A vine romance in Rioja country

Sat, Sep 25, 2010, 01:00

Unlike some parts of Spain, the tourist doesn’t rule the roost in the Rioja region – the wine people, the hunters and the farmers do. But they’ll be delighted to let you have a long, languorous look, writes MAL ROGERS

THE WINE-WAITER in Laguardia-Biasteri told me he’d lost his Sommelier’s Gold Badge. Summarily stripped off him. Ay Dios mio!

What on earth could he have done to merit such a dishonour? Maybe someone had asked him for a red wine and he’d said – as once happened to me in Armagh – “I’m afraid we don’t have any red wine. Would a white wine with a wee spot of blackcurrant in it do ye?” Or had he done something even worse – tried to pass off a Burgundy as a Rioja? Told someone that the Marqués de Riscal Rioja reserva was best tasted “straight from the bottle”?

As it turned out, no. What Txe-Txe Etxberria had meant was that he’d physically lost his badge – along with jacket, scarf and beret – at a party following a local pelota match. Victories in pelota (akin to Irish handball) are celebrated hereabouts with partying, music, fireworks and general licentiousness. Defeats are celebrated in similar fashion.

The sport, also known as Jai Alai, grips the Basque country in much the same way that hurling obsesses Kilkenny, perhaps even more so. Proust has rarely been invoked with relation to the Cats, but in the seminal work on pelota, Olatz González Abrisketa, wrote: “The pelota court, like Proust’s madeleine, contains within itself the collective memory of the Basques.”

You’ll see pelota courts everywhere, from modern stadia bristling with glass and aluminium, to gabled walls surrounding a paved courtyard. Just mind your jacket if you go along to any après match celebrations.

To recover, vineyards full of tempranillo grapes, plus well-filled glasses of Rioja crianza, beckon. In the Rioja Alavesa, where most people depend on wine to earn their keep, ample opportunities exist to go wandering through vines and bodegas. The Wine Route runs through some 13,500 hectares of vineyards, passing some 400 wineries and dozens of medieval villages en route.

The bodegas come in every shape and size. Even seasoned travellers might find themselves gasping – or uttering a well known Anglo-Saxon imprecation – on catching sight of the futuristic lines of the Marqués de Riscal winery.

Designed by Canadian architect Frank Gehry – Bilbao Guggenheim fame – the titanium-clad curves of the bodega overlook the ancient vineyards of Elciego. The vast swirl of metal ribbons, in pink, purple, gold and silver, crown a sandstone building that houses the extensive wine cellars of the Marqués.

You might think it looks like a giant, discarded sweetie wrapper; or maybe a vast swirling flamenco dancer, with the building’s curves underlining the soul and poetry and sexiness of Spain.

After you’ve gawped, and finally made up your own mind, you can take a tour of the adjoining 19th century wine cellars and tasting rooms.

THE MARQUIS de Riscal’s place isn’t the only trophy architecture about. On the plain far below Laguardia-Biasteri, a red, dusty road leads through immaculately-tended ranks of vines to an impressive cedarwood and aluminium building. Inside is every bit as outré.

Designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava (of the James Joyce Bridge, Dublin fame), Ysios is owned by Domecq. Your €6 admission fee will get you a tour round the complete works. You’ll learn all about harvesting, fermentation, pressing, blending, fining – and the many other arcane processes required to produce a wine that’ll get you there.

Roberto, our guide, dispensed facts with ease, and spent some time trying to explain clarification. It seems that “fining agents” include egg whites, and even isinglass obtained from the bladders of fish. So if you thought a bottle of wine was the finest vegetarian meal in town, time for a rethink.

But talk of impurities always carries a resonance of the great scandal in Austria where winemakers were caught putting anti-freeze into the wine. As the estimable Scottish comedian Chic Murray put it: “Och, we’ve been drinking antifreeze in Scotland for years. It’s just we never thought of adding wine to it.” It lost something in translation.

Before whisking us up to the tasting room, Roberto took us to the main cellar. The great oaken doors were opened with a flourish. A choir of angels moment. A start-of-Carmina-Burana opportunity. The lights came on in the great cellar, to reveal more than 3,000 barrels of red Rioja wine. Immodestly breathtaking (like Spain and the Spanish in general, I suppose).

Long avenues of cooperage are stacked with American, French and Hungarian oak barrels. And you know where they send ‘em when they’re done with them? That’s right – Ireland and Scotland for whiskey making. International co-operation is sometimes a joy to behold.

Outside, under relentlessly blue skies, the vineyards stretch towards the Cantabrian mountains, interspersed with lovely rose bushes. Decoration? Devil a bit. They operate as an early warning system. Apparently if mildew threatens, it attacks the roses about three days before going for the vines. Preventative action is duly taken.

Should you fancy buying anything in excess of 30 cases of wine, Ysios will keep them ageing in their cellars for you – you might even get a billet beside the Guggenheim stash. I had a peek behind the heavy iron grill guarding their purchases. Looked as if there were far more than 30 cases in their little “nicho”. Could explain the post-futuristic nature of some of their exhibits up the road in Bilbao. But that’s not for me to say, naturally.

Ysios will tailor your trip to your own specifications – you can go round individually, with a group, have business meetings, or perhaps hold a small party for yourself and 200 of your friends. You can even have your wedding here, should you wish to get married life off to a rollicking start.

