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.

Continue reading Rioja Part Two: Do Great Architects Make Good Wine?

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Rioja: Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Winemaking (and a teeny bit of actual drinking)

Our three-day visit to the Rioja wine route in Spain has made us experts at making wine.

Spain's Rioja wine region

Prior to this trip, my personal sommelier XFE and I felt fully confident that after watching two seasons of Moonshiners, several tours of distilleries (including Jameson in Ireland) and quite a few breweries (mostly in Colorado), and probably a total of a hundred wineries on three continents, we were conversant in the basics of turning a grain or fruit into a fermented adult beverage.

When planning our trip to the Rioja region, we ran into a wrinkle that we’ve actually run into before. Spain (like other parts of Europe) requires advance bookings for visits to their wineries. Fine. But in most cases, you can’t just go in for a tasting. You have to do a tour of the facilities.

Now, as I mentioned, we go on a lot of winery visits. We go out to Virginia wineries twice a year to taste the latest vintages and stock our wine closet. We’ve been to Napa and Sonoma. We’ve been to Northern Italy. We’ve been to the Barossa region of Australia. We’ve done many, many tours. This is not our first wine rodeo.

So being required to go on tour after tour after tour where there’s actually only a tiny bit of variance in the process (hmmm, you use American oak barrels instead of French oak? Wow.) just so we can have a tiny taste of two of your least popular wines? It’s excessive. In no instance were the wines served as good as wines we subsequently bought and tasted.

My suggestion? I’d rather hear more about the wine itself. What notes should I look for? Which specific ones are available for sale in the US (since the wineries won’t ship)? How long should we store it if we buy it? How is this one different from this one? That kind of stuff.

Nevertheless, we made reservations for tours at four facilities: Bodega Lopez de Heredia in Haro; Bodega Baigorri in Samaniego; Marques de Riscal in Elciego; and Bodega Ysios in Laguardia. Our mid-November trip was around two-to-six weeks after harvest and bottling (depending on the facility), so things were definitely quiet and reservations were easy to arrange.

We started our trip with a pleasant morning drive to Haro, about an hour and a half south of Bilbao. The countryside was beautiful, with steep cliffs of iron on each side of the road and early morning fog burning off.

Spain's Rioja wine region

Haro is one of those small old Spanish towns that has one road entering it, and Lopez de Heredia was one of the first spots right off the road. You couldn’t miss it. Well, and the modern decanter shaped tasting room building also gave it away.

Lopez de Heredia in Haro, Spain
Tasting room at Lopez de Heredia

You see, the big thing in the Rioja region is to have some fancy-schmancy architect build your facility or tasting room. In the case of Lopez de Heredia, the tasting room was designed by an Iraqui-British architect, Zaha Hadid.

The tasting room is the only nod to modernity at Lopez de Heredia. They are extremely proud of their adherence to the old ways of doing things, using many of the traditional methods they’ve honed over the last 130-plus years to make their Vina Tondonia. They make their own barrels and have an onsite cooperage, a source of great pride for our lovely young tour guide. And, in case you were wondering, they use American oak.

Barrel making at Lopez de Heredia in Haro, Spain

We also got a peek at some of their very creepy underground storage vaults where bottles of wine were just coated with cobwebs and dust. You could not make out a single label. In many cases, you couldn’t even tell that they were bottles. Our tour guide explained that killing the spiders would be environmentally insensitive since they provide a necessary service of eating other pests. The amount of post-harvest wine gnats floating in the air would seem to suggest—to me at least—that the spiders were not holding up their end of the deal, and just maybe, we could break out a feather duster and tidy up a bit.

Wine storage at Lopez de Heredia

At Heredia, we tasted crianzas, reservas and gran reservas – terms which refer to how long the wines have been aged. They were all very, very good and were bargain priced, although that did us no good since they don’t ship to the U.S. Heredia, like other wineries in Rioja, uses a U.S. distributor, which means you can’t get all of their wines, and the staff at the wineries don’t know which ones you can get. Quite frustrating. We ended up buying a bottle to drink, and a small dessert wine to take home.

Wine storage at Lopez de Heredia

Haro has 19 or so wineries, but we had only made reservations at Heredia, which had been recommended by the guy at our favorite local wine store. There was, however, a tasting room right next door to Heredia that we had read about during our research – Bodegas Roda. As promised, it was small and to the point. You could taste Roda wines and even their olive oil, which we did.

