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.
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.