Like so many British travellers up until I visited Rioja in Spain in June the furthest north I had been was Barcelona. Murcia, Malaga, Tarifa and Seville were well known to be me but the day my wife and I agreed to travel to Rioja for my 50th birthday we were both starting a new Spanish adventure courtesy of Smooth Red (www.smoothred.co.uk) who organise wine tasting holidays around the world.
We flew from Heathrow directly into Bilbao which was trouble free and then had a car waiting for us at the airport to take us 1.5hrs through some rolling hills into the Rioja region to our first location of Haro. Until we started passing multiple bodegas all grouped around the train station on our way to our hotel we had no idea of the significance of this small town, which is considered as the wine capital of La Rioja.
Some of the region’s most important bodegas are based here – Muga and Cune. It was at a much smaller bodega - Gomez Cruzado - where our wine story began just a short walk from our Hotel Los Augustinos.
Small but perfectly formed the tour takes in some tasty red and white wines (yes the white Riojas are pretty good) but showed how new technology is being introduced to further improve quality in the form of concrete storage VATs.
Every bodega has a different tale to tell and all but some of the big producers who focus mainly on volume use their heritage to bring their individual brands to life.
Wine tasting from 10am to 4pm is a great way to spend your day but in the middle of May the temperature remained at around 26 degrees centigrade. So not only is the weather good at this time of the year the scenery of rolling hills and young growing vines was amazing.
The largest range of hills are in fact the Sierra de Cantabria mountains which form a key part in sheltering the Rioja from colder weather and which form a graceful backdrop to the foothills where the soil and warm Atlantic climate play a big part in the success of this wine growing district.
Day two took in the fantastic Luis Canas, Remirez de Ganuza and Miguel Merino bodegas. Canas has a wonderful tour and tasting room and over 200 years of wine making experience which makes its Crianza and Reserva fit for any dinner table. We’ve found Luis Canas in Waitrose since coming home.
The end of day two finished at the Marques de Riscal hotel which was the initial inspiration for the Rioja tour. Frank Gehry’s folded titanium roofs, cathedral style windows and tilted walls create a majestic modern statement against the backdrop of the butter yellow stone of the town of Elciego and the greenery of the surroundings vineyards.
The food and vinotherapy spa at the hotel are amazing, but the wine tour fell short. Despite de Riscal being one of the oldest Rioja wineries the tour focussed more on the present rather than its history and there was no mention of founder Guillermo Hurtado de Amazaga. The visit to the original wine storage caves built with walls 2-3 feet thick and housing a vintage from every year since the vineyard’s inception in 1858 was a real eye opener. Finishing off the stay by sitting out in the sun overlooking a vineyard reading a book brought a fantastic few days to an end.
Overall a great short break for adults, but we were so impressed with northern Spain we are looking to return with the kids in 2018 focussing on the coastal towns of San Sebastian and Santander.