Fine Wines, Bodegas & Hill Towns Of Rioja Alavesa

For our 40th anniversary last month, (You read right. And ditch the math, I am not quite as old as you are thinking right now!) we consciously decided to give showy sights a miss for a slow savouring of food, wine and languorous coastal villages. And the Basque region came up trumps on all counts. With just the right amount of history and culture to keep us hooked. I can safely say that I have never eaten such great food on any one trip before. Or consumed as much good wine.

We are not wine connoisseurs by any stretch, but we were curious about the origins of winemaking in the region and were delighted when the Basque Tourism board agreed to show us around their renowned wine country. Its pastoral landscape and historic hill towns faintly reminiscent of Tuscany.

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La Rioja – after the rio (river) Oja that flows into rio Ebro – comprises three sub regions: Rioja Alta, Rioja Alavesa and the relatively arid Rioja Baja all bordered by mountain ranges that trap cool Atlantic and temperate Mediterranean winds to create a unique micro climate that gives indigenous grapes their distinctive quality. The principal grape variety used in authentic Rioja reds being the Tempranillo.

The history of wine making in Rioja has been traced back to Roman times, with a break of nearly 700 years under Moorish rule. Although it was revived after the expulsion of the Moors, it did not gain momentum until phylloxera breakouts in 1860 and 1870 destroyed French vineyards, compelling Bordeaux winemakers to move to Rioja temporarily. When they returned, their viticulture traditions and techniques remained. It took another hundred years for commercial cultivation of grape vines to begin in earnest. And many more years and several setbacks to evolve from an area known for poor quality table wines to the first class wine producing region it is today.

Rioja wines unlike many others, are traditionally aged by the producers themselves, and are labelled accordingly. Although modern winemakers have eschewed these classifications to highlight distinctive aspects of their blends. Typically, the Crianza, needs to have been aged at least twelve months in oak barrels, and cannot be sold before the third year. The Reserva has to have spent at least one of a total of three years in the ageing barrel, and the Gran Reserva, a minimum of two of five years.

José Manuel, our guide for the day, had put together an itinerary that covered a range of winemaking styles from the avant garde to the traditional.

We were picked up from Bilbao, on a dark cloudy day with a dire forecast for the evening, and transported to the beautiful walled town of Labastida where we met José and were briefly joined by Txaro Nájera from Basque Tour. A drive through the surrounding hills with spectacular views of the vineyard dotted valleys was followed by a walk around the picturesque town with its ancient church and sepia tinted stone facades.

Our wine tasting began with Bodegas Baigorri, whose contemporary design – the brain child of Basque architect Iñaki Aspiazu – held me as captive as its fine products. A square glass atrium with sweeping views across the village of Samaniego and the Cantabrian mountains beyond, was a most unusual reception point.

The cutting edge winery, that prides itself on utilizing gravity without the use of pumps or any other form of force to sort, stir or transfer grapes and wine, is built into five stunning open plan, humidity controlled levels plunging nearly 105 feet below ground!

At the end of the tour we got to taste two excellent wines along with a selection of hors d’oeuvres: the Baigorri Blanco Fermentado en Barrica 2013 (blend of Viuria and Malavesia grapes) and the Baigorri Crianza 2011: (mostly Tempranillo with Garnacha and a small percentage of other native grape varieties). Their restaurant looked inviting, but we didn’t stay for lunch.

Next was a brief stop at Villa Lucia, a themed wine museum with interactive displays of every aspect of traditional wine making. I was particulalry intrigued by the aroma section, where one was expected to identify scents released at the press of a button. I am afraid my nose let me down badly on every single one of the dozen or so aromas. Thankfully there was no penalty involved and I was glad I didn’t have to forfeit the glass of Fabulista wine at the end.

Villa Lucia is a popular wedding venue and boasts an in-house restaurant as well. But we opted for a hearty Basque meal at the restaurant Biazteri overflowing with friendly locals. The meal was accompanied by a bottle of Rioja Crianza that I don’t remember the details of, except that it went down rather well.

Both R and I aren’t used to that much food. Or wine. I remember spitting out wines on previous tours in Provence. Here we were guzzling it without restraint, and feeling the effects. My Patatas Riojanas, a deliciously starchy potato and chorizo soup helped clear my head somewhat. I felt for our friendly, suited-booted chauffeur Aitor, who had no option but to remain stone sober through our long tipsy day.

Laguardia, a 10th century fortification for the kingdom of Navarra and now within the Basque Alava province, was gorgeous. It is considerably larger than Labastida, with huge 13th century walls encircling the historic centre. Flanked at each end by the part Romanesque church of San Juan Bautista and the Gothic Santa Maria de Los Reyes. I had considered staying overnight but discarded the thought in order to avoid too many hotel changes. If you are going to be driving yourself, spending the night might be a necessity.

