GOÑI Ardoteka Vino Market…


One of the things I really miss since leaving New Zealand and Australia to live in the UK & Spain for a wee while, is a decent amount of regular, interesting & affordable wine tastings. Melbourne was a seriously sick place for wine tastings as it was almost harder to sort out & decide what not to do versus searching to find a wine event to do. Usually, every weekend some wine store (like the Prince Wine Stores or Seddon Wine Store or even your local Dan Murphy’s) was featuring a tasting & typically with the producers doing the pour – for free. And to add wine tasting insult to injury, there was almost always a massive wine event happening every other week or so with the likes of the Barons of the Barossa rolling into town or The Taste of Tasmania making a Melbourne splash. My head (and liver) hurts just remembering all of these vinous opportunities!

The UK is pretty much bereft of these kind of gustatory pleasures unless, of course, you are able & can afford to live in London or even Bristol or Bath, or some decently sized pueblo. And we couldn’t, so we didn’t, so we did not  have easy access to a regular rasher of sipping & tastings…for effing out loud people, even Christchurch, New Zealand (population 350,000 más o menus) puts on a decent juice show with Vino Fino or Decant doing the city honours.


When we first arrived in Hondarribia, I discovered GOÑI Ardoteka in San Sebastián quite early on, and it is, by almost any measure, an estupendo wine store – great selection, knowledgeable and pleasant staff, fair prices and easy peasy access from Hondarribia via the marvellous E21 autobus. I signed on to their regular email newsletter for updates & started to see some notifications of tasting events. But I was a bit hesitant to jump right in & sample as, to me anyway, many tasting sessions seemed a wee bit dear – like €40 to €60 dear for the option to test out a few new unknown vinos. As I mentioned above, many of the regular Australian tasting sessions were 100% free and if not, they would hit up your wallet for a modest debit of round $20+ or so (same thing in New Zealand) which is like €13…eso es no problema.

So I was more than delighted to see in my inbox the news notice for the Christmas Wine Market @ GOÑi Ardoteka – wines & bubbles & beer & producers and FREE! I have no hesitation in stating it was the best wine event, so far, that I have attended in either Spain or the UK – and the producers were: (a) super knowledgable and generous with their information & time and pours (and my crappy Spanish) and (b) they be pouring the good shite! We are talking the top of da vino line folks – the cava bodega I started with finished our tasting round of 5 different bottles of bubbles with their 2005 Reserva that would set you back a tidy €93 ($140 NZ), so clearly not in the Lindauer league.


The Wine Market Bad Boys…

And to add more foam to the froth, all the wines (not just the Wine Market wines) were smacked with a 15% price reduction – whoa nellie, hold on to my wallet! Fortunately (for my wallet), I was a bit constrained as I only had my modestly sized backpack with me and my allowable maximum wine allowance (by weight) was 5-6 bottles. So purchase I did & hauled my delicious treasure back to Hondarribia on the E21 autobus to savour at a later date…keep it coming GOÑI Ardoteka!

Kiwis Come A Calling…


Paddle Board Day…Billie Goes To Sea!

We were fortunate to have our Kiwi mate Shelley and her 2 kids (Finn & Stella) come by for 3 weeks & experience & enjoy the wonderful Hondarribia (Spain) & surrounds – and we packed it in!. It being the depths of winter Down Under, our first few days were spent lapping up the warmth & sunshine. We grabbed the local ferry to Hendaye (France – 5 minute ferry ride) where the beach is magnificent, and just enough wave action to get a few boogie board rides in. It was also good weather for everyone to have a go at paddle boarding…I was not so successful (top left picture below)…but Billie on the other hand, Hound #1, is a goer!


Hondarribia, Spain – The Kiwi Home For 3 Weeks!


Stinking HOT in Hondy! Even I Had To Jump In!

And besides the aquatic fun, we of course dove into the food & vino experience! Shelley is a long time Food Hound and was my partner in our restaurant London Street in Lyttelton, New Zealand. And of course, Spain and the Basque Country are a bountiful cornucopias for a food loving person – not just the amazing pintxo & raciones and menú del día offerings, but also the vast array of stellar products & produce. From the fresh as fish, to the veggies, to the olive oils & spices, to the cheeses & jamón – it’s all here.


