As anyone who loves good wine knows, some of the world’s best red wines come from northern Spain in a region known as La Rioja, which literally translates to “wine.” More than 500 wineries operate in this region and have for centuries, making a tour of this region an immersion into culture, history and good food.
We began our tour of Spain’s wine region with a flight into Bilbao, a lovely city in its own right with great influences from the French, English and Basque people of region. If you’re a fan of Frank O. Gehry’s work, you’ll enjoy a visit to the Guggenheim in Bilbao.
Exploring the Villages of La Rioja
Leaving Bilbao, you’ll find yourself wandering through small villages surrounded by one of Europe’s most productive agriculture regions. Drive slowly and appreciate the simplicity of fields of vegetables being worked by hand. The food of La Rioja includes a lot of root vegetables, like turnips, potatoes, and carrots. Chorizo and paprika are prevalent flavors to dishes of lamb, pork and seafood.
The village of Haro is considered the capitol of wine region and its oldest winery, Vina Tondonia, dates to 1837. A tour here includes watching coopers build and char wine barrels out of white oak shipped to Spain from the state of Missouri. Spend the night at Los Agustinos, a former convent that dates to 1373, but has since become a gorgeous upscale hotel and restaurant now.
Although Haro is considered the capital from a wine production standpoint, the town of Logrono is indeed the capital of La Rioja. There we visited the lovely Ysios wine cellar, designed by Santiago Calatrava. Historically, Logrono was significant during the Inquisition, so a walking tour of the city will feature numerous stories about blood, gore and tortured death.
The Hotel Marques de Riscal is located in the medieval village of Elciego in the midst of a 150-year-old vineyard. You won’t have trouble identifying the hotel, which is dubbed “the City of Wine.” Also designed by Canadian architect Frank O. Gehry, the structure is in sharp contrast to its ancient and simple surroundings. The shades of pink represent the grapes, the silver the top of the wine bottles, and the gold a special netting that is a trademark of Marques de Riscal wines for more than a century.
The restaurant here was the first restaurant in Rioja to earn a 5-Star Michelin rating.
Touring La Rioja
The wineries in LaRioja do not keep regular hours. Most have small gift shops that are open a few hours each day, but for a true tasting and tour, appointments are required.
October is the best time for touring Spain’s wine region.