Our final stop was at Carlos San Pedro Pérez de Viñaspre, a traditional wine cellar, a whole world apart from the swank bodega of the morning. The entire area beneath Laguardia is riddled with underground caves that once served as escape routes from invading armies. Then some smart soul realised that their constant temperatures and humidity levels could be better utilised for wine making, and they haven’t looked back since.

It was cold and clammy underground, perfect for ageing wines. We siphoned off new wine from a concrete vat and then sipped an aged reserva (mostly Temporanillo) to compare the harsh tannins of the former to the rounded balance of the latter. We were beginning to get the hang of it.

So which is the best Rioja of them all?” we asked Carlos.

The one you like.” was his reply!

With the gathering of ominous clouds underscoring the morning’s forecast, we just had enough time for hurried shots of Frank Gehry’s phantasmagorical representation of a Marquis de Riscal bottle of red, before we were transported back to an inundated Bilbao.

Many thanks to Tourism Euskadi for hosting us. Special thanks also to Elixabete of Bilbao Tourismo and Txaro of Basque Tour for co-ordinating the visit, and to José Manuel of Los Cazaventuras for filling us in on so much local wine history and culture.

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Madhu is an Interior designer turned travel blogger on a long sabbatical to explore the world. When not crafting stories on The Urge To Wander, she's probably Tweeting @theurgetowander or sharing special moments on instagram.com/theurgetowander

71 thoughts on “Fine Wines, Bodegas & Hill Towns Of Rioja Alavesa

    1. Thank you Maralee! We didn’t do much on the actual date except walk around San Sebastian, but yes, the whole trip was a special anniversary treat 🙂

  1. Happy happppppppyyyyyyyyy anniversary. . Here’s wishing many more ..

    I lived that cellar.. so much drink I it.. part time. ….

  2. Congratulations! And cheers! What a suitable way to celebrate, dearest Madhu! GOD bless!
    I need to take travel tips from you!

  3. A post dense with information, architecture landscape and wine. Some lovely gleaming shots of the making too. You are a very satisfactory guide to winemaking.

    1. Ha, my knowledge of wine is limited to what’s on this page Meg! Thank you very much, and Happy Anniversary in advance!

  4. Hi Madhu, congratulations on 40 years! What a lovely post – an excellent guide to winemaking. Also, what a lovely way to spend and enjoy your 40th anniversary drinking wine and eating delicious Basque food 🙂

    1. Thank you Kat. Mexico was my first choice, but R chose this and I am happy we decided to slow down for a change.

  5. First congratulations on reaching a milestone few choose to reach these days. Then again thank you for the usual travel feast. I have not seen much of that part of the world so value the vicarious experience.

    1. Thank you Ian. Yes, the Basque region isn’t part of the standard Spain itinerary, but it was perfect for a second visit and a special one at that.

  6. Happy anniversary and great post! I lived briefly in Spain many years ago, but the Basque region was one area I did not get to know and enjoy. It is definitely on my list for a return trip to Spain, perhaps now more so after reading about all the wine fun to be had! I pegged that hotel as a Gehry creation immediately! I love his wavy metal signature, and that red wine color is just perfect. Cheers!

    1. This coast is less flashy than its Catalan counterparts, but we were loved the variety of landscapes, the exceptional cuisine and the unique Basque culture. And of course all that wine! 🙂 I am sure it will appeal to you for the same treasons. Thank you for your wishes Lex.

  7. Forty years, you must have been out of primary school 😉
    What glorious views Madhu and I can just imagine you getting all tiddly on the wine – it would send me to sleep. The hotel architecture is fascinating!

    1. Haha, yes kind of! 😀 The wine tour was fun Gilly. The Bilbao museum somehow seems to work but that hotel was a bit too incongruous in that setting for me.

  8. Madhu, it is ages since I have come here, and i have missed travelling with you. Happy 4th anniversary, and what a delicious way to spend it. Beautiful photographs 🙂

    1. Thank you very much Kate. Its our 40th actually! 🙂 Its been ages since I have visited you as well…my loss. Hoping to catch up in the coming weeks.

  9. Hi Madhu! Congratulations on your 40th anniversary, Wow! We’re thirteen years behind you. 🙂 We’re not wine connoisseurs either, but we do enjoy wine tasting and this trip looks magical. Wishing you many more happy years to celebrate and travel! ♥

      1. Well, to get away a little sooner, we’re spending a long weekend in the wine country next month. 🙂 Have a wonderful weekend!

    1. Then you will love the Basque country Darcy! This wine tour was just one of many memorable days in Northern Spain. My visits to Jordan and Chettinad (closer to home) after my return derailed my Spain travelogue. Am hoping to get back to it right away.

  10. And here I thought you were a young spring chicken! Turns out we are probably similar in age (but only if you were 18 or less when you got married) 🙂 Like wine, we get better, mellower, and more mature as we age…. When you mentioned that the Romans started viticulture in this area, it reminded me of the region in the foothills of the Black Forest in Germany where I grew up. I only found out in recent years, that the vineyards there were established by the Romans 2000 years ago. And they are still going strong!

