City of wine: Frank Gehry's new wine therapy creation
The architect behind the Guggenheim has created a temple devoted to wine. Expatica tastes the vintage.
If one's business is making wine, the obvious way to clinch a big deal is
over the finest bottle in the cellar.
So when Frank Gehry, perhaps the most sought-after architect in the world, was reluctant to sign a deal with one of Spain's best wine producers, the executives knew exactly how to woo the great man.
Marques de Riscal is famous for keeping a bottle from every year since it started producing rioja in 1860.
It uncorked a bottle from the year Gehry was born – 1929 – in order to persuade the creator of the iconoclastic Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao to reproduce his magic to create a temple devoted to what some call the nectar of the gods.
Suffice to say, the vintage rioja did the trick.
After two bottles - one for Gehry and one for his business partner who was born 1945 – the Canadian architect was only too happy to talk terms.
Gehry agreed to create a City of Wine, a shrine to Bacchus, Greek god of wine, in Alava, in northern Spain.
Six years on, Gehry's latest groundbreaking creation is due to open next month, at the Marques de Riscal winery in Elciego, a small town just over an hour's drive south from Bilbao in north-west Spain.
The idea was to dramatically renovate the Herederos del Marques de Riscal winery, which had changed little since it was built in 1860.
So far, so good, but what exactly is a City of Wine?
According to Gehry, the EUR 42 million (EUR 62 million) wine 'temple' will reflect the essence of the beverage, as well as earn its place on the architectural scene as something greater than the Guggenheim".
Of course, what Gehry and the bosses at Marques de Riscal really hope is the City of Wine will have the 'Guggenheim effect', doing for this prestigious winemaker and La Rioja, what the mesmerizing art museum did for Bilbao.
The Guggenheim put a once-dour Basque city on the international art map, bringing tourists to gawk at the building as much as the masterpieces inside.
So Gehry's new luxury complex devoted to rioja, should put the tiny town of Elciego firmly on the growing wine tourism trail.
It seems to already be working as Marques de Riscal have had enquiries from people around the world wanting to book.
And to judge from the outside alone, the attraction of spending a weekend in the City of Wine will not be sipping a fine vintage rioja.
The place looks as strange as Gehry's more famous creation just over 60
miles up the road in Bilbao.
Amongst the lush green of the La Rioja countryside, where wine is the one and only business and vineyards stretch as far as the eye can see, to say it stands out is an understatement.
According to Gehry, the building's exterior reflects the colours of wine, with huge titanium panels tinted in pink to represent the burgundy hues of the rioja.
The silver is meant to represent the bit that covers the cork, and gold like the mesh that covers all Marques de Riscal bottles.
The complex's 21,530 sq feet surface is sheathed in titanium and stainless steel, the "skin" over a series of giant squares of black rock with metallic wings, all Gehry trademarks.
It will has Gehry's trademark flowing shapes, using more than 6,560 ft of that jut out at all angles. These are supposed to shield it from the rays of the sun.
Gehry's ultra-modern City of Wine is a perfect contrast to one of the oldest winery's in Spain.
First built around 1860 by the diplomat Camilo Hurtado de Amezaga, marquisof Riscal, it was designed in the style of the wine cellars in the French city of Bordeaux.
Gehry has said he will try to ensure his shiny new creation does not clash too much with the sober 19th Century building, by using the same traditional-style stone blocks which were used in the original winery.
Despite that, it looks like the City of Wine will stick out like a sore thumb. Still, one can't help wondering if that isn't the whole point?
The building itself houses a 43-room, five-star hotel, an exclusive restaurant with a prestigious Spanish chef at the helm, a spa offering 'wine therapy', a museum of viticulture, an extensive wine shop and luxury gardens so those who really enjoy their wine can take a taste al fresco.
A stay at this ultra-modern oddity, doesn't come cheap; rooms range from GBP 36 (EUR 347), to £810 (EUR 1,191) for a suite.
Inside, a glass elevator descends into the cellar, which, to the delight of wine lovers, will hold some 3,000 bottles.
Marq ues de Riscal, which is a major importer to Britain, is stocked in only in the better off-licences.
They produce a range of white and red riojas which guests can sample on a visit to the tasting rooms in Elciego.
But if one has sampled just a little too much of the red stuff, it is only a short walk to the wine therapy spa for some rest and recuperation.
The spa is run by Les Sources de Caudalie based in Bordeaux, the people who first started using grape and wine extracts for luxury treatments to combat stress and halt the ageing process.
They claim – and if one loves wine, who's to disagree? –wine's high antioxidant content poured into a water spa halt those grey hairs and stop more lines from appearing on the face.
They can also protect against the free radicals in cigarette smoke and the sun's rays which age the skin.
This type of pampering is also said to influence the mood, releasing stress from the body.
So far only a few other spas have so far used this treatment, in France, Catalonia, in north-eastern Spain, Italy and California.
It is becoming an increasingly popular as a way of treating oneself while soaking in something vaguely alcoholic.
Yet one can't help wondering if the real purpose of this wine therapy is to offset the effects of drinking the stuff earlier.
Away from the liquid delights of the City of Wine, visitors are able to sample not only their riojas, but the dishes cooked by Francis Paniego, one of Spain's best young chefs.
Paniego runs the Echaurren restaurant in Ezcaray, just ten minutes away from Elciego.
He won his first Michelin star last year, but before that trained under Spain's most fashionable chefs, including Juan Maria Arzak, who runs the three-(Michelin) star Arzak restaurant in San Sebastian, in the Basque Country and Ferran Adria, who owns El Bulli, near Barcelona, voted the best restaurant in the world.
There is a mixture of 'avant garde' and traditional Rioja dishes, but what exactly Paniego will put on the menu when the place opens for business, is a mouth-watering prospect.
Gehry is not the first 'name' architect to team up with a winemaker to make their winery a stop on the tourist circuit.
Spain's leading architect, Santiago Calatrava, known in Britain for the Lowry gallery bridge in Manchester, has already designed a spectacular winery in Laguardia, just ten minutes away from where Gehry's City of Wine will be.
The wine trail in La Rioja could easily be transformed into an architectural pilgrimage.
Admiring some of the work of some of the best architects in the world while tasting a fine rioja seems a perfect combination.
From Bilbao airport, 68 miles or 90 minutes drive to Elciego.
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