(June 2018) For many wine lovers a visit to Marques de Riscal Winery in Rioja is a bucket list item. It definitely was for me, and not just to taste the delicious wine, but to stay overnight in their masterpiece hotel designed by Frank Gehry. With swirling patterns of pink, purple and silver, the famous architecture feat appears to be a decadent piece of salt water taffy floating on a sea of green vineyards. The chance to stay in such a magnificent location, now operated by Starwood as a luxury resort, compelled me to consult my SPG loyalty points and book one night after the conclusion of the 2018 MW Symposium in Logrono.
Alas, I should have also consulted the symposium schedule, because the organizers decided to hold the gala dinner at the Marques De Riscal winery. This not only allowed us to take many photos in front of the Frank Gehry masterpiece, but also to be treated to a riveting flamenco show with great Spanish guitar and ravishing dancers. At the same time, we had the opportunity to taste wines from many of the famous Rioja wineries and enjoy delicious appetizers.
Next we were treated to a four-course dinner prepared by Chef Francis Paniego, holder of three Michelin stars (see menu at end of post). During the meal, the President of Marques De Riscal, Alejandro de Aznar Sainz, gave a toast with a 1955 Gran Reserva. Everyone appreciated the spectacular opening of multiple dust covered bottles with a burning tong ceremony. The evening continued with dancing and a full open bar until three in the morning. I only made it until 1am, and somewhere between the winery and the bus, I lost my high heel shoes.
Checking Into the Frank Gehry Masterpiece
After the conclusion of the MW Symposium the next afternoon, I drove the 20 minute distance from Logrono to Elciego, in the south of the Rioja Alavesa, where Marques De Riscal Winery and Hotel is located. My daughter and I checked into the Spa wing, also designed by Frank Gehry, with larger rooms and an opportunity to gaze across the vineyards and out at the magnificent architecture masterpiece. The hotel is rather small, with only around 40 rooms in total, and 3 restaurants. We were told it was full when we checked in.
A nice aspect of staying there is the fact that you can use the spa facilities free of charge, and receive an invitation to tour the winery and taste some of the wines. Every room also has a complementary half bottle of the Marques De Riscal Reserva. Therefore after exploring our very large room and even larger bathroom, we headed to the tasting room for a private tour, kindly arranged the evening before by PR Director, Cristina Perez Martin. We met with Francesca, who is studying to become a winemaker, and therefore, made a perfect tour guide to answer my technical questions.
Overview of Marques De Riscal Winery and Vineyard Operations
Francesca informed us that the winery was established in 1858 by Guillermo Hurtado de Amézaga, who was living in Bordeaux and came to Rioja to start the winery. The oldest section of the winery was completed in 1860, built out of the local sandstone. Today the enterprise is owned by four families, and they produce around 5 million bottles of wine per year, with 16 different labels. There are around 130 full-time workers, which swells to nearly 300 during harvest, when seasonal employees from Portugal and Eastern Europe arrive to help harvest the grapes.
They own 500 hectares of vineyards and also purchase grapes from local growers in both Rioja and Rueda. The Rioja vineyards rest at around 500 meters (1500 feet in elevation) and are composed of clay and limestone. Rioja has a maritime climate, being relatively close to the sea with a frequent cooling fog layer in the morning.
Frank Gehry Was Hired to Build the Corporate Headquarters
I was surprised to learn that, originally, Frank Gehry was hired to build the corporate headquarters for Marques de Riscal. However, when the building was finished, the design was so spectacular that they knew they had to share it with the world. Therefore, it was converted into a hotel. Since it had so few guest rooms, they commissioned Frank to also design the Spa wing, where we stayed.
The spa includes a massive indoor pool overlooking the vineyards, along with a steam room, dry sauna, Jacuzzi, and pebble foot massage section. I visited twice – after our winery tour, and also the next morning. It is decorated in a red and black theme, with a black bottom pool, red walls, and grape vine branches.
Winemaking Process at Marques de Riscal
Francesca led us to the older part of the winery where the high-end wines are made. Gehry Collection, Barón de Chirel, Gran Reserva and Finca Torrea . The evening before, we had seen the newer section of the winery, filled with hundreds of stainless steel tanks where the Reserva wines are made. She showed us where they set up the sorting tables, and also explained the optical sorters they are employing in order to insure that only the best grapes go into the top cuvees.
All of the high-end wines are fermented in large French oak foudres, with natural yeast. They use pigeage by climbing into the tanks to help start fermentation. After it begins, they use gentle pumpovers. Fermentation temperature is maintained at 25 – 26 C for 8 – 12 days. Then they use a gentle basket press to select free run and some pressed juice to transfer to small 225 liter barrels for aging. The remains are sold to a distiller.
