Standing along the brass rail of a crowded storefront bar in the Casco Viejo neighborhood of Logroño not long ago, surrounded by an arc of friends I hadn’t known an hour before, I was eating a half-sandwich of freshly grilled sardines with tangy guindilla peppers and drinking a wine I probably would have passed up if it had rolled by on an airplane cart. My glass of 2003 Solagüen Crianza, a soft, translucent red that cost all of $1.65, seemed to shine in the dim light. It tasted tart yet viscous, like a Table Talk cherry pie. I’d spent the day sampling decades-old Riojas, fascinating wines that offered up glimpses of truth like a Lorca poem. I could discuss each of those for an hour, consider their attributes, chart their progress. This wine I didn’t want to talk about, just drink. At that moment, in that place, it felt exactly right.
The Rioja is Spain’s most celebrated wine region. In some areas of the country, its name actually serves as a synonym for wine: the way to request a glass of generic red is to shout “un Rioja!” at the barman. Despite all of its $100 bottles and spectacular new wineries, it also remains a bastion of unpretentiousness in an increasingly urbane nation, an area renowned for an elemental way of life that’s rooted in the land and the livestock, and in the farmers and viticulturists who work them. Yet for such a central and evident place, an amorphous stain near the top of Iberia, it can be maddeningly difficult to access. Eating and drinking there at El Soldado de Tudelilla, acting out the useful Spanish verb potear—which connotes a Spanish version of a pub crawl, only with better nutrition—I remembered a doctor I know and his wife, bright and resourceful people, who’d called upon their return from a recent trip to complain that they’d traveled right through the Rioja and yet somehow missed it. They’d had in mind a Spanish version of Burgundy or Tuscany, but instead of gentle slopes and leafy trees and enchanting villages with picturesque cellars, they’d encountered a craggy brown landscape that reminded them of Wyoming. They saw faceless apartment blocks ringing Logroño and charmless wineries along the highway that look like giant warehouses.
Had I known that they were going, I would have sent them to the Casco Viejo. It sounds counterintuitive, I know: accessing a rural, agricultural region through the paved, narrow streets of the most crowded piece of its only city. But no spot better encapsulates the charms of one of Europe’s last remaining authentic places. The Rioja ranks among my favorite areas in Spain—I’ve returned there more than a dozen times over the past 15 years—but it isn’t Burgundy or Tuscany. The terrain is impossible, for one thing. I often describe it as something a fourth-grader would draw; its improbable towns are perched precariously atop hills that jut upward from the landscape. Some of the wineries are stunning, but most could easily double as refrigerator factories. And Logroño, which seems so generic from the outside, only becomes worthwhile when you get all the way to the middle, to the part that has been around since the beginning of the Dark Ages: a jumble of bars and small shops that is shuttered to the world by day and only comes alive as the skies darken. Then, at about nine o’clock, the doors open and people start to fill the narrow streets.
Many are travelers, passing through. Spaniards well know that eating tapas in Logroño isn’t the cutting-edge gastronomic experience it is in San Sebastián, or the traditional one it is in Seville, but it is infinitely more fun. Still, most of the people you’ll see there are locals, whether part of the wine industry or not. They’re heading out after work to spend time with friends, eat a few snacks, and drink a few glasses of tinto or rosado that, likely as not, was made by someone they know. A few hardier souls move on to a restaurant dinner, but it’s usually enough to eat and talk for a couple of hours and then head home, having followed your wandering tasting menu to half a dozen bars, gobbled up a grilled anchovy here and a bit of rabbit stew there, washed it all down with perfectly complementary wines that seem to have been tailor-made for this purpose alone, tugging on the ties to the local culture all along the way.
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.
Logroño is a short hop on Iberia from either Madrid or Barcelona. But if you’re coming from elsewhere in Europe, an easier route might be a direct flight to Bilbao and a 90-minute drive down the highway.
Where to Stay
Frank Gehry’s sandstone-and-titanium confection cloaks a well-run business hotel and spa, and an innovative restaurant. 1 Calle Torrea, Elciego; 800/325-3589 or 34/94-518-0880; starwoodhotels.com; doubles from $610.
Great Value A starkly elegant 50-room hotel in the center of the old town. 8 Calle Marqués de Vallejo; 34/94-124-8333; doubles from $267.
Where to Eat / Drink
In the old quarter of Logroño, dozens of intimate wine bars offer specialty tapas and a list of by-the-glass regional selections that cost merely a dollar or two. Here, some of the area’s top wine experts recommend their favorites.
The establishment’s sole victual—a two-inch-high stack of mushrooms precariously united by a toothpick and topped with a tiny shrimp ($1.50)—pairs perfectly with Bodegas Lan Crianza 2004. It’s a classic Rioja that impresses with elegance, not fruit ($1.90). 12 Calle del Laurel; 34/94-120-6355.
A tiny corridor of a place where embuchados, plates of grilled goat tripe, sizzling and crunchy, with spicy romesco sauce ($6.40) are served with Bodegas Solana de Ramírez Ruíz Valsarte Crianza 2002. The wine is full of sweetness and round in the mouth ($1.80). 13 Calle del Laurel; 34/66-523-1589.
This storefront-size bar has a formidable list of wines on a chalkboard. The hearty semi-spicy pepper stuffed with beef and béchamel ($1.50) is a standout. 3 Calle Albornoz; 34/94-122-0196.
An eclectic crowd, including pilgrims bound for Compostela, visits this L-shaped bar for irresistible matrimonio sandwiches: roasted peppers, salted anchovy, and anchovy in vinegar on a cottony soft bun ($2.20). Refreshing Florentino Martínez Clarete 2006, colored like onion skin, flows like water (75 cents). 1 Travesía del Laurel; 34/94-122-0079.
Postmodern bar in the corner of a small casino that pours wonderfully acidic Viña Soledad 2005, a white from Bodegas Franco-Españolas ($1.95); the wine is the ideal complement to embuchados with caramelized onion ($4.30). 10 Calle Sagasta; 34/94-125-1420.
Family-run spot popular with locals for its classic half-sandwich of grilled sardines topped with guindillo pepper ($2). The tart Bodegas Solagüen Crianza 2003 knifes through the oil and spice ($1.65). 33 Calle San Agustín; 34/94-120-9624.
Order tortilla española—runny like a good omelette and slathered with house-made red sauce ($2)—and chase it with the neighborhood’s best bargain: Bodegas Prudencio Larrea’s Los Porrones de Nedurp 2006 (90 cents). 2 Travesía de San Juan; 34/94-123-0716.
This capacious corner bar is named for Spain’s famous black-hoofed pigs, so don’t miss a crunchy, salty, and delicious toasted sandwich of jamón serrano, fresh tomato, and anchovy ($2.95), accompanied by Bodegas Bretón Dominio de Conte 2001. The firm but fruity wine is from the best Rioja vintage in years ($5). 24 Calle del Laurel; 34/94-121-3645.