You may recall that after my recent trip to Provence, I said that once you’ve seen one oak barrel, you’ve seen them all. Well, I take that back. After my trip to Rioja (in the northeast of Spain), I can say it’s one wine region that stands out from the crowd.
Of course, there’s the outstanding wine that you’d expect from a world-renowned region. And the food is delicious – but it’s Spain, so no surprises there. There’s also an abundance of historic villages to explore, but the French and Italians have those by the bucket load.
What made Rioja stand out for me was that it’s a region dating back centuries that has heavily invested in modern design. Traditional family-run wineries sit alongside state-of-the-art “gravity-flow” wineries, while medieval villages are backdrop to some world-class architecture.
It’s this mix of food, wine and contemporary design that made Rioja one of the more surprising trips I’ve done in a long time.
10 wineries to visit
There’s close to 600 wineries (or “bodegas” in Spanish) in Rioja, so choosing which to visit is a little overwhelming.
Making your way through them is made all the more difficult by that fact that many bodegas will only allow you to visit if you book a guided tour in advance. Tours are at set times of the day, are often over an hour long, and they’re not always in English. You could fit in three in one day with some planning – but I’d recommend no more than two.
When researching Rioja, the prospect that I’d have to endure lots of tours in order to do a tasting was my numero uno concern. But I needn’t have worried; the tours we did were surprisingly fascinating and it turns out that plenty of bodegas have a wine bar where you can taste the wine (for a fee) without booking. Some bodegas also have excellent restaurants that offer lunch matched with wine – another way to visit without having to do the tour.
Here’s my pick of the bodegas:
Bodegas Ysios is, without doubt, one of the most impressive winery buildings I’ve seen. Designed by Santiago Calatrava, it simulates the Sierra de Cantabria mountain range behind it, and leaves you questioning whether that last tasting has left your vision a little pixelated. If you’re a fan of Minecraft, then this is the bodega for you!
While Ysios is strict about booking visits, you can still walk right up to the building without a reservation. Unlike Marqués de Riscal….
Bodegas Ysios, La Hoya Bidea, s/n, 01300 Guardia, Araba, Spain
Marqués de Riscal
Marqués de Riscal is dressed to impress. Designed by Frank Gehry, the architect known for iconic structures like Bilbao’s Guggenheim Museum, the building is reminiscent of a giant present in the throes of being ripped open by a frantic child. Its design is made all the more striking by its backdrop – the old town of Elciego. It’s a fantastic juxtaposition of old meets new.
Marqués de Riscal is a luxury hotel as well as a winery, so they don’t make it easy to get close to the building. If you drop in unannounced, you’ll likely be restricted to the wine shop nearby. While you can pay for a tasting there, the view of the building itself is very limited.
To inspect the building up close you have three options: a) stay in the hotel, b) tour the bodega or c) make a booking for a drink in the hotel’s Vinocteca & Bistro bar. The bar has an outdoor terrace set among the vines, with the bell towers of the nearby church peering down on you. It’s quite the spot to stop and enjoy a Gran Reserva.
Marques de Riscal, Calle Torrea, 1, Elciego, 01340
Bodegas Viña Real
The outside of Bodegas Viña Real is impressive enough, with its prime location looking out over the valley and a design inspired by a fermenting vat. But like a good bottle of wine, it’s what’s inside that really counts. Architect Philippe Maziere has managed to make even the dullest parts of winemaking visually striking, including the most impressive barrel room I’ve seen (and I’ve seen a lot).
You’ll need to book at tour here, but it’s well worth it, particularly to learn about gravity-flow wine production. “Gravity flow” production is split over different levels of a building, allowing gravity to help move grapes from one stage to the next. It reduces the need for pumps and other machinery, making it gentler on the grapes. After tasting many wines at the end of the tour, I can declare….that I didn’t notice any difference. But hey ho, they were still tasty!
Viña Real, Carraterra Lorono-Laguardia KM 4,8, 01300 Laguardia
Baigorri is a true gravity-flow winery. Designed by Inaki Azpiazu, it looks like an empty glass box on top of a hill. However it actually descends seven stories underground, with each floor housing a different stage of production. At one point within the building you can take in all seven floors – seeing the production process from start to finish.
We came here for lunch in the restaurant. It has a reasonably-priced set menu, with each course matched to one of Baigorri’s wines. It was a delicious way to see the building and try the wine without having to do a tour.
