An old marketing slogan defined Rioja as ‘The Land of a Thousand Wines’. Such a claim may sound exaggerated, especially if you think of the big-brand, cheap and cheerful crianzas lined up on supermarket shelves, but it feels less ridiculous once you discover the region’s diversity, which goes well beyond its wines.
Rioja travel guide: Getting around
Spanning 150km west to east along the Ebro river, Rioja is best visited by car.
Driving offers you the chance to properly explore the vineyard-lined roads that traverse the region’s seven river valleys, meander through hilltop towns set against two mountain ranges and admire the award-winning architecture and ancient monasteries straddling the Camino de Santiago pilgrims’ trail.
Direct your efforts, instead, towards indulging in the rich food scene, whether that be dining at a top-class restaurant or a lower-key experience sampling tapas and a glass of local vino in Logroño’s famous Calle Laurel or the busy Tastavin wine bar nearby on Calle San Juan.
As there are no great distances involved, it is easy to get to charming villages off the beaten track such as Labraza, in the far east of Rioja Alavesa.
Heading west, Sajazarra has a beautifully preserved castle and is among the prettiest villages in Spain. In 1899, the remains of its medieval walls were witness to the first outbreak of phylloxera in Rioja, in a local vineyard.
When to visit Rioja wine country
Whether you choose the buzz of the city or the peaceful atmosphere of pretty villages such as Samaniego or Briñas for your stay, spring and early summer are probably the best seasons for travelling to the region.
Alternatively, plan your trip to coincide with the grape harvest in September and October.
You might also like: How to plan a cycling tour in Rioja wine country
Rioja wineries to visit and things to do
To enjoy a bird’s-eye view of the region, there’s nothing like driving up the A-2124 on a clear day, towards the summit of the Sierra de Cantabria mountains. Stop at the Balcón de la Rioja lookout for panoramic views of the vineyards and villages on both sides of the river.
If this view is key to understanding the geography of Rioja, then the medieval hilltop town of Laguardia offers a different outlook – a stunning panorama of vines and wineries set against the backdrop of the mountains.
Bodegas Ysios and its wavy metal roof provide the perfect Instagram-ready shot, especially if you manage to catch the clouds sliding over the crest of the Sierra Cantabria down the slope for that Foehn effect. Daily ‘winecar’ tours, vineyard walks, and tutored tastings can be booked online.
If you’d prefer to enjoy this view from a chaise longue, glass of wine in hand, the place to go is the stylish new wine bar outside the gates of Bodegas Javier San Pedro Ortega.
Javier, a fifth-generation grower, makes a diverse range of wines, from aromatic whites to serious single-vineyard reds. Daily visits to the winery can be booked online, or enjoy a ‘quick guided tasting’ (with tapas) in the bar.
Architecture and wine are deeply entwined in Rioja, from iconic modern buildings such as Frank Gehry’s Hotel Marqués de Riscal in Elciego to traditional wineries, including Conde de los Andes in Ollauri with its intricate maze of underground cellars housing dozens of historical vintages.
Few people know more about this than architect-turned-winemaker Javier Arizcuren. As well as restoring Conde de los Andes and building modern wineries such as Finca de los Arandinos, he makes a handful of quality wines from his family vineyards in Rioja Oriental.
Arizcuren may one day restore his ancestors’ cellar in Quel’s 18th-century bodega district but, for now, he works in a garage winery – the only one in the centre of Logroño that is open to visitors. Check the website for details.
Like those in Quel, most of Rioja’s historic caves are now used as private leisure spaces, but a few still operate as fully fledged wineries. A typical example is Bodegas Lecea, one of 300 underground cellars created in the 16th century in San Asensio.
The Lecea family makes genuinely traditional wine, including its carbonic maceration red Corazón de Lago. Anyone visiting at the end of the harvest is invited to join in the fun and tread the Tempranillo grapes with their feet in the old stone press.
Otherwise, bookable tours are available: a standard ‘English’ option (Monday to Friday only); a daily ‘premium tour’, which offers visitors the chance to help out in the vineyard (sustenance included); and a ‘gastronomic visit’ complete with a Rioja lunch.
Haro Station Wine Experience
For a touch of glamour, Haro’s famous Barrio de la Estación (railway station district) hosts the biennial Haro Station Wine Experience. No visit to Rioja is complete without going to the Barrio, with its seven centuries-old wineries, but if you plan your trip for June 2022, you will have the chance to visit six of the prestigious bodegas in the barrio:
- La Rioja Alta
- Gómez Cruzado
You can taste their full range of wines paired with pintxos prepared by some of the region’s famous chefs. Tickets are available to buy from the Haro Station website.
