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La Rioja region: Eye-popping scenery, tasty wines

Huge, brightly painted wine casks known as “tinas,” capable of holding 30,000-liters, are stored in the cellar at Bodegas Bilbaínas in Haro, Spain.

GAYLE SMITH PADGETT / SPECIAL TO S&S

By GAYLE SMITH PADGETT | SPECIAL TO STARS AND STRIPES Published: April 13, 2006

There’s a lot to see in Spain’s La Rioja region, and it should be no surprise to those familiar with the name that much of it has to do with producing wine.

The 120-mile drive from the northwest coast city of Santander to La Rioja reveals a landscape of stunning contrasts: dramatic rocky cliffs, steep peaks, emerald green pastures with grazing cows, and expansive flat stretches of vineyards.

In addition to the eye-popping scenery, Rioja offers charming cliff-hanging villages, unique shopping, elegant state-of-the-art bodegas (wineries), a Michelin-star restaurant, world-class architecture, wine museums and soon, a wine complex with a spa and conference facility.

Haro, the capital of La Rioja, is a good choice for a base. This walkable, scruffy-chic town offers unique architecture, many restaurants, tapas bars, vinotecas (wine shops) and best of all, a special hotel and a complex of bodegas.

A 10-minute walk from our room at the historic Hotel Los Agustinos in the center of town is the Barrio de La Estación, the railway neighborhood with its 17 bodegas. Some of the wineries offer tours, some free, some in English. Notable ones include Bodegas Muga, Bodegas Bilbainas, Bodegas Ramón Bilbao and CVNE.

An official list of the bodegas’ opening hours is available at the Tourist Information office, but the schedules can vary, making appointments imperative. As one employee pointed out, the list is not fact but theory, adding that “You just can’t come and go [to the wineries] like the town square.” So make sure to e-mail or call ahead to request a tour or confirm a scheduled visit.

Our only time to visit was a Monday morning when few wineries were open. Luckily José Luis González Sánchez, a public relations representative at Bodegas Bilbainas, was able to give us an abbreviated tour, including the cellar lined with magnificent 30,000-liter tinas (over-sized wine barrels), and answered lots of questions.

A half-hour’s drive west of Haro is the village of Ezcaray, home to the fabulous Michelin one-star restaurant, El Portal, directed by Francis Paniego. We had a delectable meal featuring delicate, sweet cigalas (mini-lobsters, blackened lomo de cordero (back of lamb) and a heavenly dark chocolate pudding cake. It was accompanied by selections from a sophisticated wine list that included a full range of prices, some bottles under 20 euros.

Paniego also took the time to chat, autograph a menu and take photos. (Yes, I’m a groupie.)

Don’t leave Ezcaray before strolling along the Rio Oja, which meanders through town, and hiking around the nearby hillside. You’ll be rewarded with some lovely views and, if lucky, an enchanting surprise like the one I got at the nearby Hermitage of Our Lady of Allende. There I stumbled onto a wedding party emerging from the chapel. Men and women in colorful traditional costumes formed a circle around the bride and groom and danced to music from a flute and drum ensemble.

The inviting hill-perched walled village of La Guardia offers vast views of the surrounding vineyards. Inside the walls you can wander around the maze of winding stone alleyways and sample the local vintages at numerous vinotecas, some sleek and modern, others old-world rustic.

In the flats just south of Haro is the little village of Briones, home to one of the world’s largest wine museums, the Museum of Wine Culture. The museum, built by Bodegas Dinastía Vivanco, a winery that has been producing Rioja wine for generations, not only houses thousands of wine-related objects, but also is part of a complex that includes a theater, a garden displaying world grape varieties, a cafeteria and a restaurant with vineyard and mountain views. Admission is about $7.50.

El Ciego, a sleepy village, about a 10-minute drive from Haro, is home to the huge Marqués de Riscal winery. Here, Canadian architect Frank Gehry, who designed the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, is nearing completion of a new Marqués de Riscal wine complex, scheduled to open this summer.

Although no visits are offered now, you can admire the stunning, partially completed building from afar. Three “flying carpets” of glimmering gold, silver and pink titanium hover dramatically over the main structure. When completed, the complex will offer a hotel, a restaurant run by Michelin- starred Chef Paniego of El Portal, a cooking school, tasting rooms, a wine library, meeting rooms and a spa with grape-based treatments. By all accounts, it looks to be a winning combination.

Gayle Smith Padgett lives and works in Heidelberg, Germany.


Know and Go

Getting there

Fly Ryanair (www.ryanair.com) to Santander and rent a car. At the airport, there are several car rental agencies, including Hertz. The drive to Haro takes about 2 hours.

In Haro

  • Tourist information: Plaza Monseñor Florentino Rodríguez, across from Hotel Los Agustinos; (+34) (0) 941-30-33-66.
  • Lodging: Hotel Los Agustinos, 2 Calle San Agustín, Haro 26200; (+34) (0) 941-31-13-08, e-mail losagustinos@aranzazu-hoteles. com. In November, a huge double room cost 74 euros without breakfast.
  • Dining: Restaurante Beethoven II, 3-5 Santo Tomás, Haro 26200. Dinner for two with wine costs about 45 euros.
  • Shopping: Vintoteca Juan González Muga, 16 Calle San Eusebio, Haro. This tasteful wine shop sells a variety of wine and giftware.
  • Bodegas: Bodegas Bilbainas, www.groupocodorniu.com and m.oyono@codorniu.es; Bodegas Ramón Bilbao, www.bodegasramonbilbao.es and info@bodegasramonbilbao.es; CVNE, www.cvne.com and carlos.garcia@cvne.es; and Bodegas Muga, www.bodegasmuga.com and info@bodegasmuga.com.

In Ezcaray

  • Tourist information: 2 Avenida de Navarra, 26280 Ezcaray, (+34) (0) 902-35-02-35, www.valdeezcaray.es; oficiana@valdeezcaray.es.
  • Lodging: Hotel Echaurren, 2 Heroes del Alcázar, 26280 Ezcaray, www.echaurren.com and info@echaurren.com. A double without breakfast is 80 euros.
  • Dining: El Portal, a Michelin one-star gourmet restaurant is in Hotel Echaurren. An innovative three-course meal costs about 120 euros for two with wine.
  • Restaurant Echaurren, in Hotel Echaurren, serves traditional dishes for about 95 euros for two with wine. The atmosphere is casually sophisticated.
  • Restaurant Comilón, across the street from the Hotel Echaurren, serves traditional dishes in an informal atmosphere at moderate prices; www.comilon.com.
  • Masip, Plaza de la Verdura, Ezcaray. This casual tapas bar sells a small glass of wine for 1.25 euros and delectable tapas for 1.50 euros each.
  • Shopping: El Colmado de Ezcaray, a charming boutique jammed with wine and other products; www.colmadoezcaray.com.

In Briones

  • Bodegas Dinastía Vivanco, (Winery and Museum of Wine Culture), www.dinastiavivanco.es, infobodega@dinastiavivanco.es.

— Gayle Smith Padgett


Bodegas Bilbainas, located directly across from the Haro train station, offers tours in English.
GAYLE SMITH PADGETT / SPECIAL TO S&S

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