Art, Architecture, Wine and the Basque Country

How architecture and wine transformed Northern Spain

Frank Gehry designed Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao. Photo: J. Ruano.

On a recent trip to northern Spain’s Basque Country, I found a treasure trove of art, architecture and wine (along with some exceptional food and beautiful countryside), and learned how at least two of these – architecture and wine – have transformed the area.
As I discovered, La Rioja, an autonomous community south of Bilbao, is not only vast and beautiful, with delicious wines (among the best for the price in my opinion), it also has an interesting history. The wine region of Rioja is located along the Ebro River which is the longest river in Spain and rises in springs near Reinosa in the Cantabria province of northern Spain. Rioja has a regulatory board that obliges winemakers to abide by a set of guidelines ensuring that their grapes come from within the specific area, guaranteeing a top quality product. You’ll find the D.O.Ca. logo (which stands for Qualified Designation of Origin) on every bottle of Rioja wine. The Rioja region is about an hour’s drive south of Bilbao, and an hour southwest of San Sebastián, which, incidentally, is known as the best food city in Europe, with an amazing number of Michelin star-spangled restaurants.

Haro is considered to be central Rioja. Unlike in California or France, here you can walk to some of the top Rioja winery tasting rooms, rather than driving miles from place to place. The wine makers built their processing facilities around the Haro railway station to facilitate easier transportation of their wines. The Cune processing facility, with a tasting room designed by world renowned architect Zaha Hadid, is across the street from Muga, which is next to Rioja


Zaha Hadid designed tasting room at Vina Tondonia.

Alta, just to name a few.
Back around 1885, many French Bordeaux wine makers moved across the border into Spain after the phylloxera fungal disease wiped out most of the French vineyards. There are no fancy French chateaus in Rioja; however, within the past ten to twelve years, some of the top wineries were designed by world-renowned architects, creating very modern buildings nestled among the hills and vineyards. Exquisite architectural masterpieces by Frank Gehry, Santiago Calatrava and Zaha Hadid dot the landscape, each becoming their own draw for travelers to the region. Even if you are not a wine drinker, the architecture makes a visit to the area worthwhile.
The long, slender, curvy, rolling roof of the Bodegas Ysios Winery, designed by Santiago Calatrava, is elegantly juxtaposed against the mountains and the sky. The main entrance features what looks like huge organ pipes coming down from the sky, as if the wines come

down from a stairway to heaven. It’s so surreal you can almost hear the angels sing.
The Frank Gehry designed traditional Marqués de Riscal winery highlights the prestige of Rioja

Louise Bourgeois’ Mama spider lurks quietly, while Anish Kapoor’s Tall Tree stands further back outside along the river at the Guggenheim Museum.

wine making. The exterior shell, made of large, brightly colored, flowing “ribbons,” appears to be gift wrapping the delicately produced wines. The famous Marqués de Riscal winery is also home to one of the finest hotels and spas in Spain, along with two Michelin-starred restaurants. The hotel is owned by Marriott and guests can book rooms using reward points. This is the perfect overnight luxury getaway and a great way to use your reward points!
Advanced modern day technology has entered into the Rioja region along with new architecture. One amazing example is the new facility of Carlos Serres. In 1885 Carlos Serres arrived in Haro from Bordeaux after the Great French Wine Blight wiped out his vineyard. The new facility is of an architectural style that merges its centuries-old history with contemporary design. It contains gigantic concrete tanks for storing the wine before it is aged in oak barrels. The outside of these concrete blocks are large stainless steel walls with rows of what look like fire hose connectors. When you first walk in you are greeted by a huge mural of a Bacchanalia in progress. (Read more about this wine in Cinda’s Cellar, page 108.)
Design, art, and architecture that tells a story … the Spanish embrace the idea. They implement forward thinking modern architecture and don’t get stuck on the idea of always maintaining the same old world style. They view architecture as an expression of art and culture and it is used as a way for people to tell their story.
One such exemplary piece of architecture, of course, is in Bilbao, where Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum perches along the Nervión River. The gigantic ship-like titanium covered structure, and its placement, tell the story of a community’s center that was once a fledgling industrial fishing town.

Jeff Koons’ flower puppy.

The surrounding sculptures are whimsical – seemingly standing guard outside. Jeff Koons’ gigantic flower puppy, made up of giant colorful flowers, guards the front entrance while greeting visitors; Louise Bourgeois’ Mama spider watches quietly from the river; and Anish Kapoor’s Tall Tree symbolizes the growing roots and foundation of the city. Rhythmic dancing water features enhance the whimsical sculptures. In fact, the exterior area is more reflective of a huge playground than serious art. The La Salve red bridge alongside the museum was built for the 10th Anniversary and is most stunning at night.
The Guggenheim opened to the public on October 18, 1997. It has been a key factor in the “renaissance” of Bilbao and the transformation of the city from an impoverished industrial center and port into one of Spain’s most popular cultural and leisure destinations.

Read MoreBy Cinda Sherman

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