Why La Rioja and Trip Preparation:
In my quest to visit all 17 autonomous regions of Spain, one region stood out in difficulty: La Rioja. While the region is world famous for producing Spain´s best wine, the region turns out to be the least visited in the entire country. Part of that reason is because it does not have a functioning airport, my primary method of getting around Spain- especially during the pandemic.
I read in the news that La Rioja had eliminated their perimeter lockdown meaning that outsiders could finally visit. I therefore decided to book a train to Logroño, the capital of La Rioja for a 2-day-1-night trip. My friend Amber, an exchange student from Northwestern, decided to join me as part of a larger northern Spain itinerary.
To prepare for the trip, I tried to book tours of La Rioja´s famed wineries. This turned out to be quite a difficult task. Most wineries offer guided tours for a couple hours in the mornings (generally between 10-12). Non-guided tours and visits to taste wine without a tour are not a thing. The guided tours must be reserved ahead of time. Most of the wineries can only be contacted via a phone and some by email. Only one winery in the entire region has an online booking platform. Most of the wineries only speak and offer tours in Spanish. In short, while the region produces lots of amazing wine, they are not set up for large-scale tourism.
In the end, despite the additional difficulties of wineries closing for both winter and COVID, I was able to book two tours for the second day. I was unable to find wineries offering tours with favorable times on the first day.
March 12, 2021: La Rioja Without Wineries
The train left Barcelona´s Sants station at 8:00 arriving in Logroño at 12:30. Despite my fears, we had no issues with the police in either place. I then picked up a rental car at the train station. Amber and I drove out of Logroño into the countryside.
I had imagined La Rioja to be flat. However, that is not the case, the region is a big valley flanked by snow-capped mountains. So so pretty!
10 minutes out of Logroño we reached the town of Fuenmayor. There, we found a beautiful upscale restaurant for lunch. It was 13:00, so the place was empty. We feasted on a 3-course meal of traditional foods of the region…with a bottle of red wine! The main course was a traditional Rioja codfish in a red sauce.
After lunch, we toured the restaurant´s extensive wine cellar which had thousands of bottles of local wines.
Next, we drove south towards the snowy mountains. In the foothills, we reached La Rioja´s sole UNESCO World Heritage Site: the Yuso and Suso Monasteries. The twin monasteries are located about a kilometer from each other. In an ancient Castilian language, Yuso means lower and Suso means upper. Yuso is the larger of the two and was built in the 1100´s while Suso, the smaller monastery, was built in the 500´s, making it one of the oldest Christian churches in all of Iberia. Suso is famous for being the birthplace of Castilian, the language more commonly known as Spanish. It was here that the language was first written down. In Spain, many people refer to the language as Castellano instead of Spanish because this language originates in Castille. As there are other languages spoken today that originate in Spain, these people believe that calling Castilian the “Spanish language” discredits the legitimacy of the other languages such as Catalan, Basque, Galician, Asturian and Aranese.
Due to COVID, Yuso, which is home to a small group of monks, was closed but Suso was open for a guided tour. Amber and I caught the 2-minute bus ride up to the Suso for the guided tour.
The Suso monastery was built the Visigoths shortly after the death of St. Aemilian (San Millan in Castilian) who lived in the cave as a hermit until his death in the year 571. Since then, Suso has undergone a few renovations during the Arab and Romanesque periods to create the mishmash of styles it is today. The tomb of St. Aemillan in the cave is visible from the church. While the monastery was interesting, it was not THAT interesting. I would recommend going, but only if you can also visit Yuso, which is supposed to be way better.
We were not alone on the tour. We were joined by two American recent college graduates who moved to La Rioja to teach English. They arrived in October, just in time for the curfew and mobility restrictions to go into place. As a result, today was actually the first time they had left Logroño since moving to Spain. Since Logroño is small and without many foreigners and their Spanish isn´t fluent, they have not been able to make friends. Brutal!
After the tour, we took a pretty 20-minute walk through the countryside back to the car. We then drove into the town of Haro, our final stop of the day.
Haro is best known as the center of Rioja´s wine industry. Two of the region´s most famous are located right in town: Muga and Lopez de Hereida. We tried to visit them, but at 5pm on a Friday, they were very much closed.
After parking our car and checking into the surprisingly nice hostel, we did some homework. At 9:30, we headed out to dinner (restaurants were closing at 11pm here). Our destination was La Herradurra (the Horseshoe), a collection of 3 narrow streets in the medieval old town full of tapas and pinxto (a specific type of tapa famous from Basque regions) bars.
There, with the lovely citizens of Haro, we did an epic bar crawl with food and the famous wine. 5 stops…and 5 glasses of wine. The best stop was actually the first one, where I got a triangular meat-filled pastry topped with a black salsa and accompanied by glass of a dry red. All in all, the food was okay by Spain standards, but the lively atmosphere, gorgeous town and great wine made this crawl fun and unique.
Somehow, despite the distractions, Amber was virtually attending in a class at Northwestern. She even participated and gave a presentation. Amber is truly the embodiment of work-hard-play-hard and a legend.
Tired and a little drunk from all the wine, we went to bed.
March 13, 2021: Rioja with Wineries
After a fun but winery-free day, it is finally time to explore the region´s famed wineries. Our first stop was the Lopez de Haro winery about 20 minutes east of Haro. The winery is located high on a hill over the Ebro river with sweeping views of the valley.
At 10:00 AM on a Saturday morning, we were one of two parked cars here- the other must belong to our guide. We rang the doorbell. A middle-aged lady opened the door and stepped outside. She explained (in English) that we were going to do a 90-minute tour followed by a 20-minute tasting. Her next tour was at noon and there was no wine production going on since it was Saturday, so we were going to have the entire place to ourselves!
