In the North of Spain, there’s a small region called La Rioja. The Rioja wine is produced here, but the denomination of origin is much wider, with more than 500 wineries spread across the Basque Country and Navarre.
It’s one of the most famous wine regions in Spain, alongside Jerez. The wines are mostly red, made with berry-scented grapes such as Garnacha and Tempranillo and the vineyards run along the margins of the Ebro River, stretching for around 100 kilometres.
You could spend days visiting cellars and tasting wines, but there are also many cultural landmarks that deserve a visit. This guide covers everything you need to know about the Rioja wine, from its history to the different styles. It also features a five-day itinerary so you can make the most of your trip to this region.
Winemaking has been a traditional activity in Rioja since Roman times. The practice slowed down during the Moorish occupation in the 8th century, but it was kept alive by the local monasteries. Like most European countries, Spanish wineries also suffered from the phylloxera plague, and Rioja was no exception. Still, it managed to recover and in 1933 it was the first Spanish region to earn the DO status, later upgraded to the top-level DOCa (Denominación de Origen Calificada) which remains today. Despite its long heritage, Rioja producers have managed to reinvent themselves and adapt to the modern consumers.
In the North of Spain, about two hours away from Bilbao is the Rioja valley. This wine region has more than 65,000 hectares of vineyards and is divided into three zones: Rioja Alta, Rioja Alavesa and Rioja Oriental. Each of these offer a different terroir and microclimates, resulting in different wine traits. Temperatures are cooler in Rioja Alta with vineyards standing 300m higher than Rioja Baja. This gives the wines a higher tannin and acidity. Rioja Alavesa has similar characteristics, while Rioja Baja has vineyards on flatlands along the river, producing more fruity wines that are meant to drink straight away.
Rioja wines are mostly red and use berry-scented grapes. Tempranillo is an indigenous grape, but the region also grows Graciano, Garnacha and Mazuelo. Some wineries, such as Marqués de Riscal also add small quantities of Cabernet Sauvignon. White grapes are not as widely planted, but there are white Rioja wines too, as well as rosés and sparkling wines, known as espumosos. When it comes to ageing, there are five kinds of Rioja wine: Rioja, Crianza, Reserva, Gran Reserva and Gran Añada. Below is a brief explanation of each style.
One of the best ways to sample Rioja wine is by visiting a local cellar. There are more than 500 wineries scattered across the region, many of which offer guided tours and tastings. The tours can last between an hour to two hours and should be booked in advance. Below are some of the best Rioja wineries:
Besides wine tasting, La Rioja as a region also has its share of cultural and natural attractions. Haro and Logroño are good bases to visit the wineries, but it’s worth exploring further out to see other sites like the Cathedral of Santo Domingo de la Calzada or the Suso and Yuso monasteries, two UNESCO sites in the town of San Millán de la Cogolla. If you’re planning to stay a couple of days in this region, our itinerary below includes all the places you can’t miss, as well as tips on where to eat and where to stay.
Begin your tour of La Rioja in the east with a visit to the town of Alfaro. The main attraction here is the San Miguel Collegiate Church. Dating back to the 17th and 18th centuries, this church has a Classicist façade and large Baroque altarpieces inside.
From Alfaro, drive to the
town of Arnedo, passing through the Castle of Cornago. Arnedo is the
third largest town in La Rioja, and its narrow streets are like a
medieval maze. Besides the remains of the Roquedo Castle, you can find
many beautiful churches such as the Parroquia de Santo Tomás, the
Iglesia de Santa Eulalia and the Iglesia San Cosme y San Damián.
Next stop is Calahorra. Standing on a promontory, this small town overlooks the Cidacos valley. It’s worth visiting the town’s cathedral, with its prominent façade in plateresque style. Other attractions include the neoclassical church of Santiago and the Monasterio de San José. End the day with a visit to the nearby Castillo de Aguas Mansas, a medieval castle built in ashlar stone.
Spend a day exploring the capital of La Rioja, Logroño. This small city is often overlooked by tourists, but it’s full of picturesque squares and historical churches. Highlights include the gothic Cathedral of Santa María de la Rodonda and the Church of San Bartolomé. It’s also a great place to sample pintxos and the ideal base to explore some of the region’s most famous wineries such as Marqués de Murrieta. You can find more about what to do in the city in our Logroño itinerary.
