After stuffing ourselves pintxos silly on the Costa Vasca, it was time to veer south to one of Spain’s most famous wine regions – La Rioja. La Rioja is divided into Rioja Alta and Rioja Baja, with the Alta region snatching much of the vino fame and mos def the scenery kudos.
We based ourselves in Laguardia, a medieval fort town with still standing defensive walls and a magical old section with a decent sampling of pintxos bars, wine stores and restaurants. It makes a great home base as it sits amidst & has easy access to many well known wineries and vineyards; is a short drive to the vino capital of La Rioja (Haro) where many bodegas are to be found and it’s only a hop, skip & a jump to the Big Smoke of Logroño (actual capital of La Rioja), which possesses a mean pintxos reputation in its own rite.
As with many serious wine regions of the world, in just about any direction you choose to gander you will see vines, in every nook & cranny of marginal potential. The soil reminded us of the Southern Rhone region of France, particularly Chateauneuf du Pape, with a decently rocky mixture which helps to retain heat over night and provides better drainage. Quite impressive too were the many guardaviñas (vineyard shelters) that dot the landscape providing workers with a bit of respite from inclement weather.
The Spanish bodega & vineyard scene is a bit odd – unlike most other wine regions of the world where you can rock up to the cellar door, taste & buy, in Spain it is usually necessary to book a visit in advance. And that always entails a 1 to 2 hour winery tour & tasting and sometimes a required lunch. We were ‘educated’ at the Bai Gorri Bodega (amazing place & delicious vino – worth a visit) by their head of marketing (he was German) post an unannounced appearance that that is the way Spain has done it for decades, and trying to change things is the proverbial Sysiphus challenge. They have invested mucho dinero in the infrastructure to support the tour & lunch crowds and are scared they will lose out if they open a cellar door to any old punter that comes along.
So we booked ourselves in for a single bodega tour & tasting at Ramón Bilbao simply on the basis that (a) we had sampled a couple of his Riojas in San Sebastian pintxos bars & liked them and (b) several exceptional wine stores in San Sebastian showcased the wines & spoke highly of them. Well, if we have seen how wine is made once, we’ve seen it a couple hundred times – yawn. Post the snooze tour, we sampled the Crianza 2010, the Reserva 2008 and the Grand Reserva 2004 & it was the Reserva that snatched our euros.
One effect of this odd Spanish bodega visiting process is that it makes the wine store’s role even more valuable and attractive in terms of learning, tasting and buying wines. Laguardia was blessed with a variety of vinoteca options from the pared down, simple- choices-basement-tasting-room to two at the top level in the main plaza that carried an impressively extensive range of wines and vintages.
But the wine store that snatched our breath away was Vinoteca Rodríguez Alonso in Haro. This was a wine merchant in the old-style mold (in a great way) with an awesome selection of wines (some going back to the 1950’s), at surprisingly affordable prices and stocked to the rafters with all the savoury & enticing condiments Spain has to offer…including full leg hams hanging from the ceiling. We could easily of stayed there for an hour or more as at every turn & eye site twist a new box or bottle was spotted & required an inspection. And this was the only wine merchant, I repeat, the only wine merchant who, when I mentioned Bodegas Artuke of Pies Negros (our fave Rioja on the trip), immediately knew who we spoke of & showed us his K4 limited release (@ 50 euros a bottle, not in the budget).
So if you ever make it to La Rioja and have the desire to experience el cielo de vinoteca (the heaven of wine stores), then you must visit Vinoteca Rodríguez Alonso…