Rioja

Tibby and I joined a trip organised by Arblaster and Clarke ( www.winetours.co.uk ) on a walking trip of the winelands of Rioja in Northern Spain from Sunday 9th October to Saturday 15th October 2011. We flew to Zaragoza four days earlier on 5th October and made our way via Pamplona and San Sebastian to meet the group in Bilbao. The trip was a great success as we thoroughly enjoyed the place, the wine, the winelands, the walking, the food and the other members of our group.

The Area

The wine area of Rioja is located in Northern Spain about 100kms south of the Atlantic town of Bilbao over the Sierra de Cantabria mountain range. Confusingly the wine area of Rioja includes the province of La Rioja and parts of neighbouring Alava and Navarra provinces. The Rioja wine area accounts for about 1% of the size of Spain and is 100kms at its widest from east to west and about 40kms from north to south. Most of the area is at an altitude of between 400m to 600m above sea level. The wine area is divided into Rioja Alvaesa, north of the Ebro River, Rioja Alta in the west (south of the Ebro and west of Logrono, the capital of La Rioja province) and Rijoa Baja, east of Logrono. We spent most of our time in Rioja Alvaesa and did two walks in Rioja Alta. We did not go into Rioja Baja. Haro is on the Ebro River and is the main wine town but there are villages every few kilometres and in the north west area, where we were, there are many wineries close to each other.

Time of the year

I suspect that our visit in October is the best time to be in the region. We had extraordinary weather with sunshine every day. The temperatures rose from around 14°C at dawn to between 25°C and 30°C by 15h00. It was also harvest time so we saw grapes being picked, transported from the fields and being delivered to the wineries.

The Group Leader

Our tour was led by Marina Grijalba Aranzubia aged 34.

Except for her university studies and about two years abroad she has lived her whole life in the Rioja area. Several generations of her family have been involved in the wine industry and her father and brother still make a living by growing grapes which they sell to wineries. A highlight of the tour was harvesting grapes under her guidance and then going to her family cellar, in Fuenmayor, where we drew wine from barrels from the 2009 and 2010 harvests and then bottled and labelled our own personal bottle of wine. She had worked for eight years at Muga, a large winery in Haro, and knows wines, winemaking and the wines of Rioja very well.

Her English was excellent, even managing to understand our curious humour. She was fit and led the walks well. She was well organised, was able to adjust the programme when necessary, was clear about what we were going to do and was sensitive to the needs of individual group members. Her website is at: http://www.riojatrek.com/en/ .

Our Group

Our group of thirteen all came from the UK and were delightful. They were all in their fifties and sixties and seventies, had lots of life experience and humour and were lovely company. We got to know each other as we walked. The group comprised:

Christopher from Cambridge

Tom and Jane from Bath

 

Tom and Andrew harvesting grapes

Megan from The New Forest

Celia from Cambridge

A different view of Celia

Patrick from Exeter

Andrew and Linda from Epping

Jane, Linda, Andrew, Patrick and Megan

Peter, Peter and Peter from Bridgnorth

Wine and wineries

Rioja produces about 460 million bottles of wine from about 330 wineries and 70,000 hectares of vineyards. Red wine accounts for 90% of the production with white and rose accounting for the rest. Wine has been grown in the area for hundreds of years but many of the wineries were only developed in the 1980’s and 1990’s. The Denomination of Origin of Rioja (DOC) was only created in 1991.

Between 70% and 100% of most Rioja red wines come from Tempranillo grapes which also account for 75% of the vineyards. The remaining red grapes are Garnacha, Graciano and Mazuelo. The main white grapes are Viura and Malvasia.

The Rioja DOC Board requires all wines in the area to be classified into four classifications. The ageing rules relating to red wines are:

Unclassified or Jovin (Young)

Crianza: At least two years old with at least one year in casks

Reserva: At least three years old with at least one year in casks

Gran Reserva: At least five years old with at least two years in casks

Some of the winemakers in Rioja are finding the detailed rules of the DOC too restrictive and are producing wines which they consider to be more modern but which do not meet the classification rules. These wines are being left unclassified and could be mistaken for a young wine except for the vintage on the bottle and the generally high price. Examples of these (from the list below) include Izadi Orben, Contino Vina del Oliva, Benjamin Romeo Predicador and Larraz Caudum.

A winery is called a bodega in Spain. Most of the bodegas buy grapes from growers but some only grow their own grapes. The bodegas range from small family run operations to huge corporations. Some of the winemakers insist on very traditional processes and equipment while others insist on the very latest high specification equipment. There is an increasing wish in the winemaking process for more information, with records being kept of dates, quantities and up to eight chemical tests by field within a vineyard. Most of the harvest arrives at the bodegas in trailers pulled by tractors but there is an increasing use of the better grapes being collected at harvest in 12kg or 20kg crates to prevent the grapes being crushed. One winemaker even separates the top half of the bunch, which has received more sun, from the bottom half and processes them into different wines.