Bodegas Baigorri, Carraterra Vitoria-Logrono Km 53, 01307 Samaniego
Bodega Casa Primicia
A tour of Casa Primicia provides a unique look at wine production in medieval times.
Housed within the oldest building of the hilltop village of Laguardia, today production is done offsite. But that’s just fine. Rather than seeing another vat, instead you learn how the monks made wine centuries ago. The visit also includes a tour of the 15th Century cellars which once doubled as escape tunnels from the village.
Most importantly though, the wine here was delicious. One of my favourites in fact.
Bodega Casa Primicia,Calle Páganos, 78, 01300 Laguardia (Álava)
Vivanco is basically an amusement park for wine lovers – a winery, museum and restaurant all in one. We came here for lunch (and post-lunch drinks on the sunny terrace). Its circular restaurant looks out onto the vines and across to a number of hilltop villages in the distance. Expect a set menu of classic Riojan fare, of course matched with Vivanco wine.
Vivanco, Carretera Nacional 232, 26330, Briones, La Rioja
Luis Canas is a small, family run bodega that’s won a number of international awards. It’s also another bodega with a wine bar where you can drop in unannounced for a tasting. It’s well worth the visit – the wine here was without doubt my favourite of the trip.
There’s also a small menu of Spanish goodies available to have with the tastings, making it a great spot to spend some time. Or so I’d imagine. We left ourselves 15 minutes to have four glasses of wine, a charcuterie platter and cheese board before racing to the airport. Worth. Every. Minute.
Luis Canas, Carretera Samaniego 10, 01307 Villabuena de Alava
Bodegas in the village of Haro
Haro may be small, but it’s here you’ll find some of the biggest names in Riojan wine. Head to Avenida Vizcaya, which I like to think of as Rioja’s answer to the Avenue de Champagne in Epernay. You’ll find grand bodegas lined up one after the other, all with wine bars for tastings. It’s a great way to continue to explore the wine of Rioja without having to spend hours on tours.
Try the famous Bodegas Mugo and Bodegas Roda, but make sure you make time for my favourite from Haro, López de Heredia Viña Tondonia, one of the oldest wineries in Rioja. Viña Tondonia also has an impressive tasting room in the shape of a decanter, designed by Zaha Hadid (architect of the London Olympics Aquatics Centre).
Hungry after all that wine? Take the ‘Trail of the Elephants’
Rioja’s proximity to Basque Country means that pinchos can be found everywhere, much to my delight. Not to be confused with tapas, pinchos are small snacks traditionally found in northern Spain, and are typically eaten when out drinking with friends.
Many bodegas are closed on Sundays, making it a good day to visit Logroño for a pinchos crawl (a pub crawl except with delicious food). The pinchos crawl comprises around 50 tiny bars tightly packed into Calle Laurel and Calle San Juan, and their side streets. It gets pretty chaotic as people spill out onto the streets, but it’s lots of fun. The locals know it as the ‘Trail of the Elephants’ because you’ll leave on all fours after drinking at each bar.
While it’s tempting to pick the first bar and stay put, keep moving! Each bar specializes in one or two dishes, so it’s best to give them a go and then move on. Here were my favourites:
- Bar Soriano: setas – wild mushrooms grilled in garlic butter and skewered with a shrimp
- Bar Lorenzo: pinchos morunos – chargrilled marinated pork skewers that melt in your mouth
- Bar Torrecilla: everything we had here was delish, which wasn’t surprising given the number of Michellin Guide stickers on the window
- Torres Gastrobar: Medallones de Kobe – mind-blowing Kobe sirloin sliders served medium rare. Also try the Bocata de Calamares – a crispy calamari sandwich with patatas bravas sauce
- Bar La Casita: the mojito sorbet!
The bars are typically open from 1:00pm-3:00pm or 9:00pm-11:00pm. We went for lunch and found a lot of bars closed right on 3:00pm.
Quick tips when visiting Rioja
If you made it this far down, it must mean you like wine! (Me too!) Check out my posts on other wine destinations: Provence; Douro Valley, and Red Hill, Australia.
Great post Michael! Makes me want to go to Rioja, not just for the amazing wine and pinchos, but the architecture looks pretty cool as well!
Thanks Ross! I was thinking of you while I was there – think you’d really like the architecture there. (And the wine too no doubt!)