Epicurean Northern Spain: Rioja Wines, Starchitects and an Enlightening Lesson in Evolución

AC Hotel Burgos



We have been for years trumpeting the glories of Spanish cuisine and wine, both of which still don’t get the same respect in America as, say, French and Italian. We still can’t figure that out.

So when the opportunity arose to spend a few days in Northern Spain‘s wine country, we were particularly piqued. After all, there’s plenty enough written about Napa/Sonoma, Burgundy and Tuscany. And sure enough, our visit left us wondering how a region so dotted with starchitect designed wineries, Michelin starred restaurants, and UNESCO World Heritage sites, has saved itself from the mass tourism of cities like Barcelona and Sevilla.


Burgos Cathedral


Heading a few hours north of Madrid, we were met with rolling hills, ornate rock formations that tower into the sky, and historic villages begging for thoughtful exploration. Our first stop was Burgos, in the Castilla y León region, a perfect dichotomy of the medieval and the modern.

The Burgos Cathedral, one of those aforementioned UNESCO World Heritage sites, and a landmark whose towers serve as a visual compass to the city, is a fascinating melding of Romanesque and Gothic styles of architecture, and dates all the way back to the 11th century. Original stained glass windows, ornate spires, and gothic cloister gardens on the outside give way to interiors boasting a massive golden staircase, Renaissance chapels, and the Papamoscas, or fly catcher, an odd looking character that sits high above one of the clocks and opens his mouth to ring in the time on the hour.


Museum of Human Evolution


Built into the naturally elevated landscape, the the cathedral spans four levels, and a breathtaking panorama of the city from the top level inspired a more than a few earnest oohs and aahs.

Just a short walk across the river was the Museum of Human Evolution, a modern architectural marvel whose exhibits delve into the Darwin-approved progress of our prehistoric ancestors, as well as offering insight into the human brain, and charting our social and intellectual development. Heady stuff for the consciously curious, but equally entertaining and engaging.

We ended the day with a highly anticipated epicurean feast at Cobo Vintage, a Michelin starred restaurant with a sleek/modern, but low key vibe. Here, Chef Miguel Cobo deftly fuses his Cantabrian roots with the locally sourced provisions and traditions of Burgos. The tasting menu, eight courses paired with a local Verdejo or Crianza, saw us indulging in skewered hake in a garlic and hot pepper sauce, shrimp carpaccio with tomato tartar, and a melt-in-your-mouth beef rib accompanied by a rather bold green herb sauce. It’s a cliché by now, but the beautiful presentation was just slightly eclipsed by our delightedly dancing taste buds.


Cobo Vintage


Continuing our journey west to La Rioja, we wandered through medieval villages and walled hamlets while local artisans plied us with homemade cheeses, sausages, olive oils and bread to feast on as we took in the undulating grape and olive vines from a hilltop perch. Logrono, the capital of Rioja, seemed like the natural place to call home for a couple of nights, with its proximity to the bodegas (wineries), and to the best places to experience a pinchos crawl. Pinchos (sometimes spelled pintxos), Rioja’s version of tapas, are flavorful bites that accompany your wine or beer pairing in this region of Spain.

The most action could be found on the busy Calle Laurel, and the neighboring narrow and vibrant streets that are lined with over 50 tavernas and bars, making it easy to stroll and sample the local specialties. The vibe was definitely social, nibbling and sipping around makeshift tables made from aged wine barrels as we people-watched the locals and visitors buzzing by.


Street in Logrono


Some tavernas featured a particular signature dish, like Bar Angel, whose specialty was grilled mushrooms. Served stacked in threes and topped with a shrimp, they’re assembled over a slice of hearty bread that soaks up the olive oil, garlic, and also the secret ingredient they’ve been grilled in.

At Taberna del Volapie, we paired a citrusy white Rueda with a cone of bright orange prawns, head and tail included. And as we grazed our way through the streets indulging in barely fried sardines, tender beef in a hearty sauce, and tasty pork lollipops, we paired each with glasses of Rioja’s crisp whites and structured, fruit forward reds.

The de rigueur wine tasting, tour, and vineyard dining experiences are available at the many bodegas throughout the region – but La Rioja is also a hotbed for design enthusiasts. Exalted architects Frank Gehry, Santiago Calatrava and the late Zaha Hadid have all spectacularly made their mark in the area, in the process setting the bar ridiculously high. At Bodegas Ysios, considered by many to be the most “remarkable wine building ever built,” Calatrava crafted an homage to the surrounding landscape that offers a startling visual experience upon approach.


Bodegas Ysios


Sitting at the foothills of the Sierra de Cantabria mountain range, the winery was built into the uneven terrain, and its expansive roof of thick aluminum bars mirrors the hills in the background. We strongly recommend scheduling a tour of the property and, of course, a proper tasting of the indigenous Tempranillo varietal which is aged in French oak barrels.

Oenephiles looking for a familiar name in Rioja wines will not be disappointed with a visit to Campo Viejo. We were particularly impressed that it is helmed by a trio of women winemakers dedicated to sustainable and innovative wine making practices; and its design, built almost entirely underground, is like nothing you can imagine.

A tour of the winery, a bouquet workshop to identify the smells and tastes of spice, tobacco, plum, and berry notes of the wine, followed by a dinner on the terrace overlooking the vineyards, and we were irreversibly in love with Northern Spain.


Campo Viejo


AC Hotel by Marriott Burgos

AC Hotel by Marriott La Rioja

Originally a designed-focused hotel brand founded in Spain, AC Hotels was brought under the Marriott umbrella in 2011 – and has been in growth mode ever since.
Style remains a priority, with modern lighting and mid-century furniture creating inviting lobby spaces and lounge areas for kicking back between cathedral tours and pinchos crawls. We especially loved the European style breakfasts and tapas lunches, which fused local flavors with more traditional Spanish cuisine.
In Burgos, the AC is located alongside the river pathway leading to the city center, and is a cool oasis of modernity. The warm, neutral palette of the rooms perfectly suits the minimalist design philosophy, a cool aesthetic respite from all that medieval architecture outside.
In Logrono, proximity to both the town center and aforementioned bodegas make it the best located hotel for a Rioja excursion. The light filled rooms are outfitted with warmly modern furnishings and particularly comfortable beds.


Top image: AC Hotel Burgos; bottom images:  AC Hotel Logrono


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