La Rioja in Spain, a must for wine & food (and other things…) lovers

August is gone, and with it, summer holidays. As Mr. Ferry mentions both in Butlers, 21st Century Professionals and in Hotel Butlers, The Great Service Differentiators, butlers, under their low-key demeanor, tend to write little or nothing on their personal experiences and preferences, devoting the vast majority of their writings to keep records of what has been happening in the house so that the data can be used in the future to anticipate needs and offer the excellent service that guests are used to receive.

Nevertheless, my lines here are to keep record of a very different kind; they intend to recall my short stay in a rather unknown destination internationally when one thinks of Spain.

When one thinks of Spanish wines, the first choice is Rioja, with that uncomfortable J that English speakers always hesitate on how to pronounce! La Rioja (this is one of the few geographic names in Spain that includes the article) is an autonomous community and province in the northern half of Spain. The Ebro river is one of the most important geographic elements of La Rioja, as it crosses the province from West to East even though, funny enough, one of its affluents, the Oja, is the one that gives name to the region (River, in Spanish Rio; Rio-Oja; the name of the River Oja (currently hoja, leaf) might have its origins on the fact that in autumn this affluent in particular drags big amounts of leafs from the trees that surround its borders).

The humidity of the Ebro and its affluents, added to the mild Mediterranean climate and the excellent earth of the land allow the cultivation of vines. Between the most characteristic of the region, the Tempranillo, the Garnacha Tinta, the Mazuelo and the Graciano are the most used to elaborate red wines, whilst the Macabeo, blended with Malvasía or Garnacha Blanca are the preferred choice for the whites.

The capital of La Rioja is Logroño (what’s with Spanish toponymy that like to put funny letters sounds in all places’ names? That “ñ”… Yes, it can be pronounced [nee]). Logroño is a beautiful little city of little more than 150.000 inhabitants with beautiful green landscapes and architecture from the ancient roman and medieval times… Beautiful! But the modern times have also given beautiful (and steady!) constructions like the Bridge of Stone and the Bridge of Iron, important enough because they allow crossing the Ebro river, so letting the people visiting the Bodegas (Cellars-meaning wineries) to that end of the city, like the Bodegas Franco Españolas, Viña Olarra or Viña Ijalba.

I’m writing a bit too long… I’m getting hungry. That’s where the best comes! Beautiful Logroño has two streets that one can walk from one end to the other in less than two minutes if it wasn’t for the fact that almost all business one can find there are little bars. I talk about Calle del Laurel and Calle de San Juan. The gastronomic concept in this places is very straight forward: you ask for a glass of wine: if you call for a white, they ask you if you prefer a fruity or dry; if you go for a red, they ask you whether you wish a young wine or a Crianza (minimum 2 years old). If you want more particular choices you can ask also for Reservas, but they offer the products the most people ask for. It is not that they are lazy or they are not interested in upselling… It’s just that they don’t have the time! 15 minutes after opening, almost all bars are full of clients!

After asking for your drink (or before, no prejudice in the order of the factors) one asks for a “pintxo” or “pincho,” also known as “bruschetta” internationally, or a “tapa,” a little portion of some sort of local delicacy.

The combination of drink and food is simply delicious, and the gastronomic concept almost perfect. Someone might feel the temptantion of thinking it could be improved by helping people to match a nice “pintxo” or “tapa” with the right wine. Then, that’s right! Indeed, for those who have little or no idea of food and wine matching, some bars invite you to taste a particular “pintxo” or “tapa” with a particular wine to increase your pleasure! Just on the spot! Mouth-watering! Perfect!

The bad news is that one needs more than a week to taste all the “pintxos” and “tapas.” The good news is that whilst the traveler stays long enough to taste them, one can visit and enjoy not just the bodegas, vineyards, architecture, beautiful parks and religious venues, but also other interesting villages around Logroño that are no more than 2 hours a drive away to enjoy other gastronomy options, see amazing landscapes from the top of mountains, indulge oneself in a Spa, walk through Jurassic caves or see real footprints of dinosaurs!

If you taste taste the Rioja, you will love it; if you live La Rioja, you will never forget it! Ernest Hemingway did both.