Rioja Alta

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This article by Vicent Micou is a participant in the 2015 Guest Bloggers' Competition sponsored by the Great Wine Capitals Global Network.

All photographs by Vincent Micou.

At just more than 2 hours from France, and 4 and half hours from Bordeaux, the autonomous community of Rioja is unrecognized by the French, and even less by Bordeaux inhabitants. Although it was them who in the 80’s, helped the wine growers of Rioja to improve the quality of their wines. Thanks to that support, Rioja has become the most famous vineyard in Spain. In 1991, the region obtained the most qualitative agricultural label of quality in Spain: the Denominación de Origen Calificada (DOCa), which allowed it to gain an international reputation.

Rioja landscape

In the 90’s, the vineyard became pioneer in wine tourism, building modern wineries (or bodegas in Spanish), sometimes with extravagant architecture. These new buildings contrast with the medieval villages and the spectacular landscapes. However, this contemporary architecture doesn’t aggress you, but on the contrary leads to a game between modern and old, glass and rock, metal and wood, with a surprising result. In many cases, the heritage takes advantage of this evolution and the fortified churches, palaces, castles and others stately houses from a medieval past are highlights.

I recommend that you discover the North part of the Rioja region, at the bottom of the Cantabric Mounts, and on the North bank of the Ebre River.

The breath-taking beauty of this vineyard surprised me. Colours and contrasts are extraordinary, mixing the red soil, with the yellow of the fields of grain and old buildings, the green leaves, the grey rocks and the mountains. This living landscape reflects the balance between human activities and nature, which exist here.

The Tempranillo is the main red grape variety in Rioja, one which is happy on this ferrous and clayey soil. Sometimes blends with Graciano or Malvoisie, which give it more structure and spicy aroma. The range of wine is simple to understand in the Rioja vineyard, due to being regulated by strict requirements specifically linked to the DOCa. This doesn’t prevent many wineries from undertaking quality research; they don’t rest on their laurels.

Bodega Baigorri

So the range of wine is the same for each winery. The low-end of the range is composed of white and red wines of fast consuming wines, which receive the carbonic maceration. These wines are more used for a local consumption and not really exported because of their specific aromas, not so qualitative and well appreciated by foreigners. Then comes the middle range wine: Crianza and Reserva. You’ll find very beautiful wine in these categories. Some are just simple or good, but there are also amazing surprises of great value to find. The range finishes with the Gran Reserva, a long-ageing wine, powerful and enchanting.

 What is the price of the wine?

Don’t believe that everything is cheaper in Spain than in the rest of Western Europe. Rioja wines are the most famous in Spain and so, they have high prices compared to other Spanish wines. For a good value Crianza or Reserva it’s a minimum 6€, and the medium price that I have noted was around 7€. It’s more than double for the Gran Reserva.Some wineries offer discounted prices for boxes and others no, so be careful of that. Another thing, wineries with amazing architecture have also amazing prices, so don’t search the best value there.

At the restaurants however, it’s cheaper! There are not the enormous mark ups suffered by the French, for our biggest pleasure. One glass of wine usually costs between 1 and 3,25€. Extravagant wineries are not cheap for buying wine, but incredible to visit, bellow some examples of great wineries to visit in the Rioja Alta vineyard.

Restaurant at Marqués de Riscal

Owners of Rioja wineries have found the ideal positioning for their vineyards. From the past they have kept the viticulturist knowledge and heritage,but in addition they have modernised their wineries and their venue structures. They have adapted their strategies to the world market providing them with big sales, marketing departments, export agents, economies of scale and great brand image. The Rioja vineyard associate with Bilbao, is a member of the Great Wine Capitals, yet more proof of their high quality level.

Where to sleep?

Only two hotels have played the same game as the wineries in terms of the contrast between modern luxury and old heritage, although linked with the vineyard: Marqués de Riscal Hotel & Spa 5* and Viura Hotel 4*

The Marquès de Riscal Hotel & Spa is linked to the winery of the same name. It’s the head of the luxury hospitality in the region thanks to prodigious partnerships with the Caudalie Spas, the Luxury Collection of the Starwood Hospitality chain, and of course the famous Franck Gehry architect, who had also designed the world famous Guggenheim Contemporary Art Museum of Bilbao. Here, he has created an amazing building covered by waves of titanium, on which we contemplate a range of wine colour reflects. This luxury wine tourism resort has been created in the town centre of Elciego..

Hôtel Viura ****

The Viura Hotel is situated in the little village of Villabuena de Álava. A fantastic wine tourism place because it shelters 40 wineries for 300 inhabitants. The Herrera River has eroded the rock and the village is built on both sides of the water course.

Hotel Viura 4*

In one of the side, the Viura Hotel seems to emerge from the rock wall. Built of waxed concrete, glass and steel cubes, it was designed by Joseba & Xavier Aramburu architectes and designers. Again a beautiful architectural achievement to observes here in this village.

The welcome is more casual than in Marquès de Riscal but very professional. We leave the super-luxe to find a friendlier atmosphere. The hotel offers a bar, a gourmet restaurant, a rooftop terrace, an art gallery and a wine library.

Common areas contribute to creating a very special atmosphere with raw materials like wood, waxed concrete, steel and glass which are associate with contemporary furnishings and vintage things, exhibits and technology. In the evening, light games take place in corridors thanks to the sunset’s natural light, ultraviolet lamps, candles and colourful neon tubs.In this hotel, every room is different and original, however the suites do also offer private terraces.

Membre de Small Luxury Hôtels of the World

Best of Wine Tourism 2014

From 99€

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