Life Europe

Friday 29 August 2014

Buon Appetito! Tuck into the tapas and fine Spanish wine trails in Rioja...

There are many things to love about Spain – but its greatest gift to the world is probably tapas.

Willy Brennan

Published 02/06/2014 | 02:30

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MADRID, SPAIN - OCTOBER 23:  Spaniards enjoy tapas in one of the many tapas bars at Calle Cava Baja on October 23, 2009 in Madrid, Spain. While most restaurants struggle their way through the economic downturn the tapas bars are full, offering locals and tourists a cheaper alternative to eat.  (Photo by Jasper Juinen/Getty Images)
MADRID, SPAIN - OCTOBER 23: Spaniards enjoy tapas in one of the many tapas bars at Calle Cava Baja on October 23, 2009 in Madrid, Spain. While most restaurants struggle their way through the economic downturn the tapas bars are full, offering locals and tourists a cheaper alternative to eat. (Photo by Jasper Juinen/Getty Images)
The Ysios winery, designed by Calatrava, near Logrono, Spain. Photo: Willy Brennan
Portico of of L'Eglesia de Santa Maria de Los Reyes, built for the Kings of Navarra in the 14th century near Logrono, Spain. The Figure in the centre is Saint James as this is on the Camino de Santiago de Compostela. Photo: Willy Brennan

There are many things to love about Spain – the weather, the culture, the prices, the wine, the food, but Spain's greatest gift to the world is probably tapas.

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The word tapa is believed to have originally meant top or lid – possibly a slice of ham or cheese – that drinkers placed over the top of their glass of sherry to prevent fruit flies getting in. This developed eventually into a small plate of food being provided with each drink. This method of eating has become very popular in Ireland in recent years, and we now have a huge selection of really good bars serving a variety of tapas.

You can even get Japanese or Indian tapas! Recently, the Spanish wine brand Campo Viejo started hosting an annual tapas trail and this year's trail takes place from June 4-29 in Dublin and from July 2-27 in Cork. Not surprisingly, at €25 a head, the Dublin leg is all booked out, but there may be some places on the Cork trail.

Over the years, I'd been lucky enough to have done a few tapas trails myself in places like San Sebastian, Madrid and Marbella, so when the opportunity arose to spend a few days exploring the vineyards, towns and tapas bars of the Rioja region in Spain, I had my tapas hat packed before you could say albondigas.

We based ourselves right at the centre of the action in the city of Logrono, nestling on the banks of the river Ebro in northern Spain. It is the capital of La Rioja and home to some famous tapas bars. The city is about 150kms drive from Bilbao and dates back to Roman times. It was the seat of the infamous Basque Witch Trials, part of the Spanish Inquisition in 1609, but today Logrono is probably better known as one of the major stopping points on the Camino pilgrims' route to Santiago de Compostela.

Every morning, groups of walkers with long staves and comfortable shoes passed our hotel as we prepared ourselves for a busy day among the vineyards.

The 16th-Century Concatedral de Santa Maria de la Redonda, in the heart of the old town, is well worth a visit, even if you are not a pilgrim. And there is a big surprise, tucked away in a glass-walled niche at the back of the church is Michelangelo's Calvary (1540), an exquisite painting of Christ on the cross surrounded by the Virgin, Mary Magdalene and John the Baptist.

But, Logrono has another secret. Its tapas bars, more than 100 of them, clustered in the narrow medieval streets around Calle del Laurel, are considered to be among the best in Spain. Our friends Roberto and Anabel from Campo Viejo came along to guide us through the best of the bars. The first one we visited was Soriano, a small family-run traditional bar, packed with local people enjoying their early evening glass of wine and a bite. What made this place different, however, was that they only served one speciality, champis, a tower of three delicious button mushrooms perfectly cooked with garlic, topped with a prawn and served on a slice of local artisan bread. The tastes combined perfectly with our first glass of the local red wine.

Many of the bars have their particular speciality, some do only octopus or squid, another does only prawns with pineapple. We moved around the corner, through the gathering crowds and exciting cooking smells, to El Rincon de Alberto where the speciality was Pimientos de Padron, deep-fried green chilli peppers – a huge plate of them – but they weren't spicy or hot, just sweet and succulent. They also do a terrific version of the traditional ham croquette here. We tried a very good red Rioja wine called Azpilicueta (no relation to the footballer), which apparently will soon be available in Irish restaurants.

The third bar, Bodega Las Cubanas, had fresh white seasonal asparagus, which we paired with the white Azpilicueta, a great flavour combination. The speciality here was pork belly, and after a generous tapas portion, our appetites were starting to be satisfied – but there was lots more to come.

The narrow winding streets were starting to really fill up now, and there was a great buzz outside all the bars with people drinking and snacking. In bar La Fontana we tried some of the local Iberian cured ham, really superb and nothing like the ham we get at home.

Finally, on to our last port of call on our tapas trail, La Camilla, where the speciality was entrecote. Four perfectly seared pieces of succulent steak came garnished with deep-fried salted potato slivers – a sort of steak and chips, but Rioja tapas style.

The next morning, we took the 10-minute drive to the Campo Viejo vineyards. The winery and visitor centre, which is open to the public, nestles in an idyllic setting among the vines. The company moved from Logrono in 2000 to a purpose-built facility designed in consultation with the winemakers. The architect, Ignacio Quemada, sat down with the winemakers to work out the best solutions for an efficient, modern, sustainable winery. You hardly notice the building as you approach as most of it is underground, but the dramatic sweep of its weathered concrete forms blend perfectly into the surrounding hills.