Note that López de Heredia Viña Tondonia, the Barrio’s oldest neighbour, is no longer open to visitors, but you can still peek into its decanter-shaped store built by Zaha Hadid and buy its wines – apart from the cult releases.
The annual Rioja ‘wine battle’
Staged not far from Rioja’s golden mile, the Batalla del Vino or ‘Wine Battle’ is a raucous annual party which involves hundreds of people happily throwing wine at each other.
It normally takes place on 29 June, although Covid-19 put a stop to all that. However, given its popularity, the Battle is likely to return soon.
Rioja travel guide: My perfect day in wine country
After an invigorating sleep and breakfast at the tranquil Palacio Tondón in Briñas, complete with views of the Ebro river and the vines of Viña Tondonia, grab your walking shoes and hop in the car for a 10-minute drive to Remelluri.
The estate is not open for tours, but visitors are welcome to enjoy a self-guided walk through its organic vineyards, taking a peek at the 10th-century necropolis and ancient stone lagar (wine press), carved from a huge granite boulder among the vines.
A short drive southwest is Haro and its Barrio de la Estación (railway station district). You’ll be spoilt for choice, but regardless of whether you go to CVNE, with its ageing cellar designed by architect Gustave Eiffel, or to Gómez Cruzado (gomezcruzado.com), the smallest of the seven wineries, fun is guaranteed.
Lunch & afternoon
If you want to combine a winery tour with a tasting and a bite to eat, Bodegas Roda in Barrio de la Estación offers just that with its lovely balcony overlooking the river.
Alternatively, you can drive for 30 minutes to Laguardia with a stopover at the San Vicente lookout in Elciego to take in the views of the Marqués de Riscal Hotel and its multicoloured roof standing in contrast to the surrounding landscape.
Once in Laguardia, head to Amelibia outside the city walls, for a delicious meal prepared with seasonal ingredients and a wine list featuring small Rioja producers.
Wandering through the streets of Laguardia is a joyful experience, particularly outside the peak holiday season. Another nearby hilltop town, San Vicente de la Sonsierra is also dotted with imposing buildings such as the Bodega Teodoro Ruiz Monge, which is run by an artisanal grower who will happily show you around the family’s centenarian cellars and vineyards.
For dinner, drive back to Haro, but this time head to the old town. In one of its many squares, you will find Nublo, a restaurant set in a 16th-century palace where all the food is cooked over open flames.
Rioja travel guide: Top restaurants and where to stay
Located in Laguardia, this hotel has spacious rooms, a bar in a 15th-century cellar and two restaurants offering generous, traditional dishes.
Set in the town’s historic centre, this small hotel is handy if you want to enjoy the tapas and wine bars a few blocks away without having to drive. Helpful staff and excellent breakfast.
Luxury rooms in a 17th-century palace owned by the Rothschild family. Expect an outdoor lap pool, creative dishes in the restaurant and the chance to visit the Macán estate, co-owned by Vega Sicilia.
Family-owned, this restaurant offers one of the best lunchtime menus in Rioja Alavesa, hence its popularity among wine producers. Oribe’s traditional food is matched by a cellar containing more than 100 wines.
Run by a young Spanish-Ecuadorian couple, this ‘fine dining’ one-star Michelin, but moderately priced, restaurant offers a creative vision of local gastronomy combined with some fusion dishes.
A one-star Michelin restaurant owned by brothers Ignacio and Carlos Echapresto. Many of the ingredients are sourced from their vegetable garden, visible from the dining room. The wine cellar boasts more than 1,300 cuvées, with a focus on Rioja.
Places to visit
Few people are aware that Rioja also produces some excellent olive oil. At this mill in Lanciego, you can see old groves and sample extra-virgin oils.
Next to the Vivanco winery in Briones, this museum houses a grapevine garden with more than 220 varieties, a vast wine-themed art collection with works by the likes of Picasso and Warhol, and one of the world’s finest collections of corkscrews.
How to get there
Logroño is a 90-minute drive from Bilbao airport and Madrid is less than four hours away. There are also direct links by train and bus.
Be sure to check the latest Covid travel restrictions and refund policies before booking any trips.