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A Chef Tours Rioja

by Chef Camron Woods, Omni La Mansión del Rio in San Antonio

Omni Hotels & Resorts has partnered with Rioja USA for the luxury hotel brand’s 2017 “Flavors of the World” series, “Discover Rioja.” Returning October 1, the three-month-long culinary program will spotlight Rioja and its undiscovered culture, wine and cuisine through signature Omni programming nationwide, giving guests and customers insight into new epicurean discoveries and experiences, while also educating them about the food and wine within this region.

Inherent to each “Flavors of the World” campaign is a much-coveted immersion trip where Omni’s culinary team explores every corner of the featured region. Camron Woods, Executive Chef of the Omni La Mansión del Rio in San Antonio, Texas, just returned from Rioja, where he was able to savor the rich wines and cuisine of Spain.

“Discover Rioja” marks the tenth installment of Omni’s “Flavors of the World” series, expanding the rich roster of past partnerships such as 2015’s “¡Destinación Chile!,” 2014’s “Taste Washington,” and 2013’s “Simply Street Food.” Omni’s “Flavors of the World” programs have also featured the wines and foods of Italy, Argentina, and France, among others.

The Omni Team in Rioja

This trip was an incredible opportunity for our team to immerse ourselves into the local flavors, cultures and traditions of Rioja. Back in the U.S., we had tried wines from many of the wineries we were planning to visit, but nothing compares to being in Spain and experiencing everything on the ground firsthand.

Our Omni team spent a week in Spain—each day we visited several wineries (or bodegas), getting a complete tour of the vineyards, as well as the processing and aging facilities. While each stop was unique and special, I particularly enjoyed our visits to Marqués de Riscal and Conde de los Andes. Marqués de Riscal was our very first stop in Rioja, and I think that alone made it memorable, but also because it is situated next to the Hotel Marqués de Riscal, a Frank Gehry hotel. The architecture, the quality of wine and tapas, the views of the surrounding historic town—it was all breathtaking! You simply can’t find anything like it back home. Conde de los Andes was a very different experience, and notable for other reasons. The bodegas feature a series of underground caves and cellars, with collections of wines dating back to the late 1800s. The history in this area of the world is truly unparalleled.

With that being said, throughout the trip and our visits to the various bodgeas, we were able to see the grapes, feel the climate and terroir, smell and taste the wines . . .we used all of our senses! Thinking back to the trip, the variety was probably the most remarkable thing I noticed in Rioja. Although we were generally tasting a Crianza, Reserva or Gran Reserva, each winery produced wine that had its own very unique attributes. Especially the Tempranillo grapes—some had subtle differences, but others were very noticeable. In addition, it was fascinating to learn about how many of these wineries are family-owned, and have been for generations. What a neat story! Also, despite Rioja’s “Old World” status, I felt that the innovation used in some of the wineries was very forward-thinking. Overall, we found that Rioja wines are complex yet very drinkable. They are very food friendly and pair well with a variety of dishes.

I also believe that there’s much to learn about Spanish cuisine. I think many people have a very specific notion of what Spanish food is . . . but the cuisine is diverse, yet simple. We tasted everything from jamón and chorizo to foie gras and white asparagus—very simple preparations of incredibly flavorful ingredients at their peak season. We savored some pretty incredible meals, and enjoyed authentic pintxos, which are more commonly known here as tapas. They’re literally everywhere you go, and at all hours of the day. You can pretty much walk into any town bar or restaurant and there will be rows upon rows of delectable pintxos—everything from vermouth-filled olives, to anchovies served with pickled green peppers, to croquettes full of cheese, meats—you name it! To top it off, all the ingredients are incredibly fresh and flavorful, so it makes for a great snack, appetizer or meal.

I think the real challenge for us back here in the U.S. will be to convince our guests to slow down in their lives and enjoy the food and wines of Rioja the way it was intended. It was great for us all to experience this way of life and we hope our guests will too in the upcoming season. It is clear that these folks work to live—not live to work—and we want to exude that sentiment when our guests visit us and enjoy our fantastic menu.

