The next port of call on our Spanish travels is Laguardia, in the Rioja region. La Rioja is an amazing region – never ending fields of vines on dry limestone soil; dotted with medieval hilltop towns, a limestone ridge of mountains as the dramatic backdrop and the Ebro river snaking through it.
We left Bilbao in consistent drizzle, so our arrival into the region was blanketed by rain and cloud. Fortunately the weather improved towards the end of the day, and subsequent days were bright and warm. In fact, the weather has been warmer than usual and we have arrived in the middle of harvest, which is several weeks earlier than usual. So, hand picking is in full flight in all the fields, and there is a constant stream of tractors pulling trailer loads of grapes to the bodegas (wineries).
There are over 500 bodegas in Rioja, from small family owned plots to giant corporations. The dominant grape in a Rioja wine is Tempranillo, and there are strict rules governing any wine that is to receive the Rioja classification. I’ve heard all about the wine making process in several wineries now but most of it goes in one ear and out the other. Suffice it to say there are four grades, which vary in terms of time on oak. When you go into a bar they will ask you if you want a young wine or an old wine, with many of the locals preferring the young wines (partly because they are cheaper – it is quite typical to get a glass of young Rioja for 1 euro in a local bar!)
We start our Rioja adventure in the little town of Haro where we search for a coffee – we still haven’t got the hang of Spanish time and always seem to be in towns when everything is closed! Nothing much seems to happen before 11am, with lunch building around 2pm and this at the same time as the shops close, not reopening until about 5 or 5.30. Restaurants don’t really gear up until at least 8.30, bars are generally open all day (although may have scant provisions until the eating hours). And many of the smaller towns and villages in Spain just seem closed full stop – is this because of the economy, or our bad timing?
From coffee we move on to our first bodega visit, Lopez de Heredia, a large winery with a history stretching back over 130 years. It is important for any visitor to the region to note that unlike Australia where cellar doors are open to anyone dropping in for a free tasting, in Rioja one must usually book a tour and tasting, for which you are charged. For our Lopez de Heredia tasting we opted to just taste the wines, which meant we were not able to see inside the winery or the winery buildings. A tasting of two wines with a small plate of crackers and chorizo was 14 euros!!
We then drove on to the tiny village of Paganos for our lunch date at Hector Oribe, the eponymous restaurant of a chef who once worked at Arzak. He specialises in traditional dishes with a modern twist, using seasonal produce. We opt for the Degustation menu, 36euro (plus tax and wine).
The restaurant is rather unprepossessing, but the food was very good. We started with an amuse bouche of gazpacho, followed by foie gras terrine, a bread cone of black pudding, a tin of anchovies, a piece of cod, slow cooked ox tail and finishing with a dessert platter (bread pudding, cheese cake, a pastry and vanilla ice cream). We accompanied this feast with two terrific wines recommended by one of the waitresses (who spoke no English, but had a cheeky sense of humour).
Happily replete we drove on to our home for the next 3 nights, Casa Rural Erlexte (http://www.erletxe.com), which is situated in the wall surrounding the village of Laguardia – the small window in our room provides beautiful views over the valley.
We wander around what is at 5pm a largely deserted village. Laguardia is car free as underneath the village is a catacomb of old wine caves. Cars are banned in order to stop the buildings subsiding into the space beneath, as the caves have produced a honeycomb effect that would be unable to sustain the constant pressure of vehicles. A climb up the church tower affords 360 degree views of the region:
Given the huge lunch we had enjoyed, none of us feel like dinner. But, Pete and I wander out to see what is happening in the village at about 9pm on a Wednesday night. The answer is …… Not a lot. However, we stop in a small bar for a drink and get to enjoy some of the local life. Out in the back room is a group of elderly female card players, who apparently gather most nights to play cards together. Inthe front bar is a tiny little old man wearing a large beret, which is traditional Basque head gear. With him is his constant companion, Mori, a chihuahua, who is happily cleaning the peanut scraps off the floor. We chat to the lovely bar lady (who reminds us of you Suzanne Wills), who is desperately trying to remember her school girl English – which is a hellavu lot better than our nonexistent Spanish. 3 glasses of wine and 2 sticks of olives with peppers costs us 4 euro (plus free peanuts in their shells) – watching the locals, priceless.