Hondy Treats – Top Left: Calle San Pedro Pintxo Fest; Pintxo; Pintxo; Special New Zealand Juice Courtesy of Shelley

After exhausting many of our regular Hondarribia haunts like Gran Sol, Vinoteca Ardoka, Sadara, Extebarri and Txantxangorri, we headed out to our only 1 star Michelin joint Alameda, which is top of the line on the pintxos front. We loved the mackerel ceviche (twice in fact), and the patatas brava (classic Basque dish) which totally vanished (by the kids) before any photos could be taken! And we had one of our fave wines of the trip – a stunning Rioja white (95% Viura – Spanish varietal)  by Bodega Allende.


High Class @ Alameda

Next on the ‘to do’ list was our first visit of several visits to the most beautiful city in the world by most folks counts, San Sebastián (or Donosti in Basque). You need to either hang here for a number of days, or make multiple visits (we took the bus from Hondarribia – easy peezy) to get a decent dose of this wonderful wee city by the sea. What’s not to love? Grand architecture, museums & art spaces, beaches to beat the band, food & drink to die for, vistas to make ya cry, cool shopping galore and even a 100+ year old amusement park.


San Seabstián: Top Left – Mount Igueldo Rollercoaster; On the Climb to Jesus; Jesus; La Concha Beach & City

We had a set of priorities to tick off so we set off on a mission….first, to eat. The vast array of choices to try pintxos, or raciones and eat a full meal in San Sebastián are head spinning to say the least. It is pretty hard to go too far wrong – much of the time you get to ‘look before you eat’ as you wander in & out of various tavernas checking out the types & quality of comestibles. We sampled a few of our standard spots like Paco Bueno (serious Old School & even has a signed All Blacks t-shirt framed); Bar Goiz Argi where we go for the calamare a la plancha (grilled – pictured below, top left); Borda Berri – ex-Cuchara de San Telmo folks & super pintxos; and Bar Zeruko – the award wining champ. And of course there are squadron of other places to gobble, gobble….


San Sebastián Pintxos


Bretxa Market, San Sebastian – Top Left: Kids; Blue Fin Tuna; Mate @ BretxOliva; Sardines; Veggies; Shrimps

On any true food person’s must do list is to pay a respectful visit to the local market(s) and have an extended wander up & down the aisles, chat away with the producers and learn a wee bit about what that region/country is proud to sell & eat. In San Sebastián that would be the Bretxa Market & related outdoor veggie stalls. It is hard to think of anything you cannot find or buy here with an extensive fish & seafood section offering the ocean’s finest; poultry vendors & butchers busy at work carving up various carcasses into fine cuts of meat; charcuterie & cheese & delicatessen stalls that will simply make your mouth water; and fruit & veggie stalls packed with the season’s produce.

Since we were in the city for the day, perishable purchases were not an option so we got happily stuck at BretxOliva, and amazing olive-everything stand (and extremely amenable host – you must try everything! he said)…excelente! We made fast friends and weighed down our backpacks with a decent assortment of Spanish goodies.


Tasting Vino At GOÑI ardoteca

And besides the captivating Bretxa Market, quite nearby is our favourite wine store GOÑI ardoteka. They have an excellent range of vino, including some very good French wine which can be next to impossible to find in Spain, go figure?. But the best thing about GOÑI ardoteka is the staff – always super friendly & accommodating, informative & patient. On this day we lucked out and managed to be served by William, who offered us a range of wines to taste, including some quite old (and expensive) vino. He wanted us to taste the style differences and effects of age – well done William (and yes, we did buy a few bottle)!


La Cuchara de San Telmo, San Sebastian – Yum! Top Left: Tuna, Kids, Veal Cheeks, Tomato Gazpacho com Idiazabal Cheese, Pulpo!

