Two Unique Culinary Experiences in Spain's Rioja region

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Spain’s Rioja region offers plenty of opportunities to enjoy great food and wine.  Many wineries themselves have restaurants in-house, from the Michelin-starred Marqués de Riscal restaurant and the 1860 Tradición, both inside Marqués de Riscal’s City of Wine, to cozy spaces serving traditional Riojan and Basque fare.

Several wineries stand out however, for offering guests unique, unforgettable experiences that take them outside the winery to the vineyards, exciting not only the taste buds but the other senses as well.  Bodegas Valdelana and Bodegas Ontañón have created two of the most interesting adventures.  

Juan Jesús Valdelana and his team at Bodegas Valdelana in Elciego (Rioja Alavesa) never cease to amaze with their offer of innovative wine tourism experiences.  In fact, the winery won a 2018 ‘Best Of Wine Tourism’ award from the Great Wine Capitals for an experience that only takes place at night:  The Stellar Marriage.

It’s not the promise of an exclusive wedding ceremony as the name might imply. Live music and a cocktail at sunset greet participants at the family’s vineyard -  the Varietal Garden -  overlooking a bend in the Ebro river Here, Valdelana combines his two passions - wine and astronomy, leading participants on an imaginary trip to five constellations in the night sky, explaining the mythology and history of each while tasting five of the winery’s best wines.

Valdelana's Stellar Marriage (Photo:  Bodegas Valdelana)

Another Varietal Garden experience at Valdelana offers visitors a picnic with a meal featuring a selection of small bites made with regional ingredients such as Idiazábal cheese, piquillo peppers and artichoke hearts along with a selection of wines from the winery.

Bodegas Ontañón’s signature culinary experience takes visitors to Quel, a village in the Rioja Oriental to explore the origins of the Pérez family winery group.  It includes a visit to one of the family’s vineyards that was planted on European rootstock to garnacha in 1892 on sandy soil, and therefore not affected by the phylloxera plague that devastated Rioja at the beginning of the 20th century.  This vineyard has applied for ‘singular vineyard’ status, an exciting new category in the Rioja wine district. 

The next stop is to the family’s oldest winery, dug into the side of a hill in the 18th century.  Here, you can taste an Ontañón ‘clarete’, a traditional Rioja pale rosé made from a mixture of juice from both red and white grapes in which part of the fermentation with brief contact with red grape skins, providing the wine’s characteristic color   If strawberries are in season, you will probably be offered a chocolate-covered strawberry – a great pairing with the delicate clarete.

The highlight of this experience is a trip to La Pasada, the high altitude (790 meters or 2,592 feet) family vineyard near the top of Mount Yerga, overlooking the Ebro river valley floor. Here you can enjoy a panoramic view of the valley and on a clear day, the snow-covered peaks of the Pyrenees.  While admiring this breathtaking view, Ontañón chef Rosa Ezquerro serves a midmorning, a midafternoon snack, or lunch, with a tasting of Ontañón’s signature wines.  Depending on the time of day and the season, you can watch the sunset behind the Peña Isasa, an extinct volcano to the southwest.

Ontañón's La Pasada vineyard, at almost 800 meters above sea level (Photo:  Ontañón)

A typical snack at Ontañón's La Pasada Vineyard (Photo:  Ontañón)