Inside the Caves of Eguren Ugarte

Twelth in a series about a trip with my friend to Barcelona, Bilbao, Rioja and Granada

After an early morning walk through the country road surrounding Laguardia, I returned to find Collette up and reading. We walked to the main square where a full-on coffee-clatch was underway at the “Pasteleria Arco Iris Cafeteria.” It was the first and last time we would darken that door. A loudmouth in the group of women sarcastically echoed me when I thanked the owner for the coffee and pastry. It was also so expensive that I suspect we were overcharged: 3,80 Euros for a tea, coffee and pastry.

As we walked toward the parking lot outside the Medieval walls, the alimentarios (corner grocer) was unloading pallets of fresh produce that the supplier had pulled manually through the narrow street: thick white asparagus, red and green peppers, onions with their tops, and tightly closed young artichokes on foot-long stalks.

Our big drive to Eguren Ugarte took all of three minutes to nearby Pagano. Miren, our tour guide, emphasized the attractions of the extensive underground complex, which is 15-20 meters deep but designed as a labyrinth of “roads” that are named after prominent Spanish cities and family members. The founder, Victorino Ugarte, now 79, started out as a tavern owner – so successful that he and his wife eventually owned 14. When they decided to sell, they secured an agreement from the new owners to supply their wine. In 1989, he started this winery at the Paganos location (a second is located in Vitoria-Gasteiz to the north).

As we wound through the narrow, low passages, Miren pointed out the many “txoko” or corners, based on the cozy feature in Basque houses built to accommodate intimate gatherings of people for food, wine and conversation. Miren also pointed out another unique feature: private niches (called “nitxos”) where clients can securely store their Ugarte wine. It is these clients, presumably, who take advantage of the atmospheric txokos.

A large txoko

A large txoko

Toward the end of the labyrinth, we passed a large cellar with carefully stacked, dusty bottles of wine. On the metal gate hung a sign with Victorino’s name. Miren explained that Victorino has said he wants to be buried here: “He has built it with his hands. He wants to be here with his wines.”

After a half hour of seeing the architectural aspects of the winery, Miren led us to the business end.

Ugarte uses modern equipment and methods: steel tanks for fermentation, machines for separating fruit and stems, and more modern approaches to clarifying wine than egg whites and hand racking than we saw at Bodegas Muga.

As at Bodegas Muga, newer oak is preferred for aging. Due to the cost difference, Ugarte sources about 80% of their oak from the US and 20% from France. The two, she said, impart subtle characteristics to the wine; American oak transmits sweeter tones like vanilla, cinnamon and coconut, while French oak provides spicy and Balsamic notes.

On our way past the bottling equipment, we caught a fragmentary glimpse of steel tanks and the barrel washing machine. The tour at Eguren Ugarte, we were learning, is more about the marketing of the place and ways to subscribe to their wine than it is about the winemaker’s art. (Eguren Ugarte’s innovative answer to the American wine club is the offer to purchase a custom barrel of wine with premium rights to visit and taste with your friends.)

That said, I asked about the importance of the soil — the terroir — on the grapes and, in turn, the wine. In Miren’s opinion, wine made from grapes grown near Haro, Briones and Pagano are more delicate, softer and better balanced than those from Logroño, 20 kilometers or so away.

Finally, it was time to taste!

Miren first served Keme Muscat 2012 made with grapes from the Castille/Leon region — a semi-sweet wine that seems to be aimed at less sophisticated young female wine drinkers. My clue? The fun fuchsia labeling.

Ugarte wine

Miren explained that their American distributor had asked for the wine to be packaged with a screw top, something that wouldn’t fly with Spanish drinkers, who associate corks with quality. The crayon colored label is printed directly on the glass. “Even if you don’t drink wine,” Miren explained, “you’re going to like it.”

One hundred percent muscat and semi-sweet, it is the little umbrella drink of white wines, with tropical and pineapple notes. Collette could imagine enjoying it on a hot Sacramento day next to the pool; it was a bit cloying for my taste.

Next we were served a red made from local grapes, Ugarte Crianza 2010. Crianzas, by regulation, must be aged at least a year in the barrel and a year in the bottle. (Winemakers here often question why Americans would want to age Spanish wine, explaining, “We’ve already done it for you.”)

This Crianza, made of 92% Temperanillo and 8% Granache, spent 15 months in the barrel. Medium in intensity, it was nicely balanced and provided a long finish in the mouth, albeit a bit strong in tannins for my taste.

Our 10 Euro tasting and tour also included a pintxo, and we never say no to these delightful snacks. Miren disappeared and returned with the Rioja version of a pig in a blanket — chorizo baked in bread called a “txoripan.”

Lastly, we were served the Ugarte Reserva 2009. In keeping with the requirements of the qualified designation, it was aged three years, of which at least one year had to be in the barrel. We both enjoyed this reasonably priced wine — more fruit forward than the Crianza, nicely balanced with a long finish, dark cherry in color and with no obvious tannic impression. Made from 95% Temperanillo and 5% Graciano, Miren suggested it would pair well with a good steak.

My pal Collette with her pal, Victorino

My pal Collette with her pal, Victorino

Returning to Laguardia, we walked to the tourist office. It’s always important, we learned, to do things before 1:30 or at the latest, 2:00 p.m., when everything buttons up for lunch and siesta. We learned that the 19th century mechanical clock in the town square would perform its ditty at 1:55 p.m. before bonging twice, and that for 2 Euros, the historic church could be visited at 5:05 p.m. (not 5:00 p.m., because the tourist office representative lets people see the 5 p.m. “show” on the clock, and then hustles up the street to open up the locked church). We made arrangements to visit the church, which dates from the 14th century, at 5:05 p.m.

We dutifully waited in the square to find out what was so interesting about the old clock. At 1:55, as promised, out popped three mechanical Basque dancers, which twirled back and forth to a tune before retreating to the interior of the clock before the clock tolled 2:00.

Basque dancer clock in Laguardia Spain

Then we stopped in at Bar Velar for pintxos. We enjoyed the various choices — a skewer of fried artichoke and eggplant with a bit of iberico ham, fried green and red rellenos stuffed with cheese, and bakalao (fish) and gambas (shrimp) with cheese rolled in a slice of zucchini and fried. While the atmosphere was pleasant enough, we once again encountered a less-than-friendly reception. When I hesitated for a moment in my selection of a pintxo, the woman behind the bar moved off in a huff and ignored us for about 10 minutes. We concluded that the stores on the main square must become sick of tourists (not that we were competing with many in early April). Have it your way, we decided.

We stopped in at Pepitos, which sells tickets (for 1 Euro) to visit the historic Abbot’s Tower (although, of course, it was closed for siesta at that hour). The owner, who sells wine-related merchandise, was very friendly and spoke great English. We declined to visit since we had already enjoyed similar views from the tower of our hotel. We also investigated the atmospheric bodega (in this case, a tavern) several levels underground below the Hosperderia Los Parajes (which is a pricey hotel and restaurant). You can’t go far in Laguardia without finding a vinoteca at which to sip wine.



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