The wines of this famous Spanish region are among the world’s best-loved. But if you’re on holiday in the area, where do you find the best wines and food? Laura Seal asks those in the know: the local winemakers
Sprawling across more than 60,000ha of vineyards and gathering together almost 600 of the country’s wineries, the region of Rioja is synonymous with Spanish wine culture. Visitors to the region will notice, however, that its undulating hills are also a rich tapestry of olive and almond groves, fertile farmland and grazing grounds. It’s the produce of this land that feeds Rioja’s burgeoning gastronomy scene, where a new wave of Basque cuisine meets centuries-old tabernas and pintxos bars.
Travelling through Rioja, the striking architecture of wineries such as Marqués de Riscal and Bodegas Ysios makes them hard to miss, but finding the best places to eat in the area requires some local guidance. Top winemakers from Rioja Alta, Rioja Alavesa and Rioja Oriental (formerly Baja) share their favourite places to dine – from Logroño’s tapas trail, to ancient Laguardia and hidden gems in the surrounding municipalities. Scroll down to find out more about the winemakers asked.
Logroño: tapas trail
Pilgrims have passed through the cobbled streets of Logroño’s old town since the Middle Ages and it still bears scallop shell symbols to mark the famous Camino de Santiago. Tabernas that were built to give sustenance to weary walkers now serve another clientele – the tapas crawlers. The Spanish tradition of ‘chateo’, or tapas bar hopping, thrives in these winding streets centred around Calle Laurel, where throngs of locals and travellers clamour for plates of pintxos and copas of house wine.
- 2 Travesía de Laurel, Logroño 26001
- +34 941 22 88 07
‘Soriano is a place of simple decor with a tapas bar running the entire length of the room. There is a large grill where they prepare their famous house pintxo – a little tower of mushrooms on bread topped with prawns and garlic, ideal for non-meat eaters. This bar has a changing selection of about 10 wines, mostly red Rioja crianzas.’ Cristina Forner
- 3 Avenida Portugal, Logroño 26001
‘A sensational and relatively new addition to the Logroño restaurant scene, the interior is bright, simple and elegant – just like its cooking. Ikaro’s cuisine is avant-garde; meticulously and elaborately created by two young chefs. Select the tasting menu to get the full experience, then you can stop thinking and let yourself go. The wine list is well crafted, with a good selection of producers. I recommend bringing someone here for a special treat or occasion.’ Elena Adell
La Taberna de Baco
- 10 Calle San Agustín, Logroño 26001
- +34 941 21 35 44
‘The two owners of this eatery are very attentive and always take good care of their diners. I have been coming to La Taberna de Baco on Calle San Agustín for 20 years and my daughter Paola used to play with their adorable cat when she was little. Expect classic cocina Riojana in the form of rustic casseroles, as well as tapas that fuse Riojan and Mediterranean traditions. Look out for the suckling lamb chops, pork cheeks, fresh anchovies and homemade croquettes. All of the vegetables are garden-fresh and seasonal. Importantly, there is a good assortment of wines to accompany anything you choose from the menu.’ Cristina Forner
- 23 Avenida Portugal, Logroño 26001
‘A small, cosy and traditional restaurant in Logroño’s Casco Viejo (old town), Pan y Vino is one of my favourite places to eat. Its cuisine is based on seasonal produce, specialising in fish and meat – I have never eaten pig knuckle as good as the one they serve here. As the name suggests, there is also an adequate selection of wines to go with each dish.’ Elena Adell
- 24 Calle del Laurel, Logroño 26001
- +34 941 21 36 45
‘Named after the famous Iberian jamón, Pata Negra’s appetisers offer interesting combinations of Jabugo ham, sausages and smoked cheeses, as well as salads and traditional tapas. Pata Negra has a rustic feel with a single dining room and several tables. There are more than 70 wines available by the glass and they stock bottles from over 200 different producers.’ Cristina Forner
- 24 Calle Herrerías, Logroño 26001
‘This taberna is set inside a renovated 16th- century palace, which is located in the historic centre of Logroño, next to the most beautiful romanesque church in the city, San Bartolomé. The cuisine here is traditional and always based on seasonal produce; I love everything they have to offer, especially the vegetables. But what’s really special about this taberna is that the owners have managed to strike a balance between classic and modern cuisines, so whatever your taste you’ll be able to find something to enjoy.’ Elena Adell
Laguardia: Basque culture
Upon entering Laguardia through one of the openings in its ancient walls, visitors are immediately transported to an older and more mysterious side of Rioja, characterised by its well-preserved Basque traditions. This 10th-century fortress town offers simple and authentic Riojan cuisine, focused on seasonal produce from the surrounding farmland.