Hotel Marqués de Riscal


Our first stop in Rioja was to the Hotel Marqués de Riscal, a masterpiece of a property created by Frank Gehry. While we were there, we enjoyed a tour of the vineyards and winery, followed by an extensive wine tasting. We sampled a variety of reds, whites, and rosés—and they were some of the most delicious wines I think I’ve ever enjoyed. Of course, that was followed by a delectable tasting of traditional Spanish pintxos (small plates), hosted on a beautiful patio where we could all enjoy the breathtaking views of the surrounding countryside.

Racking Room at Faustino


The racking room at Bodegas Faustino features over 10,000 barrels of Gran Reserva. There were several areas where we were allowed to wander. It was an amazing winery with a balanced mix of old Rioja design and ultra-modern amenities. The third floor dining room was like being in someone's home – warm and inviting, rustic Spanish mission décor. The barrel rooms were amazingly spotless and meticulously designed for efficiency. The group even received a tour from the ghost of Eleuterio Martinez Arzok, the original owner and founder of the winery!

Pintxos Bar – Cochon in San Sebastian


Each bar we visited had its own flare and specialty. This one featured over 20 pintxos ranging from $2-$10. This was my first authentic pintxos bar and I was hooked! We had a Crianza with seared scallop, foie gras and candied Valencia orange, mussels with panko and aioli . . . endless and delicious!

CVNE Real de Asua


Built in 2005, the Real de Asua winery was developed within the historic CVNE winery in the heart of the historic Train Station Neighborhood in Haro. This winery marries the new and the old—they refer to it as “mixing tradition with innovation.”

Underground Cellars at CVNE


These photos were taken in the underground cellars of CVNE. We were in amazement of the extremely old wine vintages and the bottle aging conditions. The caves are just about a dozen meters from the river, which provides the perfect natural wine aging conditions. This place was touted as their bottle “cemetery” deep below the ground with thousands of 100-plus-year-old bottles completely encased in mold. Upon entering we were told the mold was penicillin—and our guide sternly warned that anyone with a penicillin allergy should keep out! Mold was literally dripping off the ceilings—equally cool and creepy. This was one of the most unique natural wine aging cellars many of us had ever seen.

Meats at Del Camp a Su Mesa


We came across some unbelievable meat shops (or viandas de Salamanca) while exploring the Basque city of Bilbao. This one was called Del Campo a Su Mesa (Field to Table). Too bad U.S. Customs took all of our jamón/chorizo souvenirs away! Now I am only left with the memories.

Dinner at Valdelana


We had quite a surreal experience at this dinner hosted at Bodegas Valdelana. Our dinner was served in a stunning glass-encased room, where we had traditional guitarists and dancers perform for us throughout the evening, all while enjoying Rioja delicacies like grilled baby lamb chops, chorizo, steak and other meats. Of course, this was accompanied by an impressive selection of red and white wines from their winery. All of them were delicious and I really enjoyed learning about the winemaker’s philosophy and approach to wine making (which has been in his family since the late 19th century!). He spoke about traditions of the past that have inspired him to make the best quality of wine. This referred to not only his background, family and religion, but the heritage, land, people and pride of San Sebastian.

Vivanco Winery and Cultural Museum


This was from our last day of the trip at Vivanco Winery and Cultural Museum. Vivanco was not only an amazing winery but one of the largest wine and wine culture museums in the world. This picture was taken on the winery and museum grounds in the Garden of Bacchus, a vineyard with more than 220 grape varieties from around the world. The village in the background is San Vicente de la Sonsierra with the church of Ermita de San Juan de Arriba in the upper left.

The Final Day


This photo was taken during our final day and stop in Rioja, following our museum tour of the Vivanco Museum of Wine Culture. It’s an amazing museum that explores the history of wine, dating back 8,000 years. Following the tour, we enjoyed a variety of local tapas, including some wonderful meats and cheeses, accompanied by an extensive tasting of red and white wines. The pairings were phenomenal and it was an excellent way to round out our trip and say goodbye to one of my new favorite places!

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