The Rioja Wine Region
No adventure in Spain would be complete without a visit to Spain's oldest and best known wine region, considered the "benchmark" of Spanish winemaking. The Rioja is a stunningly beautiful and ancient land inhabited since the Neolithic era where you’ll find atmospheric fortress towns sitting on a hill, some with their medieval walls still intact and filled with Noble homes displaying heraldic shields. There are enormous Gothic churches, each with its own amazing, ornately gilded Baroque altarpiece, but seldom seen, because these churches are kept tightly shut other than for mass. Ancient burial markers (dólmenes), scattered about the fields and vineyards, intermix with the wineries; traditional, boutique and the larger, industrial wineries. Here is where you’ll also find a number of charming family run country inns, along with superb Riojan and Basque cuisine.
Proposed for inclusion in the UNESCO World Heritage Listing in 2013, it’s three distinct sub-zones make up the wine-producing region of Spain’s oldest DO - the Rioja Alta, whose capital is Haro, the Rioja Alavesa, that section of the Rioja in the southern portion of the province of Álava, the Basque Country, the smallest of the three sub-zones, and the Rioja Oriental (formally known as the Rioja Baja), the majority of which lies in the dryer and much hotter southeastern portion of the Rioja, and is the largest sub-zone. A section of southern Navarra also belongs to the Rioja Denomination de Origen, as does a small area of Castile y Leon, on the western edge of the Rioja Alta.
There are 144 municipalities in the DOCa Rioja; La Rioja, Navarra and País Vasco (Basque Country), with 16,686 winegrowers in the Rioja DOCa, Spain’s largest, with some 65,726 hectares of vineyards currently under harvest. It used to be that the Rioja Alavesa, with 13,000 hectares of vineyards under production and nearly 400 wineries, and the Rioja Alta, covering the western portion of the Rioja, with most of the vineyards of its 580 wineries lying south of the Ebro River, held the most interest for wine tourism, as they produce some of the area’s most expensive and venerable wines, boasting the most prestigious wineries in the region, but that has now changed somewhat with the introduction of some new wineries in the Rioja Oriental, an area that accounts for 40% of the wine production in the Rioja.
Picturesque Villages Of The Rioja
Some of the most picturesque villages can be found following the route of the wine from Haro to Logroño, a journey of some 50 kilometers. There are fewer villages along the road from Logroño to Alfaro, depending on which route you follow; the shorter 75 km route through Calahorra, or the slightly longer route on the north side of the Ebro River, in La Ribera Navarra, that will take you through Lodosa, known for its famous piquillo peppers, and San Adrián, with it ancient monastery dedicated to San Adrián y la Virgen de la Palma.
If you follow the route from Haro to Logroño, we recommend visiting the following historic towns along the way; Briñas, noted for its many mansions formerly inhabited by Haro’s wine nobility. Labastida, the historic Basque village and impressive fortress town, which celebrates the traditional 17th-century dances to the Christ Child during Christmas. Briones, one of the most atmospheric and unspoiled villages in the Rioja sits adjacent to the impressive Dinastia Vivanco wine museum, and just across the Ebro River from its former enemy, San Vicente de la Sonsierra, which celebrates Holy Week with a fascinating Maundy Thursday celebration followed by the Good Friday procession of “Los Picaos”, one of the best known and most important Holy Week processions in all of Spain. In San Vicente be sure to drive up to the top of the village to the Santa María la Mayor church for wonderful views of the area and of the castle of Davalillo lying just to the north of the small village of San Asencio. We also recommend visiting the sleepy and tiny wine villages of Ábalos, home to a dozen small wineries and Samaniego, another wine-making hamlet filled with mansions of warm, golden stone.
Back in the Rioja Alavesa, there is Villabuena de Alava, home to an astonishing 33 wineries, including two of our favorites, Bodega de la Marquesa (Valserrano) and Bodegas Luis Cañas, and the architecturally cutting-edge, 4-star Hotel Viura. Our very favorite village in Álava remains Laguardia, the fortified bastide town and capital of the Rioja Alavesa. And finally there is Elciego, where the Frank Gehry-designed hotel complex for Marqués de Riscal, the Ciudad del Vino, was inaugurated in September, 2006, which put the region firmly on the international wine tourism map.
You can pick up a brochure of the ‘Rioja Alavesa Wine Route’ at the tourist office in Laguardia at Calle Mayor, 52. The office opens daily at 10:00 am, 10:45 am on Sundays. It will provide you with an excellent driving tour of these villages. Or if you begin your visit to the region from Logroño, be sure to pick up the available brochures and booklets at the Tourist Office of La Rioja, Calle Portales, 50, open weekdays at 9:00 am and at 10:00 am on weekends.
Some of the historic towns along the way from Logroño to Alfaro, in the Rioja Oriental, include: Agoncillo, with it’s medieval castle Aguas Mansas, Cornago, in the Alcarama Mountains, with its 12th-century castillo de Cornago, the mountain village of Quel, with its birthplace of Bretón de los Herreros, one of the most important and prolific comic playwrights of the 19th-century. There is also a 15th-century castle, currently under reconstruction. The Bread and Cheese Festival in Quel, a 541 year tradition, runs every year from August 4-10. Arnedo, a 20-minute drive southwest of Calahorra, is one of the most prosperous towns in the Rioja. It has a defensive fortification dating from the time of the Moors, and celebrates a one-week long festival in late September, Las Fiestas de San Cosme y San Damián, that you shouldn’t miss if you’re in the area.
The Michelin Regional Map #573; Basque Country-Navarra-La Rioja, is very detailed and extremely helpful when planning your route to and from the three sections of the Rioja. Some maps of the Rioja Alta do not include the Basque villages, just as maps of the Alavesa region sometimes forget their Rioja region cousins, which can be a bit confusing to the first time visitor.
You can download the free PDF copy or purchase the complete Rioja Guide for 2021 at Amazon.