In the first of our series from the new Loney Planet travel book, Wine Trails, read about where to go and stay in Rioja. Hemmed by mountains, provisioned by adventurous Basque cuisine, and home to spectacular wineries, Rioja is arguably the world’s most rewarding wine region.

Rioja is Spain’s rockstar region, the Jagger to Ribera’s Richards. It’s moneyed, flamboyant, and fantastic fun for a wild weekend away.

Rioja mapFirstly, it was blessed with natural good looks: the region sits at the foothills of the Cantabrian mountains, beyond which lies the Basque country and such delights as foodie hotspot San Sebastián. The mountains are a barrier to clouds from the north, creating a sunny microclimate. Next, it had perfect timing, hitting the big-time as French wine faltered, and attracting wealthy investors who splashed out on star architects (more on this later), state-of-theart wineries and winemaking talent. The result is that there are now 540 wineries in Rioja. Not all are open for tastings, but those that do offer some of the most fascinating visitor experiences in the wine world.

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The River Ebro flows eastward through the region, on its way to the Mediterranean, passing through Logroño. This university city is the fulcrum for Rioja’s three sub-regions. To the south is Rioja Baja, north of the river is Rioja Alavesa, which includes the fortifi ed hilltop town of Laguardia, and to the west of Logroño is Rioja Alta; the focus of this Wine Trail falls on the latter two regions.

Laguardia, just north of Logroño, makes a good base for exploration. From here it’s easy to reach Haro, where Rioja’s original winemakers set up shop in the 1800s. Tradition is still at the heart of Rioja’s wine but the old-fashioned leathery Tempranillo is fading away in the face of fresh competition from Ribera del Duero. Its wineries range from fascinating timewarps to engineering marvels and contemporary curios.

Rioja travel guide: Where to stay

If you’re based in the walled hilltop town of Laguardia you’ll be able to reach all the featured wineries easily. The town is popular with tourists but it’s easy to escape to Logroño for better value meals. There are several hotels inside Laguardia, depending on your budget.

Casa Rural Erletxe
This guesthouse, in the thick walls of the town, is hosted by María Arrate Aguirre, who makes delicious homemade breakfasts including honey from her bees stationed up in the Cantabrian hills.
www.erletxe.com; tel +34 945 621 015, Rua Mayor de Peralta 24-26, Laguardia

Marques de Riscal
For a less understated stay, try the Marques de Riscal hotel. The Frank Gehry-designed property, a cascade of ribbons of steel, lies between Logroño and Haro.
www.hotelmarquesderiscal.com

Rioja travel guide: Where to eat

La Tavina
This hip wine club in Logroño serves 60 wines by the glass (at shop prices) and modern tapas plates. In winter it hosts group tastings and courses.
www.latavina.com; tel +34 941 102 300; C/Laurel 2, Logroño

Restaurant Garimotxea
Further afield, explore the National Park Izki and lunch at this eatery in Urturi, where the locally sourced menu features dishes such as aubergines stuffed with wild mushrooms, duck leg confit in orange, and homemade yoghurt with wild berries.
Tel +34 945 37 81 21

Rioja travel guide: What to do

An extended food and wine pilgrimage has to take in San Sebastián, one of Europe’s most delightful coastal cities and the epicentre of cutting-edge gastronomy in Spain. The city has hundreds of bars serving pinxtos, the Basque equivalent of tapas, and also a constellation of garlanded restaurants such as Arzak.
With the mountains so close, pack a pair of hiking boots (or cycling shoes) and head into the hills on one of the many signposted hikes.

Celebrations
If you’re in the area in October, the annual mushroom festival at Ezcaray is a treat for fungi fans, with autumn’s bounty on display, expert talks, guided mushroom-picking walks in the Cantabrian mountains and lots of tastings in village square. More famous is the annual Batalla del Vino (wine fight – really) in Haro at the end of June. The fiesta begins on the night of 28 June with a street party then the battle commences the following morning. www.batalladelvino.com

Reproduced with permission from Wine Trails, 1st edn. © 2015 Lonely Planet.