Vineyards by hot-air balloon and viniculture spas – Gemma Askham finds there’s more to Rioja than a pub wine list
It’s at 400 metres of altitude, in the snug of a floating basket, that everything I thought I knew about Rioja – wine-list favourite, aeroplane-trolley essential – suddenly feels about one per cent of the actual story. Below, olive trees and gnarly vines shine in the 7am sunrise as Valentín Carbajo, part of the Riojan hot-air balloon squad once ranked the sixth best in Europe, glides us up and down like a smooth swirl of Mr Whippy. Landmarks are served generously: the River (Río) Oja that the region is named after; the ornate cathedral spire of Santo Domingo de la Calzada, part of the famous Santiago de Compostela pilgrimage. When a glass of local tipple is poured – not a red, but a frothy, light, fizzy Riojan white – I feel like I’m cracking a conspiracy. How did I not know that this was all only two hours away?
Where to wine
Bilbao, in northern Spain’s Basque Country, is your corkscrew into the region. From the tin-foil-toned architecture of Frank Gehry’s spectacular Guggenheim gallery, sipping starts an hour’s drive south (two by train) in Haro – AKA Wine City. The nickname comes from boasting the highest concentration of century-old wineries in the world, though ‘city’ isn’t literal – with more barrels than people, the seven flagship wineries in this beautifully boozy oasis can all be walked to.
Each has its own personality. López de Heredia is a stadium-sized operation: 64,000-litre vats of red so tall you could crick your neck, secret underground tunnels graffitied in mould and spiderwebs (both deliberate – the former stops barrels drying and cracking, the latter traps pests), plus a glitzy shop designed by Zaha Hadid. At the smaller scale, boutique Gómez Cruzado aces its tasting spaces – a flower-decorated patio and cosy bar stools with wool rugs – and throws the curveball of an outstanding white that’s made from viura and tempranillo blanco (the white version of the tempranillo grape found in many Riojan reds). While neighbouring Muga, a winery so pretty you’ll want its gardener’s number, produces two petal-pale rosés, plus a white and a pink cava.
A 10-minute car scoot outside Haro and wine-making turns matriarchy at Bohedral – run by three generations of women. “I come from an era when women were told to stay at home, but my life’s dream was to run my own wine business,” Fe Bezares, founder and grandmother, smiles defiantly. She fulfilled her wish in 2001, and today runs Bohedral with her daughter Blanca and granddaughter Leire – such beautiful-souled ladies that you wish you could bottle them up.
Miles apart on the modernity spectrum (though only 30 minutes, physically), Baigorri is how you imagine wine-making will take place in 2099. Above ground, it’s an astonishing glass-walled cube with sweeping vineyard panoramas, before slinking down into a top-spec, NASA-esque, concrete wine production bunker. Forget a sommelier, you expect Grand Designs’ Kevin McCloud – or even a robot – to refill your glass.
Where to dine
Foodie neighbour San Sebastián has long hogged the hype and hungry stomachs – bragging more Michelin stars per capita than Paris (and, in fact, than in most cities of the world). But with a lot of wine to soak up, Rioja is on a charge to redress the balance and provincial capital Logroño is the new name on the Spanish dining scene. Reservations at Michelin-starred Kiro Sushi only open up every three months, and you need to move fast to snap up one of the 10 kitchen-side seats where Japanese-trained (but Riojan-born) chef, Félix Jiménez, slices his delicate morsels. Elsewhere, the buzzy young team at Íkaro – local Iñaki Murúa and Ecuadorian Carolina Sánchez – serve Michelin-starred tasting menus. For more casual finger food, head to Calle Laurel – a street-long tapas crawl where locals joke and jostle over barrels-turned-tables, the crowds are thick, and the tapas plentiful and fast-coming.
Where to recline
A roof isn’t the standard talking point about what makes a hotel great; the exception being Marqués de Riscal, Rioja’s most iconic rest spot thanks to Frank Gehry’s undulating roof shaped like sheets of silver and pink pappardelle pasta. It also houses Spain’s only Caudalie Vinothérapie hotel spa, where the Crushed Cabernet Scrub buffs, brightens and sloshes on the polyphenol antioxidants found in grape seeds. An equally good glow comes from the massage tables at the arty, brushed-concrete-heavy Hotel Viura – where, post-scrub (and it’s a juicy, rigorous pummeling), your limbs will literally shine. The other best bedroom to bookmark is at Hotel Palacio Tondón – a newly rebooted 16th century palace that has charm by the ice-bucket load. Cheers to that.