Even though we had managed an early pintxo pit stop to satiate growing Finn’s insatiable hunger, it was now approaching the opening time of one of our favourite regular haunts – La Cuchara de San Telmo. Now the Basque Pintxo World is basically divided into 2 worlds, the pre-made-cold-on-the-bar (can be heated sometimes) pintxos and the hot, made to order pintxos. La Cuchara de San Telmo falls into the latter camp and it is oh so good – it pays to arrive smack dab @ the opening @ 12:30pm (or there abouts as they often open late) for a lunchtime snack as within 20-25 minutes you just about cannot get in. Words of wisdom folks…

After a week’s explore of Hondarribia & San Sebastián & surrounds, it was now time for a road trip…so we grabbed a rental bus (literally) & took off for a whirlwind tour of Pais Vasco with stops in Getaria, Laguardia, Logroño, La Rioja Alavesa and Pamplona.

First destination: Getaria. A more than picturesque fishing village just an hour or so west along the Basque Coast from Hondarribia. Though still sort of quaint, it has changed a fair bit in just the 3 or so years since my first visit, with a number of more upscale shops for the shoppers and a small tourist crush. Shelley & Finn paid a visit to the Cristóbal Balenciaga Museo and they rated it a 5 star attraction – Stella & I hit the beach…as ya do.


Getaria – Top Left: Family Pic Down Getaria Calle; Menú del Día @ Taverna Politena; Getaria’s Surf Beach; Grilled Dorado


Laguardia, La Rioja Alavesa: Top Left – Santa Maria Church; Santa Maria Altar; La Rioja Alavesa View; Family Photo; Tower of Santa Maria

If you are ever tempted to visit the La Rioja region and taste some exquisite vino, you could not be more perfectly placed than Laguardia. And besides being perfectly placed you will be hanging in one of the most beautiful pueblos to be found in all of Spain, bar none. Like many old pueblos in Spain, it sits atop a decent hill, enclosed in an ancient fortress wall with encompassing views of the La Rioja vineyards that run right up to the start of the sheer cliff faces of the Cantabria Mountains.

Our first port of call for the day was a tasting stop at Bodegas Baigorri – one of our better go to drops. Spain’s wine scene has started to change – 3 or so years ago you needed to make an appointment & most likely take a cellar / winery tour (or even commit to lunch) before you could taste. But Bodegas Biagorri now offers tastings (only 2 wines) if you rock up on a normal working day (they do the tours/lunch thing too).


Bodegas Baigorri, La Rioja Alavesa

It was fast approaching pintxo time, so after a fruitless search to find Bodegas Allende (the vino we had @ Alameda…we did find it, but there are no tastings or tours) we made a bee line for the Casco Viejo of Logroño which is renowned for its pintxo bars that all have a signature dish, usually centred around one prime ingredient (e.g., mushrooms or grilled pork).


Logroño Pintxo Fest…


Bodegas Ysios, La Rioja Alavesa

On our way to Bodegas Baigorri, we stopped in at Bodegas Ysios & found that they do require a winery tour – well so be it, as we wanted to taste their wines. Bodegas Ysios only makes 2 wines, both reds and it sometimes seems to be better known for the grand winery building than the wines! They are part of the PernodRicard empire so not exactly your mom & pop operation. All in all, they were decent vinos with one from the 2008 vintage and one from the 2009 and they were generous with the pours…and left us the bottles!


Wine Tasting @ Bodega Ysios, La Rioja Alavesa

Post 2 picture perfect & massively enjoyable days in Laguardia & La Rioja Alavesa, we packed up and made our way up & over the Cantabria Mountains with Pamplona in our sites. Pamplona as many folks know, is mainly famous or infamous for the Running of the Bulls or the Festival of  San Fermin. We scheduled our visit the day after the festival ended which was both a blessing & a curse. A blessing in that much of the craziness (and it is VERY CRAZY) had subsided, but a curse in several ways as the town was: (a) slightly dead (guess bar & restaurant owners & staff et al needed a rest); (b) it was a tad dirty & smelled of vomit in places; (c) Shelley had her wallet pinched.


