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My Quirky Travel Guide to Rioja
Spain's most famous wine region is often misunderstood, especially by American travelers. Here are my recommendations for a region I love.
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When you work as a wine writer, the audience often demands that you “demystify” the beverage, to make a complicated topic simpler to understand and consume. And I get that impulse. But there are deep, mysterious reasons why wine has been enjoyed since long before recorded history. And it’s why I enjoy Rioja, the famed wine region in northeastern Spain. Human beings have been making wine here for thousands of years. It’s a place where wine is both demystified and re-mystified.
I’ll admit that, for years, I had been skeptical of the big, oaky Rioja wines I’d mostly been exposed to. But that all changed in the summer of 2021, when I was charmed by the new generation of winemakers during my visit, which I wrote about here. I even ended up spending extra solitary time in an apartment in Haro once because I tested positive for Covid and couldn’t travel home (which I recounted here in the Washington Post.) I have returned several times since.
This a dynamic time in Rioja with a new wave of winemakers upending the status quo. Everyone who loves wine should travel here. My own Rioja recommendations below:
As a travel destination, one thing I love about La Rioja is that there is definitely more to do than just drink wine (even if that is the majority of my activity while in the area). During my solitary afternoons in Rioja, I hiked the Ruta Hóndon, a path along a meandering section of the Ebro River, past a 13th century bridge, through miles of old vineyards, with the Sierra Cantabria mountains looming in the distance. In antiquity, the Ebro separated Roman territory from Carthage and now it serves as the divider between Spanish and Basque Spain.
The Ruta Hóndon begins near the train station on the outskirts of Haro, built in the late 19th century to connect the region to the bigger port cities, establishing Rioja’s wider reputation for world-class wine. When the phylloxera plague hit France during those years, Bordeaux producers needed wine to sell, and so they turned south to Rioja. Important historic wineries dating to this era, such as Muga, López de Heredia, CVNE, and La Rioja Alta still maintain their operations in the Barrio de La Estación.
My hiking destination was the remains of a Celtic temple that overlooked the vast spread of vineyards. The Celts made wine here long before the Romans arrived. And before them, the Phoenicians, who arrived around 1,200 BC, tended their grape vines. But there was civilization here long before that. All along the Basque side of the Ebro valley, from Labastida to Laguardia, there is a series of dolmen, huge stone tombs built 3,000 to 6,000 years ago, as well as the remains of an entire Neolithic village. Outside the village of Elvillar sits La chabola de la Hechicera— The Witch’s Hut—a 3,000-year-old mini-Stonehenge of huge stone slabs. Legend has it that a witch could be heard singing on the morning of midsummer’s day.
Wineries: The New Wave
I never heard any otherwordly beings sing, but one morning I went into a mystical vineyards nearby with winemaker Sandra Bravo, whose Sierra de Toloño winery is among Rioja’s exciting new generation. Sierra de Toloño is in Villabuena, a village of 300 residents and 40 wineries committed, and the winery is commited to organic farming, low-intervention winemaking, and growing grapes at high altitudes, some over 2,000 feet in elevation. The reason for this was obvious during the hot summer days of my visit. “Now with climate change, everyone is climbing the mountains,” she said.
Sandra showed me one 92-year-old vineyard that she called Malpuesta, meaning “badly located.” It is an area of small plots that had been avoided by the traditional large wineries. “These were the plots of poor people, who planted where they could,” she said. Now, as the temperatures rise, sites like this are the key to Rioja’s future.
We visited one of her favorite vineyards, called Centenarian, planted over 100 years ago. The terrace above the vines is ringed by huge stone slabs, similar to the prehistoric dolmens. “We call this the Agnostic Cemetery,” Sandra said. “It’s very spiritual. When I’m here, I feel it. There’s something here I can’t explain.”
That’s true of Rioja in general. It’s a dynamic time in the region. A new generation of winemakers is returning to the old ways.
When I visited Arturo de Miguel of the coveted biodynamic winery Artuke, in the village of Baños de Ebro (or Mañueta in Basque), I found a similar story. On that day, Arturo wore a t-shirt that read “I [Heart] Wine.” We toured his high-altitude vineyards, overlooking both the Basque and Spanish side of the Ebro. Arturo told me that even though he is Basque, his parents didn’t speak the language — it had been banned during the Franco dictatorship. Like many of his generation, Arturo learned Basque in school. “We are the first Basque generation in Rioja who can speak Basque,” he said. Likewise, he knew that any new approach to Rioja winemaking had to take a similar long-term view.
“People say ‘Oh you’re the new style of Rioja,’ but we’re actually the real classic style, the way they worked 100 years ago, before the train station and before phylloxera came to France,” Arturo said. “Maybe if we keep speaking about this, in 20 years people will finally understand. Maybe we are working for the next generation.”
