Read about six Rioja wineries to visit when travelling the region, as part of our series from Lonely Planet's new book, Wine Trails.
Six Rioja wineries to visit
1. Viña Real
When Vina Real was completed in 2004, after seven years in the making, it was one of Rioja’s first modern wineries. And it’s an engineering marvel on a grand scale, courtesy of Bordeaux architect Philippe Mazieres, whose father was a winemaker. First, a corner was cut out of a table-top mountain between Laguardia and Logrono. Two tunnels were bored 120m deep into the remaining mountain using the machines that excavated the tunnels of Bilbao’s metro system. Then a 56m-wide barrel-shaped building was sunk into the levelled-off corner. In the centre of this twin-storey circular room is a revolving crane arm that moves huge vats around, using gravity to pour grape juice from one to another. Head winemaker Maria Larrea monitors everything from a laboratory reached by a walkway. Think winery-meets-Bond-villain-lair.
www.cvne.com; tel +34 941 304 809, Carretera Logroño-Laguardia, km4.8; book visits online
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Cradled in a loop of the River Ebro, Contino is a chateau-style, single-estate vineyard, part of the CVNE (Compania Vinicola Norte Espana – the Cune on the bottle is a misprint) empire. But it’s a very different experience to Vina Real up on the hill nearby. The stone property, just outside Laserna, is very sheltered – ideal for sitting outside in the shade on old mill stones, listening to the birdsong with a glass of the white Rioja to catch your breath. Contino’s vineyards reach all the way down to the river Ebro, past ancient olive trees (one is 800 years old).
www.visitascvne.com; San Rafael Bidea, Laserna; 9.30am-1.30pm, 3pm-6.30 Mon-Sat
Not satisfied with just building a modern winery on the outskirts of Briones, in the west of Rioja Alta, the Vivanco family added a restaurant and a museum (full name: Vivanco Museum of the Culture of Wine). And it’s not a half-hearted effort: with 4000 sq m of space and items from the family’s personal collection spanning 8000 years of winemaking, from amphorae to art by Joan Miro, you’re guaranteed to learn something about human ingenuity (though you might want to skip a few of the 3000 corkscrews). At weekends there are also tasting courses to explore Vicanco’s wine. The winery itself is next to the museum and underground. ‘I’ve always felt that our wines had to tell a story,’ says winemaker Rafael Vivanco, but the museum also does a great job of telling it.
www.vivancowineculture.com; tel +34 941 322 323; Carretera Nacional N-232, km442, Briones; see website for opening times & tours
4. López-Heredia Villa Tondonia
The story of Lopez-Heredia Villa Tondonia is the story of Rioja wine. Founder Rafael Lopez-Heredia was a Basque who lived in Chile but returned to fight for the Spanish king, lost, and was exiled to France. There he started to work for a Bayonne wine merchant. Here he absorbed tips and techniques from French winemakers, who would, for example, de-stem grapes. The disaster of phylloxera, a vine disease that destroyed the French industry, was a blessing for Rioja. People like Raphael returned to Spain bringing new ideas and French winemakers. Recognising the region’s similarities with Bordeaux, he settled in Haro in 1877, close to the train station, invested all his money in five vats and began making table wine, selling it fast and cheaply.
A tour begins in a modern annex designed by Zaha Hadid to resemble a wine decanter. But the real interest lies in the old winery next door. Here, the hand-excavated wine gallery dates from 1890 and extends all the way back to the river – workers were given 4L of wine a day, two of which they could drink in the winery. In its darker corners the cave is coated with penicillium, a white furry mould, which helps keep the temperature constant by absorbing humidity. Back out in the light of the cooperage and the barrel builder is repairing the winery’s collection of 225L American oak barrels – he makes them a bit thicker so they last up to 25 years.
The last stop is in the tasting room to sample Lopez-Heredia’s Vina Bosconia, a five-year-old Burgundy style wine, and Vina Tondonia, a six year-old Bordeaux style wine.
www.lopezdeheredia.com; tel +34 941 310 244; Avenida de Vizcaya, 3, Haro; book visits Mon-Sat in advance
5. Bodegas Ruiz de Viñaspre
This family owned winery is set in the foothills between Laguardia and the Cantabrian mountains to the north (you can see it from Laguardia’s walls).
You’ll also notice its neighbour, Bodegas Ysios, one of Rioja’s most iconic wineries, thanks to its spectacular wave-like roof, designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava to reflect the mountain backdrop. Sadly, the roof proved to be less waterproof than desired, which has disrupted Ysios’ work and kept its lawyers busy. Ruiz de Vinaspre is a smaller operation, with all the grapes (100% Tempranillo) coming from the winery’s own vineyards.
www.bodegaruizdevinaspre.com; tel +34 945 600 626; Camino de la Hoya, Laguardia; 9am-1pm Mon-Sat (by appointment)
6. Casa Primicia
According to legend, King Sancho Abarca of Navarra once climbed a hill at the foot of the Cantabrian mountains, which overlooked the River Ebro and what is now Rioja. Recognising the hill’s strategic importance, a few months later he founded La Guardia de Navarra on its top. The date was 908. More than a thousand years later, and Laguardia offers a (very popular) glimpse into the past. The hill is riddled with unexplored tunnels and blessed with some beautiful architecture, including the church of Santa Maria de los Reyes.
But for wine lovers, the Casa Primicia is just as interesting. The ‘first house’ is the oldest property in the medieval hamlet, dating from the 15th century. It was here that grapes taxed from the local area were stored. From the 16th century, wine was made on the site and the restoration of the building, which owner Julian Madrid began in 2006, has revealed how it was done. And the tunnels that form a sort of subterranean twin town turn out to be perfect cellars for storing Bodegas Casa Primicia’s own wines.
www.casaprimicia.com; tel +34 945 600 256; C/Páganos 78, Laguardia; tours Mon-Thu
Reproduced with permission from Wine Trails, 1st edn. © 2015 Lonely Planet.