Top Left: Magina Aceites de la Sierra & Owner; Vermut @ Baserriberri; Group Pic; Catedral de Santa Maria; Final Pintxos @ Baserriberri

Despite the curses, we toddled on & managed to find some excellent pintxos at the open bars, pay a visit to the sweet wee Mercado de Santa Domingo which has one of the best & cheapest cheese stalls anywhere, and round up quite a few gourmet goodies at Magina Aceites de la Sierra shop where the owner was beyond generous and helpful (photo above).


Hondarribia Blues Fest – Awesome!

One of the awesome things about living in Hondarribia (and in close proximity to San Sebastián) is there is always something going on…and usually free! And such was Shelley & the Kids’s luck that upon our road trip return, they happened to time it right for the Hondarribia Blues Festival. Four days and nights of stellar performances from musicians from round the world, on multiple stages about the town. Not sure how or who pays for it, but it is a seriously fun event.


Hondarribia Blues Fest – Good Time Had By All!!!

After a wee rest (except for Shelley & the Kids who headed off to Paris for 4 days! Lucky sods…), we caught the slow train from San Sebastián that goes along the coast & ends up in the Big Smoke of Bilbao, one of the Basque Country’s biggest cities. I did not expect to really like Bilbao much on my first visit – besides the infamous Guggenheim Museum, what could the industrial capital of the Pais Vasco offer? Well, a lot to be honest.

We checked into our sweet accommodation @ Casual Gurea in the late afternoon & got out for a decent wander in the Parte Viejo. As always, growing boy Finn was hungry, so we made our way to Plaza Nueva which is lined with numerous pintxo bars and fed the beast…we sampled the wares of Bar Zuga and of course had to drop in at the classic Victor Montes.

I had made a dinner reservation at El Perro Chico, a place the Hounds had managed to grab a quick lunch at on our first visit to Bilbao but it had been firmly put on the ‘food radar’ for a return visit for a full on meal…


El Perro Chico, Bilbao – Best Food in Spain So Far!

Pretty much all we call say is a big WOW! El Perro Chico, without any doubt, serves some of the best food I/we have had in Spain so far. It is one of those rare breeds that takes the abundance & variety of Spanish food products, and gives them an innovative, international or other worldly twist. The food has no focus on a specific style or ethnicity except to make damn good tasting food, creatively prepared.

We all tucked into our respective plates and no one chose poorly – it all tickled the taste buds (even the salad starter was AWESOME), but the general consensus was Shelley won the day with her seared tuna, perfectly cooked & flavoured. We LOVED it here so much that upon paying our bill & leaving, we booked in for lunch on our last day…


El Perro Chico Dinner: Top Left – Seared Tuna; Smoked Beef; Veal Chop; Pork Belly


El Perro Chico Dog Bill & Dessert

On our first full day in Bilbao we opted for a full on museum day – first the infamous Guggenheim (I like the building the best), followed up by a visit to the Museo de Bellas Artes de Bilbao (far better art in my humble opinion). The Guggenheim certainly has the “wow” factor going for it, but I could easily just walk around the building having a good squizzy from all sides & be more than happy.


Bilbao, Guggenheim Museum


Bilbao, Guggenheim Museum


Guggenheim Fun…


Bilbao Museo – Life Like Exhibition…Slightly Creepy.


Museo de Bilbao

Post some seriously heavy museum time, we all had worked up some hunger pains so we walked as straight as the crow flies to Cafe Iruña, a cafe rightly famous for its lamb kebabs (called Pintxo Moruno) cooked over a charcoal grill & served by Ahmed. In general, Spanish food is not too spicy or highly flavoured, so it was a nice mouth jolt to bite into a clearly Moroccan flavoured skewer of roast lamb.


Cafe Iruña, Bilbao – Lamb Kebabs by Ahmed

Besides the museums, the great food market, the riverside walks, the tasty bars & restaurants and the Old Town, one of the other ‘must sees’ is the Alhóndiga Cultural and Leisure Centre designed/renovated by Bad Boy Frenchman Philippe Starck. Originally a massive La Rioja wine warehouse that was built in 1909, it is now a full function space with art & culture exhibits, cinema, restaurants & bars and sporting activities. We all found the rooftop, glass bottomed swimming pool of most curious interest.


