A Guide to Wine Tasting Through Spain's Rioja Region
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Touring Spain's La Rioja wine region is authentic, economical and loads of fun (depending on how much you drink, of course). However, it can be daunting organizing transportation and figuring out which wineries to visit since there are almost 500 in the region. Madrid-based TPG International Correspondent and wine lover Lori Zaino is here to help with information on the best spots for sampling delicious wines and tips for traveling through the Rioja region for our Destination of the Week series.
What Makes Rioja So Special?
The Rioja region has an average wine production of 250 million liters per year and is split into three sections: Rioja Alavesa, Rioja Alta and Rioja Baja, each area producing its own unique version of Rioja wine. The Rioja Alta is composed primarily of alluvial soil, calcareous clay and ferruginous clay. The Rioja Alavesa terrain is "terraced" and consists mostly of limestone and clay, whereas the Rioja Baja is comprised of alluvial clay and these wines often have a slightly higher alcohol content as per the low clay terrain.
Many Rioja wineries have wine cellars/caves that date back hundreds of years, which makes touring some of these wineries extra special and historically interesting. Rioja wines are are produced in oak barrels in these cellars, and the most common grape used in red Rioja wine is the Tempranillo grape, often blended with the Garnacha Tinta, Graciano, and Mazuelo grapes. Four main types of wine come out of the region:
- Rioja Joven: a young wine, usually aged less than one year in an oak barrel
- Crianza: aged at least two years (at least one in oak barrel)
- Rioja Reserva: aged for at least three years (at least one in oak barrel)
- Rioja Gran Reserva: aged at least two years in oak barrel and three years in bottle
The longer the wine is spent in the oak barrel, the more it absorbs the wood, chocolate and coffee tastes the barrel provides. Therefore, a "Joven" or young wine will typically have a fruitier, lighter taste as it hasn't been in the barrel as long as the other varieties.
Wineries and Tastings
I've been wine tasting in many regions of the world and I might be biased as a Madrileña transplant, but La Rioja is truly my favorite. In six years time, I've visited over 30 wineries. They're often family-owned with passionate winemakers conducting the tours, explaining the history and craft of their wines.
Some of the best bottles of Rioja cost as little as $15, and many are impossible to find in the U.S., which is why you'll need to head out to Spanish bodegas (wineries) to sample them. Many of the wineries offer tours and tastings that cost anywhere from 3-15 Euros ($4-$19).
A typical tasting and tour consists of a guide through the wine cellars as they explain how they make the wine. Some places will also walk you through the vineyards or the underground wine cellars. Depending on the time of year, you may even get to see the grape harvest process. After the guided tour, you will be taken to a room to taste some of the varieties of Rioja that the particular winery offers. Depending on each spot, you usually sample at least three wines, and may offer cheese, sausage and bread to accompany. Some family owned spots will pour and pour and encourage you to try more of their prized wines. At the end of the tour, you will have an option to purchase some of the wines if you desire.
Tips: Many of the wineries, especially the smaller ones, speak no English and only offer their tours in Spanish, so be prepared. Make sure to call each winery you plan on visiting first to reserve a spot and request a tour in English (if offered). As the wineries are spread out all across the region, it might be best to select a few near each other to minimize long drives in between. A good length of time to plan to be in the Rioja region is a long weekend, two-three days, depending on how many wineries you'd like to see, and whereas fall is an ideal time to visit the wineries because this is when the grape harvest is, La Rioja is beautiful year round.
Here is a list of some of my favorites spots, categorized by the area in which they are located in so you can prepare your visit accordingly.
Fuenmayor, 10 km (six miles) from Logroño
Bodegas Altanza, Fuenmayor: This is a newer winery in La Rioja which opened in 2002. Despite being a newbie to the market, Altanza is rapidly forming a name for itself due to their famous Lealtanza wine, its name coming from the old Castillian Spanish word meaning loyalty. The Lealtanza Reserve spends about three years in barrel followed by one year in bottle, aging its way to a potent, full-bodied wine with dry notes of red fruit. The winery also cultivates Lealtanza organic olive oil, which can you sample in addition to the wine during your visit. Their tasting room is warm and friendly for a relaxing break after the tour.
Bodegas Marqués de Arviza, Fuenmayor: This is the second oldest winery in the Rioja region, dating back to 1874. The tour includes a walk through its historic, musty wine caves dating back to the 16th and 17th centuries. The Arviza specialty wine is El Tractor, which spends 14 months in the oak barrel aging, with aromas of blackberry and violets, and notes of caramel.
Close to Logroño City
Bodegas Ontañon, Logroño: This family-owned winery offers a tour through their very own wine museum, packed with history and homage to the Greek wine gods. The museum is a unique touch to the winery that makes for an interesting tour. The location is extremely close to Logroño, so it's a great option if you don't want to drive very far from city center, or you can take a bus here. The tasting room, combined with their shop, offers many different red, rosado and white blends to sample. The Otañon Crianza is my personal favorite, powerful and dense, yet not obtrusive, and would be perfectly paired with juicy steak.
