Editor’s Note: This was technically written a few days ago, while we were still in Rioja, but due to limited computer access, we were unable to post it. Enjoy!
It’s always incredible to have that rare moment when you wake up at 6:45am and feel fantastic.The last few days, I’ve wanted a full body massage from walking miles upon miles through long, humid cellar tunnels lined with cold, hard stone floors. And if you’ve ever worked in a job that’s required you to stand for long hours on these unforgiving surfaces, I trust you’re familiar with that overall achy sensation, making you wonder if you’re either getting older or merely more vapid in your decision to continually make the same decision over and over again expecting different results. Eating my sweet jam and manchego cheese covered toast with piping hot coffee this morning, I considered the other choices I could have made in life rather than visiting bodega after bodega for a week straight, and I quickly realized that this life sure as hell beats that of paranormal psychologist – my childhood dream career. Obviously my aches might diminish in frequency, but I’d never get to taste the fruit of my research. Hence, no comparison. Bring on the wine!
Heading out of the hotel and into the cold, damp drizzle in order to meet Ryan, I felt relieved that I no longer allowed myself to watch him pull out the car from the garage. On day two of our trip, after hearing me quickly inhale and hold my breath every two seconds, terrified that our rental would become close friends with the underground cement pillars, we agreed that I was forbidden to enter the garage. So when he did finally arrive in our little black Opel, I happily jumped in, excited to finally meet our two favorite Bilbao wine retailers, Anna and Ane from Excel Wines in the pueblo of Navarette.
For the record, I’m convinced that Ana, Ane or Anna, are the official names of our Rioja trip. Almost every bodega, retailer or restaurant we’ve encountered has employed at the very least one, if not two, Annas! It’s like the equivalent of meeting a Bob everywhere you go. Odd I tell you, odd!!
Under a dramatic gray sky, rolling in over the valley like waves of dark smoke, we met with our first unknown winery, Arar, located in the heart of a 15th century walled city in Navarette. After a fabulous hour in a half tour of this quaint little winery, we meandered over to yet another relatively unknown bodega named Miguel Merino. Owned by senor Miguel and his two sons, this was such a cool visit purely as a result of Miguel, a man of a thousand different expressions and a smile that could melt anyone’s heart. My sense is that this will be an article that will easily write itself when the time comes. As morning gave to afternoon, our stomachs began to rumble, indicating a desperate need to substitute wine for something with a touch more body and substance. Saying out goodbyes, we drove slightly up the hill into Briones and ate at Los Calaos de Briones, a long stone lined cavern seating no more than approximately 60 people. This is a must visit restaurant, as the food is not only well-presented and delicious, but the servers were uncharacteristically cheerful and professional. Overall, a fantastic experience that we will discuss in more length when we delve into our food experience from the region as a whole. Finally, as the sun set over the valley, casting dramatic red, yellow and purple hues across the valley, we met with Ana Fernandez from Bodegas Luis Alegre. And although our visit was short, as all end of the day visits seem to be, we did experience an incredible view. Shaped like a big cylinder, Luis Alegre’s winery contains a restaurant on the very top floor while huge windows that allow you to overlook miles upon miles of vineyards. And although I would never admit it rivals Catavino’s terrace, I will say that it is worthy of seeing.
Before I jet to experience a horseback ride through the mountains and a visit with Bodegas Lan, I feel it’s important to mention the weather. Since October, the first full rain onto the bone dry and cracking soils of La Rioja occurred just yesterday, and sadly, it wasn’t nearly enough to make a difference. Normally, Rioja is covered in snow, but because the weather has so dry, so warm and so bright with sunshine, we’re seeing a fresh green blanket of new grass across the valley, pink flowers blooming on the cherry trees, and the tearing of the vine signaling budbreak. To be frank, this is terrifying the winemakers, because if the vines bud now and a frost hits, you can kiss your crop goodbye. How do we know it will frost? We don’t. It’s equally possible that we could simply have a ridiculously early harvest. The indicator, as we were told by Marie Jose Lopez de Heredia, is “if you still see snow on the mountains, we will typically experience a frost before the season is over.” And with a thin white blanket still covering the mountain tops, we can only hope for the best.
Stay tuned as we cover more stories and adventures from La Rioja!