Given the hours spent oozing along roads in L.A., you'd think my ideal vacation would not include driving. Zooming around the Arc de Triomphe in Paris? Dodging Fiats and Ferraris in Rome? Not for me.
But tooling down immaculately kept roads with wide sweeping curves and big skies overhead, past golden fields and emerald vineyards and medieval stone villages? Now that's relaxing. Add world-class wines, rustic farm-to-table cuisine, small country hotels, centuries-old monasteries and churches - and some exciting contemporary architecture. That's La Rioja, the wine region in northern Spain known for its long-lived reds and deep cellars.
The best time to go is spring or fall, but in early October, there's a bonus: Just before the grape harvest, blue-purple clusters of Tempranillo dangle from the vines, the sun is gentle, the light golden and the sky a deep, cornflower blue.
It was not my first visit. I'd passed through on the way to the Basque Country or to Madrid. But on this five-day trip, I rediscovered La Rioja's pleasures and would recommend a three- or four-day jaunt for any food lover traveling in Spain.
First, there's the wine, some of the greatest reds in the world, and also some of the greatest values for older wines. They're primarily Tempranillo-based reds, but there are also some ravishing whites - and in summer, you'll be grateful for the crisp, refreshing roses.
This is no upstart wine region - it dates to the Romans - but it really took off at the end of the 19th century, when French vineyards were ravaged by phylloxera and Bordeaux vintners on the prowl for wine came here and worked with enterprising aristocrats and vineyard owners to create the reds now known as Rioja.
Barrio de la Estacion in Haro, where most of the historic wineries are clustered around the railroad station, is the epicenter of the wine trade in La Rioja. At Lopez de Heredia, founded in 1877, the dank cellars, furred with mold, seem to go on for miles. Deep within is the tasting room festooned with grayish-white mold. It's all natural: The cellar's moisture keeps the wines fresh as they sleep, sometimes for decades, deep beneath the Earth. Above ground, though, is a sleek white tasting pavilion designed by Pritzker Prize-winning architect Zaha Hadid.
At the famed CVNE, another historic estate, the cellar used for aging its famed Imperial in barrels was designed by then cutting-edge architect Gustave Eiffel in 1890. The slender steel trusses that span the stone edifice allowed the architect-engineer to eliminate pillars, a look that's astonishingly contemporary. The family is still busy hiring avant-garde architects. When it came time to build a facility for its second estate, Vina Real, the family chose just as bold an architect, Philippe Mazieres of Bordeaux, France.
Frank Gehry designed the dramatic Marques de Riscal hotel for the Marques de Riscal estate, a knockout clad in panels of pink, silver and gold titanium on the outskirts of the medieval town of Elciego. The architecture race in La Rioja doesn't end there, though. Have a look at Bodegas Ysios designed by architect Santiago Calatrava, born in Valencia, Spain, and Bodegas Baigorri from Basque architect Inaki Aspiazu.
What's interesting in the region is the interplay between the contemporary and the traditional. At Bodegas Muga, now run by the fourth generation of the Muga family, you can watch a master cooper and his assistants build anything from a 250-liter barrel to a giant American oak cask that holds 55,000 liters. They also continue to clarify their wines with egg whites and make superb traditional wines, yet Torre Muga, their first wine in a more modern style, is highly prized too.
The same goes for cuisine. The family-run Hotel Echaurren in Ezcaray (one of my favorites anywhere) has two restaurants: the traditional overseen by the mother, Marisa Sanchez, a renowned chef in her own right, and the severely contemporary El Portal del Echaurren (which was awarded two Michelin stars after my visit) run by her son Francis Paniego, who is also chef at Hotel Marques de Riscal. I chose the traditional - twice.
How could I not have tasted Sanchez's exquisite croquetas of cheese flecked with ham or her velvety red beans with chorizo and pork belly? I loved the charcoal-grilled blood sausage with soft strips of scarlet piquillo peppers and lamb trotters a la Riojana in a pepper sauce as subtle and masterful as anything I've tasted. The great thing about La Rioja is that in restaurants you can afford to drink a great bottle and linger two or three hours over lunch.