Bodegas Roda in Spain

We then headed down the street to Bodegas Torre Muga, which is a very large and modern operation that, quite wisely, has a wine bar where you can sit and try a flight of wines without going through the tour business. It was here that we made a very odd discovery: although the Rioja region is deservedly known for its wonderful reds, the whites were just as good, if not sometimes better. This was true at Muga, which had a wonderful blanco that we fell in love with.(They also had some of the best buttery crackers there, which I. Tore. Up.)

Torre Muga, Rioja, Spain
Didn’t like anything. Anything at all.

Tomorrow: Wine bankruptcies, the role of gravity in winemaking, and why you should not choose a winery based on a cool, architecturally interesting building.

Spain Does Not Suck

Hola chicas (y, un solo chico, possiblimente)! Como estamos? I’m great! And back from a fabulous vacation in Northern Spain.

Toons wants to go

Petunia really wanted to go. She’s Calico, which is kinda close to Catalonian, so she thinks she should go to Spain. In the photo above, she is sitting on my travel binder.

Oh, do you not know about the travel binder? This is a binder with all the emails exchanged with hotels and all the reservations and hotel and restaurant information we might need. Also, multiple maps for getting from point a to point b. Yes, it’s a bit anal. But it has come in handy. For example, the scuba outfitter in Australia had waived our guide fees because they had to move us to a different boat. Of course, the people actually on the boat had no record of this. So, out came the travel binder with all the emails. Done.

We had no problems whatsoever in Spain and we did not need the travel binder. And, since we had GPS, everything went smoothly.

Guggenheim. Bilbao.
Guggenheim. Bilbao.

The whole trip was pretty perfect. Even the weather cooperated. I had looked up the weather report for the week (and included it in the itinerary in the travel binder – my anal-abilities really do have no limits). The reports said it was supposed to be rainy and kinda cold every day. Highs only in the mid-50s, supposedly. The only time it rained was the first couple of days in Bilbao. Other than that, perfect weather.

Some highlights:

Discovering two new (to me) clothing stores called Cortefiel and Sfera. I picked up a few cute things at each of them. Shopping was how XFE kept me from falling down asleep on my first jet-lagged evening in Bilbao.

Pintxos. Holy tiny deliciousness. These are little bite-sized appetizers, like little open sandwiches and yummy little fried balls of awesomeness. And these things are just laying out at all the bars and you just help yourself. They’re these little works of art. So, so inventive. We pretty much ate them everyday, the entire trip. The very best, in our estimation, were at a place in San Sebastian called La Cuchara de San Telmo. We ate there twice our last day and it was unbelievable.

Pintxos in Bilbao, Spain
Our first night in Bilbao and the first of many, many pintxos.

Two Michelin-star dinners, including a very, very odd one at Miramon Arbelaitz in San Sebastian. It was in a very industrial type area (sorta like Reston), so they do a pretty brisk lunch business. We found the restaurant and went in for our 9 pm reservation. The place was entirely empty. And it stayed that way through our entire tasting dinner. They basically opened the restaurant for us. It was fantastic food at a really good value, but so, so awkward. I just kept wondering why they didn’t just tell us they weren’t taking bookings for that night.

Marques de Riscal with Elciego
At Marques de Riscal with Elciego in the background.

I’ll have some more posts in the coming days, including a description of some of the wine tours in Rioja, the hotels we luxuriated in, and probably some more pintxos.

Pink Mink and Rubber Duckies: Wine Tasting in the Barossa

After escaping death’s watery clutches, mastering the art of koala whispering, and rubbing elbows with popstars, there really was only one thing left to do: Drink a bunch of wine.

Wine of Australia's Barossa Valley

We headed to the Barossa Valley, a wine region in southern Australia. It’s kinda like Napa but without the crowds or the tasting fees.

Barossa is an hour drive from Adelaide and was settled in the mid-1800s by Europeans, mostly Germans and the British. Almost immediately, it seems, they began producing wine. Some of the vines at one winery (Langmeil, which also happened to be our favorite) are 169 years old, which is pretty crazy when you consider that after 20 years, vines start to produce smaller and smaller yields (something I learned during a tasting at our second favorite winery Turkey Flat – where our extremely attractive hostess claimed that they had the oldest vines. This would become a common theme throughout our visit).

Turkey Flat, Barossa Valley

The region is made up primarily of three communities – Angaston, Tanunda, and Nuriootpa (which is the Aboriginal word for “getting your swerve on with good wine.” Actually, that’s not a literal translation. It really means “meeting place.”  All three towns are relatively close together (within miles of each other) and there are tons of little communities dotted in between, including Bethany, which was one of the oldest settlements and had a lovely winery built into a rock quarry. It also claims to have the oldest vines in the region. Shocker.

