental car and embark on a route of your choice.
Rioja lies between the rivers Oja and Ebro, and one can find hundreds of independent and international wine makers, with wineries spilling over into neighbouring areas of The Basque Country and Navarra. The region has three main areas, Rioja Alavesa in the north, Rioja Alta in the highlands and Rioja Baja which touches upon Navarra in the east. The names reflect the topology of the land and should not be confused with the corresponding quality of the wines from each area.
Rioja is a ‘Denominación de Origen Calificada’ wine, matured in oak barrels from France and the USA, although some wineries are experimenting with great success with oak barrels from Hungary. Although Rioja has always traditionally been defined by its rich oak flavour, now one finds that the wines are more modern in their makeup, some with less time in the barrels – reflecting the palate of a new generation of international buyers. Tempranillo, the well known Spanish grape, is the basis of Riojas, with small amounts of ‘Graciano’ and ‘Mazuelo’; and now with greater innovation, one sees use of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon.
No visit to Rioja should be without a mention of the striking wineries of Marqués de Riscal and YSIOS. Both boast architect designed wineries that in themselves are worthy of a visit for anyone interested in design, architecture and culture.
Marqués de Riscal
The Marqués de Riscal winery is a world-class wine resort, which they like call a “Ciudad del Vino”. It features a luxury hotel designed by Frank O. Gehry; and operated by Starwood Resorts. Gehry’s distinctive style flows throughout the building, echoing earlier works, such as the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao.
The hotel’s waves of titanium cladding are intended to reflect the signature colours of Marqués de Riscal: the rich red of the wine; the elegant gold of the iconic Rioja mesh on the Riscal bottles, and silver representing the top of each bottle. Guests can enjoy a complete tour of the winery, (we were lucky enough to have a private tour with Carlos Ulibarri Echevarría) discover the historical development of the site from the mid 19th century to the 21st century; catch a glimpse of some of the wineries most ancient wines still lying under years of dust in the cool cellars; see the state-of-the-art new computer controlled winery; and of course finish off with some Marqués de Riscal wine. Sadly they don’t offer a true tasting course, but you get to enjoy some of the more popular wines from the range and it is still a fun way a few hours.
The hotel has a classy spa and you can partake in wine inspired treatments, including being exfoliated with the crushed pips from grapes! And one mustn’t forget the restaurant where we enjoyed a multi-course tasting menu with various wines!!
The Ysios Bodega was the in fact the first to commission a world-class architect to create its signature building.
Found in the Alavesa part of Rioja, the Santiago Calatrava designed building is inspired by the shape of oak wine barrels, or when viewed reflected in its clear moat, I think it looks like a corkscrew.
The huge expansive roof protects huge areas for the making and storage of the Ysios fine Riojas – a bodega whose name pays specific homage to Isis and Osiris, two Egyptian gods closely related to the world of wine.
Rioja – a place of pilgrimage for those that wish to worship in the cathedrals of wine making, paying homage to one of Europe’s greatest wines.
MARQUES DE RISCAL