The first thing I do when visiting a museum or art gallery is to have a close look at the visitors’ book. Museums in former Communist areas are usually terrific value. The vitriol poured out in the pages, more often than not accusing the museum curators of rewriting history, is as instructive as any exhibits you’re likely to come across.

Not much ill-feeling at Ysios at all. But in amongst the compliments, “ Me ha gustado mucha”, and “ Gracias por la visita”, (basically, “What’s not to like?”) was a tiny little entry in black ink which read: “What a wonderful place! I enjoy it every day. Have been hiding behind the bottles for years. Lord Lucan.” You know, it might just be true.

TO BE HONEST, you only need to do a couple of bodega tours. Wine-making is not a terribly dynamic process. Grapes usually ferment in huge aluminium yokes that look like spaceships awaiting take-off. But not much happens.

A tour depends on the guide – if they only have a nodding acquaintance with English and your relationship with Spanish is something similar, then you’re going to have pretty much a dialogue of the deaf.

However, there’s one cellar you shouldn’t miss, in the town of Laguardia-Biasteri. Now, while I wouldn’t definitely declare Laguardia as my new favourite European town, let’s just say the heat is on for Medina Sidonia in Andalusia, and Kandersteg in the Bernese Alps.

If you want to get an idea of what Laguardia-Biasteri looked like way back in the 13th century, it’s easy. Just stroll outside. Everything one demands from medieval towns is present and correct: town gates, narrow cobbled streets, mysterious little bars, diffuse street lamps, and honey-coloured sandstone buildings.

Cars are banned on account of the number of cellars underneath the narrow winding alleyways. A network of bodegas extends to almost every house inside the town’s old walls – each is connected to at least one other neighbouring house via an underground cellar.

One of these, La Casa Primicia Bodega, is likely the oldest building in town. History spills out of Spain’s attic here: the church used to raise its taxes in the bodega, partly to bankroll a crusade to omni-coveted Jerusalem (thank goodness that’s sorted out). Today you can visit the casa’s ancient cellars, go wine-tasting, buy a few cases of Rioja, or have a lunch that lasts till sunset.

If you’ve had enough wine – and you probably have – Laguardia-Biasteri is a good place to mount any expeditionary force into the Cordillera Cantábrica. In this area, known as the Sierra de Toloño, the mountains aren’t particularly high, but because we’re pretty close to sea level we’re getting bang for buck; plum for peseta. Most of their thousand or so metres are on full show. A network of trails – once used by pilgrims en route to Santiago de Compostela – thread their way through the mountains.

The Cantabrian mountains are also home to the Cantabrian brown bear, Ursus arctos pyrenaicus, so any walk in the woods could prove, well, whether the Pope is a Catholic or not. In this area also look out for golden eagle, peregrine falcon and Egyptian vultures. It’s prime bull-running country too, so if you pass a field full of fierce-looking creatures, you may be sure very few of them are bluffing.

Eagles, bears, vultures – even wolves – this is wild Iberia writ large. Unlike some parts of Spain, the tourist doesn’t rule the roost here – the wine people, the hunters, the farmers do. But they’ll be delighted to let you have a long, languorous look.

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Where to stay and eat in Rioja

Where to stay

Hotel Los Agustinos. San Agustin, Haro, 00-34-941-311308, hotellosagustinos.com. Haro’s annual wine festival features locals holding a wine battle – a sort of “Running of the Grapes”. The four-star hotel is set in a 14th-century convent, guaranteeing cloistered luxury. Double rooms from €180.

Marqués de Riscal Hotel. Calle Torrea, Elciego, 00-34-945-180880, starwoodhotels.com. The top drawer digs in the region. Part of the Marqués de Riscal bodegas, the avant-garde architecture outside gives way to post-modern furnishings inside. The spa offers grape-based treatments in barrel-shaped baths. Doubles from €270.

Where to eat

Restaurante Biazteri. Calle Mayor, Laguardia-Biasteri, 00-34-945-600026, biazteri.com. Located in the heart of Laguardia-Biasteri, this is one of the oldest establishments in town. Food is traditional, with a wide range of pintxos (Basque version of tapas) served with nonchalant sophistication. A full sampling menu with wine for €35.

Restaurante Marixa. Sancho Abarca 8, Laguardia-Biasteri, 00-35-945-600165, restaurantemarisa.com. The Acillona family has run this restaurant since 1954 and they certainly seem to have got the hang of it. Specialising in glorious Basque-Rioja dishes, game and roasts are the stars. But if you believe that main courses are merely a necessary penance before you get to the pudding, then you’ve hit pay dirt. The pear and sultana strudel served with pistachio and vanilla ice cream is enough to win the Man-Booker Prize for Desserts, should there be one. Mains around €11.

Mayor de Migueloa. 20 de la Calle Mayor, Laguardia-Biasteri, 00-34-945-621175, mayordemigueloa.com. With a full cellar of bottles underneath, you can rely on the wine list to provide the very best of crianza, reserva and gran reserva Rioja. Plus, of course, Basque food

leaping with flavour – the tortilla weighed the same as liquid cement, and tasted delicious. For loads of tapas and ample wine expect to pay about €35.