Saturday, February 7, 2009

Wine Travel: Spain and Rioja

For those who know me well, you know my love for Spain. Every year, I go to San Sebastian and Getaria in the Basque country and spend a few days with my wife and son, eating tapas and drinking Txakoli whites and Rioja reds. I highly recommend it, for food and wine lovers.

Kaia Kaipe (in Getaria, excellent wine list with old Riojas and Riberas and fabulous grilled fish, the Turbo for two is one of the house's speciality) and Arzak (in San Sebastian, a mix of traditional and fusion cuisine in a Basque way, a bit expensive but excellent food) are two of my favorite restaurants in the world.

In Getaria, my favorite hotel is Saiaz Getaria Hotel, it is a lovely, peaceful, family run hotel with unique views of the ocean and the little bay of Getaria. In San Sebastian, Hotel de Londres y de Inglaterra with its incomparable view of La Concha (the main beach of the town) is surely one of my favorites. The other one is Monte Igueldo hotel perched on the mount of the same name, overlooking the entire bay of San Sebastian (a bit old and run down in some part, noisy and a bit far from city center for some people but worth it for the views of the ocean and the city (go their for a drink just for the view).

I also went to El Bulli (in the village of Roses, north of Barcelona, in the Costa Brava region) which was a truly amazing experience and an unusual culinary lesson. In my opinion, El Bulli will never become your everyday restaurant due to the prices and the extreme texture of the food (lot of "mousse" or foam), however you should experience it at least once or twice in your life, it's worth it.

One of my most memorable memories in Spain took place at Marques de Riscal (Rioja, Elciego), after one of my numerous visits at the winery, we were invited to eat at their new gastronomic restaurant and to stay in their newly built Luxury Hotel. Don't ask me how we did it, it is a long story... however, here again the food was excellent, the service fabulous and the suites (it is more than a room, trust me) which were reserved for us, were sumptuous.

Despite sleeping in great hotels and eating in many exquisite, hard to book in advance restaurants, my previous job also allowed me to travel, every year, to many different wine regions of Spain (and many in France too) for wine tastings (often with the owner or the winemaker, in the cellar at the barrels) and buying purposes. I was really privileged to be able to prepare, organize and participate to all my boss's trips.

I visited many wineries, met a lot of earthy, welcoming producers and tasted hundreds of wines from Rioja, Ribera del Duero, Toro, Cigales, Bierzo, Rias Raixas, Ribeiro, Navarra, Monsant, Priorat, Bullas, La Mancha, Penedes, Rueda, Tarragona, Terra Alta, Coster del Segre, Emporda Costa Brava, Alicante, Jumilla, Yecla, Valdepenas, etc... and of course many Xeres (altough I never been to the south of Spain, I roughly stoped in the middle).

Spain is really a delightful place to visit but not only for its wines or its food, the culture, the history, the people, the sunny weather, the Mediterranean cost and the nouvelle vague (new wave) of artists and designers make Spain one of the main center of interest in Europe. Barcelona is (somewhat) still under the radar compared to Paris, London, Rome, Milan, Geneva, Brussels or Berlin (to only name a few), but it is getting there slowly and surely. You just have to walk the streets of Barcelona to realize it. There are paintings and sculptures, and many other forms of art to confirm it at every corners of this energetic city.

However, I could continue to talk about the multiple attractive features of Spain for many more paragraphs, but I think I should write another post about it. So let's come back to wine and especially to Rioja.

Despite the fact that my heart belongs to Bordeaux (and my wife and son) and that I absolutely adore Burgundy, I always come back to Rioja. First, because it is not too far from Bordeaux and San Sebastian (both primary destinations every time I 'm back in Europe), and secondly, because there is something magical about it.

I always say that Rioja has something almost unrealistic, a bit like an attraction park or a movie studio. You will understand what I mean if you drive through Rioja, because, (and this only a personal impression), the roads are brand new but everything around it date from the XII and XIII century, which create such a contrast that you could almost believe that the landscape is a decor, somewhat unreal or surreal.

If you leave the main road to take a more country side road to go to San Vicente de la Sonsierra, Laguardia or even Haro, you will suddenly be transported back in time, a more medieval time.
On the side of the road, next to the vineyard, you can still see these little domes made of stone and earth, sort of vineyard workers' hut where they usually rest during the day if the temperature rise to high during summer or just to take a break or stock their vineyard tools. Some of these Stone Domes or Huts date from even before the medieval times. From an historical point of view, Rioja's vineyards and wine culture began with the Phoenician in 11th century BC, and was later firmly established by the Romans (like most of the known vineyards in western Europe).

These Domes are vestige of the long wine producing tradition of the area. Even the villages, like in the medieval times, remain small and nestled on hilltop through out Rioja. They were built and erected on strategic high point to be defendable and some were impregnable. The lord of the village or the region could, that way, overlook the production of his land and protect his people.
Rich in culture and tradition, Rioja is a peaceful wine oasis that any wine and food lovers should visit.
To be continued....
LeDom du Vin
PS: next time, I will write a bit more about some of my favorites restaurants, hotels and of course wineries in Rioja. I will also give more details on different places that I visited in Ribera del Duero and Priorat (and more)....

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