Monday, April 13, 2009


I’d like to toast to the birth of our baby blog by sharing with you a few stories from my most exciting recent adventure … a trip to La Rioja, one of the most important wine producing regions in Spain. (Warning to the reader: please excuse my Spanglish whenever it may pop out. After almost 2 years of speaking Spanish and teaching English, it is inevitable.) Anyway, La Rioja. Wow, I mean seriously wow. I am trying to learn as much as I can about wine while living in Madrid, because I truly do love it… the smells, the tastes, the varieties. As Hemingway once wrote about bullfighting, “…every year I know there is more to learn, but I know some things which may be interesting now…” I too feel that the more I learn the more I realize there remains to learn, and I still have a very elementary knowledge, but I picked up some interesting tidbits during my tours and tastings, so I’ll spill.

Two friends, Allida and Jen, and I decided to rent a car and drive to La Rioja to explore vineyards and taste local specialties. (Shout out to Europcar!) This region, a few hours north of Madrid, is known for its morcilla (Spanish version of blood pudding – big fan), white asparagus (not a fan), patatas a la riojana, and of course, the vino. And as the old men teachers at my school say (solemnly) “Se come bien y barato”. One eats well and cheap! We planned to stop at a couple vineyards, spend the night in Burgos, then wander through a couple pueblos (villages) the next day as we slowly made our satiated way back to Madrid.

Off we were! First stop was a charming little pueblo called Haro, with cobblestone streets and breathtaking views of the valley. A few cafes in a plaza, walking, taking some snaps, and we were ready for our first taste of morcilla. Mmmorcilla is made with blood, rice, onion, and importantly, pimentón, giving it a distinctive spice. It must have been thrown on the grill in the small bar-restaurant where we stopped, because it was served hot and fresh, and we gobbled it up on top of flaky hunks of bread. Accompanied of course by glasses of Rioja wine.

Second stop was Las Bodegas Bilbainas, where we took a two-hour tour that was extremely thorough. Our gracious guide was in no hurry, and shared extra stories with our group. Here I learned a bit more about the grapes used in Spain (mostly Garnacha and Tempranillo) and the classifications of wine. There are four types, depending on how long the wine is aged: Tinto Joven, or Cosecha, which spends no time in the barrel, Crianza (six months in the barrel), Reserva (one year in the barrel and at least two in the bottle), and Gran Reserva (two years in the barrel and at least three in the bottle). Afterward, we sampled two wines, a Joven and a Crianza. We were kind enough to finish off the bottles that our fellow visitors left behind (waste not, want not), and got to chatting with our guide. On his recommendation, we nixed the Burgos plan and headed to Logroño,the capital of La Rioja, where Universidad de la Rioja is located. We spent a fabulous night drinking more wine (with the car parked, Jen our DD could fully enjoy… poor girl was the only one capable of handling a stick-shift), and eating pintxos (Basque tapas) in the many bars and restaurants that fill the tiny streets in the city center.

Day 2 began with, well, surprisingly no headache, and cafe con leche in a bar. 9:30 AM, and already an old man was having a glass of red. Incredible… intense. We head out on the open road, and decided to stop off at Laguardia, a recommendation from a teacher at the school where I work. We planned to stay the morning, but upon arriving there was what looked like a bake sale taking place in the teeny main plaza. Well, there were local moms alright, but they were selling cups of Rioja with a pintxo for 1 euro. We had to take advantage. One cata (tasting) and a full wine tour later at La Bodega El Fabulista we were ready for lunch. At this point we decided to treat ourselves to a proper meal, and picked an appetizing menu del dia (3 course meal with wine included). I botched the first course (asparago con 3 salsas which turned out to be the white asparagus which I do not have much liking for… served with mayonnaise as usual), but Jen chose wisely, opting for the patatas a la Riojana. It was garlicky red stew, with potatoes and chunks of chorizo. I got back on track with a solid order of lamp chops, perfectly cooked, bone-sucking good. That sounds crude, but when it’s that good you just have to pick up the bone and go to it. We sat in the sun for an hour, allowed digestion to take place, then popped in the mixed CD and headed back down the winding road to Madrid. It was a trip I would like to repeat again and again. Only next time, promise Jen, I’ll learn to drive a manual beforehand. Salud!

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