La Rioja is a beautiful province in northern Spain. Think stunning landscapes, gorgeous Spanish architecture and vineyards as far as the eye can see.
The tour – although not cheap – took us to three vastly different wineries and included a five-course lunch. And a LOT of wine, of course.
We started at Bodegas Muga in Haro. This traditional winery is over two hundred years old, and its buildings are beautifully made of stone. The winery is also one of the few that still makes its own barrels, a dying tradition. Each different oak used to make the barrels – French, Spanish and American – impacts the flavour, along with the flavours imparted as the cooper fires the inside of the barrels.
Matt and I are not huge fans of red wine, nor do I profess to know much about wine (I just like to drink it!) but the tour gave us a greater appreciation of the thought and care that goes into a bottle, and by the end we were freely asking to taste the reds over the whites.
Another thing we discovered: wine tasting in Spain is not like I’ve experienced anywhere else. At Muga (and the other wineries we visited later in the day) our tasting glasses were filled up halfway rather than with just a tiny slug, so it wasn’t long before I started feeling those familiar woozy, happy vibes that often come with a few drinks. Tip: make sure you eat plenty and don’t drink all the glasses of wine you’re offered, unless you’re built like a tank.
Next, we moved on to a more modern winery that used different techniques. Bodegas Baigorri is the product of a wealthy local businessman, a winery that received some criticism when it was being built. The winery is seven floors – but six of these are below ground, built into the mountain. The top floor is the only part visible, a large glass box which some people say blends well into the surrounding countryside, while others think it looks out of place. Whatever your view, it certainly is a unique structure.
Baigorri uses gravity in its production system; there are no pumps. Descending into the depths of the James Bond-style building, we came across silver metal tanks holding thousands of litres of wine, stark concrete flooring and a clever gantry.
It was here that we had lunch, on the lowest level of the winery. The view from here was stunning – we weren’t completely underground as the side that we were sat on peeked out of the mountain and in front of us stretched sun-drenched vineyards bordered by mountains.
Lunch was a five-course gourmet meal that included almond gazpacho and Iberico pork jowl slowly cooked in red wine, finished off with panna cotta with blueberry jelly. And eight different varieties of wine.
Fully satisfied, we nodded off in the car as we drove to the next winery, waking only to stop and look at the Frank Gehry-designed hotel, seemingly in the middle of nowhere. Ribbons of titanium piled on the side of the highway, the designer’s unique style was as clearly visible as when we had viewed the Guggenheim Bilbao Museum.
The final winery we visited was in the gorgeous town of Laguardia. Narrow, winding streets belied the fact that built under these houses were hundreds of caves. Only a few are now in use, including at Bodegas Carlos San Pedro, a 600-year-old cellar. We made our way down eight metres underground into a cool cellar and sampled wine straight from the barrel.
As we drove back into San Sebastian, the persistent rain once again broke through, so, happily tipsy after a day of red wine, we made our way directly to the nearest pintxos bar to continue the indulgence.