Ten million visitors took in Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao in its first decade – proof to Spain (and a sceptical world) that great buildings can transform a region’s tourist economy.
Now one of Spain’s great riches, a wine culture with its own liquid treasures, is flaunting its own transformation and hoping to swell visitor numbers.
Like medieval merchant princes the influential wine barons re commissioning architects to construct aesthetically challenging state of the art wineries and destination hotels – with, of course, the green credentials our penitent century demands.
Two years ago I attended a lavish launch of Bodega Waltraud, Torres Wines’ operational hub in Catalonia, and, as an honoured guest, tasted top of the range single vineyard wine. Just as valuable was putting a sense of place to the taste in the bottles I could get at home.
In truth, not all wine-growing regions are spectacular. Certainly the Torres home base of Valafranca del Penedes has little to recommend it. But here and elsewhere the lure of tasting a range of wines in situ and learning the process is irresistible for increasing numbers of wine lovers. And, if there’s a chance also to sample the local food specialities, why not stay over and explore?
Hosting visitors makes commercial sense for the wineries as they spread the world and sell the product without overheads. Europe still lags behind the New World in organised wine tourism – trails, visitor attractions, vineyard restaurants and the like. But rapidly evolving Spain is showing the way.
It was that and the prospect of seeing Norman Foster’s latest architectural creation that sent me on a flying visit to the new Portia winery in the Ribera del Duero, a booming wine region 90 minutes north of Madrid Airport and visible from the N1 motorway heading to Northern Spain.
The Douro river becomes the Duero when it crosses the border into Spain. Like that more spectacular area, once exclusively known for producing Port, the high altitude Duero has established a great reputation for its red table wine over the last two decades. Many think it has usurped Rioja’s crown. Considerable investment has followed.
Canny Rioja producers Faustino were in early, developing 400 acres in the rival region. Their Portia and Portia Prima flagship Ribera reds – made from their own tempranillo grapes grown within 20km of the winery – have garnered critical acclaim since their 2006 debut.
Similar plaudits have swamped Reddish-born Norman Foster, whose practice has a string of world class landmarks to its name, among them the new Wembley Stadium, the ‘Gherkin’, Beijing Airport and the restored Reichstag in Berlin.
The new winery is not constructed on such an epic scale. Its aim is to be the ultimate ‘fit for wine purpose’ building. Epic in its own way, perhaps. Its annual production capacity will be one million bottles of red wine.
Foster explains its trefoil design quite poetically: “Imagine the heart of a flower being the centre with three petals growing out; these represent each step in wine production – fermentation, barrels and bottling”.
The wings housing barrels and bottles are underground for obvious reasons in a searing climate, while the fermentation wing is above ground, so that carbon dioxide resulting from the winemaking process can b released.
Now the public can watch the entire winemaking process from a glass-encased viewing deck before enjoying themselves in the tasting rooms, a quality restaurant and exhibition hall. The omens are good, Faustino in Rioja won a Best of Wine Tourism Award in 2008.
- Norman Foster”s architect rival Richard Rogers was enlisted to transform the Protos vineyard at nearby Penafiel, which boasts a picturesque castle. This may be upstaged by the new state-of-the-art winemaking facility, which cost 36 million euros and came into operation for the 2008 vintage.
- In Penafiel the Museo del Vino de Valladolid offers terrific exhibits and winemaking insights and is housed in a cleverly-converted courtyard of an elongated medieval castle (website here).
- Further north east in Rioja the tireless Frank Gehry was responsible for the Hotel Riscal, a stunning 14-room luxury lodging (www.starwoodshotels.com) at the Marques de Riscal that makes architectural references to the Guggenheim and features a top-end restaurant and spa. Visits to the Riscal vineyard, near the town of Elciego, are by appointment only (www.marquesderiscal.com).
- The latest rival to the Hotel Riscal in the Rioja Alavesa region is the Hotel Viura (named after the grape that features in white rioja) in the medieval village of Villabuena de Alva. The 33 rooms are housed in an asymmetrical pyramid of cubes meant to represent a bunch of grapes. Visit www.hotelviura.com.
Gourmet visits from the UK, including flights, hotels and tutored tastings, can be arranged via wine tourism experts Grape Escapes (www.grapeescapes,net, 08456 430860). The first visit is on October 28. The two-night package is priced from £284 per person, based on two people sharing a twin/double room in the superior-grade Hotel Ribera Del Duero (bed and breakfast), the all-day tour, wine tastings and lunch. For further details about Portia, visit www.portia.es.
For individual visits to the Ribera del Duero, easyJet fly from Liverpool to Madrid’s Barajas Airport. Combine a stay in the Spanish capital with its sensational nightlife and great art collections with a couple of days in the wine country. Aranda del Duero is a good base.
While in the region it’s worth eating at an asador (restaurant specialising in roast baby lamb). Try Casa Florencia at Isilla 14 in the town (www.casaflorencio.comp>Two Aranda hotels recommended by my friend Gerry Dawes (the writer who first alerted the world to Ferran Adria’s El Bulli restaurant): the Torremilanos, set in a winery, and the four star Tudanca with a notable restaurant (www.torremilanos.com and www.tudanca-aranda.com). For reliable modern hotels across Spain I recommend the Barcelo chain.
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