Alhóndiga Cultural and Leisure Center by Philippe Starck


Shelley & The Kids Take A Dip At The Alhóndiga Cultural and Leisure Center’s Glass Bottom Pool


Group Fun – Bilbao, Spain

And just like me after my first visit, Shelley & the Kids really loved the Big Smoke of Bilbao. They felt they could easily have spent a couple more days there (just like me) to more fully explore the rich variety of experiences this Basque city has to offer.


Out on the Town – Bilbao, Spain – Plaza Nueva with some Bacarones & Vermut!


El Perro Chico, Bilbao -Again! For Goodbye Lunch…

And here we all are, back again @ El Perro Chico for our goodbye lunch (Shelley & the Kids were flying out of Bilboa @ 6:30pm for home, New Zealand) and once again, we were totally pleased. At lunch El Perro Chico offer a menú del día for the wee sum of €13.50 (they were super nice & let us adults have the kids’s vino). I also need to mention that besides the stunning food, the staff are simply superb, simply superb.


Lunch @ El Perro Chico, Bilbao: Top – Waldorf Salad, Roasted Tomatoes & Polenta; Watermelon Salmorejo


El Pero Chico, Bilbao – Goodbye Lunch….


El Perro Chico, Bilbao: Top Left – Yellow Veg Chicken Curry, Fajitas With Beef & Crispy Red Onions, Crispy Chicken on a Parmesan Base & Thyme Polenta


El Perro Chico, Bilbao: Dessert…So Good We Almost Forgot to Take A Photo…

So with a grand mix of happiness (great to spend such fun times with the crew & eat so well) and sadness (saying goodbye to great mates), we bid our final goodbyes & I toddled off to catch the slow train to San Sebastián with a few wee tears in my eyes. Shelley & the Kids made it home safe & sound though by a flight(s) from Hell & I hope to see them soon on the Other Side…

Skiathos Island…Greece

SKBeach The most miserable and far, far too long English winter drove us to sunnier climes – the sweet island of Skiathos, Greece. And a welcome change it was with temperatures in the mid to high 20’s, gentle breezes and the tiniest smattering of rain. We were most impressed with our place of accommodation, Skiathos Holidays, where the staff were top notch and the rooms of stunningly high quality. The beach was just a few minutes walk and the breakfast of REAL Greek yoghurt & nuts & flakes, fresh OJ, hard boiled eggs, assorted breads & coffee was the right way to start each day. SKMesostratos Our man Christos, from Skiathos Holidays, was a wealth of advice & local pointers for everything from where to eat to what activities to pursue. One of our favourite tavernas he recommended was the family owned & run Mesostrato. It was clearly evident that everything we ordered was cooked or made fresh. Hound #2’s eyes were apparently bigger than her stomach, but even with a cautionary warning from Hound #3 that she may have ordered too much, she went ahead anyway.  It was all spectacular, just a tad more food than your average person can eat ;-).


Hound #2’s Lunch – enough to feed a small family….

I erred on the conservative side & just had the moussaka – most excellent it was too… SKMoussaka We decided we liked Mesostrato so much we made a return visit & I had to try the meatballs in tomato sauce. Exceptionally well seasoned & basically yummy – Hound #2 agreed that I had won the lunch order contest. The Mythos lager beers went down a treat too & the house rose was very quaffable. SKMeatballs We also took a round-the-island boat trip on the Poseidon which gave us a great view of various parts of the island (we decided not to do the Mama Mia trip to Skopelos Island).


Bog standard Greek scenery

And for our final farewell evening meal, we ambled in to Marmita where we had sipped an afternoon beverage a few days before & liked the vibe & the menu. And we were spot on with our impressions…. SKMarmita The owner is a top notch hospitality professional & owns 3 restaurants on Skiathos. And, amazingly, it was just him & one other server that served the capacity crowd. We had an informative chat about their very well selected & priced wine list & we opted for a Greek Syrah not listed for a mere 15 euros. We were very taken with this wine and many of the other Greek wines we sampled on our trip – who knew? Greece makes some good vino…. SKSyrah Hound #3 could not tear his eyes away from the slow roasted pork shoulder marinated in honey, thyme & lemon on the menu. And those flavours shined through this super tender cut – veggies were a winner too.


