Rioja in Autumn – some photos

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Here are some photos I took on a recent trip to Rioja.

The Autumn colours were marvellous, although I was probably a week or two too late for the most vivid reds (here starting to turn brown), but still amazing, I hope you agree:

[ichc-flickr-slide width="400" height="300" username="thirstforwine" set_id="72157625284864279" player_r="71649"]

Is Viura the future of Rioja?

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Hotel Viura

If you are familiar with Rioja, you will know that the region is best known for its red wines made from Tempranillo, Garnacha, Mazuelo and Graciano. You might even know that its most important white grapes are Viura and Malvasia, with a tiny bit of Garnacha and Maturana Blanca. 

If you had to pick just one grape to represent Rioja, what would it be? Well, 9 out of 10 would probably choose Tempranillo, so it was a bit of a shock that Rioja’s latest tourism “jewel” was named after the main white variety, Viura, instead. 

Now, I’m not a ‘proper’ travel blogger. I rarely review specific destinations, hotels or restaurants, but I am interested in the things that make the beautiful Rioja region a great tourism destination. I do, however, still get requests from friends and followers on twitter for advice on making the most of their trip to Rioja. 

I realise that most people visiting Rioja have a great deal of competition for their limited travel time and budgets. If I can convince travellers to choose Rioja, and I really do recommend it, this may be their one chance, so somehow they’ve got to get a full experience of Rioja in only 2 or 3 days. The pressure is on! 

Panorama Villabuena de Alava

Well, I have always had lots of ideas of wineries to visit, restaurants, scenic drives and viewpoints, and even non-wine destinations. However, Rioja has always been held back from attracting more higher-end tourist looking for a luxury experience because most hotels, with the notable exception of the expensive “City of Wine“, were more serviceable than attractions in their own right. 

So, I was very keen to see if the arrival of Hotel Viura would change that. I was not disappointed! 

The hotel is an amazing, modern building set at the foot of a lovely, traditional village called Villabuena de Alava, home to wineries such as Viña Izadi and Luis Cañas, but in sharp contrast to it. The wilfully shambolic lines, boxes of colourful concrete and glass, placed seemingly at random by a playful giant, are a refreshing and still welcoming sight. I particularly liked the fact that the wall of glass above the main entrance reflects the traditional village buildings, bringing them “into” this new arrival, tying the two together. I can see why the Mayor pushed for this to be built. And I can see how the developers, designhouses, are right to be getting a lot of positive coverage. 

The hotel itself is probably best described as minimalist, almost austere, luxury. Polished concrete, chicken wire screens on the stairwell, chalked drawings on darkly lit walls in the corridors and moody lighting. 

The rooms are open and airy. Tall ceilings and enormous beds, with the elegant bathroom integrated into the room rather than separated from it. They also have large flat screens, blueray players, and free wifi (what luxury for social media types like me). The deluxe rooms and suites also have outdoor space to enjoy the cool evenings and fresh morning air. 

The hotel also boasts a large restaurant (with what I am assured are VERY well attached barrels over the diners’ heads) and an amazing, naturally cool and humid wine cellar just off the side. The cellar also boasts a “secret passage” that apparently was used to connect this cellar, and its treasures, with the local church that collected the “tithes” from the local populace. Needless to say, the treasures are very different today, but incredibly, this wine cellar is not just stocked with Rioja wines, but also international wines (I believe that the sommelier, Jose Gonzalez Godoy, might have a penchant for ice-wine!). 

So why “the future of Rioja” title above? 

If Rioja is to continue building the brand around the world, not only at the luxury end but in the rest of the market, consumers need to understand more than grape blends and ageing criteria. A regional wine brand is also about culture, and the best way to get more people to understand that is by getting them visiting the region and experiencing it, creating brand ambassadors around the world, whether they are wine Press, travel bloggers, food lovers or wine consumers. Rioja has invested a lot in making the wineries more welcoming and attractive, the food has always been good, but is becoming more creative, and the infrastructure of roads, stations and airports are also being developed. 

But none of this means very much if there is nowhere to stay. 

The accommodation alternatives in the area NEED to improve, and Hotel Viura is a great step forward in this respect. For many of today’s travellers, while we still exist in an era of relatively easy and cheap air travel, weekend get-aways are linked with pampering, affordable luxury and unique experiences. 

So, if you are looking for a place to travel, you want a bit of luxury and you want to be near lots of wonderful places to experience, yet in the quiet countryside, I highly recommend you check out Hotel Viura (and I’m not alone in saying this). 

Here are some of my photos of the hotel and the environs:
 

For full disclosure, I’d like to point out that my 1-night accommodation was free of charge thanks to Hotel Viura and Mango PR 

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Impressions of a first time visitor to Rioja – a guest post

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Sshh! Keep it quiet but I want to let you in on a secret.  Get to Rioja before word gets out. We did, hence this guest blog post, and if like us you love superb countryside, great food, kind hospitality and of course superb wines then you really can’t go wrong discovering this tiny region of northern Spain.

A perfect view of Rioja wine country

A perfect view of Rioja wine country

You don’t really need an excuse to visit, but ours was our 18th wedding anniversary.  Fly down to Bilbao, get on the road and within an hour you leave the pine forests behind and you look out on the hectares of vineyards of Rioja Alta. With the mountains running down on one side to the river Ebro on the other the A124 road is a series of photo opportunities, bodegas begging to be visited and well signposted paths waiting for hikers.

