Rioja had been a byword for avant-garde architecture before Frank Gehry built his hotel at Marqués de Riscal in 2006.
But his gleaming purple and silver structure (the waves of titanium are meant to resemble the folds in a flamenco skirt) put the region firmly on the ultra-modern map.
From the glass box of Bodegas Baigorri designed by Basque architect Iñaki Aspiazu, to Santiago Calatrava’s undulating Bodegas Ysios, via Zaha Hadid’s futuristic triangular pavilion at López de Heredia, some of the world’s greatest architects have proved their mettle in the region.
The latest addition to Rioja’s architectural portfolio is Hotel Viura in Rioja Alavesa, a 4-star luxury boutique hotel designed by Joseba and Xabier Aramburu, that opened at the end of April.
Set next to a 17th century church, against a backdrop of the Sierra de Cantabria mountains in the tiny medieval village of Villabuena de Alava – 300 inhabitants – the hotel seems to surge out of the ground, its cubed rooms piled nonchalantly on top of each other.
Named after Rioja’s most widely planted white grape, Viura is supposed to resemble a bunch of grapes, but to me its whimsically superimposed white cubes are reminiscent of the favelas, the haphazard Brazilian shanty towns made famous by films like City of God.
I was invited out on the inaugural press visit last week with a small group of journalists. On arrival I’m offered the house cocktail, made with red wine syrup, amaretto, vodka and soda. It’s sweet and strangely satisfying.
We sip our cocktails whilst waiting for Godoy, Viura’s ebullient, young, Malaga-born sommelier fresh from a stint at the boutique Hillbark Hotel in Liverpool. Godoy has already put his stamp on Viura with a wine list ordered by both region and grape variety.
Before dinner we’re given a tour of the rooftop lounge bar, with its outdoor cinema and 360-degree views of Villabuena de Alava. It’s dusk, and the swifts are busy making figures of eight in the sky.
From the rooftop we move down to the cellar, decked out with orange with neon strip lights. It boasts over 200 bins, 80% of the which are from Rioja, including a sizeable offering of barrel-fermented Viuras and a number of old vintages of CVNE, Marqués de Riscal, López de Heredia, Muga and Roda.
The restaurant serves traditional Basque cuisine with a modern twist. Gold barrels hover from the ceiling in suspended animation.
‘It took a week to paint them and stick them up there’, Godoy says, making me fearful I might be floored by one during the starters.
I try cod croquettes, crab ravioli, green pea and black truffle pinchos, cream cheese foam with red pepper and chives, suckling lamb, poached pears…
After an epic dinner (I lose count after the sixth course), I retire exhausted to my spacious suite, with its sleek, minimal interiors, dominated by a behemoth bed which I could turn around on like a compass needle and still be nowhere near the edge.
Between the bath and the bed is a sheet of violet glass, which, when peered through from the bath, gives the room a lilac hue. Everything is studiedly cool, from the 42-inch flatscreen TV and red Nespresso, to the black-packaged bath products.
The curtains are a sober shade of gray, and frame my view out onto Villabuena de Alava via my ridiculously large roof terrace.
Does Viura jar with the village? It sticks out like a fat man on a catwalk, but its higgledy-piggledy high jinks somehow works beside the solid sandstone church.
It looks absolutely mad, like an office block fallen from the sky, but that’s the point – it’s supposed to provoke a reaction. After all, it’s a work of art as much as a hotel.
Hotel Viura, Calle Mayor, Villabuena de Álava 01307, Spain
Written by Lucy Shaw