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Douglas Blyde: restaurant review, Hotel Viura, Rioja

Published:  01 December, 2010

Instead of taking the title of Rioja's most famous red grape, tempranillo, boutique hotel Viura, which opened in May, recalls the region's most planted white vine. Although this might seem a peculiar move in a region where 85% of output is red, one glance at architects, Joseba and Xabier Aranburu's self consciously modern, yet surprisingly tactile structure reveals that they are unafraid of going against convention.

Neighbouring the 14th century church of pueblo, Villabuena de Álava (population 300) the venue's 33 rooms and suites, replete with dauntingly door-less bathrooms, evoke irregularly stacked giant's sugar cubes when glimpsed from outside.

An ample roof terrace and bar with illuminated banquettes and clear walls for film projection crowns it, while the polished concrete walled Riojan and Basque restaurant spans the lower floor.

Here, golden barrels cling to the ceiling, fixed, I was assured, by eight rivets apiece.

Echoing the philosophy of sommelier and white wine fanatic, José González Godoy, that "there is another way", in addition to the region's soothing reds, a tall glass display of white wines leads you in. The reds get their own space at the other end of the dining room. There their labels are protected from the dust and stray brickwork of a 400 year-old cellar formerly belonging to a taxman's house. This even features a secret passage.

Godoy, who recently worked at the Wirral's Hillbark Hotel to polish his English, kick-started my 10-course culinary workout with aperitif, 'Ardens'. As he poured the local, late harvested almond and peanut scented Viura from producer, Medrano-Irazu, he explained how his geographical situation affords him good relationships with wineries. He says: "I can follow wine's evolution: how it is made, then trying it direct form barriques. I have a responsibility to Rioja."

Highlights, drawn from separate Rioja and international lists arranged by grape and producer, included the mutant variety from producer and wine scholar, Juan Carlos Sancha.

Ad Libitum is made from the rare white tempranillo. Initially farmyard scented, it eventually yielded gentle flavours of pear and apricot which flattered chef, Emilio José Contreras' thin crusted, creamy centred beef cheek croqueta and shot of dramatically coloured beetroot, olive oil, and almond flecked gazpacho.

Marsala scented Palo Cortado Tradicion (bottle 647/1500) was powerful enough to tame a busy combination of smoky paprika, garlic and soothing almond soup which also wove chargrilled chicken, silky octopus and a tepee of asparagus.

Legendary white Rioja, Viña Tondonia from 1989 brought umami, acidity and scents of dried apricot (it is determinedly oxidised) to prized otoro (tuna loin), gently seared on the chargrill with piquillo sauce and occasionally explosive punchy padrón peppers.

Our extravaganza, which perhaps curiously only included one red wine, culminated with the very last tipple I could have expected from a Spanish restaurant - esteemed Québécois cider, 'Neige'.

This iced rarity from '07 McIntosh and Spartan apples demonstrated impeccable fruit character and firm acidity which complimented an apple tart spread with violet spiked marmalade. The experience, said Godoy, should evoke: "drinking dessert and eating the cider."

Set tasting menus: €40-70

HOTEL VIURA Calle Mayor, Villabuena de Álava, Spain
T. +34 945 60 90 00