December 24 2011
It is an incongruous sight. In the tiny village of Villabuena de Alava (called Eskuernaga in Basque, population 360), among the vineyards of La Rioja, next to a pretty medieval church, squats an eccentric, colourful, angular jumble of cubes, known collectively as the Hotel Viura. Its design may be abstract, but its construction is decidedly concrete and supremely comfortable. Hotel Viura – named after the region’s dominant white grape variety – is part of La Rioja’s startling mix of the ancient and the modern, evident not just in its architecture (the Frank Gehry-designed hotel at Marqués de Riscal is another example, as are the wealthier bodegas’ new buildings) but in the divergent style of its wines.
Rioja has traditionally meant silk-smooth, strawberry-scented reds, aged in American oak; now, some winemakers are experimenting with a new style, still made from Tempranillo, but powered by French oak and rich, dark fruit. Hotel Viura is a perfect base from which to explore both: many bodegas are happy to receive visitors, although a phone call in advance is wise. I enjoyed the classic wines at Viña Tondonia and La Rioja Alta, in Haro, and the more modernist styles at Artadi and Finca Allende, in Laguardia and Briones respectively.
La Rioja is an hour or so’s drive south of Bilbao, but you are still in the Basque Country until you reach the Ebro river, and the cuisine reflects this: hake and salt cod, spider crabs, sweet hot peppers, orchard fruit and stewed meats are the mainstays of menus. I had a meltingly tender rack of young lamb cooked in local white wine at Hotel Viura’s excellent restaurant, in which the chef uses local ingredients. Pudding was a cheesecake made with idiazabal, Basque sheep’s cheese, served with quince jelly and lightly toasted walnuts. The wine list is extensive and terrific value.
In the beguiling medieval village of Laguardia, just down the hill from the Artadi bodega, I had lunch at a lovely little place called Amelibia: a bright, modern restaurant in an ancient building. The window tables overlook vineyards and face the jagged Sierra de Cantabria on the horizon, and the food and wines are a joy. Escabeche of partridge was tender and piquant, and in a salad strewn with nuts and fruit; cocochas (the throat muscles of hake, much nicer than they sound) with a classic pil-pil sauce (garlic and warm olive oil, thickened by the gelatin from the fish) was fragrant and soothing. A chocolate mousse, flavoured with Campari and seasoned with Maldon salt and peppery olive oil, was oddly sensational.
The ancient and the modern sit happily side by side in La Rioja: choose between the two, if you like. Better, though, just to bask in the best of both worlds.