Winemakers to look for as part of this new generation making fasincating wines are Roberto Oliván of Tentenublo, Olivier Riviere, José Gil, and others. These small winemakers don’t offer public tastings (they’re just too small) but you can always try to contact them.
One evening, we did a Haro tapas crawl with Jade Gross, a Chinese-American who came to Rioja to make wine after several years working as head chef at the famed Michelin-starred Mugaritz in San Sebastian. Gross is based in San Vicente de la Sonsierra, famous for a 10th castle that rises high above the village, and she’s lucky enough to be mentored by world-renowned winemakers Abel and Maite Mendoza. “I never knew I was going to make wine in La Rioja,” she said. “I thought I was going to end up in France. But it’s an exciting time to be in La Rioja. It has so much potential. I think we haven’t even scraped the surface yet.”
My guess is that more established wineries will soon follow suit, as they see which way the wind is blowing. At Pujanza, Lorena Corbacho drove me to their Norte vineyard, at nearly 2,400 feet above sea level. Pujanza’s Norte bottling is a gold standard of this emerging “Atlantic” style. It comes from the sort of world-class vineyard that would be a grand cru in many regions. “We don’t ever use crianza, reserva, gran reserva. That talks only about the barrel,” Corbacho says. “Years ago, El Norte was 18 months in oak, but we keep decreasing the amount of time in oak. Now, it spends less than 12 months in oak and is finished in concrete.” You can actually book a tasting at Pujanza.
Wineries: The Old School
All the same, tradition is alive and well. In the small town of Haro, in the heart of the region, I loved spending time in the Barrio de la Estación, wandering from one classic Rioja house to another, with names I know from wine shops at home: La Rioja Alta, López de Heredia, CVNE, Gomez Cruzado, Muga. The Barrio de la Estación is so named for the railroad station that was built in the late 19th century to connect with the Bordeaux wine trade. In the 1880s, French vineyards had been devasted by the phylloxera epidemic and winemakers looked south to Rioja to supply wine, and the wineries in this neighborhood all date from that booming era.
In La Rioja Alta’s dining room, I sipped long-aged Gran Reserva (aged a minimum of five years before release) alongside a lunch of several tapas, followed by lamb chops grilled over an open fire. “We don’t follow fashions,” said Guillermo de Aranzabal Bittner, who represents the 5th generation of his family to run La Rioja Alta, whose focus has always been on long-aged Gran Reservas. “By the time we release our wine, the fashions will have changed.”
But even in this historic neighborhood, there are signs of modernity. At López de Heredia, I lounged in the 144-year-old courtyard over a plate of jamon and a well-aged half bottle of their Viña Todonio 2008 (the current release) next to its hyper-modern boutique designed by Zaha Hadid. At Gomez Cruzado, the winemaking has been taken over by a new generation. As I tasted a lively blend of tempranillo and garnacha, the woman pouring the wines said, “This one is a little reckless, a little excited,” which seemed like an excellent description.
Closer to Logroño, I really enjoyed the white wines and the vibe at Viña Ijalba. For a more chic guided tasting, reserve a spot at the famed Marqués de Murrieta, just on the outskirts of Logroño proper.
Where To Eat in Rioja
Among Haro’s classic restaurants, I enjoy Terete, famous for its roast lamb (and excellent wine list) since 1870. For a more modern experience, I recommend the new Michelin-starred Nublo, set in a grand historic home in the medieval part of the old town.
There are plenty of great restaurant in the villages outside Haro and Logroño, from humble spots like Mesón Chomin in Briñas, perfect for lunch in between wine tastings to famous Michelin-starred restaurant like Venta Moncalvillo.
One of my favorite places for lunch in all of Spain is Restaurante Alameda, in the village of Fuenmayor, about 15 minutes from Logróno. Voted the best traditional in all of Spain, Chef Tomás Fernández’s asador turns out amazing chuleta steak (as you would expect) but also intricate grilled seafood dishes. I prioritize this spot over many others.
In Logroño, I like the classic spot, Restaurante Iruña, where you can dine on traditional fare like amazing suckling pig. But I recommend Iruña for lunch. Since, at night, you want to get your tapas on in Calle del Laurel.
A Tapas Crawl Logroño
You don’t have to know anything about wine at all to enjoy Rioja. But you do need to be sure you make a tapas crawl through Logroño, the capital city of Rioja, population 150,000. Here, crowds flock to more than 100 bars and restaurants in a two block area of the downtown for small plates and glasses of wine.
Our guide was Pedro Barrio, a local dentist who also happens to be president of the Rioja Academia of Gastronomy. He led us to Calle Laurel, the epicenter. “I know there is a lot of tapas in Spain, but Laurel is special, it’s very unique,” Pedro said, adding: “Here we call them pinxtos.” The fun of Calle Laurel is finding your own favorite spots, the ones that speak to you, among the dozens to choose from. But below are some of my favorites.
