Touring and Tasting in La Rioja, Spain’s Wine Region

I didn’t understand a word she said, but the spa technician and I smiled at each other anyway.

More than 600 wineries operate in La Rioja, the wine region of northern Spain. Photo by Diana Lambdin Meyer

She took my hand and gently dipped it into a mixture of grape seed and honey.  “Caliente,” she said, and I learned a new word in Spanish.

The mixture was warm –“caliente” — and in a few minutes my body was covered with it, and it was heavenly. As much as I love sipping wine, this was the first time I had been wrapped and washed in the natural essence of grapes, and I can’t think of a better place to have done so. I was at the Vinotherapie Spa at the Hotel Marques de Riscal in the heart of La Rioja, the region of northern Spain where some of the world’s best red wines are produced.

In Your Bucket Because…

  • You are a certified oenophile.
  • You’ve been there/done that in other great wine regions.
  • Good for those who believe wine is more than a drink, it’s a way of life.

More than 600 wineries operate in Rioja providing the world with some of the best reds ever produced. A tour through the region while consuming the antioxidants of grapes, red wine and the cuisine dominated by locally caught seafood and locally grown vegetables is an immersion into a way of life that celebrates these riches of Mother Nature.

The Calatrava Bridge adjacent to the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao Spain. Photo by Diana Lambdin Meyer

We began our tour of Spain’s wine region with a flight into Bilbao, a lovely city in its own right with great influences from the French, English and Basque people of region. If you’re a fan of Frank O. Gehry’s work, you’ll enjoy a visit to the Guggenheim in Bilbao.

The Villages of Rioja

Leaving Bilbao, you’ll find yourself wandering through small villages surrounded by one of Europe’s most productive agriculture regions. Drive slowly and appreciate the simplicity of fields of vegetables being worked by hand. The food of La Rioja includes a lot of root vegetables, like turnips, potatoes, and carrots. Chorizo and paprika are prevalent flavors to dishes of lamb, pork and seafood.

Watch as coopers make barrels and char the interior at Vina Tondina in Haro. Photo by Diana Lambdin Meyer

The village of Haro is considered the capitol of wine region and its oldest winery, Vina Tondonia, dates to 1837. A tour here includes watching coopers build and char wine barrels out of white oak shipped to Spain from the state of Missouri.  Spend the night at Los Agustinos, a former convent that dates to 1373, but has since become a gorgeous upscale hotel and restaurant now.

Although Haro is considered the capital from a wine production standpoint, the town of Logrono is indeed the capital of La Rioja. There we visited the lovely Ysios wine cellar, which was also designed by Santiago Calatrava. Historically, Logrono was a significant town during the Inquisition, so a walking tour of the city will feature numerous stories about blood, gore and tortured death. Logrono is on the pilgrimage trail to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostello and even if you don’t participate in the pilgrimage, it is humbling to watch those who do.

Vitoria is another fabulous Riojan community for so many reasons. Founded in 1180 AD, Vitoria home to the restaurant El Portalon that has been operating since the 15th century. Just walking through the doors here is an excursion into the ancient soul of Spain.

El Portalon has been serving the wines of La Rioja for more than 800 years. Photo by Diana Lambdin Meyer

But a few blocks away is the Cathedral Santa Maria, and a statue of the author Tom Follett, whose best-selling works include “Pillars of the Earth” and “World Without End.” Follett received inspiration for his character Tom Builder from the renovation work that is underway here. A tour, for the low-price of 5€, takes you to the 12th century where those books were set and when the city of Vitoria-Gastiez was founded.

The Hotel Marques de Riscal was designed by Canadian architect Frank O. Gehry. Photo by Diana Lambdin Meyer

The Hotel Marques de Riscal is located in the medieval  village of Elciego in the midst of a 145-year-old vineyard. You won’t have trouble identifying the hotel, which is dubbed “the City of Wine.”  Designed by Canadian architect Frank O. Gehry and opened in September 2006, the structure is in sharp contrast to its ancient and simple surroundings. Ribbons of silver, gold and pink titanium drape around the structure, flowing into the landscape of the surrounding vineyards.  The shades of pink represent the grapes, the silver the top of the wine bottles, and the gold a special netting that is a trademark of Marques de Riscal wines for more than a century.

Each of the 43 guest rooms is a unique design incorporating very few 90 degree angles. The restaurant here, under the direction of chef Francis Paniego, was the first restaurant in Rioja to earn a 5-Star Michelin rating.

Final Notes

The people of Rioja are gracious and unassuming hosts who revel in dining experiences that focus on conversation as much as the food and the wine. They have nothing to prove to other great wine regions. They’ve done this for so long so well. They are not braggadocios. They simply make a good wine and live a simple life and invite you to share it with them.

Practicalities

  • You must have a private automobile for touring in this area.  No public transportation to speak of.
  • The wineries in LaRioja do not keep regular hours.  Most have small gift shops that are open a few hours each day, but for a true tasting and tour, appointments are required.
  • October is the best time for touring Spain’s wine region.
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