The first time I visited the Rioja, in 1992, I thrilled to a lunch of grilled baby lamb chops so sweet and moist that I licked my fingers like a Flintstone. I watched the enormously talented Espartaco fight bulls in the old plaza de toros. Then I walked the Casco Viejo with a friend who worked for one of the local wineries. He took me in and out of five or six bars, insisting not only on which ones we visit, but in what exact order—and which tapas to have in each. I remember the sweetly pungent odor of mushrooms on the grill, and marinated anchovies on pillowy rolls, and inexpensive wines that deftly balanced red fruit, dusty tannins, and the vanilla notes of coarse-grained American oak. Nothing about the wine or the food was complicated, but it all felt genuine in a way that not everywhere on the Continent still did, even then.
I can’t always make time for a wander through the Casco Viejo when I return, but I’m always glad when I do. That sense of being somewhere real hasn’t waned, and I cherish it even more these days because the Rioja, unlike Tuscany and Burgundy, remains a work in progress. Over the past two years, the titanium-sheathed, Frank Gehry–designed hotel/tasting room attached to the Marqués de Riscal winery has transformed the region into an international tourist destination, changing it as profoundly as if a spacecraft had dipped from the heavens and landed in one of Logroño’s main plazas. It has helped to pull the Rioja into the modern era, raised both awareness and standards, attracted a caliber of visitor who wouldn’t have come before, and altered almost everyone’s concept of the possible. And Gehry is far from the only one who is transforming the landscape with a sketch pad and a computer program; Santiago Calatrava, Zaha Hadid, and the emerging Basque standout Iñaki Aspiazu Iza have also designed new wineries that leap out from the area’s monochromatic terrain like color photos in the gray pages of the New York Times. Many visitors travel here now for the architecture alone.
At the same time, an astonishing 500 new wineries have come alive over the past two decades because of the move away from huge wine-making factories and toward smaller producers, and a growing awareness of Spanish wines in far-flung markets such as North America and Asia that has made it possible for a Rioja producer to get a decent price for a quality bottling. The wines themselves are better than ever. Traditionally styled Riojas, many of which in the 1960’s and 1970’s had the approximate fruit-to-oak ratio of a coffee table, are now made with riper grapes and taste far fresher, though fruit remains secondary to a kind of delightfully woodsy characteristic that I haven’t found in any other wines. And most every producer in the area now also offers at least one sleek, sculpted wine in a double-weight bottle designed to please the international palate. Called vinos de autor, these typically cost $75 and up, but they hold their own against Napa Cabernet, Australian Shiraz, and just about every other big, bold wine from around the world. The Rioja hadn’t ever had a Michelin-starred restaurant until Francis Paniego earned one with El Portal de Echaurren in 2004, but it now teems with ambitious young chefs who’ve worked or studied in Bilbao or Barcelona and are eager to bring the culinary revolution of Ferran Adrià and his acolytes to this part of Spain. Each time I come now, I eat at another compelling new restaurant that would fit in perfectly in Barcelona, even London.
Yet though they’re undeniably important to the experience of visiting the area, these new buildings and new wines and new food sit on its surface like a bright coat of paint on a comfortable old barn. Finding myself in Madrid not long ago, I couldn’t resist the hour-long flight to Logroño and the chance to potear. After a day of drinking vinos de autor and reveling in some of the wildly fanciful new architecture, I headed back to the Casco Viejo, ready not so much to step back in time as to circumvent it entirely. I ate pan-fried goat tripe, and grilled sardines, and stuffed piquillo peppers. I saw pilgrims bound for Santiago de Compostela washing their feet in a public fountain, as pilgrims have done at the same fountain since the Middle Ages. And then, long after midnight, I walked the ancient neighborhood alone. I reveled in the tranquillity that seemed to emanate from its stately buildings, soaking up the silence like I’d taken in the merriment and the food and the wine earlier in the evening. I headed back to my hotel on the edge of downtown at what would be a scandalous hour most anywhere else, reassured that the soul of this singular place had stayed the same.