    1. I was indeed! And I would like to think I am ageing quite like those reservas we tasted! 😀 Making a note of the Black forest wine region for a future trip….our 50th perhaps!?

  11. Sounds like a great way to celebrate your anniversary, Madhu. Congratulations to you both. A very interesting tour indeed with lovely photos. I like the sound of your potato and chorizo soup. 🙂

    1. Thank you much Sylvia. That soupwas very, very good! I ordered it every chance I got in those couple of days.

  12. Congratulations on 40 years together. Your trip sounded wonderful. I really don’t know the area and my husband’s family is from there.
    Judy

    1. Oh Judy, then you must go! It is a totally gorgeous region. Have more posts coming up to inspire you 🙂 Thank you for your lovely wishes. Much appreciated.

  13. You have just convinced me to move this region up on my bucket list. It has always been there but now it is moved up right under Venice.

    Congratulations on 40 years, what a marvelous accomplishment. What did you do, fall in love when you were 5?

    1. Haha not 5, but I do accuse hubby of cradle snatching! 🙂 Thank you very much for your kind wishes Valentine Have missed interacting with you and so many other virtual friends with my hectic gallivanting of the past few months.

  14. Sounds like the perfect way to celebrate a rather special anniversary, Madhu. Wishing you and R many more happy years! And yes- it has to be ‘the one you like best’ doesn’t it? Believe me, we guzzle away but are no connoisseurs. We just know what we like. 🙂
    That first winery looks amazing! Celebrating in style 🙂

    1. Thank you very much dear Jo! Yes, we decided we owed ourselves some cultured wining and dining just for having put up with each other for so many years. R more than I….that man is a saint! 😀

  15. A wedding anniversary is a perfect occasion for enjoying some beautiful reds – and to try them in a place like Rioja Alavesa sounds divine! I love the look of Santiago Calatrava’s Bodegas Ysios and the way it reflects both the colour of the earth and the Cantabrian mountains. Gehry’s creation doesn’t have that strong contextual appeal.

    There was one wine-tasting course I did years ago when I still worked in a hotel. It was a lot of fun and I became very fond of whites, particularly Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc. The best glass I ever had in the class was a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc from Marlborough. It was so smooth and so beautiful I exclaimed that it was just like a lemongrass panna cotta!

    Congratulations also on the 40th anniversary, and may you both have many more to come!

    1. Thank you very much James! The Basque region was an inspired choice for this special occasion. I too much preferred the lines of Bodegas Ysios to Gehry’s incongruous structure. It just didn’t work in that setting.

      A good off-dry Riesling Kabinett remains my all time favourite wine. Now I shall have to hunt down a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc from Marlborough!! 🙂

  16. This is such a good read ~ and I visited the Basque region (Navarra) for the first time earlier this year…the food and wine a perfect blend with the people and scenery. Your descriptions of the Rioja wines makes me miss this place…and what a perfect location for an anniversary. A great way to celebrate in style and with so much goodness around. Cheers Madhu to a great autumn for you ~

    1. Grazie mille Ishita! 🙂 The Basque region was perfect for a milestone anniversary. Even better than Paris and Venice…that’s saying a lot! 🙂

  17. Wow, Madhu, congratulations on your 40th anniversary! ❤ ❤
    Great reading, sounds like the perfect choice for celebrating love, joy and the good life.
    Tzzzz …. I was never good at math, unbelievable … 😉
    Cheers! 🙂

    1. HaHaHa I was kind of cradle snatched! I so enjoy dropping the fact that I have a fifteen year old, six footer grandson into a conversation just to watch people’s reaction! 😀 Thank you very much Dina….have a great weekend!

  18. A very nice way to celebrate madhu. Congratulations and many happy returns of the day.
    Brian

    1. Brian, thank you very much. Your Breakfast in Istanbul series sounds fascinating. I promise to pop over with enough time to savour it. Have a great weekend!

      1. You too Madhu. Glad we reconnected. And glad you enjoyed the beginning of “Breakfast”. Third and last part has been posted. Take care. Brian

  19. Though this post is a perfect blend of personal experience, information and some beautiful images, you stole the show with your first line,
    “For our 40th anniversary last month, (You read right. And ditch the math, I am not quite as old as you are thinking right now!) ”

    This made the ‘post’ as well as the ‘comment section’ equally enjoyable 🙂

    Thanks a lot for sharing 🙂

  20. I did not get a chance to read your entire post this morning as I am at work but I did read the first part and wanted to comment that the Rioja wines are my favorite, along with those of St. Emilion in France. We used to spend about $4 a bottle years ago for a bottle of Marques de Riscal. Just last week a bottle cost $18. Not too bad, I guess.

  21. It sounds like a perfect, and tipsy, way to spend a very special anniversary. It’s a good thing you had a sober driver. 🙂 I love the Frank Gehry Marquis de Riscal bottle of red. Happy belated anniversary, Madhu. 🙂

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