Seven Rioja Bodegas Where Wine Meets Design
By Joan Scobey
Not long after the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao was finished in 1997, the owners of the Marques de Riscal winery coaxed its architect, Frank Gehry, 60 miles south to their Rioja vineyard. Gehry was reluctant to design a small building and one so close to the Guggenheim, but instantly saw where to place a hotel: on a rise with views of the vineyards and the medieval town of Elciego with its 16th century church. A bottle of 1929 Rioja, the year of his birth, sealed the deal for what became the “City of Wine.”
Gehry is not the first, just the best known, architect in the Rioja vineyards, which cut a 30-mile swath along the banks of the Ebro River in northern Spain between Logrono, the capital of Rioja and Haro, often called the capital of wine. Mountains on the south shield them from the cold Iberian plain and on the north from bracing Atlantic weather. Small medieval villages, monasteries, and walled towns cluster around hilltops.
The “Gehry Effect” has turned a tour of Rioja wineries into a Modern Architecture field trip, highlighting international stars and introducing architects less known outside Spain.
1. Herederos del Marques de Riscal (Elciego; www.marquesderiscal.com).
Just about every visitor to Rioja wants to see the Riscal winery, and they are usually surprised to find that Gehry didn’t design it. But his hotel is literally next door, and its tangle of large pink, gold, and silver Medusa-like titanium ribbons that symbolize red and white wine flowing out of a bottle loom over the bodega, in breathtaking architectural contrast to the winery’s sober 19th century complex of neoclassical stone buildings. Frequent tours take you through buildings dating to 1858, when the Marques de Riscal founded the bodega, the first in Rioja to make wines following the Bordeaux method of mashing and destemming grapes. Most interesting is “The Cathedral,” an atmospheric stone wine cellar where vintages from every harvest since 1862 rest, encased in protective mold.
Frank Gehry’s 43-room showplace among the vineyards is actually two separate buildings connected by an elevated glass-enclosed walkway. There are 29 spacious rooms in the modern Spa Wing and 14 in the Gehry Wing, each uniquely shaped to conform to the architectural curves and the signature titanium roof. All have the same tall leather headboards, raw maple wood, “cloud” bedside lamps, Alvar Aalto chairs and tables, dark marble bathrooms, and high tech amenities.
2. Bodegas Ysios (Laguardia; www.domecqbodegas.com).
Near the fortified medieval hilltop town of Laguardia is another architectural showpiece, Bodegas Ysios, by award winning native son Santiago Calatrava.
Drive down a straight red dirt road through flat acres of tempranillo vines, the main grape of this Rioja region, to the low-lying building of cedar strips with its undulating aluminum roof and one tall wave erupting in the middle. Calatrava credits a row of wine barrels as the inspiration for the rolling roof, and the craggy Cantabrian mountain backdrop for the tall central upsweep. A reflecting pool edged with broken ceramic tiles runs the 640-foot length of the facade.
In contrast to its unique architecture, at Ysios the wine-making process unfolds in traditional sequence, from grape hoppers and big metal stabilization tanks to wooden barrels stacked in the aging room under the zigzagged stepped roof.
3. Bodegas Baigorri (Samaniego; www.bodegasbaigorri.com).
A low square flat-roofed “lantern” sits on a rise outside the town of Samaniego, its glass sides announcing Bodegas Baigorri in large letters. Basque architect Inaki Aspiazu integrated the topography with his design and the wine-making process. Visitors enter the glass cube to 360-degree vineyard vistas, then descend down multiple levels, following the wine-making operation that often substitutes gravity for such machinery as pumps and funnels. Ingenious.
4. Lopez de Heredia Vina Tondonia (Haro; www.lopezdeheredia.com).
The family-owned Lopez de Heredia Winery is an eclectic architectural complex: 19th century pink brick buildings with peaked red-trimmed roofs; a Victorian gingerbread watch tower atop the family residence over the winery; an Art Nouveau gallery with Belgian stained glass bridging two buildings; a 1910 American windmill. Its vaulted underground corridors contain a traditional cooperage, the only one left in Spain, where artisans still hand-craft fermentation barrels from oak, much of it from America’s Appalachian mountains. No stainless steel vats here, or computers. Wine is still made the original, old-fashioned way, with racking, corking, sealing all done by hand.
This is the last place you’d expect to find the cutting edge designs of Iraqi architect, Zaha Hadid, whose stainless steel sales-tasting room is a startling 21st century annex to this traditional 19th century world. Head on, it looks like a tipsy gold-tinted steel carafe under a free-standing one-sided carport; inside, the white angular minimalist room also houses a small circular dark wooden Art Nouveau sales kiosk that originally was the winery’s tasting pavilion at a 2002 Barcelona food fair. Maria Jose Lopez de Heredia, a fourth-generation winery owner, asked the Pritzker Prize-winning architect to design a protective shelter for the kiosk in Barcelona, then moved it to the winery in 2006.
5. CVNE (Haro; www.cvne.com).
The CVNE winery is where Rioja’s marquee architecture really started: the historic aging cellar designed by Alexandre-Gustave Eiffel (yes, of the Tour Eiffel). Shortly after the winery was founded in 1879, Eiffel engineered a vast vaulted roof supported by ten innovative wall-to-wall metal trusses instead of conventional columns, providing a clear open space for 400 aging barrels; the 150-feet-long, 8600-square-foot cellar is still used for storing their best wine.
6. Bodegas Juan Alcorta (Logrono; www.domecqbodegas.com).
At Bodegas Juan Alcorta, two low fairly modest rectangular stone buildings on a high hill overlook neatly planted vineyards. Completely invisible is the vast subterranean, almost totally computerized wine-making complex that architect Ignacio Quemada sank into the steep hill; if Dr. No had a winery, it would look like this. Grapes and wine proceed by gravity, virtually untouched by human hands, and end in what is claimed to be the largest aging area in the world, with 70,000 oak barrels laid out flat as far as the eye can see.
7. Bodegas Darien (Logrono; www.darien.es).
In stark contrast to Juan Alcorta, at nearby Bodegas Darien architect Jesus Marino Pascual purposefully integrates the landscape, evoking erupting boulders, terraced vines, ridges and hillocks in an all-white eco-friendly building that uses wind and solar power. Inside, the fermentation room’s arched ceiling recalls a barrel’s curve, and its ruddy walls the red wine; the aging room walls are black for the “sleeping” wine.
There is also an on-site museum: an airy double-height gallery to display the winery owner’s important ceramics collection of amphora and other vessels from the 12th to the 20th century.
Dinastia Vivanco Museo de la Cultura del Vino (Briones; www.dinastiavivanco.com).
If bodega touring and tasting makes you thirsty to understand the roots of Rioja wine, this ambitious new museum, also designed by Jesus Marino Pascual, houses viniculture artifacts, art, and antiquities documenting 10,000 years of winemaking history and culture.
Architecture as destination? We’ll drink to that.
Joan Scobey, an award-winning freelance writer, has covered the world from Shanghai to Sri Lanka, and Barcelona to Bangkok. Her stories have appeared in many national publications, among them Town & Country, Travel + Leisure, Diversion, Wine Enthusiast, Food Arts, Boston Globe, Atlanta Constitution, Miami Herald, Denver Post, and Creators Syndicate. She is currently Senior Contributing Editor at Travel Arts Syndicate and Contributing Editor at Worldwide Spa Review.