Spain: Rockin' in Rioja

Spain: Rockin' in Rioja

Published by Francis Elms on 15th Sep 2023

Have you seen it? The boys have put the band back together for one last tour and are winding their way through Spain in an oversized motorhome causing the usual mayhem. Plenty of regional foodie treats, lots of alcohol and some very dodgy beach attire!

In the far south, in Jerez, a few glasses of sweet PX sherry had a remarkable effect on their ability to dance, flamenco style, with all three eventually taking to the stage demonstrating how it really should be done. Much appreciated by the local imbibers in the bar.

Moving to the Atlantic north-east, to Cambados, on the windswept Galician coast, the all important, unique harvest of Almejas clams from the local estuary is paired with fresh, acidic Albarino wines from the region. A perfect match if you add some Italian pasta! You need carbs as well as protein for a balanced diet. Wine? Well, that's up to you to decide, but it definitely makes a meal that bit tastier, in my opinion, of course.

Continuing the wine connection, the tour arrived inland in Ribeira Sacra where the River Sil gorge is lined with "heroic" vineyards of near vertiginous slopes. GodelloAlbarino and Mencia are the main grapes grown here amongst the almost constant mist and rain. It is known as the "Green Spain" for a reason.

Galicia & Godello

But, just when I was expecting the tour to head east along the Atlantic seaboard towards Bilbao, there's bad news. The tour is cut short (the "band" have split up) and it's suddenly all over for Gordon, Gino and Fred! So, instead, you'll have to read about an excursion which I had in Santander (the town, not the bank), in the Guggenheim museum and at the weirdly mysterious Necropolis de Remelluri on the border of the Basque country and La Rioja. 

It all started with a Spanish wine holiday organised by a restaurateur in Plymouth. We had to meet up at the ferry terminal to catch the overnight service to Santander which, once the cabins had been sorted, began as planned. The weather was grey, but seemed OK, however, as the ferry got into open water, the weather turned and the rain began beating down. It didn't stop all night and most of the next day with the sea getting pretty rough. Trying to get around inside the ship was akin to a bowling ball being thrown down the lane, randomly veering off to one side and scattering the pins in all directions. Strangely, there was no-one in the onboard cafeteria as even the tables and chairs were sliding around the floor! Trying to keep any food (or drink) where it was meant to be was next to impossible and the rest of the crossing was not a pleasant one. I used to think I had quite good "sea legs", but not this time... Eventually, as it got light, it was announced that the port was coming into view and that we would be arriving shortly, ready to board our coach to Bilbao and then heading inland to Rioja. Dry land... you could kiss it! Careful now, someone might be watching. Perhaps a celebratory "arrival" drink would be more appropriate on this occasion? It is a holiday, after all.

Arriving in Spain: The Quayside, Santander

Once group introductions had been completed we were soon underway towards Bilbao, then turning inland to head south through the mountains to Rioja. The Guggenheim museum is a favourite tourist destination in this part of Spain and a visit was planned for later. Did you know that the building's famous look was designed by architect Frank Gehry? He's also linked to another Spanish icon building, the luxury vineyard hotel at Marques de Riscal in Elciego, Alava province, La Rioja. Unfortunately, the budget didn't stretch to staying at the spectacular looking hotel, but a winery tour was definitely on the cards. So, I was looking forward to this experience and tasting. But, I'm getting ahead of myself. There's a long drive still to come with, what might be called an "interesting" stopover at an ancient graveyard. Yes, that's right. This is not your normal wine tour!

With the sky being almost black (in the middle of the afternoon) and the rain still pouring down, the tour bus winds its way through the hills towards the "promised land" of vinous delights. Eventually, stopping at the side of the road, our guide asks if we'd like to explore an ancient graveyard site situated a short walk away... the "Necropolis of Remelluri"...spooky!

Deciding, along with a few others, that we didn't want to get soaked trying to peer into some empty holes in the ground, the rest of the group were led away into the gloom, never to return (I kid you not!). After some time, a few stragglers finally emerged from their "Hammer Horror" tour, but not everyone could be accounted for and a search was started to try and find the missing persons before it got too dark to see anything.

To give you a better idea of the lie of the land, imagine a large area of slippery, bare rock (granite, I think) with dozens of holes, a couple of feet deep, dotted all over it. This was surrounded by scrub vegetation hiding it from the roadside. A path leading to the 10th century necropolis was also bare rock and most people weren't wearing suitable walking shoes. What no-one could see was the deep ditch to the side of the path where, thankfully, the missing pair were found. The first had slipped from the pathway and fallen about six feet into the ditch and the second had tried to reach her and fell in as well. It was just amazing that they'd gone missing so easily. With no apparent injuries, the rescued, but shaken pair, clambered back onto the bus for the very short drive to the vineyard at Remelluri. Rockin' in Rioja!

This first bodega visit was really about the pre-planned dinner which had been arranged by our in-house restaurant owner who, for obvious reasons, wanted to show us the real food of Spain. None of your pie-and-chips, pint of lager, Costas style fayre on this Iberian adventure. Old vintages of the Remelluri Reserva were served with the dinner, really showcasing the wines' ability to develop and soften with time. To me, these venerable, old wines were much more enjoyable than the younger releases from the wine tasting which were very closed and tannic. In fact, not what I expected of a Rioja. The winery only had the latest vintage for sale, so no luck here of getting that special bottle to bring home.

The dinner was a great success right up until the last moment when something very bizarre occurred. One of the group stood up to thank the chef and the winery team, but suddenly burst into song! Before I knew what was going on, more had joined in with the singing. Then it clicked. Most of the group were Welsh (which is fine) and members of a male voice choir (not so fine) who really, really liked to vocalise in their very distinctive style. Being English, I never felt so much like hiding under the table to escape the embarrassment. Guilty by association of being at the same event, I couldn't escape until the singing stopped. If it had been better planned musically, a Spanish guitar accompaniment would have been a big improvement. Heavily amplified and distorted to drown out the vocals would have been even better for my musical taste. Repeat chorus: Rockin' in Rioja!

