The Land of a Thousand Wines

     Happy Halloween!

     This evening, if your neighborhood is like most neighborhoods, it will become the land of a thousand costumes.

     At first, the kids will be cute. As the evening wears on, and as the kids get tired, they might become a bit annoying.


     And at some point, a group of “kids” who are taller than you will arrive at the door… signaling that it’s time to turn out the lights and put away the Jack-o-lantern for another year.

     At that point, you’ll be wishing you were anywhere but your own home, and hoping the dimmed lights will keep any remaining kids from knocking on your door.

     To relieve the stress, how about joining us on a vicarious trip to Rioja? After surviving the evening of a thousand costumes, you deserve an excursion to the land of a thousand wines…


     “Few countries hold on to and nurture their traditions so tenderly or so enthusiastically as Spain. Tradition and modernity somehow manage to fit snugly together.”

     So wrote Giles Tremett in “Ghosts of Spain: Travels Through Spain and its Silent Past” (Walker & Co., 2006).

     Today’s Rioja region of Spain is a study in contrasts, a winemaking area firmly rooted in its storied past, even as it leaps confidently toward the future. Part of what makes Rioja so compelling for wine lovers is the fact that these contrasts coexist without contradiction.

     Denominacion de Origen Calificada Rioja, as the wine region is officially known, is a uniquely Spanish phenomenon: both a living summation of a rich cultural heritage and a land in a constant state of evolution. Protected by mountains on its northern and southern flanks, Rioja’s upper Ebro basin extends eastward toward the Mediterranean Sea like a giant inverted “V.”

     A contiguous and self-contained wine kingdom unto itself, Rioja’s geological, topographical and climatic traits are ideally suited to quality viticulture.

     Despite age-old internal political divisions, the valley is unified by an ancestral dedication to the vine, a dominant black grape variety (Tempranillo), and a local gastronomy whose flavors are the muse of the wines of the region.

     Officially divided into three sub-zones – Rioja Alta, Rioja Baja and Rioja Alavesa – this 150,000-acre realm includes hundreds of unofficial subdivisions that create a colorful array of distinct viticultural principalities governed by terruno, or terroir.

     The vast majority of the region’s bodegas practice traditional grape-sourcing, typically purchasing grapes from growers from all over the region and blending them to create a house style. The result is an abundance of uncharted micro-vineyard distinctions and a seemingly limitless variety of styles and flavors.

     The winemaker’s touch adds the final component to this portrait of diversity and harmony of contrasts. Vineyard management, grape provenance, yeast variety, choice of oak (American, French, Central European, Russian), time in barrel, final blend, etc. all play critical roles in the ultimate style of the wine.

     Where once traditional Rioja lovers feared the end of the historically classic style (long aging in American oak, sublime secondary and tertiary aromas, adherence to traditional age designations), Rioja’s historic styles now are more popular than ever, tempering the rush toward extraction for extraction’s sake. This pendulum-like evolution in the region continues to add nuance to the picture.

     Instead of, “Is it modern or traditional?” the question, increasingly, has become: “Is it a good wine or an exceptional wine?” Heightened awareness and comparative tastings have shed renewed light on the careful winemaking and commitment to site-specific expression that underlie the region’s new generation of wines.

     With centuries of wine culture in its veins, a rich palette of terrunos in its arsenal, and such extraordinary diversity of styles available on the market, Spain’s premier winemaking region offers limitless opportunities to discover the new face of Rioja.

     The Hotel Victoria makes a great home base for a Rioja wine expedition, and its on-site restaurant provides all of the wonderful food flavors of the region: “Special Reserve” Iberian ham… quail salad in a quail vinaigrette… anglerfish with Carril clams in a seafood sauce… vegetable skewers…sponge cake with ice cream, fruit and a meringue mountain flame…

     There are myriad other hotels and B&B-style inns that also offer fine accommodations for five perfect days in Rioja:

    * Day 1 – Arrive in Bilbao via Madrid, Barcelona or Paris. Visit the Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim Museum, followed by tapas in old Bilbao.

     Spend a night in one of Bilbao’s charming inns or modern hotels near the Guggenheim.

     * Days 2-3 – Drive to Rioja. Stay in the walled city of LaGuardia or the parador in the wine city of Haro. Spend a day visiting wineries and new architectural wine palaces, followed by a tapas crawl on Logrono’s famous Calle Laurel.

     Don’t miss dining at the Michelin-starred El Portal de Echaurren in the resort town of Ezcaray, or one of the region’s many steak houses known as asadors, where grilling meats is an art. Spend a half-day at Rioja’s spectacular Museum of Wine Culture near Briones.

     * Days 4-5 – Drive to Europe’s food capital, San Sebastian, where great eating and drinking are a lifestyle. This beachside resort’s restaurants have more Michelin stars per capita than any city in the world.

     Work up your appetite with a walk on one of Europe’s most beautiful beaches or climb nearby hills. Then set yourself loose on the miles of tapas bars that line the streets. Plan your meals carefully because you’ll want to try one of the region’s famous restaurants, traditional eateries or seaside fish restaurants.

     All of them have an amazing array of wines from their favorite region: the magnificently diverse Rioja.


Hotel Victoria

Paseo de la Constitucion, 97

26580 Arnedo (La Rioja)


Guggenheim Museum

El Portal de Echaurren

General Tourism

Posted in Our Wine Travel Log
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