Winding along the banks of the River Ebro, past sun-baked villages and vineyards that lace themselves gently through the surrounding hillsides, we journey through the Rioja wine region, sitting just an hour south of Bilbao. Sheltered from harsh Atlantic winds by the Sierra Cantabria mountain range to the north and warmed by Mediterranean currents from its east, the wine-soaked region's autumnal landscape is glazed with an earthy, ochre hue.
The first Spanish wine region to obtain DO status in 1925, Rioja was promoted to DOCa (Qualified Designation of Origin) in 1991, a higher category reserved for Spanish wines that epitomise quality and consistency. The DOCa, which includes 65,326ha of vines, is famed for its classic Reserva and Gran Reserva reds, which are regularly ranked among the world's finest, yet, as we make tracks through the region's wineries, I come to learn of its rich legacy in white and rosé winemaking, too. As if this wasn't enough, the province also fizzes with wine-fuelled festivities, mind-blowing medieval monuments and the kind of locavore restaurants that have helped to earn Rioja its reputation as Spain's gastronomic heartland.
Compelled to delve deeper into Rioja's roots, we take a slow road through the region's sleepy villages. An antidote to the often frenetic, glass-spilling speed of pre-pandemic travel, this easy pace feels blissful, allowing us time to bask in the history and beauty of the legendary vineyards. Graced with a magical mix of traditional know-how and forward-facing insight, Rioja's wineries have cultivated an ethos that blends their precious heritage with a contemporary vision for the region.
We start our journey in Rioja Alta, the largest of three zones in the region, all of which have different climates and soils. Beginning at Entrena, an 11th-century fortress town, we savour its herbaceous wild gardens that fill the air with heady aromas of rosemary and thyme. Next, we step into family-run Finca de los Arandinos, a stylish winery and hotel. All vineyards here are cultivated and harvested by hand, and with vines ranging in age from four to 80 years, the finca is a perfect encapsulation of Rioja's vintage-come-contemporary spirit. Influenced by the cooler Atlantic climate, the Rioja Alta zone tends to produce moderate wines, with a bright, fruity character, making them an ideal pairing for the grilled beef chops we delight in over lunch.
Our next stop is Bodegas Tierra, found in the Jewish quarter of the village of Labastida in Rioja Alavesa. A warren of sand-coloured wine houses and deep underground cellars that date back to the 13th and 14th centuries, this family-run vineyard exclusively produces native grape varieties from Rioja Alavesa, including Tempranillo, Graciano and Viura. The pioneering winery is also known for processing and producing wines in 225-litre vertical oak casks and blazing its own trail as one of the boldest small vineyards in the region.
We then make our way to Rioja Oriental, the lowest and warmest of Rioja's three zones, calling in at Viña Herminia on our way. Named after Herminia Casas, the philanthropist and fiercely nonconformist wife of founder Joaquin, the winery is now run by fourth-generation winemaker José Luis. It is spread across the slopes of the Sierra de Yerga, a mountain range that provides the perfect ecological climate and altitude for its indigenous red and white grapes.
As we journey towards Logroño, Rioja's tapas-fuelled provincial capital and our final stop, we begin ruminating on the diversity and sheer quality of the wines we've tasted and enjoyed paired, as well as the region's enviable position on the global winemaking map. Spirited and pioneering, the wineries we've visited suddenly strike us as an analogy for Rioja as a whole - it's the trailblazing powerhouse of the wine world.
Hotel Marqués de Riscal
Frank Gehry's only venture into hotel design, this striking property is instantly recognisable thanks to the rosé- and gold-coloured metal ribbons that ripple across the roof like a vast titanium wave. Guest rooms reflect the colours of the vineyards that crisscross the area, parquet floors line airy, muted-white corridors and most furnishings have a designer label tucked away somewhere. Alternatively, seek out Palacio Tondon in Briñas for its lesson in eco-conscious design.
Calle Torrea 1 Elciego 01340 Spain
TO EAT + DRINK
Carretera de Vitoria 2, 26360 Fuenmayor, La Rioja
A Wine and Pintxos Pilgrimage in Calle Del Laurel
Calle Del Laurel
If pinxtos are Rioja's religion, then El Soriano is its church. Kick off here for champi (a traditional mushroom dish topped with a garlic-spiked prawn), then move to Bar Sebas, where the humble tortillas are elevated to star status, before heading to La Taberna del Tio Blas for innovative small bites. Next up are Torrecilla for its superb duck and Ribera for its grilled meats and succulent Iberian pork skewers, then round things off at slick wine bar-come-shop La Tavina.
Calle Del Laurel
Globos La Rioja
Avenida de La Rioja 41, 26230 Casalarreina, La Rioja
To start planning your wine-fuelled Rioja adventure, visit riojawine.com