Monday, June 15, 2015

La Rioja: Riscal & Wine

The wines of La Rioja have always appealed to Gus. The ubiquitous Tempranillo grape makes a wonderfully full-bodied red wine that has, for years, called for Señor Tinto (Gus' alter ego) to return to Spain. But where in La Rioja? With over 500 wineries we filtered our choice down by considering the luxury level of lodging, culinary adventure, spa facilities, and of course the quality of wine. The choice soon became apparent ... Álava within the Rioja wine region.

Marqués de Riscal, which houses a Caudalie Vinothérapie Spa, is Rioja’s signature luxury hotel, with an affluent clientele.
Frank Gehry designed Hotel Marqués de Riscal
Starwood, which manages the property as part of its top-shelf Luxury Collection, is targeting it at that
 anything-for-a-thrill, no-price-too-high, a no-distance-too-far subset of travelers who are appreciatively
known as hotel freaks.
The approach to the hotel is up a narrow road of a small hill, with vineyards on the right and handsome, severely tailored offices and production facilities on the left. We caught glimpses of the fat, undulating, shiny titanium ribbons on our drive into Elciego, but this was the first time we saw it head-on, in all its tangled glory, lifted above the ground level on thick columns, a small overhung plaza at the entrance. Whatever your sympathies, or antipathies, the hotel will stop you dead in your tracks.

As the story has it, the Marqués de Riscal Winery approached Frank Gehry to design a hotel but found he was not the least bit interested. Many years later, when Gehry was visiting La Rioja on vacation, he stopped by the winery. He was offered vintages from his birth year (1929) by the owners of their personal collections, and after a few bottles, he agreed to do the project.

Next, restaurant Marqués de Riscal, awarded 1 Michelin star, serving traditional regional dishes with a contemporary edge ... check. Next, The Spa Vinothérapie Caudalie reviewed as soothing, wine-centric spa experience ... check. Next, Bodega Marques de Riscal and a highly recommended tour of its vineyards, winery, and cellars; however, the wine is considered to be "nothing very special" ... oh well, check.

The drive from Bilbao was leisurely and took almost two hours. We arrived and were welcomed by a young, very eager to please hotelier. Soon we were heading up to an upgraded room ...
Our elegantly designed  room 104 in the Gehry Wing
Notice Gehry’s Cloud Lamps to the left above the bed. The rooms
 are all about the windows; designed to open but have come to be fixed
 because of operational problems, Window seats follow the zigzagging
 contours of the glass. The view is an integral part of the room.
(Photo credit: Hotel Marqués de Riscal)

We, as mentioned above, stayed in the “Gehry Wing” because, well, that’s the point of staying at the Marques de Riscal, isn’t it? Gus had made arrangements to spend two sybaritic nights. The hotel has 43 luxurious rooms (14 in the Gehry Wing and 29 in the Spa Wing), all different and spread over two buildings linked by a spectacular cantilevered glass walkway

View of the medieval village of Elciego from inside our hotel room.
From the vineyard in the forefront to the roofs of the winery, to
 the community dominated by the  Church of San Andrés, to the
 cloud covered Cantabrian mountains to the north.
After settling into our room, we set out and explored the City of Wine. We stopped at Bistro Restaurant 1860 and shared a light dinner of croquetas bechamel, Iberian bellota ham, and a plate of fresh seasonal vegetables all washed down by several glasses of Finca Torrea.

Finca Torrea
A blend of Tempranillo with a bit of Graciano.
 This is the wine made from old vines and typically
 bottled after 18 months in Allier barriques.
We returned to our room and got ready for bed, read for awhile before turning off the Cloud Lamps. The next morning we enjoyed an excellent breakfast which had a buffet of pastries, loaves of bread and homemade jams, meats, local cheeses along with coffee, fresh juices, cereals, yogurts, and sliced fresh fruits; additional items were available for order including 62° C soft cooked eggs. Gus was pleased.

After breakfast, we made our way to the Visitors' Centre and joined a group of 10 or 12 people to tour the vineyards, winery, and cellars of Herederos de Marqués de Riscal. The tour, all in English, began in the vineyard ...
Tempranillo grapevines planted on a hillside of
clay-limestone. The grasses between rows help
prevent erosion from heavy rainfall.
 The name of the property which surrounds the winery and the hotel
and is the source of grapes used to make Finca Torrea.
Today Riscal owns a total of almost 1,250 acres of vineyards, all of them around Elciego and Laguardia, and control a further 2,400 acres belonging to long-term suppliers, all in Elciego and surrounding villages. 

