Baigorri, Basque Country, Echuarren, Francis Paniego, Frank Gehry, La Rioja, Laguardia, Lopez de Heredia, Marisa Sanchez, Marques de Riscal, Michelin, Roda, Santiago Calatrava, Winery, Ysios, Zaha Hadid
La Rioja is a region in Spain bordering the Basque Country and is about three hours by car from San Sebastian. It is an awe-inspiring region full of old and new architectural masterpieces centred around tiny medieval villages and massive bodegas (Spanish word for winery) owned mostly by families who have continually passed down its wine making traditions from generation to generation.
Although known to many as a wine region, after having the great fortune of visiting in 2010 with our friend and guide Gabriella, we have come to realise that there is so much more to La Rioja than just wine and we have yet to experience any place like it.
During our visit we went to a handful of bodegas of course, but also some medieval villages and a lovely Riojan hotel and restaurant called Echaurren.
Echaurren has been run by the same family for five generations. Marisa Sánchez is the owner of the hotel (along with her husband) and chef of the restaurant. Her cooking has become somewhat of the staple for traditional Riojan cuisine. I (C) remember eating here fondly and am quite upset with myself for not taking pictures (who knew we would end up blogging!?!?). We started our meal with an artichoke dish. Before this, I had never had an artichoke served like this. It was braised for some period of time, concentrating its flavours, and was absolutely tender but still managed to maintain its shape when served. A year later we ate at Etxebarri, which served their artichokes in a very similar fashion. We then had a breaded anchovy dish with ratatouille. With the then recent lift on the ban of anchovy fishing, our visit to the Basque region in 2010 saw anchovies absolutely everywhere! This dish was followed by a beef cheek and foie grois dish, and for dessert, rice pourage with cinnamon. All absolutely AMAZING!
In 2001, the kitchen of Echaurren started serving two restaurants, Echaurren and El Portal. The latter is run by Marisa’s son, Francis Paniego, and has one Michelin star. Although we ate at Marisa’s restaurant, I have no doubt that this apple (cultivated in both Arzak and El Bulli) does not fall far from the tree. Today, Maria and Francis are the faces of both traditional and modern Riojan cuisine. A must visit if you are in the area.
Before and after our meal at Echaurren we visited some Riojan bodegas. Two of them were in Haro, a region in La Rioja known mostly for its production of red wine. Always leave it to the Spanish to be extremely whimsical yet traditional with whatever they do and this is thoroughly reflected in the Riojan bodegas. Each bodega we visited went to such great lengths to showcase themselves in a unique way that even if you do not enjoy wine, the architecture alone is more than worth a visit. If you are ever having a meal in the Basque Country and the surrounding regions, there is no doubt in my mind that you will have at least one of the wines from one of the bodegas below.
López de Heredia is one of the most historical wineries in Rioja. The bodega is massive. Their signature wine, Viña Tondonia, is a must try when in the Basque Country. We popped by for a wine tasting and barely graced the surface of the bodega. Its extremely unique tasting room (pictured left) is designed by the Iraqi architect, Zaha Hadid. They are one of the few wineries that still make aged white wine and is perhaps the most perfect wine I’ve had with paired with seared foie gras. They are located in Haro, right beside Bodega Roda.
Bodegas Roda is the one we took a comprehensive tour of. It is one of the more modern and newer bodegas in the area. Their commitment to excellence and R&D is what has allowed them to become leaders and experts within such a short amount of time.
The main level (pictured right) contains some barrelled wines going through the aging process purposely cooled to a specific temperature through the flooring. The square looking object in the same picture is actually the owners’ bedroom. When they are in town, they literally get to sleep with their wine. Underneath the bodega is a maze of caves where more barreled wines are stored and aged (I believe the same is done in López de Heredia). These caves lead to the Ebro river in the back that have been used for centuries to transport wine. I have a minor case of claustrophobia and it was extremely terrifying using their old school elevator shafts to go up and down the different levels of caves. I felt lucky to get out of there alive (oh the horror of getting stuck!).
Roda also produces olive oil and at the end of our tour we sampled all their wines plus their two types of olive oil. Drinking the olive oil straight up definitely felt like some sort of crazy body cleanse for some odd reason. During our tasting they let us try Cirsion, their signature wine, which apparently never happens. We got lucky! The owners of Roda also enjoy photography and as a side project, display a photo exhibition for their visitors.
We made a quick visit to see Bodegas Baigorri since I remembered having their wine while pintxos bar hopping at A Fuego Negro. When you arrive from the front, all you see is this square-shaped one-leveled glass-enclosed building. We stayed long enough for me to get a couple of pictures but after leaving, I wondered why this place looked so small. How could this be a massive wine making operation? I read about them later and found out that the actual bodega is built underground. They operate without the use of pumps and only use their hands and one of nature’s most powerful tools, gravity, throughout the wine making process to avoid damaging the grapes.
Marqués De Riscal is one of the oldest in the region. The current bodega was designed by Frank Gehry for their 150th anniversary. It has a hotel and restaurant which is now part of the Starwood Luxury Collection. The restaurant has one Michelin star and the gastronomic consultant is none other then Francis Paniego of El Portal. If you ever see their wines in your liquor store and wonder why each bottle is encased in gold wire netting, that’s because at one point, people were filling their bottles with inferior wines and selling them off as a Marqués de Riscal. To protect the integrity of their brand, they started placing netting over it which is very expensive to replicate.
Bodegas Ysios is designed by Santiago Calatrava, one of my favourite architects. The bodega is meant to reflect the landscape of its natural surroundings. We did not enter, but did enjoy the bodega and scenery from the outside.
To end the day we visited the medieval city of Laguardia. The entire village is enclosed by stone walls and is built on top of interconnected underground wine cellars. The Church of Santa Maria la Real is one of the main attractions of Laguardia as it contains a gothic and detailed stone polychromed doorway from the 14th century.
On our way back to San Sebastian, I looked out the car window and knew at that very moment, I had to take it all in because who knew when we would be back in Rioja? Every year we have returned to the Basque Country, we have tried to plan a trip back to the Rioja region but unfortunately have not been able to fit it into our schedule. I know one day we will return and I very much look forward to it.
To view pictures of our trip to La Rioja in its entirety, click through the photo set below. If you are using a mobile device, please click here for compatibility.
Thanks for reading,
C & S