Rioja Part Two: Do Great Architects Make Good Wine?

“This Gehry guy really seems to know what he’s doing,” I said out loud, albeit, a bit breathlessly. I’m pretty sure the bellhop heard me on that one.

The swirling riot of metallic ribbons of fuschia, gold and silver that make up the roof of the Hotel Marques de Riscal will do that to a girl.

You would think after seeing Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, I’d have been a bit more jaded, a bit more prepared for the impact of a Gehry-designed building. I mean, how many times can one swoon at the site of some curved titanium?

Apparently, in my case at least, there is no cap on being awe-stricken by a building. And as the Spanish sun reflected the colors of the roof onto the ground beneath my feet, I was again amazed by architecture.

Marques de Riscal hotel and winery

The Hotel Marques de Riscal was the whole crazy origins of this trip to Spain. As a Starwood Luxury Property, we would stumble across pictures of it on Starwood’s website. It seemed incongruous to see this crazy modern property nestled in the center of a tiny old Spanish town.

It went into the “maybe someday” file.

But as we started talking about our trip to Spain, we decided we wanted to go somewhere off the beaten path. Someplace neither of us had been and that we would see together for the first time.

And then, of course, there was the wine.

Marques de Riscal is not just a fancy hotel designed by a “starchitect.” It’s a self-proclaimed “City of Wine” destination and, more importantly, a working winery producing 12 million bottles a year in Rioja, Toro and Rueda, 60% of which are for export (we’ve bought Marques de Riscal Reserva at Trader Joes and even Costco).

We did the wine tour on our second day there and learned (once again) about the wine making and storing and bottling process. Marques de Riscal is the oldest winery in the region (founded in 1858) but has definitely embraced modern processes and, of course, modern marketing. They were one of the first wineries to create and use the Denominación de Origen Rueda appellation distinguishing the Rioja region.

El Ciego, Rioja, Spain

We had a very excellent view of the working vineyards from our amazing room in the Annex building. They are 43 guest rooms, 13 in the main building with windows that look out from under the titanium ribbons, with the remainder (and apparently larger rooms) in the Annex building. The two buildings are connected by a suspended bridge. We were in the very last room, a huge corner suite overlooking the vineyards.

walkway 2 at Marques de Riscal

At first, I was disappointed that we weren’t in the building with the ribbons, but waking up every morning with the sunlight streaming in through the large walls of windows was pretty awesome in itself. Plus, being removed from the restaurants, bars, reception area made the whole thing feel like a retreat.

Room at Marques de Riscal, Rioja, Spain

But we weren’t there to just lounge around in the huge and comfortable king sized bed. We were there to drink some wine. So off we set to our next winery: Bodega Baigorri.

Bodega Baigorri, Rioja, Spain

If Apple were to build a winery, it would probably look like Baigorri. It’s a large glass cube, jutting out on the top of a dusty hill, kind of in the middle of nowhere. There’s hardly any furniture inside – just a couple of modern leather benches – and miles and miles of views all around. It was designed by local architect Inaki Aspiazu as a state-of-the art facility outside the town of Samaniego.

Bodega Baigorri, Rioja, Spain

Baigorri is a relative newcomer, at least in Rioja terms. Working hand-in-hand with Aspiazu, Jesus Baigorri started on his dream project in 1996 with the idea of using gravity in the wine making process. As a result, the winery is built seven stories down, into the side of the hill. There are no pumps, no machines moving the wine along. Just a gradual downward trajectory for each step in the process. It’s a huge, open, modern space filled with metal tanks on various rollers and tracks.

I rolled my eyes at the whole gravity business (“hey, look at me, I’m using gravity to stay on my feet. I could make wine!”) but I have to say, Baigorri wines were among our favorites of the whole trip, especially the whites.

We, of course, did the whole tour thing, and somewhere during the tour, our guide mentioned that the original owner had gone bankrupt and the winery had recently changed hands. Now THIS is the kind of stuff I want to hear on a wine tour! It appears our owner had been very successful in business (I believe in the travel industry) but he had to pull in some investors to finance his $25 million dream back in 1996 (and believe me, looking at the place, it’s quite easy to imagine that it cost $25 million to get this up and running.)