Next the wine spends 2 to 3 years in French and/or American oak barrels, depending on the brand. It is racked 3 to 4 times per year the first year, and then 2 to 3 times during second year. “It is a lot of work for our cellar team,” said Francesca, “and we lose a lot of wine to evaporation, but the process of very good for natural filtration, so we do not need to fine or filter much.” The very clean and modern bottling line is actually located under the hotel, and there are massive cellars to store the unlabeled bottles for the required time for Gran Reserva and specialty wines. They also have a locked library cellar with old wines dating back to the 1860s.
Marketing of Marques de Riscal Wines
Marques de Riscal wines are sold in 110 countries, with 65% of production exported. The major export wine is the Marques de Riscal Reserva, with its signature gold net enveloping the bottle. They also conduct direct to consumer sales at the winery tasting room, where they receive over 100,000 visitors. They have a variety of tour and tasting options, and have become the most visited winery in Rioja. Visitors flock there not only to taste the wine, but to take photos in front of the famous hotel. They can also dine at the one Michelin star restaurant and schedule spa appointments. The small town of Elciego that surrounds the winery is very picturesque, with a beautiful stone church, cobblestone streets, tree-lined plazas, and several restaurants and small shops.
Tasting Notes on Marques de Riscal Wines
I was fortunate enough to taste through the majority of the Marques de Riscal wines – some at the gala dinner the evening before and others at the tasting room. Following are some of my notes on the wines.
Marques de Riscal Sauvignon Blanc Rueda 2017 – Fresh and crisp with citrus, grass and minerality. Great acidity, very refreshing. 100% stainless steel. Great value. 89, $9
Marques de Riscal Limousin Rueda 2016 – 100% Verdejo aged 6 months on oak. Heavier body with more complexity, toasty, dried pear, citrus. 88, $16
Marquis de Riscal Reserva 2014 – their bread and butter wine, exported all over the world, with its classic label and gold netting. Always a safe bet to order. Made in a consistent style with red cherry, spice, vanilla, and powdery tannins. Aged two years in American Oak barrels. I ordered this many times in Spain by the glass for around 3 euros, and it always satisfied. Made from the 3 classic varieties of Tempranillo, Graciano, and Mazuelo. They also give you a complimentary half-bottle of this wine if you stay in the Hotel. 90 points, $17
Finca Torrea 2015 – made from tempranillo vineyard next to the hotel. Black cherry, spice, and soft tannins. Lighter and more elegant on palate with fresh finish. Has a cool looking label, that is supposed to represent the vineyard, and looks like a Picasso painting. 90 points, $25.
Marqués de Riscal 150 Aniversario 2010 – this was served with our dinner and paired very well with the filet mignon served by Chef Francis Paniego. Massive structure and tannins with generous French oak and notes of balsamic, dried cherry and spice. Classic red Rioja varieties. 32 months in French oak. 94 points, $55
Marqués de Riscal Gran Reserva 2004 – classic aged Rioja with dried black cherry, tea, savory notes, vanilla and spice. Smooth and velvety tannins. 92 points, $70
Barón de Chirel 2005 – Made from old vines in a Bordeaux Style, with tempranillo and cabernet aged in French oak. Still very fresh with good structure. Dark cherry, earth, spice, and toasty oak. 93 points, $75
Barón de Chirel Verdejo 2016 – explosive acidity, 8 months in oak. Citrus and wet stone, savory. 91 points, $42
Marquis de Riscal Rosé Viñas Viejas 2016,– aged on Sauvignon Blanc lees. Grenache and tempranillo. Nose of rose and watermelon. Bone dry on palate with some cherry notes. Very long , elegant and refreshing. Very much like a high-end Provence rose. 93 points, $26.
Frank Gehry Collection – we did not taste. Only released in certain vintages. Priced well over $300.
The Bucket List Item Achieved
So in the end, I had two magical days at Marquis de Riscal. I definitely think it was worthwhile staying at the hotel, because the architecture is so beautiful both inside and out. Unless you stay there, you cannot explore all of the nooks and crannies, and enjoy how the light plays upon the angles and metal at different times of the day. Walking across the bridge from the main hotel to the spa wing is quite mystical – especially at night.
Though we did not dine in the Michelin star restaurant there (mainly because I had been treated to Michelin dinners the previous two nights and was seeking something simpler), we did eat at the 1860 Traditional Restaurant next door on the second floor. The views of the surrounding countryside and vineyards were delightful, the service was impeccable, and the food excellent. I ordered the hake fish with a glass of the Rueda verdejo, and it was perfect. Perhaps the most surprising aspect was the bright red toilet paper in the bathrooms – really!