From avant-garde architecture to outdoor pursuits and culinary delights, this area of northern Spain is a traveller’s paradise, discovers Sarah Jane Evans MW, who shares her Rioja travel guide.
Rioja fact file:
Area under vine: 63,370ha at 350m–650m altitude
Sub-regions: Rioja Alta, Rioja Alavesa, Rioja Baja
Wineries: About 1,200
Main grapes: Reds: Tempranillo, Garnacha, Graciano, Mazuela (Carignan) and Maturana
Whites: Viura (Macabeo), Garnacha Blanca, Malvasía, Torrontés, Verdejo, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc
It is a truth universally acknowledged that the world’s great wine regions are approached through severe traffic, industrial suburbs and roads lined with warehouses selling furniture. Bordeaux is a classic example. Rioja, thankfully, is a rare exception. True, the first part of the drive from Bilbao airport involves crossing the city, but this can be done at high speed on a motorway that fairly quickly yields to rolling green hills.
The hills soon turn to mountains, for Rioja runs west to east along the River Ebro, and is bounded on the north by the Sierra de Cantabria, and to the south by the Sierra de la Demanda and the Sierra de Cameros. Through the middle runs the Ebro. The result is a wonderfully craggy landscape where snow can linger in the background quite late in the season, while along the river plains the vines bask in the sun. The Romans found the local Celtiberi peoples already making wine when they arrived.
Something for everyone
Rioja is a region that wears its history lightly, yet in the hills and the smallest villages there are traces from every period of settler, from the Neolithic to the Moorish and Medieval. In fact, it’s perfectly possible to spend a week in Rioja revelling in the countryside without visiting a single winery. For the energetic there is paragliding and skiing, walking of every level of difficulty, bird-watching in national parks, and there are dinosaur footprints to find and bicycles to rent. For the more contemplative, the Unesco world heritage sites of the monasteries of Suso and Yuso in San Millán de la Cogolla demand a detour. It was at Yuso that the first words were written in Castilian Spanish about wine.
One set of travellers passing through who do usually press on without spending time at the wineries are the pilgrims. They are following one of the historic roads to Santiago de Compostela in the far northwest of Spain, in honour of St James. Logroño, the capital of the region, is a meeting place for two of the routes – one of them the much-trodden path through France. Most of the pilgrims are easy to spot, walking with backpacks in pairs or small groups, staff in hand. Today not every pilgrim travels on foot – there are mountain bikers who don’t have so much time to set aside.
Feast for the senses
Nevertheless it’s hard to avoid the wineries, some 1,200 of them at last count, for the region has sprouted a rash of glossy designs, of which the most famous is Santiago Calatrava’s undulating Ysios. Until the economic collapse, a bodega was a favourite indulgence of the seriously rich. Today the passengers flying into Bilbao are much more likely to be dark-suited bankers arranging quick sales and rescue funding for collapsed projects than the one-time flurry of international architects.
Every successful trip should start at Haro – the closest of the cities to Bilbao – where Rioja blossomed in the late 19th century. Then move on to Logroño, being sure to leave plenty of time on the way for a walk around the old centre of the fortified hill town of Laguardia.
Logroño offers plenty of culinary delights but there is no chance of going hungry anywhere in Rioja. Meal times may be late – lunch at 3pm, dinner at 10pm – but it’s still possible to find authentic, local foods all across the region.
By rights the meals should be a vegetarian’s delight: there’s fat white asparagus, brilliant red peppers bursting with stuffings, multi-coloured menestra – a stew of seasonal vegetables, mushrooms of every type in their season, and potatoes in every form, from golden chips to golden tortillas espanolas, to spicy with chorizo.
Chorizo, though, is the warning sign for vegetarians – the flavour of so many dishes is lifted or spiced with this sausage, or jamón (ham), and one of the great pleasures of a trip to Rioja is meat-eating. A favourite is smoky, crispy chuletillas, little cutlets of milk-fed lamb, held in the fingers and gnawed off the bone, served with a fresh, fruity crianza.
Eating is an occasion where it is worth knowing a few words of Spanish – it makes all the difference to be able to ask about the different tapas, or to talk to stallholders at the abundant Mercado de San Blas, Logroño’s market, or local shopkeepers – especially if you are tempted to buy a whole jamón. Remember that many places can shrink wrap cheeses and ham for your trip home.
When to visit?
A crisp winter morning, with snow on the mountains and blue skies overhead is hard to beat. Yet in the spring, the green countryside and the new season’s lamb and vegetables are a lure. Summer is hot, so locate a hotel with a swimming pool. Autumn brings the wine festival, but wineries may be too busy to welcome visitors properly. Late autumn – if there’s no rain forecast – can be the most pleasant of all.
How to get there:
By plane: Bilbao, Vueling and Iberia fly direct from London
Heathrow, Easyjet flies direct from Stansted.
