Saturday, March 14, 2009

Visiting Errioxa

This article published at The Times contains a pearl of historic truth, Errioxa (known as Rioja) is actually a Basque province, here you have it:

On the trail of a fine rioja by way of the annual wine battle

David Sharrock

Spain’s most famous wine-producing region actually extends across its eponymous province into the Basque Country and Navarra, although at its centre is the historic city of Logroño, an important halt on the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage trail.

Thousands of years ago La Rioja region was an inner sea of the Iberian Peninsula and its geography gives its wineries a distinct advantage, sheltered from the more extreme climates of its regional neighbours by mountain ranges to the north and south. The region is slowly but surely developing a wine trail, the jewel in its crown being the Marqués de Riscal Hotel, in Elciego, designed by Frank Gehry, whose rippling roof of titanium leaves reflects the colours of the landscape during the grape harvest.

While the hotel is visually stunning, the winery designed by Santiago Calatrava for the makers of Ysios rioja is perhaps a happier match with the stunning landscape.

The winery or bodega is located close to Laguardia, a fortress-like town which well reflects its name: it was originally known as Laguardia de Navarra – the Guard of Navarre.

Cars are not allowed through its medieval gates for a very good reason: beneath the narrow streets lies a honeycomb of catacombs, the original bodegas where wine was made and stored. Most lie empty, but El Fabulista is one exception where guided tours and tastings are given inside a beautiful underground vault.

Primicia is another town worthy of visit, where recent restoration work has opened up what is thought to be its oldest building, a tithe house established by the Catholic Church.

If you are very lucky you may also visit Primicia’s bodega garden, set among some of its vines with views of the mountains. I enjoyed a memorable autumnal lunch there, feasting on barbequed baby lamb chops.

Laguardia makes an ideal base for exploring the immediate area. For those of us with pockets too shallow to stay in the Marqués de Riscal – where Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt have rested their Hollywood heads – I recommend the Posada Mayor de Migueloa, a characterful 17th-century house in the heart of Laguardia.

For a busier nightlife head for Logroño and some of the best food in northern Spain.

The city highlight is Calle Laurel, where some 50 bars create what is known locally as the Elephant Trail.

It derives its nickname from the Spanish phrase Ir trompa – to stagger drunkenly along. Trompa is Spanish for an elephant’s trunk. On a Friday evening it makes perfect sense: you can just imagine the herd in full cry.

Don’t worry, it is all very good natured, washed down with small but frequent glasses of good rioja and accompanied by a type of tapas called pinchos, with each bar offering its own speciality.

My favourite bar is the Soriano – fantastic mushrooms. And if you think that wine tourism is simply refined sniffing and slurping then try being in Haro for its annual wine battle, held each year on June 29.

Its origins are based on a local territorial dispute but that is beside the point: thousands of litres of red wine are sprayed, poured and thrown. Be sure you are not wearing anything you value too highly.

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