The medieval village of Laguardia, Rioja
Before spending two weeks vacation in San Sebastian, we had a couple of days in Rioja, specifically the old walled town of Laguardia. This is one of the many glorious views taken from the gardens surrounding the village, looking out over the vineyards, as the clouds rolled in.
With its beautiful rolling landscapes, medieval hamlets and exquisite wines, Rioja is Spain’s Tuscany. The wine country is subdivided into three regions: Rioja Alta (where most of the oldest vineyards are located in and around Haro), Rioja Alavesa (which also belongs geographically to the Basque Country, and is home to some of the prettiest towns such as Laguardia and Samaniego) and Rioja Baja (further southeast, a larger, more arid region whose main hub is Calahorra). Even though we were only there for a couple of days, we managed to try lots of its wines!
Architecture and Scenery
On our most recent trip, my beloved and I were very impressed with Rioja, a gorgeous region in northern Spain. We’d previously ooohed and aaahed over its more recent architectural delights such as the Frank Gehry designed Marques de Riscal winery and hotel which the sun tints every shade of wine. Though it’s not the only amazing combination of wine and architecture in Rioja. At the foot of the Sierra de Cantabria mountains, there’s the cedar clad Ysios winery which has an undulating roof, designed by Santiago Calatrava. Plus the late Zaha Hadid created a decanter shaped annexe for Bodegas Lopez de Heredia’s winery.
This time we visited the picture-perfect, old walled town of Laguardia, set atop a hill in the middle of a valley, with the Cantabrian mountains in the background. It’s surrounded on all sides by vineyards which offer a glimpse into the region’s wine making past and present. Founded in the 10th century as a defensive town for the kingdom of Navarra, this undoubtedly one of the most beautiful places in the region.
Apart from Laguardia’s two metre-high, 13th century defensive walls, its other main feature is its underground tunnels which kept its inhabitants safe during battles and allowed them to escape into the surrounding hillsides. Once the town no longer needed these for its strategic military position, the locals decided they were perfect for storing wine. We visited the tunnels under our hotel and they were the perfect temperature for storing wine, but I found them a bit claustrophobic.
Our hotel overlooked the town’s main square containing both the old and the new town hall buildings. On the new building, there’s a quaint pendulum clock where three figures come out to dance to a traditional song at certain times of the day. Crowds gather just before they’re due to dance. On either end of the main street, there’s a church. On one side is the church of San Juan, a Romanesque building, and on the other, the church of Santa Maria de los Reyes, which has an impressive Gothic facade.
We much enjoyed meandering around the town’s narrow walkways and in the gardens outside the walls which contain a bust of local lad, the fabulist Samaniego, and a dolmen.
Food and Wine
The food in Rioja lives up to the wine that accompanies it. It’s fabulous on every level. In Laguardia alone there are 50-odd small pintxos bars plus a number of local restaurants, including the one in our hotel. I’ve previously written in praise of the food in Spain and it’s particularly true of the food in Rioja.
The region produces red, white and rose wines in its three principal areas: Rioja Alta, Rioja Baja and Rioja Alavesa much of which is subjected to the Rioja Protected designation of origin.
Located on the western edge of the region and at a higher elevation than the other two areas, the Rioja Alta is known more for its “old world” style of wine. A higher elevation equates to a shorter growing season, which in turn produces brighter fruitier flavors and a wine that is lighter on the palate.
Laguardia is in this area and, despite sharing a similar climate as the Alta region, the Rioja Alavesa produces wines with a fuller body and higher acidity. Vineyards here have a low vine density with large spacing between rows. This is due to the relatively poor condition of the soil with the vines needing greater distance from one another and hence less competition for the nutrients in the surrounding soil.
Rioja Baja (Oriental)
Unlike the more continental climates of the Alta and Alavesa, Rioja Baja is strongly influenced by a Mediterranean climate which makes this area the warmest and driest. In the summer months, drought can be a significant viticultural hazard, despite irrigation. Summer temperatures typically reach 35°C (95°F). Baja wines are very deeply coloured and can be highly alcoholic, with some wines reaching 18%. They typically do not have much acidity or aroma and are generally used as blending components with wines from the other areas.
It’s time to put my hand up and admit we did bring a few bottles of Rioja back to France with us.
A complete change of landscape as we’re in Rioja country. We’ve not spent much time here in the past, just the occasional foray to watch either a stage start or finish in the Tour of the Basque Country cycle race. In particular, we’ve never had time to appreciate and learn more about the region’s many wines.
The place I had booked was utterly lovely, in one of Spain’s prettiest villages which overlooked acres of vineyards, bodegas and a few wildlife wetland refuges. We arrived in time for lunch which didn’t disappoint. It augured well for the rest of the week-end.
There are around 200 different vineyards in Rioja but we were never going to fit them all in over a week-end, though we could at least make a modest attempt. Many of the Bodegas in the town offered tutorials and tastings for a few euros. We were happy to accept. It could best be described as a bar crawl around the town where we discovered much to our surprise (not) that we pretty much like all Rioja has to offer!
Of course, no bar crawl in Spain is complete without tapas or, as we’re in the Basque country, pinxtos. We’ve found a bar which serves quite possibly the best tortilla either of us has ever eaten. Tomorrow we’ll head to our final destination, San Sebastian, for a two week stay in an apartment overlooking La Concha beach – sheer heaven.