Surely the most dramatic way to enter Rioja is by road. Travelling from the direction of Bilbao, you rise up to the Sierra de Cantabria, which peaks at 1,221m. Coming down, the view towards the Ebro river is sensational. Great wines await… and fine foods too. The mouth waters as much as the eye is charmed.
Unlike so many wine regions, the landscape is not machine-made. Masses of small vineyards intersect with larger ones, a blend of bush vines and canopies. It is a mix of altitudes and aspects, with the mighty Ebro running through.
In fact, the river is not as mighty here as it will become by the time it decants into the Mediterranean. The only one of Spain’s great rivers to flow east (the rest flow west into the Atlantic), it receives tributaries running down from the two sierras that enclose Rioja.
Rioja was the first DOC in Spain and the first DOCa (Denominación de Origen Calificada). According to official sources, it’s also the denomination with the most hectares of ‘old and centenary’ vineyards. The region’s success at wine marketing has given the world (or most of it) a certain image of Rioja. The problem is that this established image is rather one-dimensional. As with Champagne or Burgundy, the word ‘Rioja’ encapsulates a mosaic of wines and styles, tradition and innovation.
Now, at the start of the third decade of the 21st century, Rioja is, more than ever, proving itself as a place to explore.