Monday, March 2, 2015


Wine Adventure Magazine
Fall 2005
Photo by Rioja DOCa

Savvy women understand the power of red. While wearing it one exudes confidence, power, and femininity. Even a small statement such as a pair of fire engine red shoes, or a handbag, emphasizes feminine power and sexiness in ways pink only dreams of. Bullfighters too know the power of red, using it to savagely seduce, confuse, and then kill their prey. Completing the circle, the bull leaves in its wake Sangre de Toro, bull’s blood, as a fiery if short-lived legacy.

Like a red leather jacket, Rioja wine is a powerful ace in the hole. Stylish, classy, old world, and elegant enough to win the approval of the most sophisticated in your crowd, the best of these wines carry an intriguing undercurrent of feistiness never found in say a Bordeaux, for example, the wine it is most often compared to.

Spain’s classic red wine producing region, La Rioja, forms a geographic as well as political border to Basque regions of Bilbao and San Sebastian to the north. About an hour or so south by car through the Sierra Cantabria, or “Basque Mountains”, this bucolic countryside is home to many of Bilbao’s police force, who otherwise would be easy targets of the Independence movement. In Basque country one in three people are members, and are responsible for the continual terrorist bombings. Don’t let this stop you from visiting the area, though. According to Maria Martinez-Sierra, winemaker at Bodegas Montecillo, “Rioja is the real Spain.” The area is very conservative with a strong work ethic and locals openly express pride in being Riojan.

Tempranillo is the main grape of red Rioja (the best white Rioja’s are Viura-based and the best are lively, crisp, and lemony). Tempranillo is also the main red grape of all of Spain. It goes under many names there, including Tinto, Tinto Fino, Tinto del Pais, Ull de Lebre, Ojo de Liebre, and Cencibel. Most famous for Rioja and for the long-lived wines of the Ribera del Duero, Tempranillo ripens early (temprano means “early” in Spanish), has thick skins, and makes deeply-colored wines. In Portugal it is known as Tinta Roriz and Tinta Aragonez, and in Argentina it is known as Tempranilla. In general, it pairs well with Manchego cheese, grilled sea bass, leg of lamb, or roast beef.

In La Rioja, Tempranillo expresses itself differently from vineyards in high-elevation Alta, warmer and flatter Baja, and a small area on the other side of the Rio Ebro, Alavesa, where it is known for finesse. Winemakers are free to blend grapes from across these zones, and also have the freedom to blend in Garnacha, Graciano and Mazuelo grapes for balance. Barrel-aging is required and controlled by the local Consejo Regulador, so you know for example that if your bottle says “Reserva”, it means it. “Crianza” is in its third year upon release, matured for at least one year in barrel. “Reserva” is aged at least three years, one in cask, and “Gran Reservas” are aged a minimum of two years in barrel and three in the bottle. Even at Crianza level, the wines are balanced, expressive, and supple, not at all like the often harsh, disjointed, high alcohol new releases from so many parts of the world.

Of the area’s 470 commercial bodegas, or wineries, 178 are grouped into seven routes, or wine roads. This area is for the adventurous only. Though the wineries are very happy to receive visitors, it is always best to call ahead.  Order a guidebook from before you begin planning your trip, or, if you end up there on a whim, pick one up in Logrono, the capital of the province.

Though Logrono is the distribution hub for La Rioja’s copious wine and agricultural products, it does have a charming old quarter. Start at the tourist office located at Paseo del Principe de Vergara (+34) 941 26 06 65. Look for the Catedral de Santa Maria de la Redonda, located in La Plaza del Mercado and dating from the 1400's. The Baroque facade dates from 1742. Located inside is an octagonal chapel dating from 1762. Close by is a 12th century church, once part of a royal palace. The Iglesia de Santa Maria de Palacio is located on Marques de San Nicolas and dates from 1130.

The Consejo Regulador, or Control Board of Rioja, offers a three-hour intensive tasting course on Saturday mornings (from 10.00 am to 1.00 pm), aimed primarily at tourists visiting the region for the weekend. Anyone interested in attending this intensive introductory winetasting course should enroll beforehand in the Consejo Regulador ("Rioja Wine Information Office", +34 941 500 400), either personally or through bodegas, hotels, tourist offices or travel agents of the region.

