Rioja is Spain's most visible, famous and arguably important wine region, located in the cooler north of the country. To a certain extent, when people think of Spanish wine, Rioja immediately springs to mind, owing to its historical dominance of export markets and consistently good wine, building fans and loyal customers around the world. It wasn't always like this, though. Rioja came to prominence in the late 19th century as phylloxera swept through France, destroying the majority of their wine regions and forcing French winemakers to look for work elsewhere. Many crossed the Pyrenees and settled in Rioja and Navarra, drastically improving the quality of wine and using their connections to sell huge quantities of Rioja back to a very thirsty French population. Rioja would never be the same again and even after France recovered, Rioja continued to be Spain's iconic wine region.
Yet, there's still so much more to Rioja than meets the eye. Whilst a handful of large producers and co-operatives produce huge quantities of cheap, cheerful wine, some of Spain's greatest, long-lived wines also hail from these gentle slopes. Once a stringent, traditional region, Rioja is now home to some of Spain's most exciting wine projects and wine-makers, seeking to break the mould and put their own stamp on proceedings. The moderate climate, tempered by the Atlantic to the north, allows for a wide variety of grape varieties to be grown and many producers are rediscovering old vines that had traditionally been under-valued. Whether it's a spicy, red-fruited Garnacha, a nutty, oxidised Viura or an elegant, complex Tempranillo, there's treasure to be discovered here!
Read on for our Rioja Wine Guide, including our top picks for winery visits, places to eat and drink around both Haro and Lagrono, and a few tips for your stay whilst you're there. Don't forget to bring your Lazenne Wine Check to bring back some vinous gems that you can't access at home! You'll be amazed at the diversity of the wines that Rioja has to offer.
Winery Visits in Rioja
Regardless of whether you're staying in Haro, Lagrono or any of the smaller towns and villages, a winery is never too far away! Narrowing this down to a choice of 2 was difficult, but each of the following wineries offers something very special indeed. The real beauty of visiting wineries in Rioja is that you often don't have to step outside of the town you're in, with many of the greatest names crowded around train stations; a throw-back to when the railway routes to the Atlantic Ocean were an enormous logistical advantage.
The Region: Haro
Haro is one of two famous wine-making towns in Rioja, along with Logroño, and home to many of the most famous producers in the region. Many of these producers are crowded around the central train station, meaning that visiting a few in a day is very easy; something not always possible with Spanish wine regions! As well as having gorgeous wine bars, shops and restaurants, Haro is also home to an annual wine battle, where locals dress in white and belt one another with simple red wine; it's quite the sight!
The Winery: Muga
Muga are one of the great names of Rioja, and with good reason. They're able to combine a great family tradition with a strong vision for the future, and unsurprisingly, the style has fallen somewhere between traditional and modern, with supple yet complex wines. One of their claims to fame is their incredible cooperage. Not content to have complete control over the sourcing of the oak for their barrels, they insist and making and charring them themselves! With such a commitment to quality, is it any surprise that the quality of the wine is so very high? There are some brilliant wine experiences to be had here, from private classes and tastings to hot-air balloon rides, or you can even just order wine flights at the bar if you don't fancy the visit itself. A truly great bodega!
The Wine: Prado Enea Gran Reserva
In Rioja, wineries are often judged on their Gran Reserva wines; if this is true for Muga, they pass with flying colours! Prado Enea is one of Rioja's very best wines and the 2010 vintage in particular is arguably one of the greatest wines ever produced in the region. A complex blend of concentration, subtlety and finesse, this is a wine to stand the test of time yet also a wine that's delicious in youth, with soft, supple tannins and endless flavour. If you can, buy a few and put most of them away for a long sleep, as this wine rewards the patient!
For more information and to contact Bodega Muga, get in touch via their Wine Tourism page.