Our first stop was Haro. This town hosts a wine festival at the end of June, however we enjoyed just wandering the streets looking at the exquisite architecture and the storks nesting on buildings. To relax even further, what better than watching the world go by from one of the many bars selling delightful tapas all washed down with a glass of Rioja?

With taking it easy and relaxation our main priority we headed for the Wine and Oil Spa in Laguardia. After having a fantastic hot stones massage we did a circuit of the spa (€34 2 for 1 currently available). This includes hot and cold therapies that leave you so relaxed you feel as though you just may float. Afterwards take some time to explore the tiny lanes of the old town at the top of the hill before finding a place to eat in the many bars and restaurants.

As you will discover some of the main producers have spent a great deal of money creating stunning buildings. Dinastia Vivanco has a huge museum that explores wine through the ages. Outside they have hundreds of varieties of vines – we never realized there were so many and it really makes you appreciate the fine art of wine making.  Marques de Riscal, one of the most historic producers in Rioja, has a Frank Gehry (of Guggenheim design fame) building that incorporates an expensive hotel and winery.  Take the tour and visit the “temple” deep in the bowels of the estate where they have wines going back over 100 years before returning to the modern plant that produces 5 million bottles of wine per annum.

This is one of the lasting impressions of Rioja. They respect tradition but have put a modern innovative twist on it so that both old and new sit next to each other in perfect harmony. This is encapsulated by the Hotel Viura. The hotel looks as though it has landed in the tiny sand stone village that it occupies from another world. We loved the minimalist rooms that feature polished concrete floors, wonderful bathrooms and views of the municipal pool. Yes I know it sounds odd but when we visited the only visitors to the green coloured pool were swallows that dived and whirled above it as the sun gently dropped behind the hill.

Jeff Koons' sculpture Puppy, a 12 metres high ...
Image via Wikipedia

After a couple of days you realize that you need much longer, however our flight was getting closer so we returned to Bilbao with an overnight in the Silken Gran Hotel Domine. This is a great hotel right opposite the Guggenheim and Jeff Koons giant flower Yorkshire Terrier.

Bilbao is still largely a building site around the museum with lots of building work and changes to public walkways. Transforming itself from dock to smart and sassy world city is running at a furious pace but the Tapas (known as Pintxos) bars full of locals are still one of its main assets.

The museum has certainly given the city a huge boost and is a must-visit if you like modern art.  Currently Anish Kapoor has an exhibition spanning his work from the 80’s through today. The building really compliments his work especially with the 76 polished metallic balls that makes up “Tall Tree and the Eye” which stands glinting in the sunlight outside.  Permanent work includes Richard Serra’s’ stunning work “A Matter of Time” which fills the 300mtr long main gallery.

We will no doubt be back to Rioja with the family at some point to explore the Dinosaur prints, explore Logroño and enjoy hiking through the countryside. We would highly recommend Rioja, … but keep it to yourself.

Simon Ghent – Follow him at @SimonG_1

[Robert’s note: Simon’s guest post was prompted by the fact that we met through Twitter and then face to face at The Wine Gang event. When Simon was looking for suggestions on places to visit for his trip I had a few ideas, and I hope this passionate and enthusistic response will encourage others to explore, just as they did. Thanks Simon!]

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Boutique Hotels in Rioja

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Hotel Viura

Hotel Viura

La Rioja is a wonderful destination for travellers. As well as the wineries themselves, there are beautiful towns such as Haro, Laguardia and San Vicente, there are great food discoveries in places like Logroño and Ezcarray, there are even amazing discoveries to be had of Dinosaur tracks (real ones) in the south of the region.

One of the few things that La Rioja did not really offer, until now, were more boutique accommodation options. There are plenty of “casas rurales” for groups, or decent hotels and even a parador or two, but for some reason these were not all that exciting.

This started to change with the opening of the Hotel & Spa at Marques de Riscal a few years ago, but it only offered 30 rooms or so, and pretty pricey ones at that! If La Rioja was to attract more of the high end tourists heading to Bilbao, Santander and San Sebastian for their gastronomic wonders, then it has to do better.

And now they have.

In a short time, two boutique hotels have opened their doors. I have not been to either, but plan on doing so in the near future (purely for research, of course). Both are in the environs of Laguardia in Rioja Alavesa (technically Basque country and not La Rioja itself). If you have been to either, do let me know your thoughts, or if you have tried others like these.

Hotel Viura (Villabuena de Álava): http://www.hotelviura.com/ (picture of modern architecture above)

Hospederia de los Parajes (Laguardia): http://www.hospederiadelosparajes.com/

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A red by any other name – would be tinto

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Battle of Wine in Haro, La Rioja (Spain)
Image via Wikipedia

Just read a fascinating post by my friend Tom Perry on his Inside Rioja blog.

He shares some news coming from Bodegas Lopez de Heredia and some historical research they are doing on Rioja and their winery.

Just one of the fascinating facts concerns why the Spanish call their Red wine, “Tinto” (as opposed to Rojo).

Did you ever wonder why red wine in Spanish is called tinto (tinted) instead of rouge (red) as in French or negre (black) as in Catalán? According to María José, most red wines in Rioja in the 19th century were whites that were ‘tinted’ with red wine to pay lower taxes! While some reds were produced and exported to Bordeaux, according to historical records, most Rioja was white and shipped to Alsace.

This is not the first time I discover that something I “knew” about the history of Rioja was wrong. This is a very interesting story that demands more research. Keep an eye on Tom’s site, and I’ll do the same.

In the interim, anyone want to get “tinted”?

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