Flying time is about 2 hours.
The easiest way to then reach Rioja is to drive; Haro is 130km south of Bilbao.
Rioja: Six bodegas to visit
Take a look at Decanter’s pick of the best six bodegas to visit while in Rioja.
☆ López de Heredia, Haro
One of Rioja’s great old names, a family business which manages a delightful fusion of old (winemaking as it used to be) and new (wines are sold from a space-age shop designed by Zaha Hadid). lopezdeheredia.com
☆ Roda, Haro
Next door to López de Heredia, this shiny modern investment – all glass walls and low-lit walkways – specialises in Tempranillo. Cellars are built into the hillside. Be sure to make room in your shopping bag for the outstanding olive oil. roda.es
☆ La Rioja Alta, Haro
The third must-see in Haro. Not as picturesque as López de Heredia, perhaps, but nevertheless a worthwhile pilgrimage to the home of one of the region’s outstanding Gran Reservas. riojaalta.com
☆ Dinastía Vivanco, Briones
The wine museum is one of the best of its kind, while the circular restaurant is well worth a visit. After lunch, walk round the pretty village which also houses Bodega Miguel Merino dinastiavivanco.com, miguelmerino.com.
All that appears above ground is the glass box imprinted boldly with the company name. Tucked away below is the winery. Not just a design conceit, Baigorri is a regular medal winner. bodegasbaigorri.com
☆ Viña Real, Laguardia
The modern face of CVNE, one of Haro’s 19th-century wineries. The building is circular, vat-shaped, with a striking circular barrel cellar inside. It has great views over Rioja Alavesa, and well-organised tastings. cvne.com
Rioja: Where to stay, shop, eat and relax
With amazing tapas, quirky hotels, stunning architecture and wine festivals, see Decanter’s recommendations for the best restaurants, tourist attractions and top places to sleep in Rioja.
Tapas in Logroño has been elevated to an art. It’s more fun to go out at 9pm or later in the evening before dinner (or even instead of it) into the narrow maze of streets around Calle del Laurel. After a day wine tasting, you may prefer a small beer (caña) but there are lots of local wines to choose from on chalkboard lists. Each bar has its own speciality; one will have garlic mushrooms, another a spicy sauce for the tortilla, a third pinchos – little kebabs.
A bustling tapas bar in Logroño with a more formal restaurant upstairs, serving modern and traditional dishes. Try the suckling pig with crispy crackling served with an orange and vanilla sauce. lascubanas.net
La Chatilla de San Agustín
Traditional Riojan cooking: revuelto (scrambled eggs) with fresh vegetables; lentils with chorizo and steak served on a sizzling hot stone to cook at the table. Excellent Rioja-only wine list. Calle Sa Agustín 6, Tel: +34 9 41 20 45 45
This, one of Rioja’s newest and most distinctive wineries, opened in 2007. A good-value tasting menu with traditional dishes such as Rioja-style beans with chorizo, and roast lamb.
Two restaurants in the same family-run hotel in Ezcaray. In the El Portal restaurant, Rioja’s first Michelin-starred chef, Francis Paniego, creates modern Riojan cuisine, while in Echaurren Tradicion, his mother Marisa offers the classics. echaurren.com
This asador (barbecue restaurant) in Fuenmayor offers the classic Riojan feast of suckling pig (cochinillo) and baby goat (cabrito) with roast potatoes and whole heads of garlic. Carretera de Vitoria 4, Tel: +34 9 41 45 04 22
Marqués de Riscal
The world’s most famous winery hotel, by Frank Gehry, is a true icon with its riotous titanium roof. Get a bedroom in the building rather than the next door annexe to appreciate the full quirkiness. Restaurant under the guidance of Francis Paniego of Echaurren; Caudalie treatments in the spa. starwoodhotels.com/luxury
Rioja’s trendiest new hotel in Villabuena de Alava. The rooms are a cleverly arranged stack of boxes with views. hotelviura.com
A former convent in Haro, laid out around an internal courtyard. The dining room is in the former cloister. hotellosagustinos.com
Marqués de Vallejo
A good base in Logroño for exploring the region. This is a reliable, modern hotel housed in an early 20th-century building. hotelmarquesdevallejo.com
Rioja & the Five Senses festival
There are any number of wine festivals in Rioja throughout the year, but Rioja & the Five Senses (September 3-19, 2011), is one of the biggest and most wide ranging. Attend tutored tastings or a tapas competition for innovative creations and feast on a range of wines and traditional tapas dishes. elriojaylos5sentidos.com
Wine train & Vinobus
Book a ticket on the wine train, which takes a gentle journey through Rioja’s vineyards and includes winery visits. Or try the Vinobus, organised by the Rioja tourist board, which runs from July to October (Spanish only spoken). The tourist board also runs evening stargazing events at wineries in the summer (only Spanish spoken). lariojaturismo.com/vinobus