Baigorri barrels

Well, as often is the case with investors, they expect to see some returns pretty darn quick – a feat that is even more difficult during a worldwide recession (the first bottles of Baigorri wine didn’t come out until 2002). On top of that, apparently Spainards are drinking less, and when they do buy wine, they’re not necessarily drinking local.

Eventually, our wine dreamer had to sell and get out of the wine business. I believe our guide said Baigorri sold it to some pharmaceutical big shot (whose wife is a dermatologist and is developing all kinds of skin care products featuring the leftover grapes). Today, Baigorri is out of the wine game and living in Thailand.

After all that scintillating gossip and tongue clucking (“what a shame”), we had built up quite the appetite. XFE and I had lunch at the winery (a practically private affair with only one other couple in the whole place) and were able to try about five of the Baigorri wines. We literally liked all of them from the 2011 Rosado to the 2008 Crianza.

Bodega Baigorri, Rioja, Spain

The food was pretty amazing as well. A Rioja Tasting Menu which included a wonderful crunchy salmon starter with dill and Iberico pork jowl slowly cooked in Baigorri wine.

Lunch at Bodega Baigorri, Rioja, Spain

Baigorri is not the only winery to fall victim to the economic downturn. Driving in and out of Elciego, we travelled several times past the deserted shell of Bodega Antion on the outskirts of town. Another modern concrete structure, it was designed by J. Marino Pascual and completed in 2008. However, the owners went bankrupt with over $30 million in debt, and the winery and hotel never opened its doors. It sits vacant, with tall grass growing up around it and dark shadows hanging around the room patios.

Bodega Antion, Rioja

The last winery we visited in the Rioja region is in no danger of going bankrupt, although its’ wines left us less than impressed. Bodega Ysios is one of four Rioja wineries owned by the French alcohol beverage giant, Pernod-Ricard.

We had been warned that Bodega Ysios was not known for its’ great wines. But the building designed by Valencia-born Santiago Calatrava, totally pulled me in. The undulating and sculptural aluminum roof of Ysios effectively mirrors the craggy Cantabrian mountains behind it. It reminded me of some art deco hood ornament on a car (like these).

Ysios winery, Rioja, Spain

Inside, the undulating roof theme is continued, but this time in wood beams. The upstairs tasting room features large cathedral windows overlooking the vineyards and the nearby walled town of Laguardia.

Ysios winery, Rioja, Spain

Overall, we found the wineries in Rioja to be visually stunning and abundant – there must be hundreds. However, while there seems to be an overall philosophical agreement to promote wine tourism in the region (lots of signs declaring that you were on the Wine Route), in practice, the wineries are still dragging their feet a bit. The fact that you have to make appointments is a minor hurdle and having to take a tour of the facilities is repetitive.

And while quite beautiful, many of the facilities are not very welcoming from a logistics standpoint. No wide open doors at these places. In the case of Baigorri, you have to be buzzed into the building and state your business via intercom. And in the case of Ysios, we could not find the entrance driveway at all and ended up taking a weird route around the back and parking in what I’m sure was the employee parking lot. We saw lots and lots of wineries with large signs proclaiming their names, but when we drove up to the buildings, we were shooed away by a security guard.

There was also a consistently weird exchange about purchasing and shipping wine. In some places, we were told they could ship wine, but the prices were so, so exorbitant (hundreds of dollars just in shipping fees) for bottles of wine that were around 15 euros a piece. In other places, no amount of prying or cajoling could produce an estimate.

We’ve encountered reluctance to ship wine before. We totally get it – each state regulates wine differently and it’s almost impossible. But when we were in Australia, they just encouraged you to drink as much as you could while you were there. In Rioja, you got to taste two lesser quality wines after an hour-plus tour and that’s just not a very good payoff for all the hassle.

However, if you’re willing to put in the time and a minimal amount of effort, you’ll be rewarded with some fabulous memories and experiences.

Marques de Riscal hotel and winery, Rioja, Spain

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