The road rolls through arid, hilly landscapes in Spain's Rioja Alavesa on the way to the town of Laguardia. Passing fog-draped palisades framed by rugged mountains, I see tough, hardy green shrubs sprouting from the face of sheared hillsides and bunching in the crevices. Nearing Laguardia, the landscape turns gentler and carefully tended vineyards come into view.
Rioja is Spain's premier wine region, home to splendid red wine varietals such as Tempranillo and lesser-known but good whites such as Malvasia and Viura. I had been staying in the revitalized port city of Bilbao, and after Bilbao, this area is decidedly rustic, but that's fine. Laguardia is a medieval town, home to handsome stone buildings, historic fountains and plazas and cafes and restaurants that serve traditional fare like thin-sliced, toothsome Iberian ham and, of course, Rioja wines. Once home to rough wines meant to be consumed young, Rioja has in recent years produced increasingly sophisticated pours, and is now exporting much of its production. Between the landscapes, the towns and the vintages, it's a delightful place to visit.
Rioja is also home to striking, contemporary architecture, work commissioned by wineries, themselves. One spectacular example is light-washed Bodegas Yslos, with its wave-like roof, designed by Spanish 'starchitect' Santiago Calatrava. When I visited, the buildings and land were softened outside with bunches of purple grapes maturing in lovely vineyards.
In the town of Elciego, visitors can gawk at the Frank Gehry-designed Marques de Riscal Hotel, with its swooping titantium roof, parts of it stained red in reference to the wines of the host winery, Vinos de los Herederos del Marques de Riscal, which has been operating there since 1858. Opened in 2006, the hotel, part of Starwood's Luxury Collection, is not the masterpiece that Gehry's Bilbao Guggenheim Museum is, but it commands the eye and is an enjoyable place to visit. I had a good, leisurely lunch at Bistro 1860, one of the hotel's three restaurants, then had a walk-around tour of the hotel. From the terrace, I looked out at traditional stone winery buildings, the church steeple in the near-distance, the mountains in the middle-distance. Gehry, the Canadian American architect based in Los Angeles, also designed a lot of the furniture in the guest rooms and public spaces of the hotel, which has 43 guest rooms and suites tricked-out with televisions by Bang & Olufsen.
Rioja is an easy day-trip from Bilbao and the city of San Sebastian, the culinary and cinematic capital of northern Spain. It is a bit inland, linked to the Atlantic by winds and rains that blow into the interior down long valleys that crease the landscape. Cool nights and warm days nurture the grapes. If you go, and want to visit the region's wineries (here called bodegas), call ahead one or two days and make reservations. There is a designated Rioja Wine Route (the Ruta de Vino), best experienced with a designated driver. If you plan to have lunch, note that Spaniards eat lunch late; standard lunch hours run from 1:30 to 3:30 p.m., though one of my lunches didn't wind up till 5 o'clock. In short, Rioja Alavesa says: Slow Down.
For more information, see http://www.luxurycollection.com/ or http://www.starwoodhotels.com/, plus www.winecountry/getaways.com/spain/rioja-wineries.html.