We visited the following bodegas and tasted the listed wines:

Bodega Near Town Wine

Year

Best
David Moreno Badaran White

2010

Reserva

2004

Crianza

2008

Florentino Martinez Cordovin White

2010

(did not visit the bodega) Clarette Rose

2010

Crianza

2007

Reserva

2001

Remelluri Labastida Reserva

2006

Reserva

2004

Gran Reserva

1999

Muga Haro Crianza

2007

Prado Enea Gran Reserva

2004

Izadi Eskuernaga White

2010

Reserva

2006

Orben

2006

Torre de Ona Paganos Finca San Martin Crianza

2008

Torre de Ona Reserva

2007

Remirez de Ganuza Samaniego Erre Punto White

2009

Fincas de Ganuza Reserva

2005

Contino Laserna White

2010

Rose

2008

Reserva

2005

Garnacha – all sold to one
buyer

2008

Vina del Oliva

2007

We also tasted wines at dinner

Sunday dinner at Echaurren

Lacus Aldeanueva de Ebro Inedito White

2010

Benjamin Romeo San Vicente de la Sonsierra Predicador

2008

Larraz  Cenicero Caudum

2007

Valenciso  Haro Reserva Magnum

2002

Thursday dinner at Palacio de Samaniego

Ostatu Samaniego White

2010

Remirez de Ganuza Samaniego Ere Punto Red

2010

Campillo  Laguardia  Crianza

2005

Friday dinner at Palacio de Samaniego

Vina Real Laguardia Crianza

2008

Manuel Quintano Bastida Reserva

2001

So we tasted 32 wines from 16 wineries. I found seven of those wines to be exceptional but I am afraid that the prices of those wines puts them out reach what I am prepared to pay for wines. The Contino Vina del Oliva is offered by Waitrose at £38 per bottle.

I visited seven wineries. The group also visited Baigorri in Samaniego (I could not face another tasting) which was described as being very high tech. We should have visited Florentino Martinez but we were told that they were too busy with the harvest and so we tasted their wines in a bar. I was disappointed in this and felt that an alternative tour should have been arranged. Together with the visit to Marina’s family winery the schedule was two winery visits a day for the main five days of the tour.

Marina's Family Bodega

I was interested to see that the wine tourism business is developing fast and that a private individual could have a wine tasting and cellar tour at most of these wineries at a cost of between Euro 5 and Euro 15 per person. It would be advisable to call ahead because some prefer appointments.

Inevitably the cellar tours are all very similar. It is, however, normally interesting to see large collections of barrels and bottles. The biggest winery that we visited was Muga who have 14,000 barrels in their cellars.

Muga's cellar

I particularly enjoyed visiting their cooper’s workshop where the barrel making process was shown to us.

Muga's Cooper's Workshop

I was fascinated by the process of heating the staves over a fire to allow them to be bent into the barrel shape. This fire also ‘toasts’ the inside of the barrel. The degree of toasting is a science in itself because it affects the taste of the wine.

Examples of different barrel toasts

The harvest is the busiest time of the year for the wineries and some like, Florentino Martinez, do not want visitors at that time. However, the harvest makes the whole environment more interesting with pickers in the fields, tractors with trailers of grapes on the roads and grapes being received, destemmed, selected and starting the winemaking process. I found it interesting at David Moreno to taste one day old must and eight days old wine which were very sweet and not nice tasting respectively.

Grapes on their way from field to winery

 

Grapes arriving at Muga

The best winery experience for me was Contino. We arrived early after a long walk on a beautiful sunny day and stood on the lawn tasting their lovely 2010 white and their 2008 Rose, which is not for sale to the public, while we nibbled on chorizo and cheese.

We looked over their vineyards which are surrounded by an oxbow bend in the Ebro River. The winemaker led us through the old cellars talking about his priorities in the making of the wine, and then took us back to the lawn to taste three more of his beautiful wines. This was a special experience which, I suspect, is not available to the public.

The bodegas are also interesting for those with an interest in architecture. Some are functional buildings. Some are built around beautiful country houses. Some new buildings have been built to match the old buildings nearby. And several have commissioned well known architects to design very modern and striking buildings.

Ysios Winery

 

Baigorri Winery

 

Walking

This was both a wine and walking holiday. We did the following walks:

Day From To Kms
Sunday Ezcaray Zaldiena and back

10

Monday San Millan de la Cogolla Badaran

8

Tuesday Salinillas Labastida

8

Wednesday Atralos Villabuena de Alva

7

Thursday Samaniego Paganos

8

Friday Laguardia Laserna

14

Total

55

 

In general this was easy walking with most of the way being on farm roads and half of those being gravel roads. I was disappointed on Sunday that the 5kms return from Zaldiena was entirely on a busy tarmac road. The first three walks were in pretty countryside generally away from vineyards.

The best walk of the week for me was on Tuesday when we walked over a small mountain pass with wonderful views.