Many of the bars have menu with only one or two dishes. Our first stop was a place called Bar Soriano, serving only grilled wild mushrooms in garlicky butter sauce and topped with a skewered shrimp. And wine. From there, Pedro intended for us get more adventurous and explore traditional old-school pinxtos. Our next stop was Bar El Perchas, which sold two pinxtos: pig’s ear in a spicy sauce, and a fried pig’s ear sandwich. François laughed and said, “Can you imagine a bar anywhere else in the world, besides Spain, that could survive on a menu of two pig’s ear dishes?”
At El Soldado de Tudelilla, Pedro insisted that on ordering a salad of onion and tuna and tomato that he declared “the best tomatoes in the world” — we didn’t argue. At Bar Donosti, we ordered a dish of quail egg, chorizo and spicy pepper called cojonudos (the name means “ballsy,” a compliment) followed by friend baby lamb intestine. As Casa Victor, we enjoyed big plates of jamon Iberico de Bellota and blistered pepper. At Mesón del Abuela, we washed down exquisite grilled cuttlefish with amazing Rioja white wine.
As the night went on, it seemed like everyone in Rioja was on Calle del Laurel. We were joined on a few stops by Pedro’s son Juan, a professional basketball player. “There’s a lot of mixing of generations here,” he said. “There can be 16-year-olds having their first drink next to grandparents next to people having a party next to a couple with a baby under the table. I can be here with my parents for a few tapas then go meet my friends who are just around the corner.”
One of our last stops was Bar Sebas, a very old pinxtos bar, where we ordered a traditional pimento relleno de carne, or pepper stuffed with meat. “Ah, my grandmother made it exactly the same way,” Pedro said as he bit into the pimento relleno and washed it down with a glass of crianza. He grew philosophical. “Rioja is a land in which the culture of wine and gastronomy are part of the landscape.”
Finish the night with a cocktail at Clandestino, or a gin-tonic at Café Bretón.
A Super Fun Enotourism Stop
A little bit of exercise is probably a good thing with all the drinking and eating.
In the village of San Asensio, I took an electric bike tour through the surrounding vineyards with Estela Lecea, whose family owns Bodegas Lecea. The views of the endless patchwork of vines stretching to the mountains were breathtaking. There were once more than 300 winemakers in San Asensio. From the 16th century until the 1970s, everyone made wine in underground caves beneath the village. Estela’s father, Luis Alberto Lecea, was actually the first to sell wine in bottles. (I should note that Estela and her sister Lidia are also excellent karaoke singers).
But the 1970s were a time of rapidly changing technology in Spanish winemaking, with more official guidelines, more barrel aging, and more need for scale. This was when the oaky style of wine that most people associate with Rioja began to take hold. During that 1970s, most winemakers in the village abandoned their wineries and joined big cooperatives. Now there are three large wine cooperatives nearby, with more than 1000 members. The only independent winery to remain in San Asensio is Bodegas Lecea, which still makes and ages all its wine underground (Lecea is actually the Basque word for “cave”). They’ve acquired the caves of four other families that had been abandoned and visitors can now tour them. “For us, it’s very important to preserve this history,” Estela told me.
Part of preserving that history was to reincarnate an old style of winemaking, the Corazón de Lago, where whole clusters of grapes are left to ferment in what’s called carbonic maceration and then treaded by foot instead of pressed. The result is very young, fruity, super drinkable wine that’s released in just a few months later in the spring. “Thirty-five year ago, the barrels came,” Luis said. “Before that, it was about making young wine, putting it in a tank and selling it. The old wineries were all built for young wine.” So Corazón de Lago is a classic case of what’s old is new again.
How To Get There & Where to Stay
The closest airports are Bilbao (via various connecting flights) or Logroño (with connecting flights via Madrid). Madrid is a roughly 3.5-hour drive to either Haro or Logroño.
In Haro, there are a number of great apartment stay options, including Los Zapatos Morados ($95-$150 per night) and La Concordia ($150-200 per night)
In Logroño, I usually stay in an Airbnb around the Plaza del Mercado near the Concatedral de Santa María de la Redonda. There are also a few dozen hotels near the tapas epicenter of Calle del Laurel including NH Logroño Herencia Rioja ($100-120 per night) or Hotel Calle Mayor ($150-180 per night)
For those who require luxury, there are a number of luxe option including the gorgeous, newish nine-suite Palacio de Samaniego, tucked away quietly in the Rioja Alavesa next to the Samaniego market square. Even well-known tourist spots, such Marqués de Riscal’s Frank Gehry-designed “city of wine, the Rioja Alavesa village of Elciego, have undergone expansion and implemented sustainability-focused changes, including a shift to totally organic
For those who don’t want to drive and taste wine, there are a number of car services and private wine tours, including Taxi Joe Haro.
If you want any more information, help with trip planning, itineraries, etc. please don’t hesitate to book a meeting with me by clicking on the link below.