The Barossa is visually stunning – lots of rolling hills and expansive vistas. It wasn’t at all crowded when we were there – generally there were a few other people at any particular tasting room, but nothing crazy.

Almost all of the tastings were fully inclusive, meaning you could try absolutely anything they had. Anything. It was crazy. A wine free-for-all. My wine-for-life-partner XFE and I shared tastings to keep the tipsy at bay, but the generosity of the pours overall made this a challenge.

The tastings were free almost everywhere, or $5, reimbursable with a purchase. And in the couple of cases where there was supposed to be a fee (for example, the wonderful Seppeltsfield Winery – which ALSO claims the oldest grapes!), the shopkeepers even waived that small fee because we were American and couldn’t really buy much to take with us.

Seppeltsfield Winery

(Seppeltsfield was very interesting because they specialize in fortified wine, which are things like sherry, port and tawny. What makes it fortified is the addition of a liquor, in this case brandy. I’ll tell you, I was learning stuff all over that valley.)

Even the big guys like Penfolds and Peter Lehmann didn’t have fees. These were the two largest, most commercial wineries we went to, and we actually bought a very, very nice bottle of wine at Penfolds to have with dinner that night, but we generally like to seek out the smaller, lesser-known wineries. Needless to say, we avoided Jacob’s Creek and Wolf Blass.

Penfolds Shiraz, Australia

But the Barossa specialty is the Shiraz and I swear, we didn’t have a bad Shiraz the whole time we were there, including the sparkling Shiraz, which was wonderful.  They also have a popular blend GMS, which is Grenache, Mataro or Mouvedre, and Shiraz that I liked.

On the white front, they had some very interesting Rieslings, which were for the most part very dry. Not sweet, like the German versions. And, surprisingly (since it’s so popular here in Virginia) we tasted a few Viogniers. We also had some great, great roses, including the above mentioned Turkey Flat, and at a small winery called Rockford.

We went to 14 wineries over the course of two days, which seems like a lot, in retrospect. But we were generally out the door at 10 am and back by 5 pm, so they were pretty spread out. And, like I said, we did share tastings and we didn’t go through the whole list at each winery, instead, picking and choosing a few that we wanted to try.

Plus, we had nice long lunches each day, including lunch in Angaston twice at a place called Wanera Wine Bar. They had this octopus and chorizo dish that was to die for. XFE and I both shared a tapas sized portion the first day we went and then two days later, went back for the larger portions. Just thinking about it right now is making me crave it.

Octopus at Wanera Wine Bar

Mostly we stood around talking to the shopkeepers and winemakers, who were a very gracious and helpful bunch. I really did learn a lot. For example, at Whistler Wines, I learned that kangaroos like apples. That’s because the owner keeps kangaroos and gave us some sliced apples to take out there.

Winery kangaroos

We bought a few wines, including a couple of wonderful Tawnys, one of which, Mr. Pickwick’s Particular Tawny from Saltram Wine Estates, which we had had during my birthday dinner at Ochre. We also bought a small bottle of Tawny from Langmeil.

But our best purchase had to be a lovely sparkling concoction we bought on our way home one night at a winery that was just down the street from where we were staying in Lyndoch.

Kellermeister Wines has quite a distinguished billboard – very understated and regal – that proclaims that its wines have received a whole bunch of stars from renowned Australian wine critic James Halliday. This is apparently quite the big deal, according to the very posh young man who was serving us that day. And, according to the Kellermeister website:

We’ve been quietly handcrafting Kellermeister wines in small batches at our boutique winery in the beautiful Barossa Valley for a long time now. But in true Aussie fashion, we’ve managed to keep just how exceptional the wines are pretty quiet. Well, until recently that is, when Australia’s leading authority on all things wine, James Halliday, spilled the beans in his definitive Australian Wine Companion.

James classified our winery with the highest possible winery rating – five bright red stars. This prestigious designation is only bestowed upon a handful of wineries across Australia in recognition of the consistent production of wines of “exemplary quality and typicity” – just the sort of wines that we’ve been making for over 30 years.

We tried a few of the Kellermeister wines, including, of course, the Shiraz, nodding and murmuring our appreciation, when two intriguingly named Moscatos caught our eye. “Could we try the Black Fire and the Pink Mink?” we asked.

Pink Mink Moscato

It may not be from the oldest vines in the Barossa (although the label hasn’t changed since the 1970s), but that Pink Mink sure did taste good after dinner while we gazed out over the dark hills and impossibly starry skies from our uber large Jacuzzi bathtub, pink rubber ducky included.

Australian duck