For centuries, Rioja was your standard agricultural zone, and typical for a rural area the hotel choices were few, the cultural attractions fewer, and the restaurants and bars more rustic than refined. What was, however, is changing on the fly. Within the past two years, formerly sleepy Rioja, which revolves around the city of Logroño (population 170,000), has witnessed the openings of a Frank Gehry-designed hotel and spa at the Marqués de Riscal winery as well as the Museum of the Culture of Wine at the Dinastía Vivanco bodega. Alongside these monumental works, the dining options throughout Rioja have been getting better, the infrastructure is improving, and the wines aren’t slipping one bit. Here’s a quick take on what’s doing in Spain’s most lauded wine region.
Since plans were unveiled about five years ago, much of the buzz in Rioja has been about the Hotel Marqués de Riscal, which highlights the flamboyant architecture and overall genius of Gehry. Located in the village of Elciego, the hotel, which opened in October 2006, sits in stark contrast to the town’s old stone buildings and church. Managed by Starwood’s The Luxury
Collection, but owned by the winery, the hotel has 43 rooms and suites, and on site are the Caudalie Vinothérapie Spa and a fine-dining restaurant overseen by Francis Paniego, whose family runs the renowned Echaurren restaurant in nearby Ezcaray. A word of warning: room rates are high, especially given the dollar’s weak standing versus the euro (Calle Torrea, 1, Elciego; www.luxurycollection.com/marquesderiscal).
The Museum of the Culture of Wine, which opened in 2005 at Dinastía Vivanco in Briones, already ranks as one of the world’s most thorough and ambitious wine museums. A permanent collection focuses on wine history, cellaring, art, symbolism, and all that goes into opening, pouring and enjoying a bottle of wine. Temporary exhibits and a restaurant with vineyard views add to the show (Carretera Nacional 232, Briones, www.dinastia vivanco.com).
Well prepared modern meals spread over multiple courses and presented on whimsical plateware can be had at Hotel Marqués de Riscal or Las Duelas, Juan Nales’ progressive restaurant now housed at the Hotel Los Agustinos in Haro (San Agustín, 2; Haro; www.lasduelas.net).
But for a good bottle of wine and excellent grilled meats offered in a more traditional Riojano setting, we recommend the Asador Alameda in Fuenmayor. For the past 17 years Alameda has been run by husband and wife Esther and Tomás; she handles the kitchen and prepared dishes like sautéed hongos (mushrooms) folded into a rich mound of lightly scramble eggs, while he handles the grill with skill (Plaza Félix Azpilicueta, 1; Fuenmayor; www.restaurantealameda.com).
Another excellent traditional choice is En Ascuas (meaning “cooked over coals”). This popular little restaurant in central Logroño does consistently excellent baby lamb chops (chuletillas), which are best when eaten by hand and accompanied by house-cut fries and sautéed local vegetables (Hermanos Maroy, 22; Logroño; www.enascuas.com).
A block away from En Ascuas and parallel to Calle Laurel, Logroño’s premier street for tapas y copas, sits La Chatilla de San Agustín. Hefty Fernando Andrés is the chef/owner, and his contemporary versions of traditional Riojano food give credence to the saying, “never trust a skinny chef.” La Chatilla has a superb wine list as well (San Agustín, 6; Logroño; 34.941.204.545).
And if you’re driving to Rioja Baja and through the dusty town of Calahorra, there’s a reason to stop for lunch. Young chef Ventura Martínez has taken over the cooking at his parents’ long-respected Chef Nino, and while the dining room is as old-fashioned as the clientele, Ventura’s wide-ranging tasting menu hits all the right notes (Padre Lucas, 2; Calahorra; www.chefnino.com).