Our first stop was the vineyard. Rioja creates amazing wines because of its unique location at the intersection of multiple climate zones: Mediterranean, Atlantic, and Continental. This gives the land hot summers, cold winters, and relatively high rainfall, which supposedly is the perfect combination for growing quality grapes.
Our guide then explained how Rioja wines are highly regulated. Riojas are classified as a Qualified Destination of Origin (D.O) which means that there are set quality and geographical standards for the product to be able to be labeled a Rioja. Normally, D.O. is handled by the national Spanish government or the European Union, but Rioja has its own standards board which predates the creation of the National and E.U. systems.
The Rioja regulating council has named 11 types of grapes (5 red and 6 white) that can be considered Rioja wines. 90% of Rioja wines are red and 10% are white (yes, there are Rioja whites). Within the reds, 90% are from the grape Tempranillo. Therefore, the vast majority of all Rioja wines are Tempranillo and most people associate the region with the grape.
In order to be considered a Rioja, the grapes must be grown within the geographic boundaries set by the regulating council and the wine must be produced on the same property as where the grapes are grown. The regulating council limits the size of wineries and regulates the amount of wine produced per hectare each year. This is done to ensure that there is competition in the market and so ensure that wineries pay special attention to the quality of their wines.
There are three main categories of wine: Normal, Reserva, and Gran Reserva. Those standards are also determined by the regulating council. In Rioja, Reserva reds must be aged for 3 years, while Gran Reserva reds must be aged for 5 years.
We then went inside the winery and learned about the history of wine in Rioja. It turns out that wine has been produced along the Ebro since the Phoenicians the land over 2,000 years ago. However, the wine was not very good. It was only in 1852 when Luciano Murrieta went to Bordeaux, France to learn better winemaking techniques that the quality improved. With French help, Rioja was able to blossom into the world-class winemaking region it is today. Many of the top wineries- especially in the early days- have had French ownership. It is interesting that the French wines, which are made by the same people who are not all that far away, fetch far higher prices than Riojas.
Next, we descended to the factory floor where we saw hundreds of French oak barrels and the stainless steel fermentation tanks. In a first for me, we drank 5 wines straight from the tank. We first had two whites, which were actually the same wine aged for different lengths, and three reds. I don´t consider myself much of a wine-o, but when guided I could definitely taste the differences between the wines. I appreciated that our guide was unpretentious unlike many of the wineries I have been in California and France.
Finally, we ascended into the tasting room for 4 more wines plus a cheese plate. I ended up purchasing a couple bottles to go.
This was without a doubt the best winery tour I have ever taken. To get a private tour for 90 minutes and drink from the tank is truly unbeatable. At €15 per person, the price also cannot be beat.
It was now 11:45 and time to go because Amber´s train to Bilbao was in just 45 minutes. We hurried back to Logroño. Amber got on the train and I returned the rental car. I had 6 more hours before my train (which actually is the exact same train as Amber but heading back in the other direction).
I now got to explore Logroño, the capital and largest city of La Rioja. Before really getting to see the town, I walked across the Ebro river to tour the Bodega Franco Española, the city´s main winery.
Franco Españolas (literally France Spain) was formed in 1890 by French winemakers who moved to Spain to replace their crop which was destroyed by a disease. The French sold their share in 1920, but the winery remains. Ernest Hemingway visited the winery in 1956 when living in Pamplona and wrote a stellar review.
Unlike Lopez de Haro, this tour was in a small group and in Spanish. Everything said on this tour was essentially the same as the first tour, but in less detail. The cellars here were very old and beautiful. The main hallway was lined with the humongous wooden barrels that reminded me of the wineries in Porto, Portugal.
After the 45-minute tour, we headed upstairs for the tasting. Unlike almost every other winery in Rioja, Franco Española is best known for its white wine, known as Diamante.
Next, I walked into town. It was lunchtime so I did another tapa/pinxto crawl. The tapa zone in Logroño is located along two blocks of a narrow street in the old town. The place was PACKED!
I visited 4 bars. The quality of the food here was superb – considerably better than in Haro. My favorite items were a stack of grilled mushrooms topped with a prawn (the only dish made by that bar!) and the fried skin of the face of a pig.
One block from the tapa street is the medium-sized Gothic cathedral with a famous double belltower.
The other main attraction in town is the local history museum (free entry!). Like most history museums in Spain, the museum has artifacts of peoples from the region from early man up until the early 1900´s with a heavy focus on medieval church artifacts.
It was now time to head back. I walked to the train station and caught my ride back to Barcelona.
I absolutely loved La Rioja. The landscape was so beautiful. There is also a lot to do besides just wineries. Logroño´s tapas scene was a highlight and is as good as anywhere in Spain.
While I thoroughly enjoyed both my winery tours, I couldn´t help but think about how much money is being left on the table. If the wineries were to have more tours, have group tours, or even just allow people to come in to taste some wine, they could bring in a lot more business. If a bunch of wineries were to do this, the region could develop into a real wine tourism destination and be a star attraction of Spain for both foreigners and locals. I get the feeling that provincial culture is preventing this from happening.
For normal people aka non-wine people like myself, 2 days is the perfect amount of time to spend in Rioja. If I had a third day here, I would explore the wineries on the north side of the Ebro river that are technically in the Basque Country. Two of them are noteworthy for being designed by Calatrava and Gehry. Additionally, there is an interactive wine museum near Haro that was closed due to COVID but is supposed be really interesting.
March was a fine time to visit, but some of the businesses were still closed for winter. They are open April-early November. So, it might be better to visit then. The locals in Rioja recommended visiting in late September-late October to watch the grape harvest.
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