Scrumptious Slow Roasted Pork Shoulder

And Hound #2 jumped on the same cut of meat & cooking method but from a Greek lamb but she felt the pork took the prize. SKLambDish And as seems to be custom in Greece, you need not order a dessert as many places close the meal with a free one. This was wonderful, local Greek yoghurt seasoned with chopped fresh mint & strawberries for dipping & shots of ouzo to cleanse the palate. Marmita is highly recommended. SKStrawberries Much of the produce used by the tavernas & restaurants is locally grown & it shows. As we left Marmita we saw this cart stuffed to the gills with freshly picked garlic… SKGarlic

The Pyrénées and Back to France…


Sad Water…Rio Eska.

We departed La Rioja and headed for the town of Roncal at the base of the Pyrénées for our last Spanish noche before starting our return trek across France, hopefully avoiding the nasty péage (toll) roads. The drive was stunning as we wound our way through deep canyons of dangerous looking cliff faces to one side, and the fast flowing, gorgeously blue water of the Rio Eska on the other. Intermittent glimpses of the river got the fly fishing juices flowing so several pit stops ensued to have a up close & personal inspection as there mos def had to be fish in that water.

But as it has happened countless times before, looks can be exceptionally & sadly deceptive. Chatting with our Spanish hotel owner revealed that, yes, the Rio Eska used to be chocka with fish but a factory was built upstream many years ago and now all the fish are gone. The way of the world these days…folks who know the price of everything and the value of nothing.


The Climb…

We set off early the next morning up the N137 through the beautiful Roncal Valley. Our Spanish is pretty good but one critically absent word that was repeatedly flashing on a road side sign was ‘Cadenas’ – chains, as in snow chains. Our wee Nissan Micra (aka Mickie) ponderously crawled up the steep switchback road as the snow to either side grew deeper…and deeper. Lucked out a bit to fall in behind a snowplow but we still kept climbing & the drifts grew ever deeper, the fog thicker and the wind wailed. At the summit & the border, the snowplow pulled over to turn around and we were left with the agonising decision: continue & descend on steep, twisting & possibly icy roads or turn back & take a 5-6 hour detour. A 4×4 Spanish policía pulled up behind us so a chat ensued (the words ‘loco’ and ‘estúpido’ may have been uttered by the policía) and they kindly offered to check out the French side (apparently the French do not salt or grit their roads). And luck be with us – the French side actually was way better weather – shining sun, no snow falling, no ice, moderate winds – yippppeeeee! Into France we go…


Impending Sense of Doom

We booked ourselves into the ever so sweet B&B Chateau Lamarque (Sainte-Croix-du-Mont) just outside of Bordeaux. The Chateau sits atop a the crest of a hill with views up & down the valley & of the Chateau’s own vineyards (picked up a bottle of red).


Chateau Lamarque, St. Croix du Mont, France


Chateau Lamarque Vielle Vignes

One of our usual to do’s when bumping around a country is to track down any local markets. We again lucked out in that the Machecoul Market just happened to be on the one Wednesday we were camped out @ the fabulous La Mozardière in Legé, France. So with immense expectations we toddled off the short distance to Machecoul and we were not in the least bit disappointed – wow, ces Français font de bons marchés!!!


La Mozardière – Legé, France


Awesome & bountiful fish selection


Fresh As Moules….


Bountiful & Beautiful Veggies


Our Main French Cheese Man – A Little Chèvre pour moi?

Tierra de Vino: La Rioja


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.


La Rioja Alta Valley

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. 


Las Vids Viejas – The Old Vines

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.


Guardaviñas – Vineyard Shelters

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.


Old Bottles in the Cellar of Bodegas Ramón Bilbao

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.


La Vinoteca – Laguardia, La Rioja

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


Vinoteca Rodríguez Alonso – Haro, La Rioja


Estunpendo! Tienda de Vino – Super Wine Store