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Villabuena de Álava, a small village with 300 inhabitants, lies on both slopes of a ravine carved out by a small creek. You could drive past the village on the main road and probably miss it completely if you weren’t looking carefully. But if you turn off the road and drive down the hill into the village, you are in for a pleasant surprise, because this village has more than 40 wineries, a fact that surely deserves a place in the Guinness Book of Records.
Twelve of these wineries, along with the spectacular Hotel Viura, have created an innovative wine tour through the village that won a regional 2019 ‘Best Of Wine Tourism’ award from the Great Wine Capitals Global Network.
We decided to take the tour to find out for ourselves.
Our first stop was at the hotel. It features a contemporary design that can best be described as a colorful collection of metal boxes piled haphazardly on top of one another, each containing a room. Here we picked up our personalized tour booklet containing a passport with the names of the participating wineries, the schedule of the three wineries we were going to visit and a map of the village with the wineries clearly marked.
The idea is for each of the wineries to explain part of the experience: one visit to get an overview of the village and its surrounding vineyards, another to explain the grapes used to make Rioja wines and Rioja’s color coded back labels that indicate general barrel and bottle ageing requirements, and the third to explain the winemaking process. At each winery tourists go on a quick tour and sample a glass of one of the winery’s premium wines with a tapa. At the end of each visit, the winery stamps your passport.
Our assigned tour was to Bodegas Izadi, Berarte Viñedos y Bodegas and Bodegas Valserrano.
We left the hotel and walked the length of the village to Bodegas Izadi where we were met by PR and marketing director Esther Crespo. She explained that ‘izadi’ meant ‘nature’ in Basque, an appropriate name for this winery with a commanding view of the countryside featuring the spectacular Cantabrian mountain range to the north and the vineyards that surround the village. During a quick tour of the winery, Esther told us that the 2019 harvest, although smaller than average, was going to produce spectacular wine.
Our tasting was an Izadi Selección 2015 red reserva made with 80% tempranillo, 10% graciano and the remaining ten per cent with maturana and garnacha. Our tapa was several slices of Idiazábal cheese. By then, our 30 minutes were up, and we had 15 minutes to cross the village to reach the next winery so, we said goodbye to Esther and took off.
After walking the length of the village, this time along the highway, we stopped at Bodegas Berarte, where Inmaculada Berrueco, the owner and winemaker, took us to a terrace overlooking the carpet of vineyards surrounding the village. According to the Rioja Regulatory Council’s 2018 annual report, Villabuena has 537 hectares of vineyards. Berarte owns 14 hectares spread out over 23 plots, with a total production of about 70 tons of grapes, farmed organically. Unlike most of their neighbors, Berarte does not produce a carbonic maceration red. They make three kinds of white – a dry, a semidry and a barrel fermented style, a rosé and four styles of red.
We tasted Berarte’s ‘Vendimia Seleccionada’ special selection red 2014 made exclusively with tempranillo, perfectly paired with slices of chorizo, Rioja’s signature spicy sausage.
Inmaculada (or Inma, as she prefers to be called), showed us the winery, built on the slope of the ravine. The top floor is for reception of grapes, the middle for fermentation and the bottom for vat and barrel ageing, bottling and shipping.
We then set off for Bodegas Valserrano, once again taking the street at the bottom of the ravine to the opposite end of the village. Here our guide was Estíbaliz Llorente, who has two jobs - laboratory technician and winery guide.
Estíbaliz told us that Valserrano was founded 130 years ago by the Marqués de la Solana and is still run by the family. The winery owns 65 hectares of vineyards and manages 15 hectares for other owners. These 80 hectares produce about 400,000 bottles, with 40 per cent sold on the Spanish market and 60% outside.
Under the winery there are several underground cellars where the reds and some of the whites slowly age in 225 liter barriques.
We tasted two Valserrano wines – the 2014 Finca Monteviejo, made exclusively from grapes in the family’s 70 year old vineyard of the same name. The wine was obviously aged in barrique but carried a green Rioja back label. Estíbaliz explained that this back label doesn’t necessarily mean that the wine in the bottle is young, but rather that the winemaker at Valserrano doesn’t age the wine for the same time in barrel in every vintage. The winery therefore decided to use the green back label that simply states that the wine is guaranteed as Rioja with no allusion to barrel and bottle aging. Rioja crianza, reserva and gran reserva carry different back labels that show the mimimum ageing period in barrique and bottle.
The second wine we tasted was an already open bottle from an earlier tasting - Valserrano white gran reserva – a rare wine, so we naturally had to ask for a taste. Estíbaliz obliged us. This wine is made from viura and malvasía grapes and is fermented in Allier barriques, remaining on its lees in the same barrels for 28 months. It was bottled in April 2016. Luscious both on the nose and palate, we agreed that it would be great as an aperitif or to enjoy with foie gras or a simple dish of roast chicken or duck.
Our tour ended back at the hotel. Unfortunately, the sommelier was busy in the underground cellar setting up for an event so the wine bar was closed. Instead we enjoyed a glass of Frías del Val Viña El Flako 2017, a blend of malvasía and viura, at the coffee bar inside the hotel
We had a lot of fun visiting the wineries, tasting one of their premium wines and talking about the wine business. Villabuena, its wineries and the spectacular Hotel Viura are well worth a visit. And if you want to meet the owners of the wineries, we’ve heard that the wine bar at the hotel is their after hours meeting place!