The ash-coloured Cantabrian mountains dominate the landscape to the north of the rolling plains of Rioja. As we drove through their shadows the jagged peaks were still coated thickly with white snow.
The landscape surprised us. An endless series of hills seemed to shape-shift across the plain, a trick of the sunlight that changed every moment as clouds drifted above the mountains.
Across every surface, flat or sloping, the vineyards we had expected to see in early spring growth were instead an artist’s palate of browns and reds reflecting the soils of chalky clay and limestone.
The grisly-looking knarled and knotty stumps of vines contorted themselves in perfectly planted lines. It seemed an inhospitable landscape in which the village hill top towns that briefly emerged in the sunshine, then to disappear, were the only signs of life.
The plain is a valley created by the curving course of the wide, green River Ebro. We criss-crossed its banks, exploring the Rioja Alavesa region in the north and the Rioja Alta region in the south.
The Ebro valley has a long history. It has been a natural corridor used by people and cultures from as far back as the Neolithic period. On a tour of the smart Valdelana winery in Elciego we were shown a staggering collection of flint weaponry and tools created by early man and unearthed in the vineyards.
Next to the glass case of small arrow heads, pick axes and an enormous spear was a collection of Palaeolithic fossils in all sizes. One triangular shaped rock still had a top set of pointed and yellowing teeth intact.
The Romans introduced the cultivation of wine and its development has been unstoppable, based on the region’s unique climactic conditions, excellent soil quality and an unfortunate epidemic of phylloxera in 19th century France.
We began our explorations at Haro, on the south of the Ebro and capital of Rioja Alta.
This elegant sandstone hill top town is the hub of wine commerce and boasts a perfectly intact Old Town that climbs up winding streets to the gothic church of Santo Thomas. It has a ‘plateresque’ portal, so called because the stone tracery resembles the fine detail of ornate silverwork. The practice was introduced to Spain in the 15th century by architects who had studied in Renaissance Italy.
We escaped the icy cold rain with a visit to a bar. Although only mid-afternoon the front door was busily opening and closing on umbrella wielding locals who charged in to drink glasses of Rioja and nibble on tasty morsels. We joined them for a glass of Crianza, ruby red and aged for at least a year in oak barrels.
Haro boomed in the 19th century when French wine sellers flocked to the region anxious to source vintages that resembled French varieties, wiped out in a devastating epidemic of phylloxera.
Haro’s steam railway and station allowed for vast quantities of excellent local wine to be sent at huge volume, and low cost, to thirsty drinkers in France.
Today the historic station quarter has the largest concentration of centenary wineries in the world and has achieved legendary status in the hearts of wine lovers.
You need strong legs to enjoy Rioja’s many hill top towns, each involves a heady climb up to a central square and then higher still to a church, castle or fortress.
At Bastida we wound our way along narrow flag stone streets taking care not to slip on the rain-soaked stones, up to the beautiful church and neighbouring bell tower of Our Lady of the Assumption. Climbing high above the church we enjoyed a rain-soaked view of the valley looking north back to the enclosing walls of the Sierra.
The locals have been praying for rains after an unseasonably dry winter. Temperatures had broken average springtime records in February and March (like ours at home) but recent weeks had been bitterly cold with frosts.
A similar weather pattern last year had cost the winemakers thirty percent of their expected crop and they are fearful of the same, this year.
At San Vicente de la Sonsierra we camped alongside the River Ebro at a crossing point marked by a fully intact medieval bridge. The long hike up from river level to the towering church of St Vincent and accompanying walled castle was through the village backstreets of tottering homes and terraced gardens, reaching out across the sandstone cliff edge.
Having kept our own company for a couple of days we were startled by a large group of animated Spanish tourists, who we discovered had arrived by coach in a car park at the back of the church. We met them again later in the afternoon at the smart wine village of Elciego.
In the Rioja Alavesa, Elciego is a particularly elegant hill top village. Its central square is arcaded on one side and neatly pollarded trees parade in joined up pairs through the main streets.
Up market wine sellers, delicatessens and boutiques sit alongside the village staples of a locals’ bar, a butchers’ and a bakers’.
The village’s most famous winery, Marques de Riscal, has opened an £85million luxury restaurant and hotel that features a roof of multi-coloured titanium ‘waves’ that dazzled even on a dreary day.
At odds with the landscape the flamboyant architecture nevertheless seems celebratory as well as fantastical in its conception. Along with other large wineries employing unusual architectural design and using imported modern materials, the approach is in keeping with the Spanish quest to push the boundaries of design whether in urban or rural environments.
Hiking and cycling in the Riojan landscape was a real delight, and one which the persistent and cold sleety rains could not dampen.
After all, every evening brought tasty pintxos treats and a welcome glass of the world famous and jewel-like red wine, bought directly from the wine makers and at a price we would never find at home!