I thoroughly enjoyed my trip this past summer to one of Spain's oldest and most renowned wine regions, Rioja. The scenery in this vast river valley in northeastern Spain is entrancing, ringed by picturesque mountain ranges and filled with vineyards and medieval hilltop towns. The locally grown food stuffs are super fresh and flavorful. The wines are delicious and full of history and interest. And the people could not be more gracious. I am dying to go back, and I encourage fellow lovers of food and wine to consider prioritizing Rioja as a delicious and delightful vacation destination.
To start with the food, Rioja's ideal growing conditions produce a literal cornucopia of very tasty, fresh produce and meats. I had peaches, pears, asparagus, mushrooms and melons there that I'm still dreaming about. Camerano cheese is a smooth, rich product that has been made from goats milk in the region for over 1,000 years. Delicious meats, like locally raised chicken, pork and lamb, as well as freshly made chorizo and melt-in-your-mouth jamon iberico are plentiful and reasonably priced.
An ideal way to sample some of the fresh food stuffs is to visit the tapas bars. Two of the most renowned streets for tapas in the region are Calle Laurel in the big, capital city of Logroño, and on and around Calle Santo Tomás in the small, historic town of Haro.
I recommend taking a casual stroll down these streets in the refreshing night air and stopping in the first one that strikes your fancy. Ask what their specialty is--maybe salt cod in a black olive tapenade, roast suckling pig, grilled white asparagus with Camerano cheese, or a "tortilla," which in Spain is a potato omelet.
Tapas in Logroño
The ideal drink with tapas is a glass of red Rioja, preferably a Crianza -- which is a younger, medium-bodied wine with some oak aging -- from one of the region's many great producers. Most tapas bars there have a dozen or more to chose from. Just order one or two small plates to eat. When you're done with that first appetizer or two, stroll on down to the next tapas bar and order their specialty. Continue on until you're quite full and you will have tasted a wide array of freshly made delicacies and made your mouth and stomach very happy.
Al fresco dining in Haro
There are also plenty of fine dining establishments. For a good list, I recommend the two travel guides -- one to Logroño and the other for Haro -- at winetravelguides.com, by Tom Perry. Tom is an American who has lived in Rioja and worked in the wine industry there for decades. Other great suggestions on where to stay, taste and dine can be found here in the Discover Rioja section of the Rioja Wine Board's site.
As far as wineries go, you have several hundred to choose from. Almost all of them require that you schedule your tour and tasting in advance -- hardly any have regular hours when they're open without a reservation. But it's easy to make a reservation through many wineries' websites. For suggested itineraries, including groups of wineries located near each other, I again recommend Tom Perry's online guides and RiojaWine.com.
One of the most convenient and historical places to start is with some of the great, traditional bodegas located near Haro. Many of these were built after Haro's train station was finished in 1880. There you can find R. López de Heredia Viña Tondonia, La Rioja Alta, Bodegas Bilbaínas and Muga, among others.
Haro is also where a major festival, the Battle of Wine, takes place on June 29 each year. Our group of American wine bloggers participated this year and our white, disposable clothing got completely soaked with red wine, which is just how it's supposed to be. Tourists come from all over the country and throughout Europe to join in this happy, thoroughly messy event, which is followed by impromptu cookouts down the hill from the site of the morning melee. There are also big gatherings the night before and after in the main square in Haro.
RJ and fellow survivors of the Battle of Wine
Other great bodegas that welcome visitors, with advance reservations, include those I've written about at length in other posts here: Franco-Espanolas, Hermanos Peciña, Miguel Merino, San Vicente and Sierra Cantabria.
There are also wineries with stunning architecture, like Frank Gehry's "City of Wine," housing the Marques de Riscal hotel next to the 18th century bodega, and the striking, undulating Bodegas Ysios, designed by Santiago Calatrava, whose arches and curves echo those of the mountain range behind it.
Another must-see destination in Rioja for all wine lovers is the massive wine museum outside the medieval walled town of Briones in Rioja Alta. It's called the Dinastía Vivanco Museum of the Culture of Wine, and it's located right next to the Dinastía Vivanco winery, one of the few in Rioja that's open regular hours for tours and tasting.
The museum is billed as the world's biggest wine museum, and I have no reason to doubt this claim. It is by far the greatest and most extensive I have yet visited, the result of 40 years of collecting by the Vivanco Family. The museum has three beautifully designed floors including not only ancient winemaking artifacts and treasures, but also richly produced videos explaining aspects of the wine production process, and a gallery of artworks from all ages celebrating the fruits of the vine. I was particularly fascinated by displays containing samples of glass wine bottles as they developed, gradually, into their current forms, starting with ancient Roman examples. The museum also features a mindboggling collection of over 5,000 imaginative (and sometimes pornographic) corkscrews, dating back to the late 1700s.
View of the medieval walled town of Briones from the grounds of Dinastía Vivanco
The winery here is one of Rioja's most modern and lavish, and well worth a tour. For notes on Dinastía Vivanco's wines, which are quite good, in a concentrated, modern style, see the complete report on my blog here.
If you've visited Rioja, I urge you to share a comment or two about it here. I know I'll be back soon. Maybe I'll meet you there.