The Rioja Alavesa, in Spain’s Basque Country, boasts a great tradition of wine making since the time when the Romans came to this noble land. Today, thanks to the beauty of its surroundings and the great renown and quality of its wines, it has become one of the most celebrated wine regions of the world, where tradition coexists harmoniously with unstoppable modernity. It has around 12,000 inhabitants and some 400 wineries, which shows that, in one way or another, everyone is involved in the elaboration of excellent wines.
The Rioja Alavesa Wine Route was created ten years ago as a joint project to showcase the region’s tourist attractions, ancestral festivals, the magic beauty of its landscapes, and endless vineyards that exalt the cultural and architectural heritage of its prehistoric past; medieval villages alongside cutting-edge wineries designed by notable architects such as Santiago Calatrava (Bodegas Ysios), Iñaki Aspiazu (Bodegas Baigorri), Philippe Mazières (Bodegas Viña Real) and Pritzker Prize winner Frank Gehry (Hotel Bodega Marqués de Riscal).
A bright, vivid color, fine and elegant aroma, a fruity flavor and pleasant taste are some of the general characteristics of Rioja Alavesa wines, a sub-zone of the Rioja Denomination of Origin. With 34,000 acres of vineyards and hundreds of wineries, its average annual harvest is about 40 million liters of wine. The Rioja region produces mostly red wines with specific characteristics due to several factors, including the clay-calcareous soil, excellent to absorb the necessary moisture, and the weather and location of the vines behind the Sierra de Cantabria, which protects the vines from cold northern winds and allows them to make better use of the heat. The reds are the most representative wines of the region, made with tempranillo varieties (up to 79 percent), garnacha, mazuelo and graciano. The red of the year, also called young wine, is mild and palatable, and is coveted for its refinement. The reserve wines and the great reserves are of extreme quality, and their huge success is reflected on the wine lists of the best restaurants in the world.
There are many places to visit in the Rioja region, but these three should not be missed:
Laguardia is the region’s capital. A magical place with a walled city that sits majestically on top of a hill founded, in the 10th century, to defend the Kingdom of Navarre from the constant incursions of the Castillians. Its sublime historic and artistic beauty has been carefully preserved as it appeared during the Middle Ages. Its attractions include the fortified churches of San Juan Bautista and Santa María de los Reyes. The latter, dating from the 14th century, has an exceptional carved stone portico in excellent condition, which retains the original polychrome from the 17th century.
Labastida was the walled Kingdom of Navarre until 1200 when it passed into the hands of the Crown of Castile. Its medieval center shows the largest number of emblazoned manors across the region, built with stone masonry. Among them stands the chapel of Santo Cristo, a fortress-like building, and the home of Manuel Quintano, who, in the 18th century, introduced the winemaking techniques from Bordeaux, to the Spanish countryside.
From afar, you can descry the two uneven towers, in Gothic-Renaissance style that characterize the church of San Andrés. Its main square is distinguished by the presence of two noble buildings: the town hall, with a splendid imperial crest on its facade, and the shrine of Our Lady of the Plaza, with an 18th century octagonal floor plan. Elciego is also renowned for avant-garde architectural projects developed in the area by Frank Gehry.
Gastronomy is one of the great pillars of tourism in Rioja Alava, distinguished by typical Basque Rioja dishes as well as novel delicacies. The traditional recipes include potatoes with Rioja chorizo, roasted suckling lamb, lamb chops with “sarmiento”, fresh vegetables, beans, hake, steak, grilled blood sausage and many more. There is a wide range of options, ranging from the typical restaurants with traditional dishes, to those with more creative cuisines, and tapas bars known as txocos, which offer excellent examples of haute cuisine in miniature. However, the options don’t end here: they also include wineries, some with restaurant service, where you can enjoy lunch or dinner among the wine barrels.
You will find numerous luxury hotels in the Rioja region. The most distinguished is, without a doubt, the Hotel Marques de Riscal in Elciego, a fine example of Gehry´s talent, which makes a unique opportunity to stay inside a superb work of art. There is also the sumptuous Hotel Villa de Laguardia, in the town of the same name. Since it is located among the vineyards, wine becomes the protagonist of each of the treatments offered in its luxurious spa. The modern Hotel Viura, in Villabuena de Alava, is an excellent option for those who love innovative and cutting edge design. Created by Designhouses, with the collaboration of architect Beatríz Pérez Echazarreta, the hotel is a cubist dream that could have been imagined by Picasso himself. ■