Traveling Spain’s Wine Trail: La Rioja, A Region of Luxury and Legend
Up until this point, we’ve covered wine regions known for their history and culture – that happen to also have great wine. La Rioja is different. The wonder is in the wine, particularly the tempranillo grape.
La Rioja is also Spain’s most beautiful wine region, with gentle rolling vineyard-covered hills, medieval hamlets and up-to-the-minute wineries and hotels designed by world-class architects. In fact, the entire region has become a gallery of sorts, with twisted glass and metal rising from the fertile ground.
So, why out of over 60 wine regions in Spain has this one become the star? Its legacy is fermented in time.
History through the Grapevine
The earliest written evidence of the existence of grapes in Rioja dates back to the Phoenicians. In 873, a document from the Public Notary of San Millan mentioned a fruit donation to a monastery in Trepeana. Monks were the main practitioners of winemaking, and advocates of its merits. Spain’s earliest known poet, Conzalo de Berceo, mentions Rioja in some of his works. This is wine of verse and virtue.
It was the Benedictine monks of Cluny in Burgundy, France, that helped this wine region flourish again, after the Moors ceased nearly all production. Known for their viticulture, they established monasteries and planted vines of mostly white grapes. In the 14th century, English traders acquired a taste for the local Rioja, which was a blend of both white and red called Blancos Pardillos. The development of lighter reds is a direct result of the tastes of the English and French in the 18th century.
Improvements really took shape around 1780, when the need to prolong wine during transport brought about experimentation with different preservatives. Winemakers used techniques from Bordeaux –mainly oak aging. The use of oak and the pronounced vanilla flavors has become the region’s trademark. Today, modern winemakers are making fewer products influenced by oak, straying from the French influence and returning to Rioja’s Spanish roots.
Rioja is divided into three regions: Rioja Alta, Rioja Alavesa, and Rioja Baja.
Located on the western edge of the region and at higher elevations than the other areas, the Rioja Alta is known more for its “old world” style of wine. A higher elevation equates to a shorter growing season, which in turn produces unripe fruit flavors and a wine that is lighter on the palate.
Despite sharing a similar climate as the Alta region, the Rioja Alavesa produces wines with a fuller body and a higher acidity, thanks to low vine density and larger spacing between rows. The soil here isn’t as nutrient rich, and the extra wiggle room gives the vines a better chance of absorbing the soil’s minerals.
Rioja Baja is strongly influenced by a Mediterranean climate, making this area the warmest and driest of the three. In the last 20 years, irrigation has been permitted to ward off drought. Unlike the typical pale color of most Rioja wines, these are deeply colored and have alcohol content as high as 18%.
In total, Rioja has a total of 57,000 hectares that are cultivated, yielding 250 million liters of wine annually. A whopping 85% is red. Among the Tintos, the best-known and most widely-used variety is the Temranillo. Approximately 60% of Rioja relies on this grape, followed by Garnacha at 20%. The reminder goes to Mazuelo and Graciano. Each adds a unique component to the wine and helps with its aging potential.
Vineyards in Rioja go beyond the grape. The very best blend wine with cutting edge architecture from the world’s best and most iconic players: Gehry. Calatrava. Zaha Hadid. No longer just Spain’s wine capital, Rioja is now the country’s top spot to see the newest modern monuments.
Marqués de Riscal
Founded in 1860, this is one of the oldest wineries in Rioja and one of the first to introduce French winemaking techniques. Remodeled in 2006 by Frank Gehry of Bilbao Guggenheim fame, Marqués de Riscal now lays claim to the name, “City of Wine.” This full complex includes a hotel, a wine therapy spa (Rioja mud wrap, anyone?), restaurant and conference center. One architectural publication said of the building, it’s a “composition of rectilinear prisms, enveloped in cascades of pink and gold-colored titanium and silver stainless steel.” Significant in style and taste – both inside and out.
López de Heredia Vino Todonia
Tradition meets innovation in the oldest winery in Haro (capital of the Rioja Alta region). This is one of three houses in Rioja that is still operated by the López de Heredia family. An annex by Pritzker Prize-winning architect Zaha Hadid, houses a wine shop and tasting room. Built as a display stand for a Barcelona food fair in 2002, the structure was then reassembled at the winery. The profile is flask shaped, and opens up inside just like a glass of Rioja: at first, unassuming, revealing intricate complexities within.
The list goes on. Calatrava for Bodegas Ysios, situated at the foot of the Sierra de Cantabria, fully integrates into the landscape. Bodegas Baigorri by Inaki Aspiazu is a beautiful balance of architecture and nature. Fancy buildings don’t necessarily translate into fine wine, but the owners of these bodegas aren’t just making investments in aesthetics. Below the ground, you’ll find cellars crafting quality wines at the highest technical standard.
Crawl this Way: Logroño Tapas Crawl
Located on the Ebro River, Logroño is the capital of La Rioja. This city of 150,000 has one of the most distinguished culinary traditions in Spain, with over 50 taperias found on the famous Calle del Laurel. Known as the “path of the elephants,” you’ll find some of northern Spain’s best pinchos and tapas. Head to Calle Portales, the main street in the old town, where locals walk, talk and sit on their terraces enjoying their region’s famed vino.
Toast to your Travels
La Rioja is in the north of Spain, and easily reached by train and most routes are covered by the Eurail Spain Pass, or Eurail Spain Rail ‘n Drive Pass, should you want to head off the path a bit to discover wineries deep in the heart of Rioja. Bilbao is 2.5 hours away, while Burgos and Zaragoza are both just two hours. If you’re heading to Spain to experience the delight and luxury of the wine regions, why not incorporate the delight and luxury of the high-speed AVE trains, too?
You can purchase point to point tickets for these journeys up to 60 days in advance on our website, if you’d prefer tickets to a rail pass. Point to point tickets are issued in a convenient ‘Print at Home’ electronic format, and prices are generally lower the further in advance you purchase them. If you’re taking more than three or four train trips, we definitely recommend looking into a rail pass instead, as it will offer more flexibility and, often, it will be a better value. You need to save that money for the wineries, after all!
We head to capitals for cosmopolitan culture, the coast for relaxation, the interior for quiet contemplation. Rioja is neither here nor there. Its medieval lanes are now paved with liquid gold, contained in buildings destined to become legend.
It’s almost too much to swallow.