To the west of Logroño is the charming hilltop village of Laguardia. In the 10th century, it used to be enclosed by walls and you can still find traces of it as you wander through its streets today. Laguardia’s elevated position allows visitors to enjoy incredible views over the vineyards and the surrounding mountains. The best view of the town is from the Torre Abacial, a 12th-century tower that was once part of a monastery. It’s also worth checking the Iglesia de Santa María de los Reyes and the animated clock atop the town hall.
Continue driving to the
sleepy town of Eltziego. It’s here you’ll find the Marqués de Riscal
winery and its striking hotel designed by Frank Gehry.
building is the 16th-century church Iglesia de San Andrés, which
combines Gothic and Renaissance styles.
After Eltziego, make your way to Briones. Classified as a Cultural Heritage site, it’s one of the most beautiful villages in Spain. Wine lovers will enjoy a visit to the Dinastia Vivanco, a museum dedicated to the region’s wine history. Visitors also have access to a tasting room and a restaurant. Another attraction is the Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de la Asunción, a gothic church dating back to the 16th century.
Our tour of La Rioja continues in La Bastida. This tiny town was once an important military base in the Middle Ages. Today the main attraction is the Church of Nuestra Señora de la Asunción, a 16th-to-18th-century church that combines Renaissance and Baroque styles.
Next stop is the town of Haro. Alongside Logroño, this is where you’ll find many famous local wineries. Among them are the Bodegas Muga, the R. López de Heredia and the Bodegas Roda, all located near the town’s train station. Other attractions include the gothic Church of Santo Tomás.
Make a small
detour to see the 15th-century Castillo de Sajazarra and visit its
Then head south to the town of Navarrete. The town is famous for
its ceramics and pottery and is part of the Way of St.James pilgrim’s
route. A few noteworthy sites include the Iglesia Nuestra Señora de la
Asunción and the Bodegas Corral.
Finally, visit Clavijo, a small town surrounded by the Cameros Mountains. Here you can visit the remains of a Moorish castle and the ruins of the San Prudencio Monastery.
Before you leave La Rioja, it’s worth discovering some of its natural wonders. The Sierra de Cebollera is a stunning nature reserve with large forest areas and plenty of wildlife species, such as foxes, wild boar and deer. It’s also a great spot for birdwatching, where you can observe goshawks and eagles.
After exploring the park, head north to Ortigosa de Cameros. Occupied since prehistoric times, this small village sits on a ravine amid the Encinedo Mountain Range. Make sure to explore the town’s caves of La Paz and La Viña and visit the 16th-century church of San Martín.
Further north is the town of San Millán de la Cogolla. It’s
famous for its two monasteries: Monasterio de Suso and Monasterio de
Yuso, both of which are Unesco World Heritage sites. Nearby is the
village of Nájera, which is home to another remarkable monastery, the
Monasterio de Santa María la Real.
Our tour continues in Santo Domingo
de la Calzada with a visit to the town’s cathedral. The building is an
incredible example of Romanesque architecture in Spain with 12th-century
capitals and reliefs.
End the day exploring the town of Ezcaray. Attractions include the Church of Santa María la Mayor from the 14th century and the hiking trails around the surrounding mountains. If you visit in winter, you can also combine your trip with a visit to the Valdezcaray ski resort.
La Rioja has an airport in Logroño, but it’s mostly used for domestic flights. If you’re travelling from abroad, the best way to reach this region is through the Basque city of Bilbao. From here, it’s about an hour and a half drive south. While there are buses that travel between the small towns of La Rioja, the best way to explore the region and its vineyards is by hiring a car.
Beyond wine, La Rioja also has a remarkable food scene. Regional dishes include hearty bean stews, roasted lamb and piquillo peppers. Its proximity to Bilbao, also influences its cuisine, with many bars offering Basque pintxos. From small taverns to Michelin-star restaurants, below are some of the best places to eat in La Rioja:
La Rioja is beautiful all-year-round, but to make the most of the region it’s best to visit during spring or autumn. The weather is moderate during these two seasons, and there’s little to no rain. In the summer the temperatures get quite hot, and some wineries and restaurants often close for their holidays. The same thing usually happens around Christmas and Easter. If you want to join the wine celebrations, there are at least two festivals that you can’t miss: the Haro Wine Festival in June and the Rioja Wine Harvest Festival in late September. In the winter, you might catch some snow over the Cantabrian mountains.
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