Rioja is the cashmere of the wine world and a visit to the region is worth the trip. Raymond Blake shares some travel tips
There is no more ‘friendly’ wine than red Rioja. In his latest book, World of Wine, Oz Clarke – surely the world’s greatest wine taster – writes of the first Rioja red wines he tasted, “… the wonderful flavour of strawberry and blackcurrant swathed in soft, buttery vanilla… So soft, so enjoyable. Red wine wasn’t supposed to be this irresistible, this easy to understand.” And that is the key to red Rioja. It is a comforting wine. Where others challenge the taste buds with arresting flavours, good Rioja caresses like a cashmere scarf on a winter’s day.
As with many other wine regions, Rioja is now open to tourism in a way that was unthinkable as recently as the turn of this century. To fully understand the wine, the region it comes from and the people who make it, a visit is essential. Read on for some top tips to enhance a visit.
Despite the worldwide renown of chefs such as Ferran Adrià and Juan Mari Arzak, Spanish gastronomy still marches in the main to a hearty ‘n’ wholesome beat; finesse and delicacy of execution are the exceptions, not the rule. And a marvellous exception is the one-star Michelin restaurant Venta Moncalvillo in Daroca de Rioja. Gastronomic sorcery is the order of the day here. Each dish is remarkably inventive and from the wine list there will always, repeat always, be a wine to match. The cellar is one of the finest in Spain, with a huge selection of aged Riojas, as well as countless other treasures from around the globe.
When it comes to wine museums I confess to a mild allergy, as many of them are sterile collections of objects and artefacts that struggle to engage the visitor. Not so in the Museo Vivanco de la Cultura del Vino. There is an extraordinary private collection attached to the winery of the same name not far from Logroño. Massive wine presses vie for your attention with a corkscrew collection that runs into the thousands, but it is the exquisite glassware and silverware displays that cause you to linger long and marvel at the craftsmanship involved in their creation. Not to be missed.
If boutique hotels with a home-from-home ambience rock your boat, then look no further than the Hotel Teatrisso in Cuzcurrita del Río Tirón. Each room is individually decorated according to a cinematic theme and it is run with aplomb by husband and wife team, Laura and Jose López San Pedro – she front of house and he producing delectable meals from the kitchen. The welcome would rival the warmest of Irish welcomes.
Take a tour
As a tour guide, Marina Grijalba Aranzubía is amongst the best. Personable, friendly and knowledgeable yet never overbearing nor fussy. She wears her knowledge lightly and imparts it in easily assimilated increments and not the monotone torrent favoured by less able practitioners who sometimes diminish rather than enhance a tour. Should you wish to visit the Yuso and Suso monasteries, both UNESCO World Heritage sites, be sure to book a tour with her at www.riojatrek.com
If you think a balloon ride consists solely of languid gliding across the landscape, think again. With the people from www.foodieandtours.com, our adventure started with the basket placed on its side as two massive fans filled the balloon and myself and three colleagues crouched in it, like dogs in a kennel, acting as ballast. We finished on our side as well, having walloped the ground on landing; limbs akimbo but with all bones intact and only dignity shaken. Between the two was peace and serenity as we glided a couple of thousand feet above the ground. It’s not for the faint hearted but highly recommended for those sound in wind and limb.
Rioja’s reputation rests almost exclusively on the quality of its red wines, though there is more white produced than many people realise. Traditionally, it was a wine of character and substance, one of the most distinctive wines on the planet, capable of ageing for decades and equally capable of dividing wine drinkers into fiercely loyal fans and others who couldn’t abide the stuff, with no hope of reconciliation between the two. Today, much of what is produced has shed tradition in favour of a featureless and bland style that excites no such passions in wine lovers. Nicely chilled, it is a safe, soft option on a sunny day. Look out, however, for glorious exceptions such as Marqués de Murrieta, Castillo Ygay Gran Reserva Especial and López de Heredia, Viña Tondonia Gran Reserva.
Aer Lingus flies direct, Dublin-Bilbao. Raymond Blake was a guest of Spanish Tourism and La Rioja tourist board. Photography with thanks to Rioja Tourism Board.