I couldn’t help but feel a little like Alice in Wonderland. We had most certainly fallen through the rabbit hole. Long gone were the exhilarating, action-packed and flavor-filled days in Barcelona. Z and I now found ourselves within the ancient stone walls of Laguardia. Nestled atop the hills of Spain’s Rioja wine region, Laguardia’s founding dates back to the 1200’s and the stoic wall was erected to protect the kingdom of Navarra. Leaving our car parked outside the town, we dragged our luggage over the cobbled streets, having absolutely NO idea where we were headed. We found one of the four entrances in the wall and were suddenly met with friendly and familiar sounds. Birds chirping from small cages, perched upon flower-filled window sills. Demonstrative conversations taking place amongst groups of friends gathered outside of the local grocery store. We wound our way through the various alleys and streets, feeling as if we had been transported to a different time. After much broken Spanish and our first introduction to the Basque language, we found our new home – Erletxe. The four days that followed would turn out to be some of the very best of my life. We fell head-over-heels-madly-in-love with Laguardia. The food, wine, pace of life and most of all, the people, are beyond measure. It isn’t hard to lose yourself in the land of Rioja though. And as you will find as you read this post, that is exactly what we were there to do…
We began each morning with breakfast prepared by Maria. Local breads, jams and, best of all, Maria’s personally harvested honey were served along with french toast or fresh fruit. It gave us the opportunity to chat with our fellow travelers and fortify ourselves for the wine tastings that would make up our day. Maria could not have been more accommodating. Her passion for Laguardia and Rioja was apparent in the inflection of her speech and in the glint of her eyes. We had four formal tastings arranged and set over two days, all done at Maria’s recommendation and assistance. And this proved to be an invaluable asset, as wine tasting in Spain was unlike our previous experiences in Chianti and the Napa Valley. You can’t just pop-in, grab a taste and run. You must take the tour and understand what makes their wine so special. Every stop proved to have a very distinct and special personality and a wine all it’s own!
After we’d had our full of tea and homegrown honey, we set off through the winding roads of the Spanish country-side, the vineyards stretched out in front of us, blanketing the landscape like a patchwork quilt. As with previous trips to wine growing regions, the views stole my breath. They are sweeping and left me awestruck. I love the feeling!
Stop number one was Remelluri. They don’t offer a formal tour but rather give you a choice of three maps entitled ’30 minutes’, ’60 minutes’ or ’90 minutes’. There are two markers on each map – a start and a finish. That’s about it. Arguably one of the oldest wineries in Rioja, there are remnants of a village dating to the 10th century found throughout the land and amongst the vineyards. Incredible, right? Yeah, well, Z and I never quite made it to any of these noted spots. The map didn’t translate for us, I guess! Still, the 60 minute walk (on the 30-minute map!) was gorgeous and refreshing. By the time we made our way back to the main house we were more than ready to try the wine! With just one bottle offered for sample (their 2006 Reserva – a blend of Tempranillo, Garnacha and Graciano), I was keeping my fingers crossed that it would deliver. And it did in a very rich, complex and earthy way with flavors of blackberries and plums. Maybe it was the remaining bits of a slight buzz from our mini-hike over this ancient land, but I felt like it was a noble wine with a backbone rooted in history. Two bottles in hand we set out for our next appointment.
Talk about contrast. From one of the oldest vineyards in Rioja to a tribute to the contemporary: Bodegas Baigorri. While striking up close, this winery is nearly lost in the clouds as you drive by, the completely transparent cube making a dramatic yet minimalist statement. Interestingly, there were a few artful chairs and benches inside the cube and nothing more, except for an elevator headed downward. This was our initial introduction to the philosophy behind Baigorri’s winemaking.
It all has to do with gravity. Arranged in seven layers, the grapes are sorted, pressed, fermented and barreled on a variety of levels, moving down as the process moves forward. High-tech and high-design play integral parts in transporting wine, letting if flow naturally into the top of the next barrel or tank, rather than pumping the wine, as is done in other wine-making philosophies.
