By Christian L. Wright
Published: WEDNESDAY, AUGUST 31, 2005
Heading east from Santo Domingo de la Calzada, south of Bilbao, the landscape of the Rioja is covered in grape vines. There are poppies in bloom, 14th-and 15th-century towns along the way, small tractors zipping through the fields, men in white shirts bent over tending rows, and vines planted unevenly on every available patch of land. At a Cepsa gas station just outside Logroño, the region's capital, the convenience store is stocked - not with Twix bars and Diet Coke, but with vintage Rioja wines, baguettes, chorizo, cheeses and artichoke hearts. This is a place that takes its wine and food seriously.
The Rioja is known for its wines - the world-famous reds and, increasingly, its crisp, modern and oak-aged whites - and has had a long time to build its reputation. Grapes were introduced by the Romans, and exports to France and Italy began in the 16th century. But now some ripples of change are spreading across this small autonomous region just below the northern coast of Spain. Native chefs who have been toiling in kitchens across Europe are coming home; established wineries (or bodegas, in Spanish) experiment with new technologies, while new ones are winning awards; and some distinctly progressive architects are leaving their mark among the countryside's many church steeples, ancient ruins, sudden cliffs and rolling valleys.
Next summer, the Marqués de Riscal, the 150-year-old winery in Elciego, will open what it calls a city of wine. The bodega has managed to redirect the street through the small town so it doesn't cut through its property anymore. And now the original stone buildings surround a pedestrian area, above which hovers a stunning stone and titanium hotel by Frank Gehry, whose gleaming Guggenheim Museum transformed the industrial city of Bilbao.
Inspired by the vines growing all around, the building sprouts from the soil; three columns support the metal canopies that spread out like grape leaves at harvest time. The titanium of the canopies is tinted to symbolize the bodega: pink for red wine, gold for the wire netting around the bottle, and silver for the capsule. When it opens, the hotel will have 14 rooms in the main building and 29 more in an annex, a wine library, tasting rooms, a Caudalie Vinothérapie spa (where guests can literally soak in a vat of wine in the name of health), meeting rooms, a cooking school and two restaurants.
Guests will be able to wander around the ivy-covered complex to visit all aspects of the winery (which produces 4.5 million bottles in the Rioja every year), from the "cathedral" - an ancient subterranean vault that stores one of every bottle Marqués de Riscal has ever produced since the first in 1862 - to the vast modern fermentation hall, with its polished wood beams, huge stainless-steel tanks and imposing computer terminal that controls the process.
Though the region is small and easily covered in a few days by car, it's a good idea to enlist the help of a local guide, because a tour requires some planning. Roads are circuitous; the hours of operation at wineries, churches and museums can be sporadic (many places require appointments); some doors will open only when strings are pulled; and while you'll find some Riojans who can converse in a charmingly approximate English, the locals generally speak only Spanish.
A good place to start is Santo Domingo de la Calzada, a quiet town in the northwestern corner of the region; it was named for an 11th-century hermit who took part in building a bridge over the Oja River to help pilgrims on their way along the Camino de Santiago de Compostela. (A tributary of the Ebro, the Rio Oja is the river from which the Rioja takes its name.) These days, Santo Domingo de la Calzada is full of agricultural workers, wine people and storks. There is a huge population of storks in the northern part of the Rioja, and their awkward prehistoric gait looks like some fantastic link to the age of the dinosaurs.
About 19 kilometers, or about 12 miles, north in Haro, popularly known as the capital of Rioja wine, more than 20 wineries are clustered together in town, many of them (Muga, CVNE, Martínez Lacuesta) open for tours and tastings. In their midst, there are two renegades. The chef Juan Nales has opened Las Duelas, a remarkably sleek blond, beige and steel restaurant across from a former monastery on Monseñor Florentino Rodriguez Square. He serves sophisticated dishes based on the culinary traditions of the region. "Believe me," said Nales, "to make a good and tasteful traditional dish is not so easy for many young chefs."
The winery has already made itself known, with high marks from the wine critic Robert Parker for its 100 percent tempranillo, Cirsion 2001; five stars from Decanter magazine for Roda I 2001; and "best olive oil in Spain" from Gourmet magazine for its extra-virgin Dauro Emporda. A tour of Roda, by appointment, is a good lesson in contemporary winemaking and an interesting contrast to the more traditional practices at Marqués de Riscal.
En route east is the Bronze Age village of La Hoya. First occupied 3,400 years ago, the settlement is a remarkable remnant, with houses arranged in blocks in the plain below the medieval city of Laguardia.
Perched high on a hill in the Rioja Alavesa, Laguardia was originally built as fortification against the Castilian aggression in the 12th century; its walls, towers and gates are still intact. Within the town, narrow streets are lined with little stalls and barn doors.
Calle Páganos opens onto a lovely square by the bishop's tower. On one corner of the main square (Plaza Mayor) is La Vinoteca, a sister wine shop to the restaurant Marixa, just outside the Puerta San Juan, where excellent grilled meats are served in a dining room overlooking the lagoons, or salt lakes, that give way to the Sierra de Cantabria mountains in the distance.
In the old section of Logroño - on the southern banks of the Ebro, where a big square is home to a Baroque cathedral, a 16th-century Parliament building that's still in use and cafés filled with townspeople drinking aperitifs - there are several narrow streets lined with bars serving tapas and smooth crianzas by the glass. La Gota de Vino at the top of Calle Traversia de Laurel is a cool new spot with white rubber chairs and a zinc bar where you can get a little bite of spinach with anchovy or a red pepper stuffed with meat and spicy tomato sauce.
Farther along is Bar Soriano, a small, skinny, more traditional place that specializes in mushrooms. The tapas to choose is the tiny tower of three champinones, sautéed in garlic, topped with a grilled shrimp and pierced through by a toothpick.
An hour's drive southwest, the landscape changes dramatically in Ezcaray, a modest skiing and hiking village at the foot of the Sierra de la Demanda mountain range. There are stone and wood porticoes around the main town square; a 15th-century Gothic church with a balcony over the entrance and bells that call the townsfolk to Mass at all kinds of unpredictable hours; and a blanket-maker, Hijos de Cecilio Valgañón, where you can buy the same cashmere shawls that are sold at Carolina Herrera and Loewe, only for a fraction of the price.
Across from the church sits Echaurren, an enchanted country inn, owned and run by a local family, that's housed in a 400-year-old former postal stop. While it has just 25 rooms, it has two restaurants.
One is the famous Echaurren, the main dining room overseen by the matriarch Marisa Sánchez, which serves traditional food, such as croquettes and artichokes with ham. On the other side of the shared stainless-steel kitchen is El Portal, the stylish new restaurant overseen by Francis Paniego. He studied cooking at school in France and has done apprenticeships at the Michelin three-star restaurants Arzak in San Sebastian and El Bulli in Rosas.
Paniego came home in 1994 with ideas about updating his mother's recipes and finally opened El Portal to show them off. On the strength of his pork snout on cabbage, with a cream of foie gras, and other successful inventions, he won a Michelin star in November 2004 and, in turn, the top job at the new restaurant in the Gehry hotel at the Marqués de Riscal winery.
"I'm proud to be from the Rioja," Paniego said. "I consider it another ingredient in my food."