The wines are made to go with this cuisine, and for anyone who mixes and matches cuisines and wines from all over the world, the exquisite harmony of Riojan food and wine will be a wonderful revelation. I came home and started cooking some of the dishes I had on the trip - those beans! - to serve with my Riojas.
Another favorite place recommended by Fernando Remirez de Ganuza of the top-notch La Rioja estate of the same name is Asador Alameda in Fuenmayor. Sit downstairs where you can watch the chef/owner grill the massive T-bone, one of the best in Spain, over charcoal. His wife's gazpacho is magic. And baby artichokes in green sauce with slices of ham tucked to the side are a perfect prelude to the main event, the blood-red T-bone weighing in at more than 2 pounds, presented with its bone and its fat. With it come roasted potatoes and a vinegary salad of curly chicory. Terrific with a bottle of Remirez de Ganuza.
Juan Muga of Bodegas Muga steered us one night toward La Vieja Bodega in Casalarreina, just outside Haro. It's set in an immense stone barn, but it also has an outdoor terrace for summer dining. This is a good place to have baby lamb or, in our case, rich and succulent baby goat with a bottle of older Rioja. The owner is a wine lover with an extensive, eclectic cellar and turned us on to a couple of smaller estates.
For historic interest, in Haro, just off the main square, is Hemingway's haunt, Terete. It's not often a restaurant gets to celebrate its 125th anniversary - a dozen years ago. And although it no longer takes top honors, sitting at one of Terete's long tables eating lamb cooked in the wood-burning oven still can be a great way to while away an afternoon.
If you have time between winery visits and relaxed extended meals, this is one wine region where you'll find plenty of other things to do. You could explore the walled medieval town of Laguardia with its wine shops and wine bars, bakeries and butcher shops where you can buy picnic supplies. At the cafe with big white umbrellas outside the walls, I enjoyed the best cortado, coffee with warm milk, I had in Spain.
You can visit World Heritage monasteries and marvelous old churches, or get out in nature and hike or bike. Shopping? Not much of interest other than wine, which is less expensive at wineries than in shops.
I did carry back one thing: a luxuriously thick mohair blanket from a family-run textile firm in Ezcaray. Now I wished I had bought two. No worries, though. Sometime or other, I'll pass that way for lunch at Restaurant Echaurren and a shopping spree at that blanket shop.
IF YOU GO:
TELEPHONES: To call the numbers below from the U.S., dial 011 (the international dialing code), 34 (country code for Spain) and the local number.
WINERIES: Wineries in La Rioja welcome tourists. Most offer tours in English.
-Bodegas Muga, Barrio de la Estacion, Haro; (941) 31-18-25, www.bodegasmuga.com. Winery tour, vineyard tour and tasting courses.
-Lopez de Heredia, Avenida de Vizcaya, Barrio de la Estacion, Haro; (941) 310-244, www.lopezdeheredia.com. Visits by prior arrangement.
-Roda, Avenida de Vizcaya, Barrio de la Estacion, Haro; (941) 30-30-01, www.rodaes. To arrange a visit (about $13.50) email email@example.com or call (941) 312-187.
-CVNE, Barrio de la Estacion, Haro; (941) 30-48-09, www.cvne.com. 90-minute winery tour and tasting, about $11.
Elsewhere in La Rioja:
-Contino, Finca San Rafael, Laserna; (945) 60-02-01, www.cvne.com. Winery tour and tasting, about $13.50; gourmet tasting, about $40.
-Marques de Riscal, 1 Calle Torrea, Elciego; (945) 60-60-00, www.marquesderiscal.com. Buy tickets online (about $14) for visits.
TO LEARN MORE: La Rioja Tourism, www.lariojaturismo.com
S. Irene Virbila: firstname.lastname@example.org