The Prism of Wine
Logroño is the official capital of Rioja. It is about 30 minutes by car driving southeast from Haro into a different sub-region of La Rioja (Rioja Alta). It is worth choosing September for a visit to Logroño to experience the annual harvest festival honoring San Mateo. It is a sort of "thanksgiving" festival to celebrate the start of harvest. The festival lasts for a week, culminating in a raucous evening of celebration. Thousands of people pack the streets to eat tapas, drink wine, watch an incomparable parade, and swoon over the fireworks display. It's truly a once in a lifetime experience.
But before the harvest festival closes out this story of Spain, let's focus on wineries!
Fans of Frank Ghery will recognize Marqués de Riscal as the winery that commissioned a high design hotel as the centerpiece of its "project 2000" winery expansion and modernization. One of the coolest features - apart from the wavy colored metal roof elements symbolizing vines, red wine and Riscal’s signature wire "dress" for the bottle - is the use of cave space under the hotel's foundation for storing aging barrels.
Riscal produces 5 million bottles a year and has capacity for 7 million. Riscal also makes a white Verdejo in Rueda (an entirely different DO wine region), racking up another 3 million bottles of production.
Riscal wines are readily available in the American market and I highly recommend them. In fact, I almost always feature the Tempranillo Reserva (current release is 2005) in my Spanish wine tastings. For less than $20 per bottle, it is affordable, available, affable and excellent value. Decanter Magazine rates this wine 17 out of 20 (drink now through 2020). The Rueda Verdejo is a fresh young wine, on the one hand aromatic, much like a Sauvignon Blanc with a distinctive citrus nose, and on the other hand reminiscent of a warm-climate unoaked Chardonnay with softly rounded ripe pear and yellow apple flavors. (Can you tell I love it?)
The nearby hill town of Laguardia (back into Rioja Alavesa) is one of few remaining places in northern Spain where remnants of both inner and outer town walls remain intact. Laguardia reminds me very much of Italy's San Gimignano and Volterra, Montalcino and Montepulciano, including expansive vistas where once upon a time you could "see the enemy coming."
Tucked into a hillside in the center of Laguardia, La Faustina winery provides the final contrast of ways in which wine is produced in La Rioja. We will never see La Faustina exported to the U.S. because production is so small, but hopefully you can "taste" the story. The winemaker purchases grapes from nearby vineyards and has them delivered to an incredibly tiny winemaking facility dug into the clay soil of the hillside in Laguardia which must be reinforced throughout by stone arches. A blind tasting of the Crianza and Reserva wines can serve as a capstone to lessons on aging Spanish wines.
Lunch in Laguardia at Mayor de Migueloa is a two-hour affair that begins at 2:00. I feel compelled to describe my meal: pequeños (stuffed roasted red peppers), hake (delicate white fish) served with sweet clams in a garlic parsley broth, and a wine splurge -- a 1998 Gran Reserva Marqués de Murrieta Castilla Ygay, another centenary winery.
The final lesson on Spanish wines: reduction is a natural process in bottle aging, and Riojan wines have a tendency to turn particularly brown. In most wines, this would be a sign that the wine may be past its prime. In Riojan wines, it means that the wine is at prime time - drink now and invite your friends!
Back to the raucous festival...
The closing ceremony is quite meaningful. Peñas are regional village associations whose major purpose is fiesta participation throughout the province. During the closing parade they form a snaking line of pomp and circumstance along Calle Portales to city hall where the final ceremonial act is to burn the cuba (barrel) symbolizing the launch of harvest. There are literally thousands of people lining the Calle, cheering on the peñas, singing and dancing along quietly and respectfully. It borders on a religious experience! Of course, later the streets are lined with people ten deep at tapas bars and the din is deafeningly wild.
I know this because the Hotel Marqués de Vallejo, where I stayed for my visit to Logroño, is quite literally in the midst of it all. It is a relatively new modern-style hotel with teeny rooms - not quite the charm of Haro and Los Agustinos. So fair warning, in the midst of the San Mateo festival you wont sleep a wink as revelers party to greet the dawn and sleep it off to prepare for the coming weeks when nearly everyone in the region works 24/7 to pick the grapes at the perfect moment to get them immediately into their destination vessel for first fermentation.
But you'll be glad you gave up a night of sleep to welcome the harvest!
Previous: “Hola La Rioja,” “Wine and Tapas” and “A Tale of Two Riojas”