Next morning we set off with Unai, the nephew of Maria, the owner of Erlexte. Via a long series of emails asking for advice about which wineries to visit and what else to see in the region, we have ended up accepting Unai’s kind offer to be our chauffeur for the day, in his car, for the sum of 100 Euro for the day. A bargain, as it leaves the boys free to enjoy their wine tastings without worrying about driving. Even more of a bargain when the day starts at 9.30 am and we don’t return to the hotel until 9pm!
Our first stop is the monasteries of Suso and Yuso, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Suso dates back to the 6th century, and is the oldest monastery in Spain. These monasteries are recognised as the birthplace of the modern written and spoken Spanish language. Today the monasteries attract pilgrims on the Way of St James. Suso is an abandoned monastery but Yuso houses an Augustine community, plus part of the complex has been converted into a hotel.
Then it is on to worship at the altar of wine and food at Bodegas Baigorri, where we are booked in for a 1.00 pm tour, followed by a 2.00pm lunch. The winery building, designed by the Basque architect Inaki Aspiazu, appears as a glass box sitting atop a small hill. The rest of the building sits beneath this box, holding the administration offices, the wine making facilities and the restaurant. The glass box, which provides 360 degree views of the area, holds ……. Nothing. It just sits there, empty save for 3 chairs – meanwhile, the restaurant offers limited views over a concrete drive into some of the fields of vines. Go figure. The winery’s main claim to fame is the use of gravity, rather than any mechanical methods, to process the grapes.
Each course marches to the table with speed, and we become somewhat overwhelmed by the both the speed and the richness of the food (and to be honest, enjoyed the food at Hector Oribe more). Concentrating on the wines, we thoroughly enjoyed the Rosado – which is the best we have tried since arriving in Spain- but were not keen on the Reds, until we manage to inveagle a glass of De Garage (at around 37euro!) from the waitress. Much to our amusement they do not clear the glasses from the table, so we end up sitting amongst a sea of empty glasses.
Unai collects us from the winery at 4.30 – thank goodness we had the sense to employ a driver for the day as we are all well over the limit, and the day is far from finished! It is now on to a small winery, Bodega Contino. Although this bodega is part of a much larger organisation, it operates independently and is a single vineyard winery comprising only 62 hectares. Again, we are given a tour of the winery before tasting two of the wines under the chestnut trees overlooking the vines. A lovely spot to enjoy a glass of vino. (Cost is 15 euros per person, for the tour, tasting two wines and a small platter of cheese & chorizo slices).
Our final stop is the terrace of the Gehry designed Marques de Riscal hotel & winery to admire the building, and have a final glass of wine as we watch the sun set. It has been a terrific day. Many thanks to our tour guide extraordinaire, Unai.
Our final morning in Laguardia dawned with cloud swirling around our hilltop, but it soon cleared to a bright sunny day. We set off for yet another hilltop town, this time Briones. Hazel & Darryl had booked into visit the wine museum there; Pete and I felt that too much knowledge could spoil our wine drinking so opted to wander the little town instead. At 10.00 am it was almost completely deserted. What secret lives go on behind those stone walls?
Then it is off to Logrono, where we have heard a week long fiesta is taking place. On the day we are there this seems to consist of different bands walking the streets, all wearing their tribal colours. After enjoying the music we find a small bar come restaurant for lunch.
We returned ‘home’ to Laguardia via Bodega Ysios in order to admire its amazing architecture that mimics the mountains behind it (stunning, but Maria tells us they have had terrible trouble with a leaking roof ).
Back at Laguardia we joined an English speaking wine tour of one of the city bodegas, as we are keen to see the caves underneath the town and to hear about the more traditional winemaking. The bodega we visit is called El Fabulista, named after a famous storyteller from the region, who was born in the house of the bodega. El Fabulista is a very small wine producer, and uses traditional wine making methods – the grapes are stomped by foot, and the stalks are included with the fruit. None of the wines earn the Rioja stamp because of their low production – but, we suspect it is also because the quality is terrible! None of us are able to finish the tasting glasses, and we escape as quickly as we can from the clutches of the wine guide, who seems to be using us as practice for her stand up comic routine.
A picnic dinner in the charming lounge area at Erlexte is in order, given we still have wine that we purchased the day before. So, we buy some chorizo, olives, cheese, anchovies and bread and return to Erlexte for a casual meal.
We are very sad to leave the lovely Rioja region, and our charming hosts Maria and Unai, but needs must – and Portugal calls.