Among Spanish wine regions, Rioja ranks as the most renowned. Located in north-central Spain along the Ebro River, the region is anchored by the midsize city of Logroño. Rioja entered the modern commercial wine era in the 19th century, when French winemakers, looking to escape the spreading phylloxera plague, crossed the Pyrenees and settled here. Today, the region offers an elite mix of Franco-Iberian history, stunning scenery, proprietary cuisine, brilliant wines and a meshing of old and new. Spain’s greatest wine region is at its welcoming best in late spring or during the harvest in early fall.
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 local wine. Top spots include Las Cubanas for roast suckling pig, Tastavin for elevated tapas like tempura bacalao (a dried salted cod) , Umm by Alex García for artisan tapas and Pata Negra for grilled ham-and-cheese sandwiches. For fine dining in the so-called Spanish vanguardia style, Francis Paniego’s El Portal del Echaurren in Ezcaray can provide moments of brilliance. In the village of Páganos, chef-owned Héctor Oribe serves superb local dishes like artichokes stuffed with lamb sweetbreads. In Fuenmayor, Restaurante Alameda is justly famous for its steaks and seafood, always grilled over vine cuttings.
Where to Stay
Lodging in Rioja ranges from the five-star, Frank Gehry-designed Hotel Marqués de Riscal in Elciego to boutique hotels in small villages to basic European-style three-star options in Logroño like the well-run Hotel Calle Mayor. Among the region’s more quirky stays, Hotel Viura in tiny Villabuena de Álava provides luxury touches and a cool design. In the hilltop town of Laguardia, the jewel of Rioja Alavesa, Hospedería Los Parajes is a family-run operation with a wine-themed interior design. For film buffs, Hotel Teatrisso in Cuzcurrita references the Belle Epoque of the 1920s and ’30s via individually designed rooms and public spaces.
Arguably, the best wine museum in the world resides at the Dinastía Vivanco winery in Briones. The Museo de la Cultura del Vino features more than 8,000 wine-related pieces and exhibits spread throughout five salons. Cyclists eager to pedal from village to village should look up Ruedas de Lana (Wheels of Wool) for guided and self-guided bike tours. For a taste of “hidden” Rioja, Bodegas Tarón’s full-day tour of cellars, castles and churches in the medieval towns of Sajazarra, Tirgo and Cuzcurrita is like going back in time, but with wine glass in hand.
Where to Taste
Over the past decade, the number of Rioja wineries with public tasting rooms and tours by appointment has increased exponentially. Bodegas Ontañón in the Rioja Baja subzone has decked out its entire winery with paintings, sculptures and other works by the late artist Miguel Angel Morales Sáenz. Part of the CVNE family, Viña Real is situated near Laguardia. Designed by Bordeaux architect Philippe Mazières, it’s a stunning bodega with caves extending nearly 500 feet into a hillside. Speaking of below-ground caves (known locally as colados), Ollauri-based Conde de los Andes, part of Bodegas Muriel, offers tours of its 8,200 square feet of subterranean passages and cellars. At Bodegas Montecillo in Fuenmayor, a visit to the main winery provides insight into large-scale winemaking. Visitors can also arrange lunch cooked by a local chef at the winery’s original 19th-century cellars in town. In Mendavia, a tour of Barón de Ley includes a visit to a restored 16th-century Benedictine monastery located on the winery grounds.
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.
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.”
Nothing beats a hot-air balloon ride over Rioja’s vineyards. Globos Arcoiris is the premier ballooning company in the region, and Captain Oscar is fine with you enjoying a glass of wine at 3,500 feet above the Ebro.