For lunch, visit El Chuchi Restaurant in nearby Fuenmayor. Typical dishes include Bistec a la plancha, cured pork loin with red peppers (the Basque piperade seems to have crossed the border or vice versa), and grilled mushrooms, all delicious with a glass or two of a crianza or reserva. Save the gran reserva for the queso manchego or cabrales, Spain’s most famous blue. Dessert is next, a coffee pudding, cheesecake, or ice cream, served with a thimble full of PX sherry, the sweetest of them all.

Take advantage of the afternoon to go bodega-hopping, and then after a short nap, wind down with locals in the evening paseo, hopping from one tapas bar to the next in the hours before dinner.  Tapas are a way of life for most Spaniards. Born in Andalucia to the south, legend has it that barkeeps covered (“tapar” means “to cover”) glasses of sherry with a slice of ham to keep pesky flies at bay. Eventually served on small plates, choices include Jamon Serrano in the north, Jamon Iberico in the south (Iberico ham is not authorized in the USA), cured blood sausage (Murcilla), chorizo, menudo (tripe stew), albondiguitas of veal or beef (tiny meatballs), olives, eggplant salad, omelettes, queso manchego or cabrales, steamed mussels, hake (merluza) squid, octopus, boquerones (little white fish), baby eels, anchovies with tomato and mozzarella on bread, duck ham, ham pate, stuffed pimientos, chickpeas with onion sauce, pisto manchego (stewed zucchini, peppers, and tomatoes), and empanadas. Sherry and sangria are popular choices, but a glass of crianza Rioja is your ace in the hole.

Bodegas Montecillo
With a fiery personality bubbling up only occasionally under her smooth, polished, and very elegant exterior, Maria Martinez-Sierra, winemaker for over 30 years here, started when women winemakers were virtually unheard of in Spain. She believes in using 100% Tempranillo, aging it in untoasted French oak barrels coopered at the estate, and finishing the bottles with natural bark corks also manufactured at the estate, both from trees she personally selects on her frequent forest visits. She believes one of the major causes of TCA, or cork spoilage (corkiness) is the prevalence of residual pesticides in the forests.

While the 1981 Montecillo Gran Reserva Seleccion Especial is “her baby” (and currently available in the USA in a 4-pack with the 1982, 1985, and 1991 for $380, her 1994 Gran Reserva bottling celebrating the winery's 130th anniversary – Montecillo 130th Anniversary Limited Edition Gran Reserva 1994 ($50) – pays homage not only to the winery's longevity and reputation, but also to the preservation of the traditional Rioja style. Delicious with grilled porterhouse, braised venison with wild mushrooms, rack of lamb, and artisan cheeses.

Bodegas Montecillo
San Cristobal, 34
26360 Fuenmayor, Rioja Alta
 +34 941 44 01 25
Visiting hours: Call in advance

Fly or cruise into Bilbao and check into Gran Hotel Domine Bilbao, where most rooms face the Guggenheim Museum. This Leading Hotels of the World property is intimate, hip, fresh, and features oversized spa-tubs with wooden floors and glass walls as the centerpiece of the rooms. Pop a CD into the stereo – choose from cool jazz or sultry blues, and sink into the hot tub for a long soak.
Gran Hotel Domine Bilbao/Hoteles Silken
Alameda Mazarredo 61, (+34 944 253 301)

After a short nap make the three-minute trek across the street to dinner at the Restaurante Guggenheim. Chef Martin Berasategui and his partner Josean Martínez Alija serve up artful, exotic, and unusual tasting menus that define the new Basque cuisine.
Restaurante Guggenheim Bilbao
Avenida Abandoibarra, 2,, (+34 944 239 333)

Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim is a hauntingly beautiful structure meant to honor the ocean and the creatures within. It does this as well as both magnificently complimenting and dominating the horizon. Take advantage of the time change and take an early morning walk across the street, and along the river walk, criss-crossing the wild Zuri Zubi bridge. Sunrise over this platinum beauty is more memorable than any masterpiece within. Of course if you would like to venture inside, admission is 10 Euros and hours are 10am-8pm Tuesday - Sunday.
Guggenheim Museum
Avenida Abandoibarra, 2, (+34 944 35 90 80) 

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