Basque Country: From Sea to Vine

Park Florida in Vitoria-Gasteiz dates back to the 1820s. One of the city_s many Green Spaces.jpg

This is Part Two of Hilarie Larson’s Basque Story Series – Please see Part One: Green Spain


On this episode of Big Blend Radio, travel writer Hilarie Larson shares Part II of her adventures in The Basque Country of Spain. 


If the cities of Bilbao and Donostia-San Sebastian embody the Basque ties to the sea, then the small, rural villages and fertile plains of the Ebro River Valley surely embrace the land and all its bounties.


The Cantabrian mountains appear, at first, tall, rugged and foreboding. Once you venture south, following the roads through the natural valleys, the hillsides become more personal. Brilliant green pastures filled with sheep overlook small villages where Basque communities have thrived for centuries. At times, the narrow, forested passes open up to reveal sheltered plains boasting apple orchards and vegetable plots. Whatever the passing terrain, it’s obvious there’s a symbiotic existence between the people, the land and their rural communities that’s stood the test of time.

In the midst of one of these high plains lies the historic city of Vitoria-Gasteiz, capital of Basque Country and its second-largest city. As you approach, it’s impossible not to notice the extensive urban growth and how it’s linked to the surrounding countryside. Everyone lives within 300 meters of greenspace; one of the reasons Vitoria-Gasteiz was awarded the title of European Green Capital in 2012. 

What was once a small hilltop settlement 700-800 AD became a walled city during the latter part of the 11th century. The wall followed the almond-shaped contours of this strategically placed mound on the Plain of Álava, and the town flourished despite being amid the warring Navarra and Castille.

The city’s undisputed ‘heart’ is the Plaza de la Virgin Blanca. This open and vibrant square, ringed with shops, cafes, and pintxos bars, is the central meeting spot for locals and visitors. Constructed in 1813, the Plaza is named after the city’s patron saint and overlooked by the Church of San Miguel.  

From the Plaza, it’s a short walk to the enchanting old town. Much of the original wall has vanished (In 1854, a cholera epidemic led to the removal) but you’ll still find a warren of narrow streets, lined with medieval and neoclassical buildings, winding their way to the top of the hill. 

The crown jewel of Vitoria-Gasteiz is the Cathedral of Santa Maria. Built at the highest point of the city, the ‘Old Cathedral’ was initially a house of worship and a weapons storehouse. The original Romanesque structure (1150) was attached to the city walls and over the centuries additions and expansions continued, many without respect to prior construction. By the 1960s it was decided to reverse some of these architectural blunders, preserving the church and increasing safety. In 1994 the building was closed to the public and is still a work in progress. Guided tours begin in the lower crypts of Santa Maria and continue to the parapets of the city wall, then back to the towering Gothic interior. Don your hard hat and take a trip through history.

Vitoria-Gasteiz is a beautiful, walkable city, steeped in history and modernity – much like the Basque Country itself. Stroll through Florida Park, visit the Fine Arts Museum housed in a splendid Beaux-Arts Building or discover modern Basque Art at the Artium Museum.  

Continue your Basque Country journey south across the Sierra de Toloño (the eastern edge of the Cantabrian Range). As you descend into the Ebro River Valley, you’ll notice the temperatures are a little warmer and drier. You’ll spot vineyards and medieval hilltop towns in the distance. Here’s where the Mediterranean meets the Basque Country and where wine, wheat, and olive trees prevail.

The Ebro River begins in the Cantabrian Mountains and empties into the Mediterranean to the south, in Tarragona. The fertile valleys were coveted by conquering Romans who brought wheat, grapes and olive trees. If you look upon the valley today, the Roman influence is still intact. Grains and vegetables are significant crops, but wine is the center of the region’s universe.  