Our guide was excellent and took us through the dynamic space, floor-by-floor, giving us a step-by-step tutorial of how this award-winning wine is created. Each level offered a different smell and sound, based on what process the grapes were a part of at that level. We finished the tour with a walk over a wooden-bridge, leading overtop hundreds of barrels and dropping us off into a light-filled dining room. It was time for lunch along with more wine, of course!
The lunch was multi-course and we shared a delicious and leisurely meal with two new friends, Lara and Paul. Lara and Paul were guests at Erletxe as well and we had met them over breakfast that same morning. From Northern Ireland and England, respectively, they lived in London and offered fantastic company! One of my favorite things about traveling is the people, local or otherwise, that you encounter along the way. It is invigorating to share stories, compare homelands, and to talk to people who are as insane about travel as us. We were grateful to share this wonderful meal and wine with Lara and Paul!
There were many elements to this lunch, each of which paired perfectly with the wines served. My favorite two courses were the smoked salmon with roe and the pork cheek. The salmon was delicate and silky, a perfect contrast to the toasted crumbs sprinkled across the top. I love salmon roe as well… the way it pops in your mouth and gives just that slight hint of the sea. This dish was well composed and a delight to eat with the tempranillo rose and the 100% barrel fermented white wine made of viura grapes.
Moving on to Baigorri’s library of red wines, we enjoyed a rich, more tender than you could possibly imagine, braised pork cheek. Slowly cooked with Baigorri’s carbonic maceration red wine, the pork made me realize that, even after the incredible seafood of Barcelona, I missed meat! The adorable beans and playful sprouts offered a note of freshness. The entire Baigorri experience lasted over three hours and I loved every minute. I also noted why all of the guide books advised that two to three wineries per day were all you should plan for this country-side. But don’t feel short-changed. You will have a completely fulfilling experience at every stop!
After returning home and indulging ourselves in a long siesta, we set out to explore Laguardia. You can make the walk from one end of the town to the next in less than five minutes. Make it ten if you decide to walk up and down each cross street as you go. Small restaurants and tapas bars line the way and we settled on a spot recommended by Maria called El Bodegon.
The Euro 2012 football (or soccer to us Americans) tournament was taking place during our stay in Spain and the Spanish team would be playing that night. The bar at El Bodegon was crowded and the energy was rising to a low peak (it doesn’t get too over-the-top in Laguardia!). We grabbed a table at the bar and ordered our drinks just as the whistle blew to start the match. The men of Laguardia (who we later termed the soldiers of Laguardia, but more on that later), were gathered together, gazing at the television with a vague look of excitement on their face. We knew we had picked a good spot.
The menus in Laguardia are very set in tradition. A restaurant may put their own spin on a classic dish but, for the most part, you would find an assortment of the same items on every menu, such as sliced chorizo, peppery and sweet, their mixed salads that were tossed with oil and vinegar and braised meat dishes like oxtail and lamb.
The first time we had this style salad, it seemed a little haphazard to me. Lettuce topped with hardboiled eggs, corn, olives, sometimes jarred white asparagus, tomatoes and often canned tuna. Tossed with the oil and vinegar it was tasty but not-all-that-appetizing to the eye. It’s purpose escaped me until our order of the traditional Rioja potatoes arrived, along with fried croquets of spinach and ham and few assorted, savory tapas. Along with the chorizo, everything had a warm bite, be it from temperature or spice, and was rich with fat and flavor. The potatoes are prepared with chorizo as well and stewed with an assortment of spices in a rich broth. At some restaurants it was noted on the menu that the potatoes must be ordered 24 hours in advance! Delicious? Yes. Hearty? Without question. And there really weren’t any vegetables to be found. I need something fresh and cool… aha! The salad! The vinegary bite with the cold, crisp lettuce and sweet corn was exactly what my palate was craving. After this we made sure to order a salad with every meal!
The next morning brought another day of wine tasting. The drive was a bit longer on this particular day as we made the 30 minute trek to the city of Haro. We would be touring the winery of Lopez de Heredia, an institution in Rioja run by a family who has been making wine here for well over 100 years.
Tradition is the name of the game at Lopez de Heredia and they take this to heart. We quickly descended into their caves, where a natural fungus and thick cobwebs blanket the walls. Eerily beautiful we were transported to a place where time has stood still, classic tools of production still used to craft a beautiful wine with great attitude and personality.
