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A Gastronomic Journey Through Spain: Marqués de Riscal, Rioja

Mr S has always said Spain is his favourite country. A childhood growing up visiting the beautiful beaches, a love affair with the incredible food and late nights spent at tapas bars. For me Spain is still a largely undiscovered place but this summer that is all set to change and I’ve just got back from my first of two visits to this gastronomic kingdom.

And my first trip would be a rather epic journey spanning the length of the country, sampling Michelin starred restaurants, luxury hotels and beautiful bodegas. A trip fuelled with Gin Mare, a savoury gin made in Spain and inspired by botanicals from the  Mediterranean. Blending flavours of basil, thyme, rosemary, olives and juniper, this refreshing combination was soon to become my new favourite tipple. 
My gastronomic journey began in Rioja, one of the world’s leading wine regions and a hub for fine dining. There are over 500 wineries in Rioja and regular readers will know that I’ve previously visited Haro Station, a town with seven world-class wineries all two minutes walk apart. This time I would be visiting one of the most iconic bodegas in Rioja, The City of Wine which combines the incredible wine with gastronomy and one of the most beautiful and unique luxury hotels I’ve ever seen.

Spanning 100,000 metres squared Hotel Marqués de Riscal is the culmination of a dream by Canadian architect Frank Gehry who was commissioned to design the property at the Marqués de Riscal winery in Elciego. Little had changed at the winery since 1858 and the opening of the new hotel put the location firmly on the map in terms of wine tourism. Being a hotelaholic myself, I’d seen pictures of the hotel, which forms part of The Luxury Collection, and I’d placed it on my list of places to visit one day. I felt incredibly lucky to finally be seeing those undulating folds of titanium created by the renowned architect for myself.

Gehry had already made his mark on the region with the creation of the Guggenheim museum in nearby Bilbao and was the perfect choice to create this hotel in the City of Wine. The flowing shapes are a trademark of Gehry’s with the colours being inspiring by the sought-after wine of the region. Pink for the burgundy tones of the Rioja, silver for the foil on the cork and gold for the mesh on the wine bottle.
As you explore the property the shapes of Gehry’s design perfectly frame the views of the country, the San Andrés church and the mountains beyond.
The juxtaposition of the metal girders and waves with the rural vineyards is striking and adds to the interest and flair of the hotel. This is so much more than a hotel, it is a work of art.
The are 43 bedrooms, each totally unique and with high occupancy, we were lucky to get a glimpse of one during our visit.

Each room has huge windows with views over the vineyard, high ceilings and a quirky asymmetric design. It is deceptively simple but the walls alternating between white and wood, designer leather furniture and crisp white bed sheets provide the perfect backdrop for the jaw dropping views. Guests can stay in the main building under the shapes and colours of Gehry’s creation or adjacent in the spa wing which also boasts an incredible view.

The spa is a destination in itself being run by Les Sources de Caudalie, a luxurious brand from the Bordeaux wine region that specialises in wine inspired treatments based on grapes. The unique Spa Vinothérapie Caudalie Marqués de Riscal offers treatments such as Merlot, honey and wine body wraps, Cabernet scrubs and red wine baths which apparently help the circulation. Honestly I knew the grape had many healing powers, but I never knew quite the extent of how nourishing it could be.

Speaking of which a visit to the hotel goes hand in hand with a visit to the Herederos del Marqués de Riscal winery. Housed in a stunning building from 1858 that provides a stark contrast to Gehry’s creation, it is actually one of the oldest wineries in La Rioja. Founded by Don Camilo Hurtado de Amezaga, the family-run vineyard has always been pioneering and innovative whilst honouring tradition.

Taking us below the building we got a peak into the cellars of Marqués de Riscal and learnt more about the wine-making process and discovered it was first winery in La Rioja to use the Bordeaux Method of wine production.
The most intriguing part of the cellar was The Cathedral which houses some of the oldest wine in the region. Like a museum of wine the collection spans all the vintages produced at Marqués de Riscal going back to the first in 1862. The oldest wines are impossible to uncork and have to be carefully clamped open at the neck with heated tongs.

Emerging from the cellar and back into daylight I took a chance to look around…the entire grounds of the winery are just gorgeous and as we walked around I inhaled the beautiful flowers and the sweet country air. 
Hearing about all the award-winning wine produced at the winery had definitely whet our appetite to try some and moving out of the heat and into the tasting room our guide poured us a glass of white first of all. It was in the 1970’s that Marqués de Riscal started producing white wine and with their forward thinking attitude, created a fruity white in a region known for fortified wine. We sampled the Marqués de Riscal Rueda Verdejo which was delicate and fruity with hints of fennel and grass.

