Every weekend the Rioja Alavesa organizes the Enobus, a complete guided experience combining bodegas, towns and interesting stories.
When I first heard about the Enobus, which is run by the Rioja Alavesa Wine Route along with Thabuca Wine Tours, I thought it sounded like a fantastic idea. A bus that would take me to several different wineries in the famous D.O. Rioja region, including tours and tastings? That sounds like my kind of Saturday! The bus has several pick up points including Bilbao, Vitoria, Eibar, Bergara, Arrasate, Labastida and Laguardia, so it’s a perfect day trip for residents and visitors alike. We caught the Enobus in Labastida and planned to spend the afternoon exploring the little medieval town of Laguardia.
It was a perfect day for our Enobus experience. Sunny, a slight breeze and blue skies. As the driver expertly navigated the country roads from Labastida to the first stop, the guide from Thabuca began to explain a bit about the D.O. Rioja wine region. The first thing we learned is that not all Rioja wines come from the autonomous community of La Rioja. The D.O. Rioja refers to the region that also includes part of the Basque Country and Navarra, so we spent the morning traveling between communities and towns separated by the Ebro River. Not only that, but all Rioja wines are not created equal. Depending on where in the region the wine is produced it can have a drastically different taste. They don’t even harvest the grapes at the same time because in the southern part of the region, spring and summer come several weeks sooner, so the grapes are ready to be picked sooner, as well.
The Enobus pulled up to what appeared to be a huge glass box just past a sign telling us we were in La Rioja Alavesa (Basque Country). It was the Bodegas Baigorri, and they are known as the “gravity wine makers.” The bodega is very modern and has been built 105 feet underground into the hillside; so the glass “box” is more of a reception area with views of the vineyards. Our guide from Baigorri met us in this lobby area and she brought us downstairs to see where the magic happens.
The reason Baigorri Bodegas are called the gravity winemakers has to do with the fact that gravity drives the winemaking process. The idea is to avoid using pumps or mechanical methods that might damage the grapes. The other unique feature of the bodega is that it was built with visitors in mind. The whole production area is lined with ramps so that you can get a good view of what’s going on even when the machinery is in high gear during the harvest season.
We tasted one white and one red from the Bodegas Baigorri, and although it might not be the wine I would have chosen, it was smooth and universally appealing. They gave us a little piece of bread with ham or with tuna as we tasted the wine (which was probably a good thing, as it prevented us from getting too tipsy at 11:30 in the morning). Pedro and I also snuck out to the balcony overlooking the vineyards to sip our wine and enjoy the spring sunshine. Needless to say we all got back on the bus a bit “happier.”
The bus took the long way to the next winery so that we could get a good view of the famous Marqués de Riscal hotel. The building is either an eyesore or an architectural marvel, depending on the way you choose to look at things. Architect Frank Gehry designed the building to represent the Marqués de Riscal brand with a ribbon of purple to represent the wine, a ribbon of gold for the gold netting that Marqués de Riscal uses on their bottles and silver for the color of the bottle topper. It is truly spectacular and a place I had been wanting to see in person for a long time. I can only imagine what the hotel rooms inside must be like!
The second winery we visited was the Bodegas Estraunza, also in the Rioja Alavesa. It’s a family run bodega with a simple building that you might not think twice about; but when the bus pulled up we could already tell that this would be a radically different experience from the Baigorri Bodegas. We entered through what appeared to be a converted home with beautiful wooden decoration. Our guide quickly led us through the bodega, explaining the winemaking process and how the first Crianza was sold in 1992 (from the 1989 harvest). So even though they are a younger winery, they’ve still got several decades of experience under their belts.
After the tour we got down to business and tried two different wines. People don’t often associate white wines with D.O. Rioja, but that is mainly because the reds became so popular that the bodegas put more emphasis on red wines. Now that is beginning to change; and we’re so glad because the white wine from Bodegas Estraunza was fantastic alongside the local cheese and homemade bread from the local bakery. We also tried the Crianza, which is one of the wines the bodega is best known for. The thing I loved most about this tasting was the fact that it felt like family. We all stood around a huge table, nibbling on the snacks and chatting about wine, the beautiful region and everything in between. If it weren’t for our bus schedule, we could have spent the whole afternoon there, I think!
Back on the bus, we were headed to Laguardia for lunch and an afternoon of exploring the medieval town. There is an option to end the Enobus experience in Laguardia or in Labastida; and the guide from Thabuca told us that she would be saying her good-byes at this point. She warned us that we should all be careful to not miss the bus back (it would leave promptly at 6:30pm). If you have time, Pedro and I highly recommend spending the afternoon in Laguardia.
We ate lunch at the Hotel Restaurant Marixa. The restaurant boasts fantastic views of the surrounding countryside and the food is traditional and delicious. The owner himself waited on our table and made us feel right at home. With our bellies full, and after hiding from an unexpected rainstorm, we had a bit of time to explore Laguardia. It’s a town full of picturesque streets, a famous clock with little figurines that come out to “dance” on the hour, and the fantastic views from the old city walls. Laguardia is also known for its old underground tunnels, built to keep villagers safe from attacks, and now home to lots of local wine cellars, so if you choose, you can continue your tasting experience.
Overall, the Thabuca Enobus is a great way to spend a Saturday visiting a few bodegas without having to worry about driving after having too many tastes. It’s also a very economical option at around 30 euros per person with the tastings and bus ride included. (Prices vary depending on where you catch the bus). It’s true that the tours are offered in Spanish; but I should mention that all the guides from Thabuca speak English, so if you don’t mind missing part of the explanation from the actual winery experts, you are welcome to tag along and ask a few questions on the side. The tours are offered from March through November and they visit different bodegas each time, so you can sign up as many times as you wish and become a true D.O. Rioja wine expert! Too bad we don’t live closer!