Today we traveled to Rioja, with our first stop being in the town of Haro, home of such famous wineries as R. Lopez de Heredia Vina Tondonia (considered by many to be one of Spain’s national treasures) and Muga. Based on the dates we were to be in Rioja we were unable to book tastings at either winery, and we soon found out why. This was the weekend that celebrated local saints, in particular the Fiestas de San Juan, San Felices, and San Pedro, all of which Haro takes quite seriously.
After finding parking on the narrow, winding roads that lead through the center of town we walked down to the square. The air was perfumed with rose petals, and indeed they were scattered all over the walkways. People were everywhere, talking and laughing as they drank their wine in the open air. A little girl was giggling in delight as the wind swirled rose petals around her feet.
We walked around to weigh our options about where to eat and drink. But before we made the final cut on our restaurant we were intrigued by a local wine shop, or vinoteca. This place, called Vinicola Jarrera, and claims to be the first “Club de Vino” in Rioja, was absolutely perfect. Bottles, many covered in dust, filled the store. Old vintages, primarily from La Rioja but also selections from Bordeaux and Burgundy, dating back decades and decades were in plain reach of anybody. The shop had a really sweet ambiance about it too, great music and super helpful staff. One guy working at the shop even stopped me before I purchased a bottle that he didn’t think had held up well in the bottle. With great difficulty I whittled my selections down to four bottles and we headed to dinner.
After a nice meal and a bottle of 2001 R. Lopez de Heredia Viña Tondonia (the current vintage) we got in the car to head to Rioja Alavesa. We went to Heredad Ugarte, an amazing property owned by the Eguren family, making beautiful wines. We toured the labyrinth of underground caves and tunnels, some 2.8 km worth and growing, with different tastings arranged in various places in the winery. Here at Ugarte you can even purchase your own barrel of the Reserva or Martin Cendoya Grand Reserva, and they will store it and bottle it for you. At which time you can access your private cave with your luckiest friends and have a dinner in one of the underground dining areas. Naturally, it’s on my to-do list. The last stop on our tour which lasted a couple of hours, was to taste the top bottling of the estate, a wine that I never had the chance to taste in the years I’ve been working with this winery. The Anastasio 2005, Heredad Ugarte’s top bottling of 100% Tempranillo.
Dinner at Ugarte was amazing, easily one of the best meals I have eaten in Spain. We brought several bottles with us and enjoyed the view of the vineyards through the windowed walls of the restaurant.
The next day it was on to the vineyards. In Rioja the vines are bush trained, with very few trellises employed throughout all of the vineyards we saw in this region. We rode around down dry, rutted out roads in a big land cruiser and from my vantage point of the front seat I thought we were going to roll over on more than a few occasions. Viticulturist and enologist Elena didn’t let this happen, however, and brought us to some truly amazing vineyards. She and her crew of 14 are taking great care of the vines and the land in Rioja Alavesa.
If you can’t make it to the Heredad Ugarte property in Spain and enjoy their over-the-top hospitality, well, I feel sorry for you. But at least I can recommend that you get your hands on any of their bottlings, particularly those focused on the tempranillo grape. We hope to see these wines available soon in Croatia- stay tuned!