Rioja country: Spain with a touch of glass

A good wine tour goes perfectly with a visit to Bilbao’s fine architecture.


Vine and dandy: Rioja country is perfect for a gentle-paced tour with lots of wine tasting

Vine and dandy: Rioja country is perfect for a gentle-paced tour with lots of wine tasting

There are, at present, 317 people living in the isolated northern Spanish village of Villabuena de Alava. But - given its location in the heart of Rioja wine country - it is not surprising that there are 43 wineries.

If you exclude the priest and the mayor, we are probably looking at one winery for every six people.

Travelling from Bilbao airport to Villabuena - my base for a weekend of learning about the best of the bodegas - the eye is immediately struck by three things.

One: lush green countryside studded with vineyard after vineyard. Two: an astonishing rash of ultra-modern architecture, ranging from the crazed cubes of our base, the Hotel Viura, to Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao itself and his "wow factor" hotel, the Marques de Riscal, built above one of the oldest wineries in Spain.

And third? Well, third was a marked absence of people. Basically there don't appear to be any. Six or seven people at a time, pretty much anywhere, makes the place look positively crowded. Perhaps they were all indoors, or on a very long post-wine siesta, or having a little lie-down after tending the vines from dawn.

If you are looking for peace, quiet, and a really enjoyable and informative break, then Rioja, which could not be further from the madding crowd, is it.

For anyone who is slightly sniffy about Spanish wine and has tended to lump anything labelled "Rioja" all together in the category mentally filed as "plonk", then a visit here is a revelation.

The region has successfully married the heritage of hundreds of years of wine-making with the lure of new Californian viniculture and technology, and this is reflected in the drink - and food - on offer. Be aware that the traditional food of the region is normally very meat-based: but it's now really easy to eat very superior vegetarian meals, capitalising on the wonderfully fresh local produce - and it's also worthwhile exploring the possibilities offered by the local fish. Try a regional speciality, ministra, which includes a variety of vegetables, particularly artichokes and truffle mushrooms.

Perhaps the most stunning combination of where the old world meets the new is in the tiny town of Haro, at the Tondonia winery. The winery itself is 125 years old and is on its third generation of winemakers. Like most wineries open to the public, it has a shop. It's a swooping concrete and metal sculpture designed by the renowned architect, Zaha Hadid. But inside the shop is a perfect jewel: a glorious panelled pavilion that the Tondonia family took to the Brussels World Fair in 1910. Once the fair was over, the Belle Epoque pavilion was taken to pieces and lay, undisturbed, in a warehouse. Now, 100 years later, this perfect gem is rehoused inside the Hadid structure, its rosewood panels shining as brightly as the day it was made.

The Compania Vinicola del Norte de Espana, also in Haro, should be known by its initials CVNE. But thanks to a typographical error in 1879, when it was founded by two brothers, the winery, one of the oldest in Rioja, is universally known as Cuné.

It still belongs to direct descendants of the founding Real de Asua family and its original winery is reassuringly old world: behind medallion-embossed gates there is a circular courtyard, with low buildings painted in cream and crimson. In the centre of this area the trucks draw up during the harvest season, loaded with the grape varieties - tempranillo, garnacha, mazuela and graciano for the red wines, viura, garnacha blanca and malvasia for the white.

A long, timbered hall, designed by Eiffel - yes, that Eiffel - contains the wine barrels made of French and American oak, ready to produce Cuné's staggering nine million bottles a year. Only 20 per cent of this goes for export, but these include the company's top wines. Look out for its classic Imperial red, only produced in exceptional vintage years, and Monopole, the fresh white Rioja which has been in production since 1915.

There could scarcely be more of a contrast with the spectacular Bodega Baigorri, in nearby Samaniego. This is a modern winery, which opened in 2004, and its massive glass atrium, sitting on the top of a vine-strewn hillside, is the only sign that you are looking at something very different.

Baigorri has capitalised on the topography of the area by building its winery into the hillside and hiding its state-of-the-art technology underground in seven levels.

When you finally get down to
the halls where the barrels are
stored, either side of a wooden
slatted walkway, the sensation is like looking at China's terracotta army, as the barrels stretch into seeming infinity, uncountable.

And then a Baigorri staffer rolls back a huge wooden door and reveals the winery's tasting room and its coolly classy restaurant. Its red "Reserva" wine, with the winery's recognisable iconic typeface, is worth seeking out.

For something really different, there is a tiny medieval walled town, Laguardia, full of cobbled streets, criss-crossed underground by a network of ancient cellars entirely reminiscent of a giant Swiss cheese.

There are scores of tiny wineries in Laguardia; one of the best known is "El Fabulista," which is named after Spain's equivalent to Aesop and his fables. The wine in El Fabulista is made by seriously traditional methods: the grapes are offloaded into a square shaft, set deep into the ground floor of the winery shop. And yes, I am delighted to report, these grapes are crushed underfoot - although wellingtons are worn these days.

But this company produces a minute amount of wine, roughly 30,000 bottles a year, primarily for local consumption - and it's unlikely to suit a more sophisticated palate. But it's fun to visit the cellars.

There are said to be close to 600 wineries in this region, and everyone will have their favourite. But a time may come when even the most dedicated wine buff may seek something else to do and see.

The Hotel Viura offers all kinds of activities, from balloon rides over the vineyards to horse-riding and cycling in the vineyards themselves. You can even hire quad bikes to zoom around the countryside.

Once in Bilbao, the regional capital, a visit to Gehry's spectacular Guggenheim is in order. Even the most jaded museum-hater cannot fail to be enchanted by Puppy, artist Jeff Koons' 43-foot tall West Highland terrier, covered in brightly-coloured flowers, which sits guarding the front of the museum.

Koons' giant Tulips sculptures are around the other side of the building, while inside there are gloriously batty installations which invite the visitor to touch and feel, before crashing out for lunch in the excellent café. And this being Basque country, you might just have a drink. I seem to remember (hic) there was a glass round here somewhere…

Getting there

Hotel Viura (www.hotelviura.com; 0034 945 609000) is offering a special opening rate, from €125 (£104) for a double room with breakfast, subject to availability. Vueling (www.vueling.com) the new Spanish airline operates daily from Heathrow to Bilbao (and Seville and Coruna). Fares from €70 (£55) one-way, with allocated seating on its Airbus A320 fleet. Information on the wine route: www.rutadelvinoderiojaalavesa.com; 0034 902 114050

    Last updated: 5:34pm, July 19 2010