The only thing I would trade my writing degree for is more education about architecture. Until I was in the second half of my college career and dating an architecture student, I never really considered that buildings can make you feel something. That they should evoke a reaction in the dweller or visitor, as the case may be.
The Hotel Marques de Riscal is a reminder that buildings are more than a roof and walls to keep the inside in and the outside out. It’s a Bacchus, stuck plumb on the hillside of a 16th-century Basque village called Elciego. You can clearly see its undulating steel roof glittering above the crumbling city walls and red roofs missing tiles. Despite all the pomp and circumstance surrounding wine, it gives you permission to take pleasure in the experience. Thank God, because my wine game is more Franzia than Sommelier.
There’s a whimsy when tradition finally shoves over and lets innovation in. And that’s what I saw when I toured this Bodedga. Wrapping around the original 1800’s buildings is the new design by Frank Gehry that was completed in 2006.
Our tour guide explained that it’s supposed to be reminiscent of popping open a signature bottle of Marques de Riscal wine. There’s the silver foil you cut through, the trademark gold netting you must remove, and then the wine, glorious red wine, flowing into your glass.
For me, that’s too literal. I see the unwinding that happens when you imbibe. The graceful chaos that can ensue. I get hints of A Midsummer Night’s Dream with Bacchus dancing ’round a fire, robes twirling and wine splashing from his goblet and grapes falling from his leafy crown. You get an other-worldliness that jolts you out of the reality that this is Northern Spain, and you’re in a tiny pueblo with a population of just 1,000.
But it is, and you are.
Step away from this marvel of metal and you’re surrounded by a cluster of low-lying sandstone buildings that bake all day long in the Spanish sun. The streets are dusty and the fields gravel dry. It seems unlikely as a wine region, but tempranillo vines have taken root and flourish throughout La Rioja.
The reality is that without previous knowledge of its existence, this bodega – hell, this whole region – is easy to miss. Most trips to Spain include a jaunt from San Sebastián to Barcelona or from Madrid to Sevilla, but rarely do they make a pitstop through this lesser-known area.
How do you get to Marques de Riscal?
I’ve only found a single bus line that runs from Logroño to Elciego. It’s called Alava Bus and I had to dig deep and wide on the website before I could even find the schedules that were available as PDF downloads. It runs most frequently on weekdays, but only offers four trips to-and-from on the weekend, so you don’t have a lot of opportunities to get it right. A one-way ride will cost you 1.60 euro.
This doesn’t mean there aren’t other buses that can get you here, it just means I couldn’t find them. While Spain is great at a lot of things, the internet isn’t one of them. Don’t expect to conduct a straightforward search like “Bus de Logroño a Elciego” and get a helpful answer. This is internet circa 2002.
If not for the sights, go for the smells
Architecture may not be your thing. I respect that. Well, actually I don’t. I think it’s important to stop and take a look around, to appreciate when artists take risks and make things that are truly beautiful.
Coincidentally, this is how Marques de Riscal feels about its wine.
It’s musty and humid in the cellars where they age the wine. The stone walls look to be about two-feet thick. Inside it smells like a long-forgotten basement that’s slowly being reclaimed by nature. You imagine that somewhere in there, you’d find water-soaked wood rotting away and sprigs of green creeping up through cracks in the foundation.
This is the signature scent of the Reserva and Gran Reserva wines at Marques de Riscal. It’s what should hit your nose when you crack open a bottle. They work hard to preserve those odors by controlling for temperature and humidity.
You get the impression that without those scents, the wine would be good for nothing.
Our tour guide said they use both French and American Oak in the aging process. But when pressed for more details, she admitted the American Oak barrels are only used for the cheap, young wines. I am insulted by this at first blush. It figures that French barrels are considered superior to those from the U.S. We are the McDonalds to the world. But then I remember we’re adolescents compared to the rest of the world.
At the time this bodega started producing wine, we hadn’t yet abolished slavery. We were still in the midst of the Civil War. Abraham Lincoln had just introduced The Homested Act that sparked the land grab west of the Mississippi. There were only 33 states. We were still living the Wild West.
So I suppose if it takes a little bit of time to grab a seat at the big kid’s table, that’s ok.
Respect your elders
When I previously heard wine connoisseurs talking about wine that’s 100-years old, I assumed this meant the bottle had been spirited away for the past century in a dusty basement cellar. What patience some people have. This is one possibility, but it can also refer to the age of the actual vine.
We consume wine from plants that are over a century old for $20 a pop, like it’s nothing. Let that sink in.
I learned that the finest wines come from the oldest vines. The best grapes, used in the Reserva and Gran Reserva wines, come from vines that are 75 to 100 years old. These ancient plants have longer roots that are better for absorbing minerals from the ground, but they’re less efficient and produce fewer grapes.
Conversely, young vines yield a much greater quantity, but the quality isn’t quite there. These grapes are used in joven (young) wines that don’t have the same complexity or character.
The older the vine, the better the wine? I feel like there is a Hallmark card here, but I can’t quite put my finger on it.
Don’t judge a wine by its screw cap
Por fin, the tasting. At the end of the tour, we sampled two wines: One reserva from La Rioja, one white from the company’s plots in Rueda, Spain. Even though this is a bodega entrenched in time-honored traditions (the grapes are handpicked every year, the barrels are lovingly labeled with chalk), it is clearly open to modern updates – screwcaps among them.
Our tour guide explained that screwcaps do not indicate a lower-quality wine. They work just as well as corks to preserve the flavor and scents of young wines. Older wines, again, are treated with more care and get corked so they can breathe as they age. Forunately for me, I’m an equal opportunity drinker.
After the white, we got to try to reserva. 2011. It was a good year, I was told. I took my glass of red, swirled it around and brought it to my nose, it was true. I could detect the same traces of old wood and damp stone that I smelled in the cellar. It’s not unpleasant. It’s familiar. It’s the sensation that makes you bury your nose in an old book, feel nostalgic in your grandma’s basement or wander into a cigar shop even if you don’t smoke.
I can understand now why they work so hard to preserve this scent. It’s that character that takes time to cultivate. In a region overflowing with wine, it stands out. It’s distinct; almost as distinct as the building design that drew me here in the first place.
If you’re interested in visiting the Marques de Riscal bodega, it’s easy to makereservations on their website. The tours last about an hour and a half, cost 12 euros, and are offered in both Spanish (Castellano) and English.
Let me know what you think if you go!