Despite being underground, some parts as deep as 10 metres, all the working areas are lit by natural light. At the business end of the winery, the grapes are brought in at ground level and descend by gravity into the array of tanks below for fermentation. There are over 300 tanks ranging in size from 100,000 litres to 5,000 litres. Ninety five per cent of their wines are aged in oak barrels and all the Campo Viejo wines are bottled at the winery, where they still use traditional cork in all their red wine bottles.

The first thing that hits you as you enter the winery is the wonderful heady aroma of musky grapes. "If only they could bottle this and sell it as aftershave", was one comment, but I'm not sure if that would work. Campo Viejo is open to visitors seven days a week (by appointment) and for just €10 you can get a guided tour of the winery, an explanation of the history and processes and a tasting of the wines with a typical aperitif.

We took a drive among the vines to look at the different grape varieties they grow here and we were shown some of their newly planted vines, where they have started growing grapes such as Chardonnay and Sauvignon blanc to experiment with new blends. A quick stop among the vines for a glass of Tempranillo and some Iberian ham and a short bask in the sunshine and then it was back to the winery to try our hand at blending our own wines. This was terrific fun and gave us a much greater understanding of the processes involved in producing a fine wine.

The next day, we took a trip to the fantastic medieval walled town of Laguardia which dates back to 1164. Nestling on top of the hills about 10 minutes from Logrono, it was originally a fortified stronghold and the main city in the region. You enter by an arched gateway, far too narrow for cars, into a medieval wonderland of narrow streets and ancient wooden doorways. At the gate on the far side of the town there is a viewing platform from where you can look out over the entire Rioja valley.

The town's three streets, built on top of caves which were once wine cellars, are dotted with wine shops, fine restaurants and boutique hotels. But the jewel in the crown is the ancient church of La Iglesia de Santa Maria de los Reyes, built for the Kings of Navarra in the 14th Century. Inside a fairly nondescript 16th-Century doorway lies the original painted portico, preserved with all its vivid colour exactly as it was in the 14th Century. It is one of just a few preserved gothic painted porticos in the entire world. If you are in the region this is a must-visit. In the area around Laguardia, there are many other historical treasures, ranging from dolmens to Roman ruins.

Our final day brought us to the fantastic Ysios winery near Laguardia. You can spot this unique building, nestling under the Cantabria hills, long before you get to it. The developers wanted something special, so they gave architect Santiago Calatrava – well known to Dubliners for his stylish James Joyce and Samuel Beckett bridges in the city – a completely free hand in designing the winery, even down to choosing the site, and the result is something quite spectacular. The 200 metre long undulating roof mirrors the mountains behind while the building hides some clever innovations. From the air, the site seems to be shaped like a wine glass and on approach to the main entrance, the side windows reflected in water appear like wine barrels.

The winery, which has been in operation since 2001, is on a much smaller scale than Campo Viejo. Here they only produce about 80,000 bottles per year in total. They have just two wines, their Ysios Reserva and a Limited edition, but both wines are very special. All the work in the winery is done by hand and they have a unique technique of freezing the grapes for a day before starting to ferment, this helps to preserve the fruit flavour.

They also have the Ysios Club, where, if you happen to have a spare few euros lying around, you can buy a half or complete barrel of their Special Edition. And when it has matured, you can come to the special Club Room at the winery to drink it. Unfortunately, the Ysios wines are not available in Ireland, but as a bottle of the superb Limited Edition sells in Spanish wine shops for around €60, I doubt if I could afford it anyway. Ysios is also open for visits by appointment.

Between the wine, the culture, the history and the amazing tapas, the Rioja region has so much to offer and it very accessible and relatively unspoilt. I'm hoping to return for a longer visit before the secret gets out!

Flights

There are daily flights to Bilbao and Barcelona with Aer Lingus.

Accommodation

Logrono has a large range of hotels and hostels. We stayed at the four-star NH Herencia Rioja in the centre of the city.

Winery visits

Campo Viejo is open for public visits by appointment from Monday-Friday, 11am to 4pm and Saturday-Sunday, 10.30am to 1pm, and visits cost €10 per person. email: visitas.campoviejo@pernod-ricard.com. Tel: 0034 941 279900.

Ysios is open for visits by appointment (€12 per person) from Monday-Sunday 11am to 1pm. email: visitas.ysios@pernod-ricard.com or tel: 0034 902 239773.

Tapas trail

The 2014 Campo Viejo Tapas Trail runs from 4th to 29th June in Dublin and from 2nd to 27th July in Cork. For further information log onto www.campoviejotapastrail.ie.

The Concatedral

In Logrono, visit the 16th-Century Concatedral de Santa Maria de la Redonda in the old town. It's well worth putting a euro in the slot to turn on the lights and see the Michelangelo painting.

Paella

No visit to Spain would be complete without tasting a paella – seafood, meat or mixed. But don't forget, it's a lunchtime dish only. Best accompanied by a glass of the local rose wine.

Reserva wine

If you are buying a Rioja red wine, it is often worth investing the extra euro or two for the Reserva or Gran Reserva. These are aged for much longer and have a more complicated flavour.

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