A Primer on Rioja Wine

This part of the Basque country is known as Rioja Álavesa, part of the world-famous Rioja wine area. Located in the north-central part of Spain, Rioja consists of 3 sub-regions all centered around the Ebro River – Rioja Alta to the west, Rioja Oriental (formerly Rioja Baja) in the flatter, eastern plain, and Rioja Álavesa, north of the river. Many wine lovers consider the grapes grown on the cooler, clay and limestone slopes of Rioja Álavesa to be the best of all.

Ninety percent of the vineyards grow red grape varieties, with Tempranillo, the king. You’ll also find Garnacha (Grenache), Mazuelo (Carignan) and Graciano, plus white grapes, especially Viura (Macabeo), Malvasia and Garnacha Blanca.

One reason for Rioja’s notoriety is its long affiliation with French winemakers. Their method of barrel aging wines became commonplace in Rioja by the 1850s. In the late 19th century, nearby Bordeaux suffered from the Phylloxera blight that was affecting much of Europe. Many French winegrowers moved to Spain, bringing their winemaking techniques with them and creating ‘Bordeaux Style’ wines with indigenous fruit. While most returned home when the blight finally made its way to Spain, their legacy remained. 

During the World Wars and Spanish Civil War, the government had many of the vineyards replaced with wheat fields. With the advent of more political stability, investment arrived in the form of new modern wineries and vineyards. Rioja resurrected.

Spain, like other European wine countries, has a classification system that governs wine production. The ‘DOP’ (formerly DOC) Denominación de Origen Protegida and its subcategories are the highest level and will appear on the bottle as the consumer’s guarantee. Rioja wines stand out with a further mark of quality – ‘DOPa’ – indicating they have demonstrated superior quality for over ten years and meet higher, stricter standards. 

Barrel and cellar aging are significant in Rioja and wording on the label will indicate how long the wine’s been aged. ‘Joven’ means no oak at all, ‘Crianza’ – very popular in Pintxos bars undergoes moderate aging, while ‘Reserva’ and ‘Gran Reserva’ see more oak and time in the cellars.


The historic town of Laguardia sits among this beautiful vineyard landscape. Shaped like the hull of a great ship, it hugs the slopes of the highest hill in the valley. Once an important defensive position for the Kingdom of Navarre, it’s now the heart of the region and life revolves around the world of Rioja wine.

Laguardia, which dates back to at least 1164, was fortified in the 13th century when King Sancho VIII ordered the construction of the sandstone walls and four impressive gates. As you explore the narrow streets, alleyways and charming squares, you’ll feel as if you’ve done some time-traveling. The majority of the houses date to the Renaissance (14-16th C) and Baroque (17th C) periods and are still home to the town’s 496 residents. Two churches anchor the village- Santa Maria de Los Reyes to the north with its magnificent and rare 17th C polychrome artifacts, and gothic San Juan Bautista to the south.  

What visitors don’t see are the miles and miles of underground cellars that lie beneath the cobblestone streets. In medieval times, the tunnels created a hidden version of Laguardia as citizens sought safety during the many wars and sieges. These subterranean structures still survive – now used for wine storage – but the connecting tunnels have been blocked to add stability to the buildings above. For this reason, visitors to Laguardia must leave their cars outside the city wall, creating a magical experience, especially if you stay in one of the local hotels.

What to do:

A perfect place to begin your Rioja adventure is at nearby Villa Lucia Wine Thematic Center.  Their motto, “knowing wine is loving it!” is their mantra. The Asador Restaurant is all about classic Basque gastronomy. It’s Slow Food Movement approved, the first ‘0 Kilometer’ dining establishment in the Rioja region and their wine list is, naturally, superb. Don’t miss their award-winning 4D film and multi-sensory experience about Rioja’s passionate wine culture. Eno-tourism at its best.

Nothing brings a destination to life better than a local guide, especially when they do so with enthusiasm, vast knowledge, and vibrant humor. Contact Javiar of Pepita Uva in Laguardia – by far the funniest and most entertaining ambassador for Rioja.

