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The new look of La Rioja

Frank Gehry and other name architects have bestowed their designs on the Basque country's wineries and hotels, abetting the region's drama.

January 21, 2007|Sam Lubell | Special to The Times

Laguardia, Spain — LA RIOJA, a breathtaking, mountainous area in northern Spain, produces some of the best wines in Europe. But a part of it -- Rioja Alavesa -- is now producing something else, too: architecture.

Rioja Alavesa is in the country's Basque region, south of Bilbao, the home of Frank Gehry's curvaceous stone, glass and titanium Guggenheim Museum Bilbao.

Gehry's creation helped drive urban renewal in Bilbao, regenerating the city with innovative architecture. Now, it appears the Bilbao Effect has spread south, and several talented architects have designed modern, beautiful hotels as well as wineries, called bodegas here. An architecture buff, I had gone to Bilbao to see the Guggenheim but found that it just whetted my appetite for more.

My friend Andrew and I set out in August on a winding, picturesque road through mountains and green, grape-covered hills, arriving at Gehry's creation, commissioned by the winery Vinos Herederos del Marques de Riscal in Elciego. The label's winery and vineyards are nearby.

Gehry's facility includes a three-story, 43-room luxury hotel, a restaurant and a spa that offers "vinotherapy," which uses treatments derived from grapes. The views of the undulating hotel from the surrounding hillsides are spectacular. And when the sun glints off the titanium, particularly its burgundy areas, the structure is mesmerizing.

Within a 15-minute drive of Gehry's bodega, however, I saw two other impressive projects, all recently completed. And there are several others nearby. They fan out from the hillside town of Laguardia, a beautifully preserved medieval place surrounded by an ancient wall.

Our second stop was to see the work of another world-famous architect: Spaniard Santiago Calatrava, who designed the wing-like Milwaukee Art Museum addition and is now working on the $2-billion World Trade Center Transportation Hub in New York City.

I had read that Calatrava designed the nearby Ysios Bodega, which opened in 2001. Heading down a hilly road in Laguardia, we saw it in the distance backed by a jagged line of massive golden mountains.

Wave-shaped cedar walls topped with a series of folded aluminum slats reflect the mountains behind them, almost appearing to move in place. The entry hall, with vertical windows supported by thick wood frames, projects from the building like the beak of a bird.

Because of the spur-of-the-moment nature of our visit, we hadn't checked the schedule, and the winery was closed for the day; like most others in the area, it offers tours and tastings. But a security guard allowed us to peek inside. The curving roof continued to wave inside, in the form of light-colored cedar beams, and a setting of exposed concrete, metal and glass predominated.

A large vineyard sprawled out from the building, so we took the time to walk around, tasting a grape or two and admiring the old city of Laguardia perched on a hill just above us. All this viewing made us thirsty, so we stopped at a wine bar in Laguardia to enjoy some wine and cheese.

The city, founded in the 12th century, is architecturally stunning. A medieval church rises at one end of the village, and the view from the town of the surrounding area is breathtaking.

To the right is a long stretch of the Sierra Cantabria mountains, which cut through the surrounding clouds. Elsewhere you can see the lush, strikingly green Rioja region and its towns' church spires.

Laguardia's winding streets lead to a lovely central square, La Plaza Mayor, which is fronted by a 16th century town hall emblazoned with medieval crests. A few wine bars have outdoor tables set out for guests to try samples of ham, cheese or wine -- the city has 12 bodegas from which to choose, according to the tourist office. The products don't disappoint, and they can be bought inexpensively. Our plaza-side meal at a wine bar called Cafe Arbulu consisted of a glass each of Rioja wine as well as cheese and Serrano ham. It cost less than $20.

It was getting late, so we began a long trek to Madrid, where our holiday would end. But out on the road, we spotted yet another architectural gem: the Bodegas Baigorri, in Samaniego, just north of Laguardia. The complex was designed by Basque architect Inaki Aspiazu.

The ultramodern facility is topped by an elegant glass box on a pedestal of narrow wood planks, with an overhanging, slightly slanted zinc roof that radiates from the box in all directions. The structure is only the tip of the iceberg. Below a stepped, inclined building, connected by a long, wide ramp and divided into seven different levels, descends about 100 feet. The height of the building, and the architecture within, helps facilitate a winery process that uses gravity, not pumps, to move grapes and wine.

Architecture and tourism

THERE are other architecturally interesting wineries in the region, including Vina Real Bodega, a winery in Laguardia that's shaped like a giant oak vat.

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