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Golf and Wine in La Rioja – and beyond…

15 April, 2018

Golf and Wine in La Rioja – and beyond…

We spotlight almost 150 Spanish courses on this website, publishing a national Top 100, along with regional rankings for five geographical areas on the mainland, the Balearic Islands and the Canary Islands. Our Northern Spain listings extend to thirty courses, covering a large area to the north of Madrid that stretches from Girona in the east to Vigo in the west.

We were recently invited through the European Golf and Travel Media Association to visit the province of La Rioja, located next to Álava in the Basque Country, where the city of Logroño in the Ebro valley is at the centre of the wine trade in the famous grape growing region. It seemed like the ideal opportunity to discover just how good the golf product was among the vineyards of northern Spain.

Having flown into the industrial port city of Bilbao ahead of schedule, there was a bit of time to kill ahead of the press trip so a short tour of city landmarks was called for, starting at the world-famous Guggenheim Museum on the banks of the Nervion River. Clad in glass, titanium and limestone, the museum of modern and contemporary art is an astonishing building, regarded as one of the most spectacular structures ever built in a Deconstuctivist style.

The Bilbao Fine Arts Museum in Casilda Iturrizar Park was next on the cultural agenda – well, it was a rainy Sunday afternoon so it seemed best to stay dry indoors – with the ninety-five paintings from the “Goya and the Court of Enlightenment” collection the main attraction for those interested in perusing the work of Spain’s most important artist of the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

Then it was off to one of the many local tapas bars to relax with a glass or two of Rioja and some tapas (or pintxos as they’re called in the north of Spain) before being transferred further inland to Logroño for a reception and welcome dinner at the Kobanova restaurant, which allowed attendees to interact with their hosts on the 4-day trip for the first time.

Further gastronomic delights would be enjoyed in nights to come at the highly regarded restaurants of La Quisquillosa and La Cocina de Ramón but, no disrespect to the owners of these two fine establishments, perhaps the best evening of food and drink was experienced in the company of El Educator en Vinos, José Ramón Jiménez Berger, who led the party of twelve journalists round half a dozen small tapas bars along the narrow Calle del Laurel, within Logroño’s Zona tapas y vinos, where a different Rioja and accompanying tapas was served up in every hostelry – all very social, of course, and a great way to interact with the locals.

The first stop on our golfing excursion was the municipal El Campo De Logroño on a site that the local council decided to redevelop as a nature reserve in the late 1990s, converting an old landfill site on the outskirts of the city into a thriving recreational space for the local citizens. One of the first new civic amenities to appear early in the new millennium was an 18-hole golf course, designed by the reputable firm of Stirling & Martin Golf Architects.

El Campo de Logroño is a big course that’s more than capable of hosting large-scale amateur or even professional events with the ability to play to almost 6,750 metres from the back tees. Don’t let that sort of length deter you from playing here – even with the par five 4th at more than 600 metres classed as the longest hole in Spain – because there are three more manageable sets of tees available, ranging between 5,000 and 6,000 metres.

Club de Golf Sojuela sits twenty kilometres further south, in more elevated territory, and it’s a Seve Ballesteros design which has been in operation for over a decade now. With sensational views across La Rioja to the mountains in the north, the course is set out across a hilly landscape that is best tackled by buggy as there are quite a few climbs to be made during a round here. A bunker renovation program is currently under way thanks to recent investment in the facilities by new owners.

Bodegas were traditionally warehouses where wine was stored but many of them have now evolved into modern businesses like Hotel Finca de los Arandinos, situated close to the Sojuela course, with a chic 14-bedroom boutique hotel, restaurant and spa integrated into the winery. Other wineries, like the Marqués de Vargas which the press group also visited, are more traditional, preferring to keep accommodation buildings separate from the wine production and storage facility.

The Vivanco winery in Briones takes the history of wine production to a whole new level with the Vivanco Museum of the Culture of Wine, a massive educational centre devoted to the relationship between man and wine over eight thousand years of history. Recognised as one of the best, if not the best wine foundation in the world, the museum really needs a full day’s visit to fully appreciate the many different wine artefacts that are on display within its numerous display rooms.

Completing the golfing triangle to the south of the city of Logroño, Rioja Alta Golf Cub is positioned around half an hour’s drive from both El Campo De Logroño and Club de Golf Sojuela, close to Santo Domingo de la Calzada, one of the main stages on the Christian pilgrim walk to the shrine of Saint James the Great in the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. Designed by Enrique Saenger and opened in 20006, the Rioja Alta course is an engaging track with several prominent aquatic features in play on the back nine.

Immediately north of Logroño lies the Basque Country province of Álava and outside the small town of Urturi you’ll find the outstanding Campo de Golf Urturi, home of Izki Golf, within the Izki Nature Park. This is a thriving club with nearly four hundred members and the course is now back on the PGA European Tour’s Challenge Tour rota, after hosting a couple of similar events fifteen years ago. Seve Ballesteros is credited with the design of a lovely woodland layout that will fully test the professionals who tee it up here again next month.

The EGTMA press trip to La Rioja ended at Izki but there was still an opportunity for Top 100 Golf Courses to go the extra golfing mile by dropping into see another couple of courses listed within the Top 5 positions in our Northern Spain listings.

The first of these was the 18-hole layout at Real Sociedad de Golf de Neguri, a mid-1950s design by Javier Arana which occupies a coastal property just outside Bilbao at Punta Galea. Neguri’s a very private club that shuns publicity so it’s not the easiest of golf facilities to gain access to but perseverance on our part eventually paid off and it was certainly worth the effort to survey a course that very few outsiders ever get to see. “Understated elegance” sums up the ambience at Galea, with tall Atlantic pine trees dominating the estate, especially on the back nine.

Our final port of call, Real Golf de Pedreña, also boasts a wonderful seaside setting some 90 kilometers along the Cantabrian coast from Bilbao, with the course set out on a headland site above the Bay of Santander, next to the golden sands of Playa de Somo. Architect David Williams has been working on this 1928 Harry Colt design for a few years now, gradually breathing new life into this old masterpiece. Seve Ballesteros learned the game here and many other local players have followed in his footsteps as the little village is reputed to have produced more professional golfers per head of population than any other place in Spain.

The north of Spain will not immediately spring to mind as a golf destination for many people but if you’re the sort of person who might like to play in a more temperate climate, perhaps mixing a game of golf in the morning with an afternoon excursion to one of the many dozens of welcoming wineries before relaxing in a tapas bar with a glass of Rioja and a selection of pintxos in the evening then La Rioja demands serious consideration.

Press trip participants stayed in one of three Logroño hotels (Hotel Marqués de Vallejo, Hotel Gran Via Logroño and Hotel Mercure Carlton Rioja) all of which proved to be really comfortable downtown bases for a golfing trip to La Rioja.

Thanks are due to GolfinRioja’s Urko Zabala Asua, a very capable tour guide whose services were greatly appreciated by all the media correspondents who took part in the short trip. Pepe Notivoli, Manager of the Department of Commerce and Tourism at Logroño City Council must also be thanked for the local authority's financial backing of the visit.

Jim McCann
Top 100 Golf Courses


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