The Region: Logroño
Is there any town or city in Spain with a stronger connection to wine? Logroño is the capital city of the Rioja region, and wine culture is everywhere around you, with more bars, shops and restaurants dedicated to wine than you could possible visit in a single trip. Logroño is also home to some of Rioja's best tapas and Calle Laurel in particular is famous for its stretch of top tapas and pincho bars, so do be sure to soak up some of the culture and social activities of the city as you explore the world of wine!
The Winery: Marques de Murrieta
Marques de Murrieta are the most historical name in Rioja, stretching back to their origins in 1852. At the time, Rioja wasn't the region it was today and most producers weren't even ageing their wine in oak barrels; something that is intrinsic to the style of Rioja wine today! They were also one of the first wineries to export their wines, helping to create the international reputation of Rioja we see today. In modern times, Marques de Murrieta are rightly famous for their traditional style and quality, with the Ygay estate particularly famous and celebrated. They offer several tour packages to be sure to choose the one most suitable for yourself, from a simple visit all the way up to a full-day-package complete with tasting menu and wine pairings!
The Wine: Ygay Gran Reserva Especial
The Ygay Gran Reserva Especial is one of Rioja's most celebrated wines and also one of its most visually striking, with an iconic, beautifully scrolled labels that makes it stand out amongst some of the more traditional styles of Rioja. Sourced from their justifiably famous Ygay Estate, this special Gran Reserva is only made in certain years where the quality of the grapes is high, and even then it's only made from a very strict selection. Rich and powerful in youth, with the potential to age and gain complexity for decades; many of the wines from the 1980s are now at their peak! A beautiful wine and a testament to both the traditions and the wine-making skill at Marques de Murrieta.
To organise a visit to Marques de Murrieta, be sure to check out their contact page here.
Vivanco Museum of Wine Culture
Ordinarily, we'd choose three wineries that really spoke to us from our own travels, but in this case our third option must be the remarkable wine museum in Logroño. Attached to Bodega Vivanco, the Rioja Wine Museum is one of the greatest enotourism experiences in Spain, set out across 6 huge rooms, each showcasing a step of an incredible 8000 year history, detailing the connection that we've had with wine over the ages. One of the most admired and respected icons of culture in the wine world, this is an absolute must-visit for anyone visiting Rioja and preferably, do it before you make any visits to bodegas or vineyards in the region: the context of understanding the history so completely will add hugely to your future experiences! To learn more or to book a visit to the museum, check out their home page here.
Wine Bars and Wine Shops in Rioja
You might think that after a full day of visiting bodegas, tasting wine and traveling the countryside, the last thing you'd want to see is more wine, but you'd be wrong! Rioja has a special way of drawing you in and getting you to fully immerse yourself in the culture, and that usually involves some very good food and some very good wine, at almost every turn! The following are our top picks from both Haro and Logroño, although do be sure to check out some of the traditional restaurants as well; there's a lot of good, old wine to be found lurking on these wine lists!
Calle Gral. Vara de Rey, 5
This is exactly the place you want to come to if you're in need of refreshment; both physical and mental! Set in the stylish palace on Vara del Rey street, this charming wine bar and restaurant focuses on a lighter-hearted approach to wine, with small flights of wines and vermuts designed to introduce new ideas and styles, and if you want to really have some fun, try the traditional porron! There's over 100 wines to choose from in total but it never feels intimidating or difficult, and the food is heavenly. Stop by for a quick glass or stay for the whole evening! Wine Fandango
Guardaviñas Wine Bistro
Calle Marqués de San Nicolás, 47
Based in Logroño's old quarter, Guardaviñas is an ambitious wine-bar ran by Alberto Ruiz. The focus is very much on high quality wine and high quality service, although the small plates you can order to accompany your chosen wine are well worth exploring, with fresh, local ingredients a common theme. Recommended food and wine pairings are a hallmark of Guardaviñas and the wine list contains some of the best and most sought-after names in Rioja, although there's also an interesting, international selection should you want to surprise your palate! A spot to watch and a wine bar we expect to go from strength to strength over the years. Well worth a visit! Guardaviñas
Isabel Gutierrez Wines Selection
Plaza de la Paz, nº 5
A real stalwart in Haro, Isabel Gutierrez's Wines Selection has been in business in 1970 and is still in fine form. Whilst you can find a huge collection of some of Rioja's most famous names, we were impressed by just how many of the smaller and often newer producers were represented here. The space has a gorgeous, old-fashioned feel to it and the service was warm and inviting. Exactly the sort of space we'd want to pass by if picking up a few lesser known bottles and perhaps some of the lovely jams they have on offer!