I later discovered something much worse... most of the group were also caravan owners who, for some reason, had decided to take a holiday without their home on wheels to stay in real hotels firmly fixed to the ground. This trip was turning out to be very different from the usual "trade" luxury food & wine tour which I'd previously done.

After overnighting in our hotel, the next day dawned with a touch more brightness and the promise of a visit to the renowned Marques de Riscal

Founded in 1858 by D. Guillermo Hurtado de Amézaga, this is a winery which makes some outstanding Rioja reds including the new Tapias (selling for £100), but has also branched out into Rueda (for organic white Verdejo) and Galicia (for Getariako Txakolina). 

The bodega still uses the traditional "gold" wired bottle for their reserva wines. For something that's so inexpensive, I'm surprised so many producers have stopped using this item of packaging. Personally, I think it makes the bottle look really smart. What's inside the bottle, though, is what really counts. Lots of lovely Tempranillo and a hint of Graciano giving dark fruits, liquorice, tobacco, sweet spices and a balsamic finish. You just can't beat it.

Marques de Riscal Rioja

With the unique winery hotel attracting many visitors to the area, the bodega is always a buzzing tourist attraction and, as this wasn't a "trade" visit, I wasn't expecting to taste all their top wines, but I did expect to have a private tasting in a separate room. No such luck! Stuck at one end of their shop/café with all the noise and bustle generated from the other people drinking their coffees and clanking bottles, it was a tasting to be endured rather than enjoyed. On the other hand, I did decide to buy their 1994 Gran Reserva and 150th Aniversario Gran Reserva (possibly 2001 or 2004 vintage) bottles to take home for my collection. I have to say that, upon return to the UK, the wines lasted about a week before temptation got the better of me and they were opened and consumed. So much for keeping hold of them for a special occasion. Both wines were absolutely brilliant and I wish I had cases of them!

The evening was spent roaming the Calle del Laurel in Logrono, experiencing the famous tapas bars of the town. Of course, much Rioja flowed until returning to the hotel once more.

This visit to the Rioja region was, unfortunately, quite brief, so it was back on the bus and a final stopover to visit the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao. Two exhibits stuck in my mind from the Guggenheim. One was a walk between two huge, vertical, undulating sheets of iron. They looked like the sides of a ship, but were shaped like waves. Just an odd feeling. Art? Maybe. The second was a whole room with a few pictures on the walls and just one display in a central, roped off area. Entry was controlled so only a limited number of people could view this "wonder" and, when it was my turn to venture inside to view it, I really didn't see what all the fuss was about. Imagine finding a few old shelves, drawers and boxes in your garden shed, piling them up like a bonfire and throwing white paint over it all... add a broomstick (also white), and there you have it. What was it? I've no idea. Modern art at its best. If your taste is for Tracey Emin's "My bed" sculpture, or the Tate Gallery's infamous "pile of bricks", then the Guggenheim exhibits are for you. Given the choice, I think I'd go for the original "Shot Blue Sage Marilyn" painting by Andy Warhol, but I don't have a spare $195 million in my pocket!

Given the time allocated here to "culture", I could have spent it better at another couple of bodegas, tasting more great Rioja wines, but there was still another, unplanned experience to come in Spain. Somewhat unexpected.

On arrival at the docks in Santander, the queue for the ferry was joined in the vehicle loading area (located off to the left in the above "Quayside" photo) and instructions were given to us that we had plenty of time before leaving and it was possible to wander off and have a look around the harbour and seafront for an hour or so. Everything would be safe on the coach, so off for a walk in the brisk, seaside air. I decided to go to the end of the promenade area and, as it would only be a relatively short stroll, I left all my stuff on the bus. As a warning, don't ever believe anyone about departure and boarding times because, if it turns out not to be true, big trouble awaits. It definitely turned out to be untrue. Having reached the promenade end with plenty of time for the return leg (I thought), I realised, as the car park came into view, that the coach could be seen driving up the ramp into the ferry much earlier than expected. And here's the fun fact... my passport was on the coach! So, trying to board the ship was proving to be a problem as I couldn't get to the coach to retrieve my documents. Yes, there was free movement of people in Europe, but not from Europe to the UK, so I was likely to be left behind in Santander with, as it turns out, no cash/credit cards to get food or a temporary room. Where were these essential items? You guessed it. Also on the coach where they were "safe", but unreachable. Feel like a total idiot? Certainly. I've never made that mistake again. Back to passport control, a tiny office which was filled with hoards of sensible, passport-holding passengers all wanting to get on board, and myself, struggling to explain to a "jobsworth" Spanish customs officer about my predicament. It wasn't going well. Another problem was the fact that returning foot passengers were not allowed back onto the car deck of the ferry as it was "too dangerous", so I couldn't get any of my fellow wine tourists to go and find my passport and bring it back to me. Rules, rules, rules. Don't you just love them? Now, as I'm writing this narrative from the UK, you might have guessed that I did eventually get back on board and returned to "Blighty". How was it done? Someone managed to track down the driver of the coach, who was allowed onto the vehicle deck, and my passport made it into my grateful hands where, after close examination of that very important little red book by the port official, I was finally allowed to embark for the return journey to Plymouth. Talk about cutting it fine. I need a drink.

Rioja, anyone? I can recommend it.

If the same thing happened today there is an alternative. Get yourself a dinghy and you'll soon be over the channel...

The Boat Home?

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