Aldeanueva de Ebro, 59 km (36 miles) from Logroño
Bodegas Domeco de Jarauta, Aldeanueva de Ebro: This tour has been one of my favorites to date. First, a stroll through the family-owned winery, which is shaped like a church complete with a stained glass window and breathtaking views of vineyards for days, followed by a fun and informative tasting. The tour guide, part of the family that owns the winery, kept excitedly opening bottles, suggesting we try ¨this one¨and ¨that one.¨ Later, when I asked to buy some of the wines, he looked surprised, as he was in his element of sharing his love for vino and it hadn't even occurred to him to prepare bottles for purchase. I ended up buying several bottles of the Lar de Sotomayer organic red, with hints of wood and pleasant bitterness.
Bodegas Viñedos Real Rubio, Aldeanueva de Ebro: One of the more well-known wineries in the Rioja, Real Rubio offers a large selection of wines, a favorite being a vino dulce (sweet wine) that is perfectly paired with foie gras or chocolate. After a tour through the cellars, if weather permits, you can sample the wines outdoors, standing around barrels, viewing the rustic vineyards. First, try some of the younger wines to enjoy the real taste of the grape, then move to a Reserve for a more sophisticated wine, and finally indulge in their sweet dessert wine, noting laurel and mint flavors.
Haro, 35 km (22 mi) from Logroño
Bodegas Bilbaínas, Haro: I usually stock up here on cases of Viña Pomal Crianza, one of my favorite Rioja wines from this Haro-based winery, as it offers a delightful, dry taste with elegant, chocolate notes. Their tours include a visit to the vineyards, and group participation like tasting some of the grapes picked right off the vine. Their small wine shop also offers some great novelties like wine glasses that go on a rope around your neck or special bubble wrap in a bottle shape for transporting your wine.
Bodegas CVNE, Haro: Cune is one of the most popular wines in Spain, and is created right here at the Bodega CVNE. The winery started in 1879 and retains much of its old/original equipment, which you can see during your tour along with its original creepy underground wine cellars and caves, some designed by Gustav Eiffel, and even a wine cemetery. This winery has an extensive shop where you can purchase many different varieties, like its popular Cune Crianza, with lightly toasted vanilla and cinnamon afterthoughts. A highlight is that you can book your tour online--they are available in English/Spanish and cost 10 Euros each, including a tasting. ($12.50)
Bodegas Roda, Haro: This winery is one of the few that offers tours in English and French as well as Spanish. Roda also makes two varieties of extra virgin olive oil in addition to their wines. If you happen to arrive during la vendima (the harvest) weekends, you can actually tour the process of the cultivation. Tours here include seeing the winery, a viewing of their photo exhibition "Maridajes" and a tasting of their two most popular wines, Roda Reserva y Bodegas Roda Sela. The Roda wines typically have a sweet aroma to them, with notes of minerals. When available, you can sample the olive oil as well. Tours are 10 euros per person ($12.50) and are offered in English, French and Spanish.
Other notable winieries to consider: Muga, Maques de Riscal, Marqués de Camponuble.
You have a variety of options to begin touring the region. You can always rent a car and select a designated driver within your party to get you around the region, which is probably the easiest and most common option. Buses run from Logroño to Haro several times daily, (on average, there are about 15 wineries that offer tours there, though you may have to walk a lot) where you can plan to spend a day tasting and touring. The priciest option would be to hire a car and driver to take you around for the day, though if you have a few people, it could work out to be reasonable.
The Tourism office in Logroño sponsors the Vinobus, which is loads of fun. For about 15-20 euros ($19-25), you can hop on a mini-bus in Logroño and it will take you to three wineries for a tasting and tour at each. Vinobus usually runs on on Saturdays from 10 am-3 pm for a few months at a time, each Saturday with a different itinerary of wineries. Although there are no current dates for this fall, the tourism office assured me it would be returning for Spring of 2015.
Getting To La Rioja
The main city in the Rioja region is Logroño, and there are various ways to arrive there.
- Train: Logroño /Madrid or Logroño/Barcelona, 3-4 hours, 35-60 euros ($45-$76) each way (book ahead--tickets often sell out).
- Alsa bus: Logroño/Madrid, 3-4 hours, starts at 16 euros each way ($20).
- Car Rental: Drive from Madrid or Barcelona.
Where to Stay
Logroño, the largest city in La Rioja is a great base for starting your trip. A solid hotel option is the Category 2 AC La Rioja by Marriott, which starts 55 euros per night ($70) or 10,000 Marriott Reward points.
Another idea is to stay in Haro, as several of the wineries are placed in and around this tiny village filled with family owned hostels and small hotels.
One of the most famous hotels in the region is Starwood's Hotel Marques de Riscal Elciego, designed by Frank Gehry and situated upon the oldest winery in the Rioja. The spa is ranked number one in the world by Conde Nast and the property is simply stunning. The hotel is an SPG Category 6 and starts at 320 euros ($407) per night or 20,000 Starpoints.
If you stay in Logroño, be sure to pay a visit to the cathedral Santa María, constructed between 1516-1538.
The main street for tapas y vino is Calle Laurel. You can spend all evening there, wandering in and out of bars and trying different tapas, and a glass of Rioja wine costs as little as just one Euro ($1.27) at some spots.
If you plan to visit in late June, make sure to take part in the annual Batalla de Vino (wine fight) and throw wine at people.
TPG Tip: Make sure to use your Chase Sapphire Preferred Card with no foreign transaction fees and 2x points on dining and travel expenses. Most of the wineries will accept credit cards, and some do have a minimum spend for using your card.
Have you ever been to any wineries in La Rioja? Share in the comments section.