Bilbao and the Basque Country Feature

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Spain's Wine Country

The Ebro River basin has been an ideal climate for grapevines since pre-Roman times. Rioja wines were first recognized in official documents in 1102, and exports to Europe flourished over the next several centuries. With its rich and uneroded soil, river microclimates, ocean moisture, and sun, La Rioja is ideal for high-quality grapes. Shielded from the arid cold of the Iberian meseta (plain) by the Sierra de la Demanda and from the bitter Atlantic weather by the Sierra de Cantabria, Spain's prime wine country covers an area 150 km (93 miles) long and 50 km (31 miles) wide along the banks of the Ebro. The lighter limestone soils in the 50,000 acres of the Rioja Alta (Upper Rioja) produce the region's finest wines; the vineyards in the 44,000-acre Rioja Baja (Lower Rioja) are composed of alluvial and floodplain clay in a warmer climate, ideal to produce wine in great volume.

The main grape of the Upper Rioja is the Tempranillo—so named for its early (temprano) ripening in mid-September—a dark, thick-skinned grape known for power, stability, and fragrance. Other grape varietals include the Mazuelo, used for longevity and tannin; and the Graciano, which lends aroma and freshness. Garnacha, the main grape of the Lower Rioja, is an ideal complement to the more acidic Tempranillo. The Viura, the principal white variety, is fresh and fragrant; Malvasía grapes stabilize wines that will age in oak barrels.

Rioja wines are categorized by age. Garantía de Origen is the lowest rank, assuring that the wine comes from where it purports to come from and has been aged for at least a year. A Crianza wine has aged at least three years, with at least one spent in oak. A Reserva is a more carefully selected wine also aged three years, at least one in oak. Gran Reserva is the top category, reserved for extraordinary harvests aged for at least two years in oak and three in the bottle.

Wine and ritual overlap everywhere in La Rioja. The first wine of the year is offered to and blessed by the Virgin of Valvanera on the riverbank at the Espolón de Logroño. Haro's Batalla del Vino (Wine Battle) festival is famous throughout Spain. Everything from the harvest and the trimming of the vines to the digging of fermentation pools and the making of baskets, barrels, and botas (wineskins)—even the glassblowing in bottle manufacture—takes on a magical, almost religious significance.

For a tour of vineyards and wine cellars, start with Haro, filled with bodegas (wineries) and noble architecture. Its barrio de la estación (train-station district) has all of La Rioja's oldest and most famous bodegas.

Lopez de Heredia Viña Tondonia winery. Call or email the Lopez de Heredia Viña Tondonia winery to reserve a tour and tasting of the most famous of them all. Av. Vizcaya 3, Haro, 26200. 941/310244. . www.lopezdeheredia.com. €10.

Bodegas Muga. Another famous winery offering visits, tours and tastings of two wines (reservations advised), this sprawling bodega also includes a wine bar and restaurant. Barrio de la Estación, Haro, 26200. 941/311825. www.bodegasmuga.com. €8.

Other visits in the Upper Rioja could include Fuenmayor, a wine-making center with an old quarter; Cenicero, with several ancient bodegas; Briones, a perfectly preserved Renaissance town; Ollauri, with a cave bodega, "the Sistine Chapel of the Rioja"; and Briñas, with a wine exhibit.

Basque cuisine, Spain's most prestigious regional gastronomy, derives from the refined French sensibility about cooking combined with a rough-and-tumble passion for the camaraderie of the table and for perfectly prepared seafood, meat, and vegetables.

An ancestral passion for food combined with fine raw ingredients from the Atlantic and the verdant pre-Pyrenean hills has made Basque cuisine famous. The so-called nueva cocina vasca (new Basque cooking) is now about 30 years old, but it was originally inspired by the nouvelle cuisine of neighboring France, and meant the invention of streamlined versions of classic Basque dishes such as marmitako (tuna and potato stew).

Though experts have often defined Basque cooking as simply "the art of preparing fish," there is no dearth of lamb, beef, goat, or pork in the Basque diet or on menus. Cooking both beef and fish over coals is a popular favorite as are—new Basque cooking notwithstanding—bracing stews combining legumes such as lentils and garbanzos with sausage.

Top left: A nueva cocina interpretation of the classic bacalao al pil pil. Top right: A colorful bowl of marmitako stew. Bottom left: An expensive plate of angulas.

Updated: 09-2013

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