Cycle Among the Vines in Spain’s Rioja Wine Region

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May 19, 2017

by LEE MARSHALL, Writer

Experiences Spain's handsome Rioja wine region – and build an appetite for its rich cuisine – from the saddle of a bike.

We’re just outside the Basque village of Juantsarats when a cold rain sets in. One of my fellow cyclists had remarked how green the landscape is – not at all like the arid Spain of popular imagination – and now we know why.

Somewhere out there in the descending mist are two oak trees so old that they’re catalogued as national treasures. But that particular diversion will have to wait. Face stung by needling raindrops, my thoughts are all about staying in the storm and the saddle until we reach what our guides describe as “a local asador specialising in fresh vegetables and heavenly grilled meats”.

They say the survival of the human race depends on a mother’s brain being programmed to forget, repeatedly, the pain of childbirth. So, too, the cyclist’s fickle synapses will delete hours of suffering when confronted with a delicate oven-baked hake served with patatas panaderas, a slow-sautéed marriage of potato and onion. 

At least that’s how it is for me. After pedalling doggedly through Basque country on the first, wet morning of a Butterfield & Robinson guided cycling holiday, the pain fades as rapidly as the storm. This afternoon, following a gentle and sunny riverside ride into Pamplona – famous for the madness of its bull-running festival – my new cycling companions and I are escorted into town by pilgrims walking the Camino de Santiago.

It’s only the tapas before the main meal. From day two onwards, we’re based in Rioja, Spain’s premier wine region. Named after the Rio Oja, a tributary of the Ebro River, this wide agricultural basin with irrigated soils and abundant sunshine is suited to viticulture. The saw-toothed Sierra de Cantabria mountain range protects the valley from the abovementioned downpours, while the Sierra de la Demanda to the south is a buffer against hot sirocco winds.

It suits to perfection the tempranillo grape that is the backbone of Rioja’s red-wine reputation. Although Rioja has lost some ground to upstart regions like Ribera del Duero and Priorat, it’s still, for many wine-lovers, the Spanish red. Rioja is also a joy for gastronomes, marrying the Basque gourmet culture of glamorous San Sebastián, the seaside city from which we set out, to the more rustic inland traditions of Navarra and the autonomous community of La Rioja, where pork, asparagus and hearty bean soups feature prominently on menus.

Wine and cycling go well together. Not just because a glass of Rioja tastes even better after the exertion of an 80-kilometre ride but because the same terrain that suits wine suits cyclists: long, winding river valleys, switchbacks that allow for testing but doable climbs, followed by glorious descents. For the next four days, we cycle past beehive-shaped chozos (shepherds’ huts), skirting fields of bush-trained vines that draw thick green lines on sandy alluvial soils. Birds are everywhere; as I descend from Rivas de Tereso on an undulating road, a flock of swallows dart back and forth as if challenging me to follow.

The five-night Rioja Biking trip is designed for “enthusiast” cyclists – that’s halfway between “occasional” and “expert” on the Butterfield & Robinson meter. In other words, you should be able to pedal up a hill for half an hour but you don’t need to have completed the Tour de France. Each day, we face a core ride of between 38 and 51 kilometres, although extensions are available for the gung-ho. Even though I slot into the latter category (guess who’s the only taker for the 102-kilometre mountain ride on day four?), this was never going to be about clip-on pedals and derailleurs.

Guides Oscar and Alvaro arrange a memorable visit to a Basque gastronomic society, or txoko (nook), which revolves around men cooking, eating and discussing food away from women (mostly; women are allowed as guests on certain days but seldom in the kitchen). Then there’s the demonstration pelota match we watch, wincing, on a court outside the Viura wine hotel, a cool contemporary pad in the sleepy town of Villabuena de Álava that has 300 inhabitants but more than 40 wineries. (Wincing, because the Basque version of pelota involves two players using bare hands to hit a ball – which has a boxwood core – as hard as possible against two walls. Alvaro, from Valencia in the easygoing south, leans across to whisper, “The Basques are a bit crazy. They lift rocks for fun.”)

One evening, our guides take us to Logroño to experience the regional capital’s annual fiesta. Just when it seems you can’t shoehorn one more reveller into the warren of narrow lanes, a drunken carnival marching band heaves into view, making noisy progress against the tide. We ride their wake to the Bar Angel, a hole in the wall famous for its setas: flat mushrooms toothpick-speared in towers of two or three on slices of warm French bread, topped with a shrimp.

The Frank Gehry-designed Marqués de Riscal vineyard hotel, one of northern Spain’s most distinctive luxury resorts, is our base for the last two nights. From a distance, the audacious structure, opened in 2006, looks like the result of a hurricane in a sheetmetal factory. Live with it for a while and it’s an unfolding revelation as different perspectives and weather conditions reveal changing plays of light and views over the vines, the Baroque old town of Elciego and the distant mountains.

On our final evening, over a couple of good bottles in a local restaurant with wide-screen views of the Ebro Valley, we get a little emotional. Oscar, who has lived everywhere and tried a bit of everything, including a year in an Indian ashram, tells us that guiding these trips has taught him that he can travel more richly by staying in his own country rather than wandering restlessly around the world. Cyclist Iain, a 73-year-old Brit based in Rio de Janeiro, who never once opted for the short route, marvels at how the Butterfield & Robinson van appeared from nowhere on a remote road two minutes after he’d skidded on a gravel-strewn curve and fallen off.

Other stories of miraculous Oscar and Alvaro apparitions follow, encouraged by a suave 2012 Rioja from a winery in the nearby village of San Vicente de la Sonsierra. We may have started in the rain but we’ve ended up – after a trip on which every member of the group has cycled well over 160 kilometres – drinking the nectar of Saint Vincent in the company of a couple of guardian angels. 

Off-the-beaten track wine regions worth exploring 

Etna, Italy

Etna Rosso, a seductive, pale-hued red, has been called “the Burgundy of the Mediterranean” and it’s attracting producers keen to try their luck on the fertile slopes of Europe’s highest active volcano. Based on local Nerello Mascalese and Nerello Cappuccio grapes, it’s a fresh, energetic wine – even though the vines can be up to a century old. 

Primorska, Slovenia

Bordering the better-known Italian wine area of Friuli, this hilly region poised between the Adriatic Sea and the Alps is home to an army of small winemakers, many doing great things with both white (rebula, pinot grigio) and red (particularly pinot noir) varieties.

Alentejo, Portugal

Once upon a time, the main wine trade of this arid, sparsely populated region of southern Portugal was the supply of corks. More recently, it’s what’s inside the bottle that has wine buffs excited. Among several native red varieties, Alicante Bouschet is the standout, especially in the hands of an experienced producer like Herdade do Mouchão.

Valpolicella, Italy

This region of limestone valleys north-west of Verona produces the world-famous red wine Amarone, a concentrated mouthful of baked cherries and spices made from partially dried grapes. However, Amarone’s simpler, tannic country cousin, Valpolicella Classico, has come on in recent years.

Alsace, France

For most French wine aficionados, it’s Bordeaux, Burgundy and the Côtes du Rhône that divide the spoils in terms of fruit-forward red wines. That suits Alsace just fine, as the calling cards of this region on the border with Germany are its graceful whites – chief among them aromatic rieslings and gewürztraminers.