Lay of the Land
La Rioja is comprised of three principal areas, including Rioja Alavesa, Rioja Alta and Rioja Baja. Most visitors concentrate their time in Rioja Alavesa and Rioja Alta, home to the capital city of Logrono and Haro, where many of the most important historical wineries are located. Of La Rioja’s 300,000 inhabitants, 150,000 live in Logrono.
The mountain ranges of Cantabria in the north and Sierra de la Demanda in the south protect the region from the humidity of the ocean, creating ideal grape-growing conditions. The Ebro river—Spain’s longest—runs through the province and forms a natural border between Rioja and the Basque region.
While winemaking in Rioja dates back to the fifth century, when pre-Roman tribes occupied the area, Rioja got its start as an important winemaking region when there was an outbreak of phylloxera in France in the 1800s. To save their trade, French vintners fled to Rioja, specifically to the city of Haro, which was chosen for its close proximity to the train station (so that wines could be easily transported back to France).
Up until the 1960s, there were some 100 wineries in Rioja. Today there are approximately 180,000 grape growers and more than 600 wineries. This dramatic increase is thanks in large part to interest from some of the world’s best modern architects, who have designed many of the show-stopping wineries, the most famous of which is Frank Gehry’s Marques de Riscal. Others include the Santiago Calatrava–designed Ysios winery and Zaha Hadid’s uber modern wine shop at Lopez de Heredia.
Unlike some of the more famous wine-producing regions such as Tuscany, Napa or Bordeaux, Rioja is still relatively undiscovered. When asked why this is so, most of its inhabitants say that the Spanish aren’t good at marketing. But, with such a rich bounty of attractions, it won’t remain undiscovered for long.
Indagare Tip: Most of the wineries require reservations, so book your spot in advance.
The closest international airport is located in Bilbao, which is a one-hour drive southeast of Rioja. The Bilbao airport has domestic flights to Barcelona and Madrid, which are both just a one-hour flight away. A visit to Rioja can also be combined with San Sebastian, which lies approximately 90 miles north (a 2-hour drive).
The region is small so driving times between the major cities, sites and wineries are short: 20-30 minutes tops. But there is very little public transport and a car is a necessity. Most locals do not speak English, so if you aren’t fluent in Spanish or not particularly adventurous, you may want to consider hiring a car and driver. This is especially recommended if you will be wine tasting.
When to Go
April through October. The harvest begins in mid-September in Rioja Baja and extends through mid-October when it finishes in Rioja Alta.