Nobody knows for sure, but the most oft-quoted figure as to the number of bodegas in La Rioja is “over 500”. As a result, you absolutely gotta come with a plan of attack if you’re going to pay a serious visit. As I mentioned earlier, I had no plans for my entire trip let alone Rioja, so I was a bit screwed at this point. I screwed myself though, since everybody had told me that you need to make all of your appointments in advance (a day or two), which then, of course, requires a bit of planning and logistics (if you can understand Spanish, it helps, as the English-tours are less frequent). Good thing is that driving around to them all is a breeze, so long as you can keep your eyes on the road and off the spectacular sights surrounding you.
This was the first time I had visited a bonafide wine region, and I can already tell this is going to become something of a habit. I had always enjoyed Riojan wine, but actually visiting the area and the local bodegas and learning the history and the methods really opens up a whole new world of enjoying the region’s wine. You suddenly become obsessed with it. Since I’ve been back, I’ve been tasting Rioja with a whole new outlook now.
Despite my poor planning, I was able to see the new, Gehry-fied, commercialized bodegas, as well as a couple of traditional old-fashioned ones. On my return visit, I think I will do some serious due diligence on the smaller, family-run wineries and probably focus an entire trip on them alone.
Laguardia is a small, medieval, walled (hence the name) town located on top of a hill overlooking the plains of Rioja Alavesa (the region including the southern chunk of Basque Country, which include Laguardia) and the Cantabrian mountains.
This is a great place to make your base as there are some great hotels, some to suit those requiring the comforts of the web, and others to suit those wanting to stay in a castle. There’s also some decent pintxo bars in the actual village where cars are not permitted because there’s a labyrinth of subterranean tunnels leading to the >300 wine cellars underground, beneath the homes.
There are a few cool little food shops in town too:
And I enjoyed some pintxos as well, though not many:
The easiest tour to line up was at the famous Herederos del Marques de Riscal
, where the oldest bodega in Rioja was bought by an American corporation, given a major overhaul, in part by Frank Gehry, including a spiffy boutique hotel, and had their methods “updated” to suit the times. It was a little horrifying, though I guess the juxtaposition of old and new was mildly interesting.
They don’t make ‘em like they used to:
If you poke around, you will see some oak here and there:
Aside from what was offered at the tasting, I didn’t drink anything else from this winery on my trip, so I don’t have a good feel for what they actually produce. I can say that, though, what was offered at the tasting didn’t evoke much of the Rioja region for me. Very nice wine, no doubt, but just didn’t hit me with the old-school, earthy, oakiness I associate with wines of this region. It tasted brand spanking new.
Sorry there aren’t more food pics, but I can’t help myself with these sights:
As touristy as it is, I still strongly recommend going to the famous wine museum in Briones, Dinastia Vivanco – Museo de la Cultura del Vino
. I had an absolute gas walking around this museum with my headphones on (audio-tour) learning about the history of wine making in this region. And it sure gets you thirsty to go slurping around.
Fun for the kids !
Unlike Marques de Riscal, I enjoyed many good wines from Muga
in the town of Haro, and was excited to pay them a visit to see how these luscious wines were made.
This traditional bodega still makes terrific wine according to their age-old methods, and have their own cooperage to make their own vats and casks by hand (though they do outsource some of it).
A great season:
The other bodega in Haro which was a requisite visit was Lopez de Heredia
, pretty much across the street from Muga.
These guys are even more traditional than Muga and everything is done strictly the way it was when it was first opened over 130 years ago.
Their hand-crafted wines were some of my favourites of the trip.
Barrels made by hand:
Down where the juice takes a rest:
A long rest:
Some of the bottles from which I did not drink:
The above shot is from the family’s special reserve collection where there are bottles from when the place opened. None of these are for sale, and many wealthy individuals have visited, offering wads of cash for a bottle, but the family always refuses.
Speaking of the family, this bodega is still very much family-run. The old man, the grandson of the founder, is essentially the boss, but has a couple of daughters, one an attorney who does PR stuff, another who is in charge of operations, and an engineer son who oversees the technical aspects. A pretty good, complimentary breed.
As I was leaving Muga earlier in the day, I spotted an old man walking down the street with a broom, sweeping the streets of Haro:
My tour-guide told me: “You see that man. That is the owner of Lopez de Heredia. He is a millionaire, yet he is like a little boy.”