On the last three days we were in the middle of vineyards and little villages for most of the time which was delightful at any time, but especially in harvest time.

 

The scenery was beautiful with undulating hills to walk in and mountains in the distance.

Marina had planned the walks so that our destination was always a winery. On Friday the last few kilometres to Contino was alongside the pretty Ebro River.

The Camino de Santiago or The Way of St James is the pilgrimage route to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia in northwestern Spain, where tradition has it that the remains of the apostle Saint James are buried. It has been a pilgrimage route for hundreds of years but has become increasingly popular with 100,000 people walking part of the trail each year recently. We recently enjoyed the movie ‘The Way’ in which Martin Sheen plays Tom, an American doctor who unexpectedly walks the Camino, after the death of his adult son, which then has a profound impact on his view of life. There are several routes to the Camino but the most used is the 800km route from St Jean in France near the border with Spain. This route crosses La Rioja for 60kms through Logrono, Najera, Santo Domingo and on to Belorado. I would have loved to have walked along the Camino for a few hours.

 Food

Good wine and good food normally go together. We learnt that Northern Spain has a reputation for excellent food with San Sebastian being the food capital of Spain. We had five outstanding meals which were all organised as part of the tour.

The best meal for me was on the first night at the Michelin starred restaurant at our Hotel Echaurren in Ezcaray. The menu was:

Goat’s milk cheese terrine

My mother’s croquettes

Fish soup

Croaker with clams and wild mushrooms

Grandmother’s meat ball with truffles

Cameros cheese on warm toast with Reinette applea and honey ice cream

We had a very rustic meal in the dining room in the cellar of David Moreno with a heavy chorizo and potato stew, huge lumps of lamb and a type of milk bread pudding which I did not particularly enjoy.

We had a special lunch at Remelluri overlooking their vineyards. This included the most wonderful lamb cutlets which were cooked over a fire nearby.

We had a simpler but exquisite lunch at Torre de Ona in their beautiful dining room overlooking their cellar.

On the last two nights we ate in the restaurant at our hotel, Palacio de Samaniego,  where the owner, Jon Ugalde, is the chef.  Both meals were simple three course meals but each course was incredibly tasty with the steak on the Thursday night and the pork cheeks on the Friday night being very special.

I was looking forward to a picnic scheduled for Wednesday. This was pleasant but not special with bread rolls with a variety of interesting fillings, Marina’s grandmother’s chorizo, cheese and wine. The whole event was spoiled by the fact that the plan to have the picnic on the banks of the Ebro was unaccountably changed to a picnic spot next to a very busy road.

On the last day we were supposed to organise our own lunch in Laguardia but because the Contino tour had overrun we were pressed for time. Marina called ahead to a restaurant in Laguardia and organised a selection of tapas for us. We sat outside in beautiful weather and had a magnificent meal.

Hotels

We stayed at the following hotels:

Hotel Town Comment

On the tour

Echaurren Ezcaray Beautifully designed room but
slightly impractical
Los Agustinos Haro Beautiful building spoilt by
heavy wood décor and sulky staff
Palacio de Samaniego Samaniego Lovely room spoilt by lack of
electrical points and mirrors, non-working WiFi and badly performing shower

Before the tour

Diagonal Plaza Zaragoza Functional and soulless airport
hotel
Gran Hotel La Perla Pamplona Our best hotel on a lovely
square
Silken Gran Domine Bilbao Architecturally splendid
opposite Guggenheim Museum but with no fresh air in the room and very noisy
air con

 

Palacio de Samaniego

 

Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao

There was time on Sunday after the group was collected from Bilbao Airport to visit the Guggenheim Museum. The museum is an architectural wonder with an extraordinary shape, encased in shining titanium with magnificent display halls and spaces inside. Internally there is a three storey high central core atrium from which the building radiates out. Heights, views, angles and materials change unexpectedly and create a fascinating building. Unfortunately the contents are a different matter. I am a simpleton when it comes to art and I can find no redeeming features in most of the modern art in the museum. The only exhibit that I found interesting was The Matter of Time by Richard Serra which was made up of huge angled metal sheets in their largest dispaly room.

The Matter of Time Exhibit by Richard Serra

Zaragoza to Bilbao

Before we joined the trip we travelled 500kms from Zaragoza, through the edge of the Pyrenees, to Pamplona and on to San Sebastian and finally to Bilbao. I was surprised at how bleak and dry it was outside of Zaragoza. The foothills of the Pyrenees were pretty. Pamplona is attractive with an interesting cathedral but not worth staying too long. The road to San Sebastian was beautiful as was San Sebastian. We enjoyed walking along the river in Bilbao and had a lovely meal on a warm Saturday night on the pavement in the old town.

Highlights

The highlights of our lovely trip for me were:

  • Contino Wine Estate
  • Cooper’s workshop at Muga
  • The grape picking and wine bottling at Marina’s family bodega
  • Dinner at the Hotel Echaurren
  • The walk from Salinillas to Labastida over the mountain pass

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