Spain has long been famous around the world for its exceptional wines, many of which come from the widely acclaimed Rioja region in northern Spain. The region is further divided into three sub-regions: Rioja Alta, Rioja Baja, and finally Rioja Alavesa, which is located in the Basque Country.
Though not an independent nation-state, the Basque Country is the homeland of the Basque people, an ethnic group with a distinct culture that differs from the French and Spanish cultures that surround it. The Basque language, Euskara, is linguistically unrelated to any other language in the world, let alone in Europe—travelers will notice that Basque words look and sound very different from French, Spanish, and other Romance languages. The Basque Country also has a unique food and wine culture that travelers will definitely enjoy.
Wines from the Basque Country are mostly divided into two categories: txakoli and wines made in Rioja Alavesa. The Basques have been producing txakoli for centuries, with records showing that the wine was traded in the city of Guipúzcoa in the 16th century.
The wine survived a phylloxera plague in the 19th century, thanks to the Basque people’s determination to preserve this rich part of their culture. A light, dry wine best served cold, txakoli has grown in popularity in recent years and pairs well with fish and meat served rare, as well as pintxos, the Basque version of tapas. The wine is best poured from a height to allow it to release bubbles and aromas.
The Basque Country has numerous wineries that produce these and other high-quality wines. The following are three of the best in the region.
One famous producer of txakoli is Bodegas Ameztoi, which is located in Getaria on the coast. The town is famous for being the home of Juan Sebastián Elcano, the first sailor to circumnavigate the Earth. The winery grows Hondarrabi Beltza and Hondarrabi Zuri grape varietals on its beautiful vineyard, where the grapes receive a sea breeze that adds to their quality and flavor. The winery harvests its grapes by hand between late summer and early fall at just the right state of ripeness to ensure the correct amount of sugar and acidity.
In addition to its white txakoli, the winery produces a red txakoli called Stimatum and a rosé named Rubentis, which pairs well with sushi, oysters, tempura fish, and white meat. Bodegas Ameztoi also makes a sparkling wine called Unicus, which goes well with appetizers and snacks, as well as desserts. Lastly, the winery offers a pomace brandy and several liqueurs.
Marqués de Riscal
Located in Elciego in the south of the Basque Country, Marqués de Riscal is one of the oldest wineries in the Rioja wine region, with a history that dates back to 1858. The winery is also home to the famous Ciudad del Vino (City of Wine), which was designed by Frank O. Gehry, the internationally renowned architect who also designed the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles and, most famously, the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain.
The iconic complex includes a hotel, spa, wine bar, and two restaurants, one of which boasts a Michelin star. The Spa Vinothérapie Caudalie Marqués de Riscal features anti-stress treatments developed with the natural properties of grapes and wine, particularly polyphenols. Other highlights of the spa include a Turkish bath, an indoor pool, and a Baño de Barrica (barrel bath).
Marqués de Riscal named a red wine after the famous architect: the Frank Gehry Selection 2012, which earned an impressive 94 points from Wine Spectator. The winery produces a number of other red wines as well as white wines, such as a Verdejo and a Sauvignon Blanc.
Located in the Rioja Alavesa region, the home of Bodegas Baigorri is a sleek, contemporary building designed by architect Iñaki Aspiazu. Resembling a glass box, the building allows visitors to view the surrounding fertile vineyards. The facility was also designed as a multi-level, gravity-flow winery—gravity, rather than machines, moves the grapes through the entire winemaking process. In addition, the grapes undergo fermentation intact.
Bodegas Baigorri’s wine selection includes the Baigorri Blanco, which is made with Viura and Malvasía grapes and aged in new French oak barrels. This wine has won a number of awards, including the 2014 Gold Medal at the Sommelier Wine Awards. The winery also produces a red Garnacha made of grapes from very old, low-yielding vines and aged in French oak barrels for 14 months. This wine earned 93 points in 2014 from both critic Steven Tanzer and the Guía Peñin wine guide, in addition to taking home the Gold Medal at the 2014 Monde Selection.
Another standout wine from Bodegas Baigorri is the Baigorri B70, created with Tempranillo grapes from vines that are more than 70 years old. Aged in new, fine-grain French oak barrels, this red wine won the Gold Medal from AWC Vienna in 2013.