Spanish secrets uncorked: The delights of Rioja are ripe for discovery by wine-lovers and foodies alike
Saturday 31 July 2010
Most hotels pride themselves on the view from the window, but at the Hotel Viura, in northern Spain's Rioja region, guests are just as likely to walk out of the door to gaze back at the building itself. It was inspired by a bunch of grapes, but there are no curved lines in sight. Imagine the grapes as rendered by Picasso after a few glasses of Tempranillo and you'd be closer to the higgledy-piggledy collection of cubes that make up the front of this new hotel.
Situated in the small medieval village of Villabuena de Alava, it certainly stands out as a surreal new arrival, but the juxtaposition of old and new works precisely because it is so dramatic. This boutique hotel – my base for a long weekend spent visiting wineries around Rioja – is part of a wider trend in the region for ultramodern wineries and hotels to spring up alongside the traditional bodegas.
Anyone with enough interest in architecture to know their Gaudi from their Gehry is bound to be intrigued by this juxtaposition, especially since many of the creations are so striking and playful. Frank Gehry first made his mark on the region in 1997 with the Guggenheim museum in Bilbao. In 2006, he followed this up with the Hotel Marques de Riscal, located in the medieval town of Elciego, also known as the "City of Wine". A square building covered in undulating sheets of coloured metal that seem to stream like silk and were apparently based on a flamenco dancer's skirt, it is distinctively Gehry. It stands in even greater contrast to the rows of twisted vines surrounding it than the Viura.
Fellow "starchitect" Zaha Hadid has also made an impression in Rioja with the shop and tasting room at the Lopez de Heredia winery. Viewed from the entrance it represents a white pod in the shape of a decanter, but within its space-age interior the old versus new theme continues with an elaborate wooden display stand made for the 1910 Brussels World Fair.
Such architectural pyrotechnics aren't just for show, though; they complement the wine-making process, which is after all the lifeblood of Rioja.
You might need to be a chemist or a serious wine buff to be interested in the minutiae of the latest methods used at Bodegas Baigorri, but the contrast between this slick glass box, which resembles a Bond villain's lair, and the more traditional charms of the wine company CVNE, with its Gustave Eiffel-designed cellar and scent of dust, wine and oak commingling in the air, is fascinating. Rioja's charm lies in its ability to respect and revere tradition while keeping it alive; amid such innovation there is still plenty of the ancient mystery and the romance of wine-making to be found.
One of the most intriguing places I visited was the "cemetery", or cellar, where CVNE keeps its oldest bottles of wine in storage. Eusebio and Raimundo Real de Asua, who founded the company in 1879, put thousands of bottles into the creepy catacombs – the walls lined with thick, furry mould because of the humidity – and said that if they were still alive in 100 years, they would drink them, before throwing the key into the nearby river. (The founders never got to discover which bottles aged well and which deteriorated; the "cemetery" stayed locked until 1979.)
The eeriness of the atmosphere, which is heightened by the historic corking devices in a nearby room that resemble torture instruments, put my guide on the wine tour into a reflective mood. He mused that "two bottles can be like brothers. They can start out the same, with the same parents, but they develop differently. Sometimes an old bottle will improve with age; sometimes it's undrinkable."
There's something about wine-tasting – and it's not just the alcohol – that brings out one's inner bar-room philosopher/poet. This only seems to be enhanced by the brooding, haunting quality that underlies this region, with its winding, deserted roads and sombre architecture set against the backdrop of the rocky Cantabria mountain range.
My final tasting came at the floridly named El Fabulista, found in the medieval walled town of Laguardia, where cars are banned to protect the network of underground cellars. These tunnels were originally used as places of sanctuary and for food storage, but gradually came to be used to store wine. At El Fabulista, the tasting took place in a low-ceilinged, dark tunnel seven metres underground. Claustrophobes might want to give it a miss, despite the lure of trying wine using traditionally trodden grapes.
Rioja may be famous for its wine, but the food in the region is just as good, and the comparison between traditional and modern just as apparent. At the Bodegas Baigorri I tried a tasting menu of aromatic truffle pâté, Riojan bean casserole, and Carrilera pork slow-cooked in Baigorri carbonic maceration red wine. Meanwhile, the food at the Hotel Viura is a modern take on traditional Riojan and Basque cuisine. On the first night, seated by the bar, I had an array of "haute" pintxos, including crab ravioli, cod and cheese-and-ham croquettes and serrano ham.
The following evening in the restaurant, with its old oak barrels suspended from the ceiling, I – there's no way to put this delicately – gorged on local dishes such as patatas a la riojana – potatoes with sliced chorizo, meat broth and Riojan-style Parma ham cut into strips – as well as rack of lamb with a herb tisane.
The wine list at Viura has more than 200 local wines, and José González Godoy, the charming sommelier, encourages guests to make bold choices. My favourite discovery was ice cider – drunk as a digestif – which is made from apples that are naturally frozen on the branch and tastes like a sweet, syrupy liqueur.
To compensate for all this gluttony, the Hotel Viura has bicycles that you can ride to the vineyards. On my visit, the bikes never quite made it out of the hotel. Sitting on the roof with a glass of Rioja, watching the swallows writing treble clefs against the dusk sky, seemed a much better use of my time.
Travel essentials: Rioja
* Viura, Calle Mayor s/n, Villabuena de Alava, Alava, Basque Country, Spain (00 34 945 60 90 00; hotelviura.com ). Double rooms start at €135, including breakfast. The hotel is offering a Viura Gourmet Experience, which costs €459 per room and includes two nights' accommodation with breakfast, a guided tour of two local wineries and a wine-tasting lunch or dinner.
* Spanish Tourist Office: 00 800 1010 5050; spain.info .
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