I suppose this wine-induced, little adventure started when I bought my boyfriend a particular wine book.
Little side note: It’s him I should thank (or blame) for dragging me into this vino inspired love story, not that I ever offered any resistance. But just in case you think me an alcoholic, we all know who to point fingers at, don’t we?
The book, called Wine Trails, lists different wine locations around the globe and a most convenient guide to tour them in a weekend. Naturally, I proposed Greece (Mount Olympus! The Acropolis! The islands! The gods!!), a country listed on the book and one I had been wanting to visit for ages but never got around to. But, seeing as we had already said we’d visit Rioja in Spain after a particular bottle had intrigued us, I conceded defeat and stored my excitement for another year (I’m sorry Alexia! Αγαπώ ακόμα!). I made plans for our stay in Rioja based on recommendations from the book and decided that the medieval, walled city of Laguardia, located right in the middle of numerous wine houses would serve our purpose well.
The trickiest part, I think. The closest airport is Logroño which is just a 30 minute drive from the main wineries of the region. Unfortunately, as is the case for most smaller airports, there are no direct flights from Malta. We had to settle for Barcelona in the end, even though Madrid is actually closer (we were tight with days so had to go for the only available airport. Alternatively, you could take another flight up to Logroño to avoid the long drive). But I’m not complaining. We spent a delightful day touring the city, eating tapas, drinking chilled wine and in the evening went to watch a spectacular Flamenco show. You could feel the passion emanating from every tap of the heel and from the facial expressions they wore, now almost pained, now joyous, now sombre. The next day, we woke up early, went for our rental car and drove up to Rioja.
The changes in landscape colours were pretty spectacular. Green at first, then red thatched roofs as we passed by Zaragosa, then arid, flat and sandy, then green again with rows upon rows of vineyards. Laguardia appeared to us from behind a bend, a gorgeous little town set on a hill with the majestic Sierra de Cantabria mountain range standing protectively behind it. We would soon learn that it was thanks to those mountains, and the protection they offered from the humidity travelling over the nearby sea, which made the Rioja grapes and by extension the wine, famous for its taste. But more on the vino later.
Our first hotel was actually going to be outside the walled city and not on the hill itself. There were not many availabilities left (remember this is peak season and there was the feast of the Virgin coming up) and I had kept an eye on it for quite some time until I found THE castle. I am honestly still swooning about it. Set as part of the actual walls of the city, the castle had been renovated by a hotelier soon after the death of the first owner, sometime in the 17th or 18th century. Castillo El Collado has its own tower, small chapel and the hotel is still decked as if it were an actual castle. It’s only the small number of tourists loitering by the front door with their rolling suitcases which give it away.
Every room had a different charm and a name to go with it. Ours was Amor y Locura, the room in the tower. Translated, this means Love and Madness and at first I thought it a tribute to the mythology of Cupid and Psyche, a photo of which stood behind the bed. As it turns out, after some research (yes I’m a nerd like that) I found out there was a sweet spanish tale they tell their children called precisely El Amor y La Locura. Back to the room, being a suite put it on the pricey side (€192 a night including taxes, I believe but you can verify on Booking.com) but by Jove, I struggle even now to find words to describe how happy the room made me feel. I went in, stared for a moment, then tore open the windows, flooding the white and grey room in light. The views alone were worth a million dollars, with rows of Rioja grape vines underneath us and the rocky mountains perched to the left. The round bath, the old faucets, the white flowers on the tables, the complimentary bottle of wine. Everything somehow looked as it should. You know how sometimes you see places and you go, yep, wouldn’t change a single thing. This was it. I can honestly assign a couple of holiday highlights to that room; the bath, hand cradling the wine glass I’d come to adore, and watching the sun inch its way over the mountains early in the morning to fill the room with an explosion of light.
I honestly felt like I was some kind of princess in an ivory tower I did not want to leave. Carl and I promised ourselves we’d come again, and I look forward to it.
So far, you’d think I came out to Rioja for the hotel. I guess you could say that it was what I call a “happy collateral” – but the main reason we came here was for the wine. We booked a couple of wine tours at recommended wine houses which, I was surprised to notice, were actually quite cheap! They start at €8 for a tour of the basic rooms and could go up to €12, €15 and some even up to €30, but nothing bank-breaking. Wine tours include a tasting of some 2 or 3 wine (and until there’s vino in the bottle, you can help yourself to refills) and a few morsels of local food.
The Marques de Riscal wine tour, one of the eldest wine houses in the area took near to an hour and a half and every step of the process was explained in the actual rooms where it takes place. The property is exceptionally beautiful with a hotel which stands out for its modern facade, with swirling pieces of metal in all the colours of the wine. The backdrop was exquisite, with the green vines contrasting against the sandy colours of the stone. The other tour we visited was at the Ysios Winery, a modern architecture gem which makes you pause for a second to soak it all in; a gentle contrast to the natural surroundings and yet and effortless blending. Fun Fact: the name Ysios is actually a blend of Isis and Osiris, gods in Ancient Egypt who seemed to have had quite a penchant for vino-pleasures. The “Y” in the name is more of a symbol for the wineglass.
In both wineries, the wine is a blend of grapes, mostly Tempranillo, the indigenous variety but also Mazuelo and Graciano to add fruitiness and acidity. Hearing the tour guides speak made me realise how passionate these people are about their produce, how they speak of the vines and grapes like they were describing the antics of a person. They sounded respectful, almost reverent, of the oldest vines which gave them the best wine, alas, in small quantities, lessening by the year. I know I’m probably giving wine-connoisseurs a heart-attack right now, but I have to admit, I enjoyed drinking this wine more than the French variety which is more full-bodied and perhaps a little heavier.
We ate exceptionally well at every bodega and restaurant we visited. To name just a couple, Amelibia, Capricho de Baco, Mayor de Migueloa in Laguardia and another excellent restaurant in Vitoria-Gasteiz, of which I cannot for the life of me remember the name. But its light blue, old-fashioned louvers and its patterned tiles very reminiscent of Malta, drew us in. Incidentally, Vitoria-Gasteiz is another charming old town close to Laguardia with winding roads and colourful buildings, a spot you might also consider visiting.
I think this region, the few days we spent there, and the manner in which our senses were dazzled by the beauty and the tastes we met along the road will always be remembered with a certain fondness. The kind you recall on warm balmy evenings when you’re sipping wine somewhere and your eyes crinkle with a huge smile. “Ahh, taf fiex qed niftakar? Rioja! Meta se nerggħu mmorru?”