Olive oil is an integral part of the local cuisine. In the village of Moreda de Álava, Trujal Cooperativo La Equidad offers delicious tastings of their oils created from the traditional Basque olive tree, Arroniz. Go full gastro-tourist and pair thin orange slices topped with olive oil and cinnamon or delicate toast sprinkled with dark chocolate, local salt, and more EVOO.


Inside the walls of Laguardia is the oldest working winery in Spain – Bodegas Casa Primicia. This historic building served as the storage for grape growers ‘first fruit’ tithe to the Catholic church.

The monks became winemakers, building four stone tanks into the floor of the building, which were still in use until the 1970s. The current owners offer a variety of marvelous tours of the sympathetically renovated building, and the original cellars – “A witness to the true history of wine.” 

Near the town of Samaniego, amidst 130 hectares of vines, is Eguren Ugarte. The bodega, which dates back to 1870 is now under the auspices of the 5th generation who has expanded production, selling in 60 international markets. Taste and tour the labyrinth of tunnels. The chilly, moist environment, littered with little niches provide gated storage for wine club members’ purchases or ‘Txoko’ areas perfect for a wine tasting stop.

At first glance, Bodegas Baigorri appears deceptively small, but all that changes when you walk through the door. This glass ‘box’, which affords panoramic views of the vineyards, river, and mountains sits atop seven graduated levels that hug the slope of the hillside. Not only is this a stunning example of architecture by Iñaki Aspiazu, but the design also creates a perfect gravity-fed winery. The wines of Baigorri are modern, with an emphasis on minimal intervention winemaking and French oak barrels, not American as is traditional.  

Bodegas Solar de Samaniego began as a 1970s, industrial winery but has recently undergone a significant transformation. Inspired by the ‘Drink Between the Lines’ Project, the winery has embraced its literary history (the family’s 18th c estate was the setting for the famous fables written by Félix Maria de Samaniego.) combining it with the art of wine in a stunning fashion. Your visit begins in the library/tasting room and culminates outside. Here, seven, obsolete 2000 liter concrete tanks reinvented by muralist Guido Van Helten, take center stage. An incredible multi-media presentation of lights, music, words, and art tell the story of wine and the dedication of those who create it. A perfect ending to a day in Rioja Álavesa.


Where to Stay:

In Laguardia:

Hospederia de Los Parajes – a boutique hotel located on the main square, Plaza Mayor, that offers indulgent accommodation and warm hospitality

Posada Mayor de Migueloa – close to the main square, this renovated 17th-century palace offers all the charm and modern conveniences you could want. 

In the Vineyards:

Eguren Ugarte – rooms in this bodega’s new hotel feature vineyard views, with a quiet, calm ambiance all in the heart of Rioja

In Vitoria-Gasteiz:

NH Canciller Ayala Vitoria – an unbeatable location (across from Florida Park, close to the old town, shopping and restaurants) and comfortable accommodation. What’s not to like?

The author was hosted by Wine Route Rioja Alavesa and the International Wine Tourism Conference.  All observations and opinions are her own.

Hilarie Larson’s passion for wine began in the 1970’s while in the European hospitality industry. In 2003 she began her wine career in earnest in her native British Columbia, Canada, working at several Okanagan Valley wineries. Along the way, she acquired her certificate from the Court of Master Sommelier, worked for an international wine broker and as ‘Resident Sommelier’ for wineries in Washington State and California. Hilarie’s greatest joy is spreading the gospel of wine, food and travel. In addition to her own blogs at, she contributes articles to a number of online publications. She was honored to be awarded the 2013 Emerging Writer Scholarship from the International Food, Wine and Travel Writers Association, for whom she is now the Administrative Director.

About the Author:

Hilarie Larson’s passion for wine began in the 1970’s while in the European hospitality industry. In 2003 she began her wine career in earnest in her native British Columbia, Canada, working at several Okanagan Valley wineries. Along the way, she acquired her certificate from the Court of Master Sommelier, worked for an international wine broker and as ‘Resident Sommelier’ for wineries in Washington State and California. Hilarie’s greatest joy is spreading the gospel of wine, food and travel.

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