Find and book great restaurantsFind a Restaurant
Cutting-edge architecture and new-wave techniques have reinvigorated Spain’s most famous winemaking area. Julie Sheppard takes to the wheel of the new Mercedes-Benz E-Class Coupé to find out more
It’s fair to say that the historic wine region of Rioja has been welcoming ‘tourists’ for hundreds of years. Since the 9th century pilgrims have faithfully followed El Camino de Santiago, or the Pilgrim Route, which runs across the north of Spain to Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, passing through Rioja on the way. The weary travellers were revived by vino from the numerous wineries that sprang up along the route – and the first fans of Rioja wine were born.
Today more than 100,000 pilgrims a year still make the 750km trek west from the Pyrenees on foot. But my own pilgrimage to Rioja is somewhat more luxurious, as I explore the region in the elegant E 350 CDI BlueEFFICIENCY Sport with panoramic sunroof. Rioja is an area of some 60,000 hectares of vines, with more than 1,200 bodegas (wineries) – plenty of space to exercise the powerful 231bhp engine, which benefits from BlueEFFICIENCY technology that achieves impressively low fuel consumption and emissions.
The area is divided into three sub-regions – Rioja Alta, Rioja Alavesa and Rioja Baja – with the River Ebro running west to east through them, bounded by mountains on either side. It can be challenging terrain, with tiny medieval hill towns dotted among vineyards, but the new E-Class Coupé offered the perfect ride, clinging effortlessly to hairpin bends, then accelerating smoothly to cut a sleek line through the fields of squat, green vines.
Like Mercedes-Benz, winemaking in Rioja is a mix of dependable heritage and modern innovation. Traditional wines are made using a blend of grape varieties from different sub-regions to produce a balanced expression of the region as a whole. Tempranillo is king of Rioja’s red grapes, backed up by Graciano, Mazuelo and Garnacha. Viura, Malvasia and Garnacha Blanca are used to make white Rioja. However, a new generation of winemakers prefer to make more individual wines from just one variety or one particular vineyard. This trend has led to the creation of several stunning, modern, architect-designed wineries, which make an eye-catching addition to the landscape.
I decided to get a real taste of Rioja by visiting a selection of traditional and new-wave wineries between the towns of Haro and Logroño in Rioja Alta. With their pretty medieval churches and plazas, both towns are worth exploring, though it’s in Haro that you get more of a feel for the local wine trade – particularly if you visit during June, when the locals celebrate the fruits of the vine in a series of fiestas.
My journey began at ultra-traditional López de Heredia, the oldest winery in Haro. As with all the bodegas I visited, it’s best to phone ahead to ensure the winery will be open when you want to visit and to request a tour in English. At López de Heredia, Mercedes fans can also ask to see the old family car, a 1938 Mercedes that is being lovingly restored on site.
Built in 1877, López de Heredia is still family run, and winemaking practices – such as ageing the wines in traditional 225-litre oak barricas (vats) – have been continued through the generations.
Perhaps the best place to immerse yourself in this history is in the winery’s atmospheric barrel cellars. Carved out of sandstone 17 metres below ground and lined with cobwebs, the cellars contain vintages dating back to 1942. If you have ample spending money you can buy a slice of this history, with bottles from 1942, 1947, 1954 and 1957 available in the smart wine shop upstairs.
Failing that, sample the Viña Tondonia Gravonia Crianza Rioja 1999, a distinctive white that makes a great match for tapas over lunch at one of the bars in the Haro Horseshoe (see box). In Rioja, food is as important as wine and meals are savoured at a leisurely pace, so if you’re touring round a few wineries remember to allow extra time for meals.
Next stop is Marqués de Riscal in the tiny village of Elciego, but en route visit the impressive Dinastia Vivanco wine museum in Briones (www.dinastiavivanco.com), where you’ll find extensive exhibits explaining the history of winemaking – not to mention one of the largest displays of corkscrews in the world. At Marqués de Riscal old meets new: the winery itself was founded in 1858 and its oldest cellars date from this time, but sitting above them is a stunning avant-garde hotel designed by Frank Gehry and opened in 2006 (see box). Its titanium curves thrust swirls of metallic colour into the sky – an unreal apparition when you first catch sight of them among the vines.
My tour of what’s dubbed the ‘City of Wine’ finished with a tasting of the smooth and savoury Marqués de Riscal Rioja Reserva 2004, before I was back in the comfortable E-Class Coupé and on the road to Logroño. Just before you reach Samaniego, a large glass cube looms into view on a rise by the side of the road. This is the only visible sign of architect Iñaki Aspiazu’s huge subterranean gravity-fed winery, built in 1997 for Baigorri, one of the new-wave Riojan bodegas. The best time to visit is during the harvest in September, when you’ll be able to watch this thoroughly modern facility in action, producing its small range of six super-premium wines. The €10 tour price includes a tasting of the intense, 100% Tempranillo Baigorri Crianza 2005, perfectly matched with a selection of tapas. But for more substantial fare there’s also a modern restaurant here with views over the vineyards.
