By Chef Dad
In Spain, we were generally blessed with sunny weather, but for our visit to Rioja, we had partly cloudy skies and scattered drizzle. Nevertheless, we had Hawaii-quantity and Hawaii-quality rainbows, so we didn’t mind. And Rioja was our pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.
Rioja is of course one of the most renowned wine regions in the world, and we were excited for our visit, but apprehensive as well. It is somewhat different than the culture of wine tourism at the Sherry bodegas and vineyards in Andalucia. It’s also very different than visiting wineries in, say, Missouri or the Finger Lakes, and we weren’t sure if children were as welcome. The key differences: it’s very important to arrange a visit ahead of time and many bodegas combine a tour with the tasting.
We didn’t call ahead before stopping at Marques de Riscal. Rather than book a 90-minute tour with two wine tastings through the website, we simply passed through the parking lot to catch a glimpse. Marques de Riscal is an architecturally stunning winery, but you’ll have to take our word for it (or click on the link), because we didn’t take any pictures. Without an appointment you’re not able to get past the guard gate.
Fortunately, just up the road was Bodegas Ysios, way cooler than Marques de Riscal, and not just because we called ahead to prearrange our visit. When we called, they didn’t have anyone available for a full tour in English, but if we came at the prearranged time, they would arrange a quick tour and a tasting of two wines. This seemed the best of all worlds – especially with kids in tow (they can only handle so many tours!).
This is the coolest winery building we’ve ever been in. It somehow manages to stand out and blend in to the surrounding landscape, and the steps down the long path from the parking lot builds your anticipation like the pages of a good book.
The Spanish approach to winery visits is very personal and intimate, with some kind of a tour expected as part of the visit, and no bachelorette parties to fight with in the tasting room. It’s nice to have the full attention of the host, and it always seems like we learn a little something new.
The roof supports ebb and flow like water, symmetrically from side to side and front to back, over the wine cellars. They also have a small but fancy tasting bar and wine shop, where we were greeted to tapas and our tasting.
I believe Ysios makes just three wines, one of which is exclusive and not available for tasting, one of which was a Riserva, and the other which was particularly unique. Part of the reason I don’t like tours is because there is an awful lot of repeated information from one place to the next, and it’s not worth an hour to find the one nugget of information that makes a particular winery special. My comment to Kristy on our way here was, I’m glad we don’t have to take the whole tour. I don’t want to hear about Phylloxera again. (Feel free to skip the next paragraph if you know the basics, too).
Phylloxera, in a nutshell, is a bug that wiped out nearly all of the European vineyards in the 19th century. It turns out, however, that American rootstocks had an immunity to phylloxera and that grafting European vines onto American rootstocks provided a solution to the epidemic. Very few vineyards in France and Spain have European roots that date back before the epidemic.
Phylloxera is also a litmus test for oenophiles. (Knowing what oenophile means is also a litmus test for oenophiles.) If you’ve heard this bit of history before, people assume you’re not a novice and are, in fact, part of the club.
Ysios produces and bottles a single-vineyard bottle that comes from vines that survived the phylloxera epidemic. This is a rare find, and one that got Mr. N’s attention as well. We’ve cut a deal with both of the kids that we’ll set aside a bottle of wine from this trip until they reach an appropriate age, at which point we’ll pull out the photo albums, click around the blog, and share the bottle amongst ourselves. (SPOILER ALERT: This is not as good a deal as one of our tasting hosts in France got from his uncle when he came of age. Stay tuned!) Mr. N wisely chose the bottle from the vineyard that escaped the epidemic, and we’ve dutifully set it aside for a special occasion in a decade or so.
Thankfully, Kristy and I don’t have to wait for that day and were able to take a glass upstairs to a rather spectacular lounge overlooking the vines. Ysios is absolutely a must-visit for anyone in the region, just remember to call ahead and that if you’re not interested in a tour, a tasting option is available.
From there, we headed to the town of Haro. Haro is one of the best towns to visit in Rioja if you want to winery-hop. It’s also incredibley easy with kids and without appointments/tours. There are several interesting stops in walking distance of each other and we made our way to two. The first, R. Lopez de Heredia, has a tasting bar that dates back to the 1800’s inside a tasting room that looks like a space station.
The tasting bar was used many years ago at an international exposition, then put into storage for a century before being pulled out again recently. They decided, wisely, to leave it up this time. Unfortunately, it was too big and too susceptible to humidity to go into the existing winery building, so they built a new, ultra-modern building shaped like a decanter to house the tasting bar.
We tasted many wines and sampled lots of jamon and assorted snacks while here, including some very interesting, aged whites before leaving with several bottles of both whites and reds (among them the Viña Tondonia Red Reserva 2003).
Right around the corner was the winery of Muga, so close we didn’t even need to hop on that train. Muga was a nice, relaxing place to taste wine, and during certain hours it’s possible to stop in and do just that (again without a tour or appointment). Our tasting host set us up with several samples at a nice bar, gave us printed tasting guides, and left us to enjoy the tasting at our leisure.
We tried several glasses and then sadly called it a day, but not before buying a few bottles (including a Muga Rosado).
As for visiting Rioja with kids in tow, or simply without tours, it’s entirely possible. First, traveling in the off-season meant most places were empty, or near empty. We also found three amazing wineries at which tastings were offered without the full tour, which is also helpful if your time is limited. We do, however, recommend calling ahead and verifying the hours. It’s also considerate to let the winery know of your visit and how many are in your party. Each of the bodegas noted above was welcoming, informative, had amazing wines and was more than happy to accommodate the four of us.
It would have been nice to spend a week in Rioja, and I expect we will some day. I am sure that Haro has much more to offer, and it is just a small part of this region filled with natural beauty, remarkable architecture and wonderful wines.