After a long walk underneath the ground, we made our way back up to the mainland and were led around a corner and into a shop of sorts. The smell of smoke and wood was intense and the taste of s’mores immediately appeared in my mouth. We were in a barrel-making shop and this master-craftsman had just fired the inside of a barrel, toasting it to perfection. It is extremely rare for a winery to handcraft all of their own barrels and it was fascinating to watch. Using American oak, I was delighted to find that they source the majority of their wood from Kentucky! They said that the grain closure of American oak, especially that from Appalachia, is ideal for extended storage of wine and Lopez de Heredia is known for specializing in crafting age-old wines (literally). We thoroughly enjoyed their 2001 Vina Tondonia Red Reserva and the 2002 Vina Gravonia, an exceptionally old white wine, by most standards, that proved to be equally complex. I can’t wait to pair it with a rich, creamy pasta.
Next door to Lopez de Heredia sits Roda, home to what ended up being our favorite wine of the trip. Elegant and artful, Roda combined classic wine-making traditions with touches of modernity. Home to world-class red wine, rich, hand-crafted olive-oils and rotating photography exhibitions, Roda managed to hit every mark for me, the overall experience a must-have for any visit to Rioja.
Roda was reminiscent of our favorite Napa Valley stop, Chappellet. The delicate integration of wine and art is soft and unobtrusive. And the wine was over-the-top classic and an instant favorite. We didn’t let one drop of our generous tasting pours go to waste and took home two bottles of their 2007 Roda Reserva! And then the olive oil – oh the olive oil! Two blends were up for sample, one a powerful mix of the arbequina, hojiblanca and koroneiki olives, the other a softer concoction of 100% arbequina olives (don’t worry – I have no idea how to pronounce the names of these olives either!). On toast crackers with a bit of salt they were a delightful accompaniment to the wine. Both bottles of olive oil made the trip back to Kentucky with us as well!
By this time, we were starving. It was nearly 2:30 and although the olive oil was a welcome snack, it was time for a serious gastronomic refuel. We had read about a tiny hamlet called Paganos that lies just outside of Laguardia’s walls. Home to a handful of noted wineries, there is a hidden gem within this small village – a restaurant called Hector Oribe.
Named for the Chef and mastermind behind the traditional menu, the food is rooted in history but crafted with a contemporary and experimental edge. We had been looking forward to this lunch for quite some time and started off by showing our tourist-strips and ordering two espressos before the meal. Our waitress gave us a look of utter disbelief and then erupted in laughter! But we thanked her profusely for this pre-lunch pick me up and jumped into a meal to remember!
We ordered a bottle of 2001 Campillo Reserva to kick things off and it was an excellent accompaniment to the multiple courses we experienced, courtesy of the tasting menu. We began with a bowl of local green olives. They were salty, tender and pure.
The second appetizer was bread-crumb crusted foie gras with berry preserves, sea salt, raspberries and the most adorable cherry tomato you’ve ever seen. It was fun to sample the foie gras with each flavor garnish and it proved to be a playful and satisfying appetizer course.
To my delight, our next course brought the return of a familiar friend, salmon roe! Sitting atop delicate anchovy filets, the base of this artful disc was made up of caramelized onions and zucchini. It was slightly sweet with a touch of brine from the fish. I loved the presentation with the strategically scattered herbs on the slate plate.
Next up: shrimp with charred baby artichokes set over a thinly constructed cream sauce which married everything together. It was a very happy union!
We were then presented with my favorite course of the day – bacalao wrapped with leek and topped with mussel. How gorgeous is that plate? Bacalao is the staple fish of Rioja and is flaky and delicate. The thick ribbon of leek kept all of the juices encased and provided the perfect coat for an extremely moist and flavorful fish. I hated to break the seal of the leek, releasing the fish and allowing the sauce to integrate the ingredients, a once perfectly arranged plate now in disarray. But my fork made a timid nudge at the top and everything fell together, rewarding me with the most delicious fish we would find in Rioja.