In 1858 Camilo Hurtado de Amézaga, Marqués de Riscal, diplomat and writer, started a winery in Rioja and released its first vintage in 1862. The winery complex was designed by architect Ricardo Bellsola. The early wines were made by winemaker Jean Pineau, formerly of Château Lanessan a Bordeaux wine estate in the Haut-Médoc appellation. The Marqués had lived in Bordeaux and decided to experiment with French methods and varieties on his estate at Elciego. He built the winery following the French model and techniques, being the first in Spain to use barriques. His wines soon started winning prizes, were the favorites of King Alfonso XII, and became so popular that, in order to avoid fakes, he had to invent the wire-netting that would make it impossible to extract the cork without breaking it. The company took on some shareholders in the 1940s, mainly family friends, so the operation has been maintained almost as a family affair until today.

From the vineyard, we next visited the winery's production facilities.

Original Winery Building
Original Cellaring Warehouse
Once we entered the winery, we watched the following video produced by Marqués de Riscal  ...

Our guide gave an excellent explanation of the entire winemaking process, from harvest to pressing and destemming, fermentation, blending, to aging and bottling, matched, of course to whichever part of the winery we were currently in.  

Fermentation and blending

Aging in oak
Bottling & labeling

The Cathedral
Constructed in 1860, and contains bottles from every
 vintage produced by the winery since the first in 1862.
 A majority of the130 thousand bottles are reportedly still
 drinking “very well.”
Arched  trellis covered with grapevines
 leading to the tasting room and wine shop.
His Excellency Don Carlos Hurtado de Amézaga and Zavala
Count of Castronuevo and Baron of Castle Chirel.
Barón de Chirel wine first appeared in 1986 as the result of
experimental production using a selection of grapes from very
 old vines, between 80 and 110 years’ old, with a very low yield
 and high quality
Tasting room
We tasted two wines. Our first tasting was of
 Marqués de Riscal Rueda Verdejo 2014 and the
 second Marqués de Riscal Reserva 2010, pictured above.

Lavender beds throughout the property. Notice the bee collecting pollen in the bottom, left photo.

After our wine tour, we returned to our room and rested before our afternoon spa treatments ... Gus did refer to this as a sybaritic experience.

Spa Vinothérapie Caudalie
(Photo credit: Hotel Marqués de Riscal)
We each had a relaxing 80 minute Caudalie massage followed by 2 hours of enjoying the "water circuit" -  a pleasant trip from the heated indoor pool, with its jets of pressurized water to the hammam or Jacuzzi, through the rain shower, dry off, relax on a lounge chair, repeat.

Reservations for dinner at Restaurant Marqués de Riscal were beginning to sneak up on us. Returning to our room when had time to just freshen up and get into our "party" clothes. Tonight we enjoyed culinary delights supervised by Chef Francis Paniego, first Riojano Chef that in 2004 earned a Michelin star restaurant for Ezcaray Echaurren. The cuisine, developed by José Ramón Piñeiro (a disciple of Francis Paniego), updates the cuisine of La Rioja to a modern style while respecting tradition. Moreover, an extensive wine list including, but not limited to, Marqués de Riscal wines offered with advice from talented sommelier Marta Saenz. Our wine for the evening ...

The restaurant is located on the second floor of the hotel. Uneven ceilings, polyhedral walls, warm lighting and proper distribution of the tables make the room an inspiring space. Also, the tables are dressed in Baccarat glasses for water, wine glasses designed by Enrico Bernardo, and Puiforcat cutlery.

Our table circled in green
(Photo credit: Decoestilo)
 The photos of our dinner were all taken from the internet as we left our iPhones in our room.

The appetizers were paired with two glasses of Laurent Perrier Cuvée Rosé Brut Champagne.

Sarmientos - Shared
Tasty cheese sticks made to look like grape vine cuttings
Sunflower seed tuile and black olive bread - Shared

Red wine caviar - Shared
Barely sweetened red wine with star anise  in the form
 of little red spheres, just like fish eggs - Shared
Echaurren's croquettes - Shared
Marques de Riscal Gran Reserva 2001
Blend of Tempranillo, Graciano, and Mazuelo
which paired nicely with the venison and pigeon.
Saddle of venison - Joan
Roasted young pigeon  - Gus
We passed on having dessert but were pleasantly surprised with a plate of mignardises.
Clockwise from 1 o'clock: jellies of Tempranillo white wine,
 almond tuillesolive oil macarons, wine marshmallows,
 financiers, and jellies of Tempranillo red wine.
It was a very enjoyable meal. Overall the:
  • formal yet relaxed ambiance,
  • coupled with the kitchen's innovative and meticulous execution and presentation,
  • and the skilled, and playful yet discreet service we received
that evening was of a very high standard worthy of Michelin-starred status.

Our "stay" at Riscal, or more appropriately labeled as "experience" was ...


In the morning, we depart for Donostia / San Sebastián.

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