Now it’s not quite like seeing Bill Gates sweep the streets of downtown Seattle, but this was still a pretty cool sight to see. He was a really nice guy, I think. I didn’t understand a word he said, but he grabbed my cheeks and patted me on the head like a son. I proposed the idea of adoption, but dammit, still haven’t gotten the hang of Castellano.
The old man is staunchly opposed to any kind of modernization of the winery, yet the kids were able to convince him to permit Pritzker prize-winning architect, Zaha Hadid, to design the new tasting pavilion. I was comforted by the fact that, prior to the re-design, the bodega was already unable to meet demand, and still are, but most importantly, while they have put a slick spin on their appearance, the wine-making method has not changed a bit.
Up until now, aside from the txorizo and morcilla and jamon, I had been pretty much eating fish and seafood exclusively. But Riojan food is very much about meat. Some classic Riojan food includes: chuletillas al sarmiento
(lamb chops grilled over grapevines), patatas a la Riojana
(stew of potatoes, txorizo, peppers, garlic and onions), cordero lechal
(roast suckling milk-fed lamb), cabrito asado
(roasted goat), pochas
(white bean stew with txorizo), bacalao
a la Riojana (bacalao cooked with red peppers and tomatoes), pencas
(swiss chard in a cream sauce) among many others.
My first night in town in Laguardia, I actually ended up at my hotel restaurant (Villa de Laguardia), partly because I was pooped, and partly because I’d heard they had a great wine list. Ahhhh, just about every place around here has a great wine list, as I quickly found out. This was probably the only meal of the trip that I thought lacked any soul. Bacalao croquette:
I don’t remember the last time I sent a dish back to the kitchen, but after eating so well all along this trip, I guess I was starting to get a bit cocky. And this plate of pochas just didn’t have any heart and soul in it (which is an unjustice to this dish in particular). And this was like Oscar Meyer txorizo which broke my heart. Pochas:
This was some mish-mash hash of mushrooms, cheese, jamon, egg and straw potatoes:
And then a simple grilled skewer of monkfish and bacon-wrapped shrimp:
I had much better luck at an unsuspecting little place located beside a gas station, which came recommended to me by way of Rafa. Las Postas
is run by a friendly, English-speaking guy, Ramon, who spent some years in the US playing professional jai alai. They have a very nice menu and Ramon is happy to recommend one of many local Laguardia wines (there are over 50 bodegas in Laguardia alone), all at very reasonable prices.
Amuse of red pepper “pudding”, more like a terrine, as there seemed to be some kind of animal fat holding it together:
An excellent salad with warmed goat cheese and a beet dressing:
I was again reminded of how seriously all the people take their food when Ramon quite gravely said to me after dropping off the salad: “Please can I ask you for a favour ? Can you please cut up the cheese and mix up the salad – it is much better eaten that way.” I had no plans to eat it otherwise, but had to smile, knowing that it would have sincerely pained Ramon to have watched me eat it improperly.
Next up was kokotxas de bacalao en salsa verde
As I said earlier, kokotxas
make a good, rich sauce, and this plate was swimming in it. This is a dish very similar to the classic Basque dish, bacalao al pil pil
(which is featured a bit later), in that the thick & gelatinous sauce comes from little more than fish fat and olive oil. Most chefs add their own little spin to the sauce, and Ramon tells me that his ‘secret’ is the addition of a little bit of juice from a can of Navarra white asparragus.
One of my favourite desserts (and one that I would like to replicate here but don’t know how) was cuajada
. Las Postas’ was above average. Chuletillas al sarmiento
(lamb chops grilled over grapevines) is a classic Riojan dish, however, recent regulations requiring that this method be conducted outdoors has led many restaurants to discontinue it in lieu of an indoor gas-grilled version. There are still a few places that cook it in the traditional manner, unfortunately I did not make to any of them.
I did sample a bit more classic Riojan fare though, again at Las Postas (my only repeat-visit of the trip, excluding bars, of course).Swiss chard stocks stuffed with ham & cheese, and ‘souffle’ made with leeks and shrimp:
Can’t tell from the photo, but these lamb chops were very tender and flavourful. Chuletillas de cordero a la brasa:
This is a place that deserves far more than just a couple of days.