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. 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.
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Exploring the Villages of La Rioja, Spain
We began our tour of Spain’s wine region with a flight into Bilbao, a lovely city in its own right. Bilbao is Basque country, so you’ll notice signs and such in two languages. But French and English are also prominent. If you’re a fan of Frank O. Gehry’s work, you’ll enjoy a visit to the Guggenheim in Bilbao.
Leaving Bilbao, you’ll find yourself meandering through small villages surrounded by one of Europe’s most productive agriculture regions. The River Ebro, which weaves its way in and around the villages and fields, is a primary reason this land is so fertile.
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 capital of the Spanish wine region based on the number of vineyards here. 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.
Although Haro is considered the capital from a wine production standpoint, the town of Logrono is indeed the legislative 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 features numerous stories about blood, gore and tortured death.
This was my first time crossing the path of the Camino de Santiago, the famous pilgrimage trail through northern Spain to Galicia and the tomb of St. James. Most pilgrims look like simple backpackers and they are interesting to talk with.
But here in Logrono, we witnessed a woman carrying a heavy cross while leading a donkey along the trail. I tried to take her picture and she shook her wooden walking stick and yelled at me.
Be alert in Logrono. It’s a colorful community in many ways.
Spain’s City of Wine
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. And it’s delicious, as you would expect.
Tips for Touring La Rioja
The wineries in La Rioja 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.
When you pass through Vitoria-Gastiez, look for the statue of best-selling author Ken Follett.
A wine tip: Less well known that La Rioja are the wine regions in Switzerland.