Our final course, to cap off the main portion of the meal, was a layered dish made up of seared foie gras and braised beef cheek. Rich and powerful, I found this dish to be wholesome and soul-filling. It was also my favorite bite of foie gras on the trip, which is saying a lot as it is hard NOT to find foie gras on a menu in Rioja. Like the potatoes and chorizo, it seems to be a pantry staple in this part of the world.
But of course – dessert! Our tasting menu would not have been complete without these sweet confections offered up for sample. I managed to find a little extra room and especially enjoyed the lemon ice cream and raspberry cheesecake.
Hector Oribe was a valuable find and a highlight of our culinary adventures in Spain. Another siesta was on the agenda and I drifted off to sleep with a smile on my face, rewinding the day’s events in my mind and replaying my favorite moments. I felt completely relaxed.
Our batteries sufficiently recharged, we headed out to see what Laguardia is like on a Friday night. We grabbed a table in the main square and placed an order for cava and beer. We were hardly hungry at this point, but that would work to our favor as dinner time doesn’t kick into gear until after 10pm in Spain. It was hard to adjust to but we wanted to live in the reality of this world as much as possible. So we got comfortable, ordered a second round, and watched the indelible people of Laguardia go by.
I could people-watch all day in this town. After three days, it wasn’t at all hard to spot a Laguardia local – primarily because we had seen them a few times by now, walking out of their homes, working in one of the bars, or sitting in the square, sharing gossip with friends and family. It was a close-knit group and it was a delight to be in their presence.
Saturday morning came and we had a clear calendar – not one thing to do but enjoy our last day in Laguardia. We set up camp at a small bar for the morning and read for a while. We also made sure to elicit laughter from the waitress as we requested two espressos and two glasses of cava. Sparking in the morning is almost mandatory on vacation, right? It is my book, at least!
At this point, we had traversed every inch of Laguardia’s streets and alleys. We already felt like we knew it well. As it turned out, there was a whole other part of Laguardia that we had yet to explore. We had not descended into the underground chambers that wove themselves through the earth, forming a cobweb of passages beneath the streets of Laguardia. Built at the same time as the town itself, this map of caves was intended as a place to hide in the case of intrusion or attack. As times became more peaceful, they were used as storage and, as the wine trade developed, they soon realized they had inadvertently created the ideal setting for aging wine. There are four wineries who still produce and store their wines within the walls. We choose to experience Vinasperi and were led by one of the owners down below, a path this man’s ancestors had taken years and years before him. One he was honored to keep alive.
Laguardia above land is beautiful. Laguardia below ground is fascinating! Massive stone blocks lined pockets of space that had been carved out of the earth. We were encouraged to climb up a rickety ladder and remove the wooden cover topping one of the vats. Much to my shock, these vats were storing precious wine, all at various stages of the aging process! We later sampled some straight from the vats, a batch that was yet to hit the barrel or the bottle. It was very good and we were anxious to try their crianza in it’s complete ready-to-drink state, all of the steps checked off the list. We bought a few bottles to enjoy at home and another to continue the moment. We headed to a small park that overlooks the land and sipped our wine, taking cat-naps on a blanket in the grass. It was the perfect way to spend our last afternoon in Rioja.
One final touch of magic awaited us as we made our way home, late afternoon, after our extended wine-picnic. The clouds were cresting against the hillside and plummeting over the ledge. It looked like an avalanche, about to envelop the vineyards below. Passing locals giggled at our awestruck faces. This was a normal occurrence and our reaction was a bit over the top – to them at least. Are you kidding me? This was incredible!
As we made our way home, the clouds slowly plummeting toward the priceless earth, I wondered when it is that we decide something is beautiful. Did the founders of Laguardia see the majesty of this land early on, decide it was worth saving? Or has time and nostalgia allowed our eyes to open and to appreciate what lies in front of us? Do the locals of Laguardia open their windows every morning, taking pause to absorb this view? Or is this all they know – a simple fact of life? Whatever the answer, I am thankful for our four days in this countryside. I can’t put my finger on one moment or a specific event… all I can say is that Laguardia brought me back to myself, when I hadn’t even realized I’d been gone. I left renewed and at peace. And I like to think that is what the souls of the walls intend for their visitors. History, love and the earth converge… and somehow, magic happens.