The chosen red was Marqués de Riscal Reserva, one of the vineyard’s iconic wines which had a brilliant cherry red glow, fragrances of balsamic and the taste of dark berries.

As well as being a being a homage to art and wine Marqués de Riscal is also a temple of gastronomy and having had my breakfast around 6am in the airport, a two hour flight and an hour long drive, I was well and truly ready for lunch after our tour! Visitors and guests have the choice of two restaurants “1860 Tradición” is on the terrace and serves traditional Spanish cuisine with a modern twist. But it’s Michelin-starred Marqués de Riscal Restaurant that’s the jewel in the crown here.

Inside there’s a soaring ceiling and vibrant red walls embellished with modern art.

Outside the beautiful Medieval towns of surrounding Elciego provide the perfect backdrop for eating good food, tasting fantastic wine and enjoying great company. 
Native Riojan chef Francis Paniego revolutionised the dining scene in Rioja when he opened El Portal de Echaurren, based on his family’s restaurant, Echaurren. He took the classic rustic dishes of the region served at the original restaurant and reinterpreted them to create a brand new style. He has the accolade of being the first chef in the region to gain a Michelin star, and how has two for El Portal de Echaurren.

He came to Marqués de Riscal Restaurant in 2005 to oversee both restaurants and was awarded a Michelin star here in 2011. Madrid-born Juan Bautista Peñas is now Executive Chef, working under the direction and advice of Francis Paniego.

To celebrate the 10th anniversary of the hotel a very special menu has been created and in the true style of the restaurant it blends traditional Riojan cuisine with innovative ideas and techniques. The impressive looking breadsticks came in a smoking basin and were actually made of squid ink and cheese.

These ‘olives’ were actually cheese and anchovies and not real olives.

The potato croquettes will be recognised by any tapas fan and nicknamed ‘this land contained in a morsel,’ the croquetas are incredible special as the recipe has been in the family for three generations. The perfect little morsels ooze with bechamel sauce and ham.

This Norwegian lobster carpaccio was as delicious as it was beautiful and sat on a tartar of tomato and creamy white garlic. The caviar pearls on top were made rather ingeniously out of red wine and with chefs in our group we talked about how this was possible. We came to the conclusion that it must be a very delicate spherification process turing the liquid into solid oval spheres.

And talking of wine, that’s as important as the food at this restaurant and guests can select from the Marqués de Riscal cellar or from over 200 international labels, many available by the glass. Our menu was paired with delicious white and red wines from the vineyard, selected perfectly by the Sommelier to complement our dishes.

The next course was named ‘fresh grass or eating a high mountain meadow’ and actually turned out to be sheep’s cheese with covered with frozen foie gras dust smoked sheep milk foam.

The next dish was Mediterranean cucumber concase served with a delicious almond and apple sorbet. So much more than just a palate cleanser, I’ve always been a cucumber fan but on this trip I was made even more aware of the innovative ways it could be used as an ingredient and added subtle yet important flavours. Design is always at the forefront in The City of Wine and all tableware is carefully selected to present the food at its best. The crockery was just gorgeous and has been designed bespoke for Riscal and placed alongside Zwiesel wine glasses and Puiforcat cutlery.

My favourite dish was these beautifully grilled cod flakes with a hot punch of paprika. Francis Paniego is also known for his hake confit cooked at 45 degrees with green pepper and rice soup.
Glazed lamb with rich, hearty and unctuous but well portioned so it wasn’t too over the top and the beautifully cooked meat was enhanced with just a touch of ginger and lime.  
Francis Paniego’s philosophy is ‘good food with honest ingredients,’ shown in the dessert. A fairly simply combination of sweet toast with Cameros cheese, apple and honey ice cream is the absolute perfect way to end a fantastic meal. It’s kind of like a tarte tatin with a twist and cleverly blends a dessert course with a cheese course.

I love the incredible contrast of old and new and fusion of art, wine and gastronomy at the City of Wine and Marqués de Riscal but our short time here was at an end. Our group would be swapping the vineyards and countryside for the bright lights and elegant city streets of Madrid!

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My trip to Spain was hosted by Gin Mare but this is not a sponsored post.