Is 11am too early to think about wine? It’s a question I’d been pondering for some time, while merrily making my way through the Spanish countryside. Armed with a set of meticulous directions promising to lead me through medieval hilltop villages and a series of ancient vineyards, I’d only been going for a couple of hours but was already developing a bit of a ‘thirst’.
In truth, this might well have been down to the gentle hill I’d just climbed, which had left me (ever so slightly) out of breath. That, and the fact I was surrounded on all sides by miles of grape vines, interspersed with hand-painted signs inviting me in for an impromptu tasting. Here in Rioja — the heart of Spain’s wine-producing region — temptation lies around every turn; even for the most abstemious tippler.
Located in the north of the country, just a few hours from the coast, this ancient, undulating landscape is famous for its robust reds and crisp whites — many of them finding their way onto restaurant tables and supermarket shelves in Britain. What it’s less well-known for, however, is superb cycling, and this was the bit I was most excited about.
As a fully-fledged bike nerd, I grew up racing for my local club in Gloucestershire, at a time when cycling was the sport of Lycra-clad, beardy weirdos. These days, of course, both beards and bikes are officially cool, as evinced by the legions of hirsute hipsters pedaling our city streets — albeit in tight denim, as opposed to spandex.
Indeed, the recent explosion of cycling has seen people taking to bikes of all shapes and sizes. Those looking to emulate British Tour de France winners Sir Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome usually opt for eye-wateringly expensive carbon fibre road racers, while wannabe couriers slink through traffic on fixed-gear, single-speed machines; even fold-up bikes — once the exclusive preserve of the super-geek — have come of age as the commuter’s best friend.
Matching the breadth of bikes out there is the variety of cycling trips now on offer — ranging from hardcore training camps in the mountains of Majorca to multi-day, off-road rides through the Swiss Alps. While Rioja, too, has enough lung-busting climbs to satisfy shaven-legged sadists, it’s also laced with miles of mellow backroads where you can go hours without encountering another vehicle. Added to this, of course, is the prospect of sampling those mouthwatering reds and whites — not to mention the amazing cuisine you can find here.
Having booked a trip with self-guided cycling and walking specialist Macs Adventure, my plan was to eat and drink my way through the region over eight days, cruising at my own pace and stopping off whenever I fancied.
Each day’s ride began and ended at an independent, family-run hotel and followed a circular route of 20-odd miles; spread out over a whole day, this is achievable for anyone with a reasonable level of fitness — although you might want to do a few pub rides for practice prior to coming here. With detailed instructions on where to go and what to see, you can cruise along, confident you won’t get lost. Bike hire is sorted ahead of your arrival and — most importantly — your luggage is taken on ahead of you, leaving plenty of space in your panniers for the odd bottle of vino.
Into the hills
Having flown into Bilbao, I’d been whisked away from the tourist crowds to the tiny hilltop town of Abalos, in the heart of Rioja. Throughout the hour-and-a-bit transfer, my face was glued to the minivan’s window as a conveyor belt of spectacular scenery slid past, gentle undulations giving way to rolling hills planted with immaculately neat rows of grapevines.
Stringing all this together was the River Ebro, which threads its way through the region before eventually emptying into the Mediterranean on the country’s east coast — hundreds of miles away. In the coming days, the gentle splash of water over rocks would become a recurring soundtrack, along with the chatter of small birds and the sound of my own breathing. Round here, there’s little to interrup your thoughts.
Life meanders along at a leisurely pace in this part of the world; the village clocks gently mark the passing of time; each hour they strike up a chorus, spreading the word to neighbouring bell towers that another hour has slipped by.
After spending eight of them enjoying a luxurious sleep, I awoke on the first morning to the sound of a cockerel crowing — calling me down to a breakfast of freshly squeezed juice, cured meats and delicious local cheese. The way every day should start, ideally. My first ride was a 21-mile cruise that took me out through Ábalos, on a loop through the medieval hilltop town of Laguardia and onwards along silky smooth roads leading to the wine-making village of Elciego.
Gliding out through Abalos past the village church, I headed left and joined a road that climbed gently for half a mile or so, before sweeping down into an open plateau that led on to the hamlet of Samaniego. This initial section was the closest I came all week to a main road; however, even this was quieter than many country lanes back home, just three or so little tractors chugging past me in the space of a few miles — the drivers throwing a friendly wave over their shoulder as they went.
Half a mile or so later, I forked off right, freewheeling into Samaniego. A line of biscuit-coloured houses on either side welcomed me to the village, overlooked by the ornate bell tower of the local church. While it was tempting to pedal straight past, the beauty of being on a bike is that you can peel off down any side street that takes your fancy, and poke your nose around places that are off limits in a car. Besides, what was I rushing for?