Calle del Laurel, 2
La Tavina is a special place in Logroño; a 3-floor establishment with something to drink, something to eat and a huge wine shop to select from! The entry level is the wine shop with over 600 references and a very generous corkage fee (+2 euros to open a bottle there and then!) . Then on the 2nd and 3rd floors, it's time to find somewhere to sit down, enjoy a delicious pincho and start working your way through their wine list, or an open bottle from the shop below. Tastings and pop-up classes are common here, particularly on Mondays and the weekends, so do make sure to check out their schedule and plan ahead! La Tavina
Travel Tips for Rioja
Rioja is a vibrant, exciting wine region that anyone who loves Spanish wine would do well to visit. What should you look out for when planning your trip? Anything off the beaten path worth discovering? Here are our general travel tips to help improve your stay whilst in Rioja:
Choosing Where to Stay - This may sound obvious but Logroño and Haro are two very different places, and you may even want to stay further outside of the major towns altogether! If nightlife, atmosphere and more options interest you, then Logroño is the place to be. Want a quieter spot to geek out in whilst you visit as many wineries as possible? Haro it is! If you want to stay beyond these two, do be aware that you'll need to hire a car as public transport to the villages is infrequent.
Visiting Wineries – Unlike many wine regions in Spain, the traditional bodegas are often grouped together in both Haro and Logroño, making it a lot easier to visit several during the day. Regardless, do be sure to check your logistics and timings, particularly if choosing a special package at a winery that may end up lasting longer than expected!
Eat, eat, eat! - The tapas scene in Rioja is one of its best kept secrets and, some would argue, just as good as the wine produced here! Whether you're strolling down a famous street like Calle Laurel, or finding a quieter corner of the city to spend time in, be sure to pass by anything that looks delicious and order a small sample. Pinchos are particularly useful for this, as they're bite-sized portions, typically served on a cocktail stick.
Natural Beauty – With the wineries, restaurants and bars being mostly confined within city walls, it'd be tempting never to leave! However, we do strongly recommend going outside and seeing the soft, rolling countryside of Rioja, and in particular the natural beauty of the national parks there. Again, hiring a car is a good idea if you want to explore some of the charming villages outside of the major towns and cities.
Local Festivals – Rioja is a region that likes to celebrate! Whether it's the grand, famous annual Wine Festival in Haro or something a little more under-the-radar, there's usually something going on in La Rioja. Make sure you check out what's going on before booking your visit, partly to enjoy the festivities if possible but also to make sure that nothing is impacted during it; a lot of the local businesses will close to participate!
Roast Lamb – If we had to choose a single speciality food of Rioja, it would be slow roasted lamb. Much of Spanish cuisine is dominated by pork, with towards the cooler, wetter north, both mutton and beef is more widely available. In Rioja, lamb is often slow-roasted in clay pots and one of the best dishes we ate was just this, served with rice and sundried tomatoes, and paired with an elegant, complex old Rioja. Heaven!
So there you have it; several compelling reasons to visit this bastion of Spanish wine! As always, make sure you book everything you need well in advance, particularly your visits to wineries, and be sure to bring your favourite wines home with you. Many of the best and most interesting bottles aren't exported, so transport a special memory with you, to be opened and relived further down the line. As always, safe travels and happy drinking!
For more on our specially designed wine luggage and more detailed information on how to travel with alcohol, check out the links below:
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