- 12 Calle Cuatro Cantones, Laguardia 01300
‘This is one of Laguardia’s secrets, tucked away in the old town in a very ancient manor house, where wine and olive oil were once produced. Ask for a guided tour of its underground stone cellars, dating back to the 18th century. The tapas dishes are very good quality; it’s as if you can taste the history of the building in their flavours. When people visit me at the winery, I like to take them for a walk around Laguardia and bring them here for wine and tapas – the jamón and olive oil are delicious.’ Julio Sáenz
- 5 Calle Gasteiz, Páganos 01309
- +34 945 60 07 15
‘I love that this restaurant changes its menu depending on what’s seasonally available in terms of vegetables or wild game. The dining room is small and cosy with well-arranged tables and there is an excellent selection of reasonably priced wines. It’s perfect for family or a small group of friends, but it’s not the place for a large rowdy crowd. Occasionally I come here for an informal work meal, as it’s right next to Bodega Torre de Oña.’ Julio Sáenz
Restaurante El Medoc Alavés
- 15 Paseo San Raimundo, Laguardia 01300
- +34 945 60 05 60
‘This is similar in style to Héctor Orribe, but a little more elegant. The wine list is very good, although the prices are somewhat higher. It’s a spacious restaurant that is very well lit, friendly and cosy. You’ll find traditional food but with a modern twist. I have many happy memories of meals at El Medoc, and we recently celebrated the birthday of one of my children here.’ Julio Sáenz
Rioja’s hidden gems
Rioja is known for its grandiose wineries and bustling tapas trails, but to get a real flavour of the region, venture into the surrounding area. Despite their sleepy appearance, the old towns boast some of the region’s best foodie destinations – from Michelin stars to dining in a cave.
La Taberna de la Cuarta Esquina
- 17 Calle las Navas, 26500 Calahorra
- +34 941 13 43 55
‘Calahorra is the most important city to the east of Rioja, known for its Roman ruins and the quality of its vegetables – it even has a museum dedicated to them, Museo de la Verdura. La Taberna de la Cuarta Esquina offers the best food in the area, with delicious stews and seasonal ingredients. It also has impressive fish dishes, such as bacalao al ajoarriero and hake that took my breath away. These dishes can be accompanied by local rosados, but personally I love them with my own Garnacha Tinta wine, a red wine that harmonises perfectly with both vegetables and fish.’ Gonzalo Rodríguez
- Calle la Fuentecilla, 26290 Briñas
‘Set in the beautiful village of Briñas, Méson Chomin is 100% traditional Riojan. It has a family-run, friendly atmosphere and serves all the traditional dishes in large portions. This is not a fashionable- looking place but it has a rustic aesthetic; its name ‘mesón’ means a modest tavern. What is really important here is the cooking, and the impeccable Riojan flavours remind me of my grandmother in her kitchen. Try the pochas, caparrones and patatas a la Riojana, but without a doubt the star dish on the menu is the menestra stew – the perfect representation of Rioja. The best thing about Mesón Chomin’s wine list is that most bottles are from the surrounding Rioja Alta region: you’ll see producers from Briñas, Haro and Labastida. It’s a simple but food-friendly wine list.’ Rodolfo Bastida
- 4 Calle Carrera, 26580
‘Arnedo, the third-largest town in Rioja, has one of the most intriguing restaurants in the whole region. From the outside it looks like any other restaurant, but once you cross the threshold you descend into a hidden grotto. Alcoves have been carved into the stone walls, and these can be reserved for a more intimate dinner with friends or family. As for the menu, the jamón Ibérico croquettes here are delicious, although the star dishes are regional offerings such as suckling goat – perhaps the best I have tasted in the north of Spain. Restaurante Sopitas is a great place to open a Rioja wine from an older vintage – they have their own bodega here and each bottle is its own adventure.’ Gonzalo Rodríguez
- 6 Ctra de Medrano, 26373 Daroca de Rioja
‘Venta Moncalvillo is a Michelin-starred restaurant in what feels like the smallest town in the world. But the experience here could rival any European capital. It is a must-visit for lovers of good gastronomy during their visit to Rioja. The owners, Ignacio and Carlos Echapresto, have become great friends of mine. Ignacio leads the kitchen. Vegetables grown in the garden, wild mushrooms collected from the mountain and delicious wild game dishes all create an edible picture of Rioja’s landscape. Few sommeliers know more about Rioja wine than Ignacio’s brother, Carlos. He has created a wine list with more than 1,000 Spanish and international references. I have had some of the best wines of my life here and Carlos always delights me with his discoveries.’ Rodolfo Bastida
When to visit
You may want to avoid August, when temperatures are hottest and some wineries close their doors to visitors, whereas you’ll experience Rioja at its liveliest during the notorious ‘wine fight’, Batalla del Vino, which takes place in Haro at the end of June. Alternatively you can take part in the harvest festival, which encompasses fiestas across the region and begins on around 21 September every year.
Rioja is arguably at its most beautiful in autumn when its vineyards become a blaze of burnt ochre and crimson. But if you prefer, plan a winter visit to see the Cantabrian Mountains in their snowcapped glory – with the added bonus that there will be more reservations available at top restaurants and wineries.
The closest airport to Rioja is Bilbao, and it’s advisable to rent a car from here; the drive is about 90 minutes to Logroño. There are also direct public transport links by train and bus.
Meet the experts
- Elena Adell Chief winemaker at Bodegas Campo Viejo, which is located on the outskirts of Logroño
- Rodolfo Bastida Director general and winemaker at Bodegas Ramón Bilbao, based in Rioja Alta
- Cristina Forner Fourth-generation winemaker at Bodegas Marqués de Cáceres, just outside Logroño
- Gonzalo Rodríguez Chief winemaker at Barón de Ley, situated in Rioja Oriental (formerly Baja)
- Julio Sáenz Winemaker at Bodega Torre de Oña, which is located just outside Laguardia
Laura Seal is a freelance writer who travels regularly in Spain