I love a good glass of Rioja almost any time, or even a bottle at times. So a visit to the La Rioja region in Spain has been high on my travel wish-list for quite some time. In April this year, I finally managed to do this much-anticipated Rioja trip as an add-on to my stay in San Sebastian, in the Basque region of Northern Spain.
There is no place called “Rioja” to visit
Having had many a conversation with friends about “visiting La Rioja” over I don’t know how many glasses of the red stuff, it never really occurred to me to specifically think about which towns and villages to visit within La Rioja. I love the wine, I’m really interested in learning about regional differences in wine making and wine cultures, so it just made complete sense for me to visit the place.
I realised just how vague my Riojan idea was as soon as I started planning my trip. First of all, there is no one place called La Rioja. Looking at the map of La Rioja just served to confuse me, as none of the names meant anything to me. Despite drinking bottles after bottles of Rioja wine, and although I’ve come to know a few producers that I like, I didn’t really know which parts of Rioja they were from.
My limited research (Lonely Planet Spain guide, Rioja Tourism website, looking at labels of my preferred Rioja wine bottles for an address) led me to the Rioja Alta, the northern-most part of the region. I then decided on Logroño (for ease of bus connection) and Laguardia (because I fancied a stay in a castle).
View from my Castle room
Rioja Wine does not have to come from Rioja
Wines that carry the Rioja name must meet the stringent criteria set by the Controlling Board of the D.O. (Denominación de Origen) of Rioja, which include not only the geographical areas within which the grapes must be grown, but also controls on permitted vines per hectare, yield restrictions, and the types of grapes that are authorised. These are fairly common across many controlled wine regions, not just in Spain but also in other renowned wine countries such as Italy and France.
What I didn’t know, was that Rioja, in terms of wine geographical region, also includes parts of neighbouring Navarre and the Basque region of Álava. So a wine with a Rioja label could in fact be from Navarre? Slightly confusing.
Here’s a Beginner’s Guide to Rioja Classification
As well as meeting a long list of requirements of viticulture, harvest, production methods and quality, Rioja wines are categorised according age and ageing method.
- Joven – Joven means “young” in Spanish, and as the name suggests, it’s un-aged and generally simple wine. Entry level. To me they are like non-sweet grape juice and are uninteresting.
- Crianza – aged at least 2 years, at least one of which must be in oak casks. Ageing in oak gives the wine character, tannins are more rounded, great with or without food.
- Reserva – aged at least 3 years, at least one of which must be in oak casks. Reserva wines generally have more depth than the Crianza.
- Gran Reserva – aged at least 2 years in oak and 3 years in bottle. Wineries would only produce these for exceptionally good harvests.
The grape variety that is most associated with Rioja is Tempranillo – which definitely plays centre stage here. However, a number of other grape varieties are also permitted, and grape varieties such as Graciano, Garnacha and Mazuelo often feature as minority partners to Tempranillo.
Incidentally, Rioja is one of only two wine regions in Spain that carries the Denominación de Origen Calificada (DOCa) – the other region being Priorat. All other wine regions are DOs.
Getting around (without a car)
I used coaches and local buses to get around – having a car would have certainly made life easier in terms of visiting bodegas that are not always in town, but it is definitely manageable without.
From Pamplona, I took a long-distance bus to Logroño (just under 2 hrs) costing around €9.00.
From Logroño to Laguardia, buses services are limited, and can take as little as 20 mins and cost €1.45.
As I needed to get from Laguardia to Bilbao, I had a short stopover at Haro en route (direct buses were way too early for me!). A lot of well-known wineries are based around Haro, although the town of Haro itself didn’t seem that pretty.
A few of my bus journeys were “semi-direct”, which meant that I had the opportunity to see some of the best sceneries just being on these buses. I also loved that we went through lots of beautiful small villages.
You can see prices and timetables here.
My next glass of Rioja
My little taster-portion Rioja trip has definitely whet my appetite for more Rioja (drinking and visiting). Already thinking ahead at my next Rioja trip, I’m dreaming up a 10 day tour, taking in some of the more harder to reach bodegas and perhaps a stay or two in the boutique bodega hotels. All in the name of research and continuing my wine education, of course.
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