After pausing outside the 15th-century church for a quick staring contest with its weathered gargoyles, I swung my leg over the saddle and continued on to nearby Leza — passing a group of locals sipping wine outside the cafe. Clearly, it wasn’t too early for some people to be thinking about vino.
Tempting though it was to stop at every idyllic village, things turned even more scenic a few miles later. Next up was Laguardia, perched on a hill with (yep, you guessed it) a church tower propping up the blue sky. After huffing and puffing my way up to the city walls, I ditched the bike for a stroll round the narrow streets.
Stepping through the archway here, it felt as though the clocks had stopped some time back in 1452 — that’s AD not PM. The streets were so skinny you could almost touch both sides while doing a star-jump (I tried), and shopfronts were laden with barrow-loads full of brightly-coloured fruit and strings of cured meats — much as they would’ve been 500 years ago. After mooching the alleyways for a couple of hours, the time was definitely now right for an early-afternoon loosener.
A mile or so down the road from here, in Elciego, is the Marqués de Riscal winery, where they’ve been making Rioja since the 1860s. The first thing I saw as I rolled into town was the eponymous hotel overlooking the huddle of medieval houses; its futuristic metal curlicues gleaming in the afternoon light. Designed by Frank Gehry, the architectural brains behind the nearby Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, its sheet metal ‘shavings’ — coloured pink and gold as an homage to wine — reminded me of something you’d see in a Salvador Dalí painting; at first glance it looked as though the building was melting into the hillside.
Step inside and you’ll find all the trimmings of a modern luxury hotel, complete with a Michelin-starred restaurant serving up fantastic dishes like salty roasted beets with cuttlefish. Trust me, it’s delicious. As you’d expect, everything here has a reference to wine; even the Caudalie products in the spa are made from grapes.
From contemporary luxury, I stepped back in time on a guided tour of the winery. As I strolled through the gardens outside the hotel, where the lavender bushes throbbed with bees, my guide, Carmen, explained how the original Marques spent two decades living in Bordeaux, bringing back a wealth of wine-producing knowledge that changed the way Rioja was made. “Until the mid-1800s, we had no real concept of ageing wine here,” she said. “It was always drunk really young. The concept of maturing it in barrels for a few years was pretty radical.”
Over the centuries, they’ve endured the hardships of civil war and the vagaries of weather to become one of the region’s biggest producers, making around five million bottles a year — about 10% of Rioja’s total output of wine.
After a sneaky peek at their processes, I got to see the 150,000-bottle archive, which includes vintages dating back to 1880. “When Frank Gehry was here we opened a bottle from 1929 — his birthday year,” said Carmen. “It was still really drinkable.”
After the tour came the all-important tasting, before I headed back to Abalos — my panniers clinking with a few bottles bought from the shop. Arriving at the hotel, sun-kissed, windswept, hungry and happy, my reward was a menu featuring home-cooked cod. Needless to say, I slept like a baby that evening. Again.
Considering the wine intake, I awoke feeling surprisingly fresh and early (thanks, Mr Cockerel), with a planned route that was supposed to lead me straight to La Bastida. However, my inner bike nerd got the better of me and I couldn’t resist detouring up to the nearby Balcón de La Rioja — a seven-mile climb snaking its way up from the plateaued floor, to a rocky shelf overlooking what felt like the whole of the Basque region.
The hilltop villages and patchwork of fields below were shrouded in mist, giving everything the air of a theatrical trompe l’oeil. From here, there was a mile or so more of steady climbing, before a 4.5-mile, dream-come-true descent brought me to the village of Peñacerrada, where I stopped for coffee with the local cycle club.
Thankfully, there was a slightly easier route out of here, which meandered gently up through a wooded hillside, reminding me of the Blue Ridge Mountains in South Carolina. While the previous day had been about wine-making (and tasting), this was a ride for soaking up the scenery.
Indeed, my favourite stop of the whole trip was San Vincente de la Sonsierra, a spectacularly picturesque hilltop town overlooking the River Ebro, where the ramshackle houses huddled at the foot of the fortified church, as if seeking shelter.
These opening two days pretty much set the scene for the rest of my trip: eat, sip, sleep, repeat. And best of all, when you’re burning this many calories per day, it’s never too early to think about wine.
How to do it
Macs Adventure’s seven-night, self-guided Gourmet Rioja Cycling includes accommodation, two nights’ dinner and two days’ baggage transfer. From £715 per person excluding flights and airport transfers.
Published in the October 2015 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)