Among Spanish wine regions, Rioja ranks as the granddaddy of them all. Located in northeast Spain along the Ebro River, protected to the north by the Cantabrian Mountains and anchored by the city of Logroño, Rioja boasts centuries of winemaking history. It entered the modern commercial era in the 19th century, when French wine-makers, looking to escape the spreading phylloxera plague, crossed the Pyrénées and settled in Rioja. Today, Rioja offers an elite mix of Iberian history, stunning scenery, proprietary cuisine, brilliant wines and a unique meshing of old and new. Welcome to Spain’s greatest wine region.
Where to Dine
The quintessential food experience in Rioja centers around strolling the bustling streets of Laurel, San Agustín and San Juan in central Logroño and feasting on regional tapas accompanied by glasses of local wine. Top spots include Las Cubanas for roast suckling pig and Tastavin for elevated tapas like tempura bacalao (a dried salted cod). For fine dining in the so-called Spanish vanguardia style, Francis Paniego’s Restaurante El Portal del Echaurren in Ezcaray can provide moments of brilliance, while the chef’s more casual restaurant in Logroño, Tondeluna, captures the essence of contemporary cooking.
Where to Stay
Lodging options in Rioja range from the five-star Frank Gehry-designed Hotel Marqués de Riscal in Elciego to boutique hotels in small villages, as well as basic European-style three-stars that won’t break the bank. The aforementioned Marqués de Riscal, which houses a Caudalie Vinothérapie spa, is Rioja’s signature luxury hotel, with an affluent clientele. The Hotel Viura in tiny Villabuena de Álava is a personal favorite, with luxe touches and a cool design. Heredad Ugarte, near Laguardia, features a newly constructed hotel with outstanding views of the Ebro Valley.
Where to Taste
Over the past decade, Rioja wineries with public tasting rooms and tours by appointment have increased exponentially. Bodegas Franco-Españolas is the only major Rioja winery located within Logroño’s city limits. Situated on the north bank of the Ebro River, the restored winery dates from 1890 and offers photos spanning more than a century and tastings. Viña Real, part of the CVNE family of wines, was designed by Bordeaux architect Philippe Mazières and incorporates plenty of pine and Canadian redwood. It’s a stunning bodega, operational since 2004, with caves extending 150 meters into the hillside. At Bodegas Muga in Haro, a visit (appointment required) revolves around seeing the winery’s own cooperage in action, lessons in racking and tastings of several of Muga’s world-class wines.
When to Go
Spring and fall are the prime visiting seasons. Late September into October is harvest time.
With more than 600 wineries spread across the subzones of Rioja Alta, Alavesa and Baja, variety is a regional theme. Quality and prices start at simple and cheap and expand to outstanding and expensive. The main grape in the region is Tempranillo, but Rioja’s vineyards also grow Garnacha, Graciano and Mazuelo (Carignan), among red grapes. The principal white grapes of Rioja are Viura (Macabeo) and Malvasia.
At Centro Hípico Navarrete, owner Katharina Gachnang offers informative one-hour horseback rides through the vineyards overlooking the town of Navarrete (approximately $24).
Taquio Uzqueda, local artist and historian says, “I’ve spent more than a quarter-century visiting the monasteries of Yuso and Suso in San Millán de la Cogolla, where history says the modern Spanish language began during the 10th century. When you are there, you think about the era of monks, Moors and Christians, and the battles that these monks listened to in silence. Every corner of each monastery is filled with magic.”
What is arguably the best wine museum in the world resides at the Dinastía Vivanco winery in Briones. Unveiled in 2004, the Museo de la Cultura del Vino features almost 3,000 corkscrews and more than 8,000 wine-related pieces and exhibits spread throughout five salons. A top-level restaurant and a wine-and-tapas bar provide postvisit refreshment and nourishment.