Just a short drive from Baigorri is another of the new generation of wineries: Ysios. Perhaps the most-photographed bodega in Rioja, its iconic wavy roof snakes across a mountain backdrop. It’s a masterpiece of design from architect Santiago Calatrava and the wines live up to their surroundings, with only 100% Tempranillo reservas being produced here. The first vintage was 1998, but in a relatively short time Ysios has built an enviable reputation for itself. Visits are by appointment only, but it’s worth the trip to get your hands on the Ysios Edición Limitada Reserva 2002 – only 5,000 bottles were produced and they’re on sale in the tiny shop.
It’s time for a change of scale for my final visit. Juan Alcorta, Rioja’s biggest producer, on the outskirts of Logroño, is home to the UK’s leading Rioja brand, Campo Viejo. The cellar at this monolithic bodega houses 70,000 barrels. It’s like visiting a giant cathedral to wine as you push open the huge doors and travel the dimly lit corridors. The vast winery floor houses 327 stainless-steel vats that produce 19 million bottles each year.
It’s testament to the enduring popularity of Rioja. And climbing back into the E-Class Coupé, which drew admiring glances from visitors to the winery, I had to admit that those pilgrims were certainly on to something when they sought liquid refreshment here.
Ctra Vitoria-Logroño, km 53
Camino de Lapuebla 50
López de Heredia
Avda Vizcaya, 3
Marqués de Riscal
Calle Torrea, 1
Camino de la Hoya s/n
All of these wineries export to the UK.
One of the real delights of eating out in the Rioja region is exploring the local tapas bars. In Haro, head for Calle Santo Tomás at the top of the main square, Plaza de la Paz, then walk up to the church before turning left and walking back to the square around what’s known as the Haro Horseshoe. Make sure you stop at the rustic Beethoven I (Calle Santo Tomás, 3), which specialises in tapas made from local wild mushrooms. In Logroño, the best tapas bars are clustered along two streets in the old town: Calle Laurel and Calle San Juan. At Vinissimo (Calle San Juan, 23) you can sample wild boar brochetas washed down with Rioja from the carefully selected wine list.
Hotel Los Agustinos
San Agustín, 2
Doubles from €123
A converted convent that dates back to 1373, with large, comfortable rooms and a stunning central cloister covered with a glass roof. Dine in the stylish cloister
at the excellent Las Duelas restaurant.
Hotel Marqués de Vallejo
Calle Marqués de Vallejo, 8
Doubles from €90
Perfectly located for exploring the famous tapas streets of Logroño’s old town, the hotel building dates back to the early 1900s, but the stylish, design-led interiors create a super-chic modern feel.
Marqués de Riscal Luxury Collection Hotel
Calle Torrea, 1
Doubles from €315
This stunning hotel designed by Frank Gehry offers a unique stay in Rioja. Luxurious rooms have views over the vines and the medieval village of Elciego, while the large and stylish spa offers grape-based Caudalíe treatments.
El Portal de Echaurren
Padre José Garcia, 19
Opt for the tasting menu at this modern one-Michelin-starred restaurant to sample memorable dishes such as a zingy tomato tartar with crayfish and ajo blanco, and Cameros cheese tart with Granny Smith apple and honey ice cream.
San Agustin, 17
Mix and match from two separate menus – either traditional Spanish classics or creative modern dishes – before perusing the lovingly put-together wine list that includes iconic Riojas such as Roda I.
Julie Sheppard’s verdict: ‘Stylish, powerful and responsive, with good grip and agility, the E-Class Coupé is
great for driving tours, with an electronic rake-and-reach adjustment on the steering wheel that helps you find the perfect driving position. Inside, the attention to detail is evident, leaving you
in no doubt
that you’re driving an executive coupé. The E 350 CDI BlueEFFICIENCY with 7-speed automatic gearbox offered genuine driving enjoyment, with effortless power up to a top speed of 155mph.’
Square Meal motoring correspondent Bill Thomas’s verdict: ‘The all-new E-Class Coupé has the same qualities as all Mercedes-Benz coupés: classy badge, sleek lines, unimpeachable build quality and a fine range of options. The E 350 CDI BlueEFFICIENCY is the biggest diesel engine, but don’t discount the smaller four-cylinder E 250 CDI BlueEFFICIENCY – also an incredibly smooth and efficient power plant.’
PHOTOS: DANIEL ACEVEDO, ROB LAWSON