For centuries, Rioja’s remote and forbidding landscape in northeastern Spain was a disadvantage for winemakers who wanted to share their wine and for those who would venture to drink it. The region is now more accessible than ever and offers exceptional, once-in-a-lifetime Rioja wine tasting experiences that give travellers a new perspective on terroir. Amid the mountainous landscape peppered with vineyards, olive farms, and fruit orchards, that sense of separation from the world remains deliciously intact – making the adventures feel all the more remarkable.
Riojan wine producers strategically use the surrounding beauty to illustrate the holistic relationship between wine and life in Rioja. Through extraordinary eco-tourism experiences, visitors get to connect the dots between the land’s rugged beauty and the magic that happens in the glass, from exploring terroir on electric segues to soaring high above the vines in a hot air balloon. Now, more than ever, guests get to see, taste, and live the passion of land and vine in Rioja.
The Ebro River defines the region with three subzones: La Rioja Alta in the westernmost area; Rioja Alavesa in the Basque Country; and Rioja Oriental in the easternmost area of the region in Navarra and close to the Mediterranean. Vineyards sprawl along 60 miles (96 km) of the Ebro’s banks on either side. The Sierra da Cantabria mountains hem and shelter to the north and west. A series of seven valleys with different microclimates, elevations, and soils span across plains and up hillsides.
Rioja was the first region in the country to earn recognition as a D.O. in 1933. It’s still arguably the most acclaimed and certainly one of the most visually stunning regions in the world and includes more than 160,000 acres of grapevines. The isolation the Iberian mountain chain imposed on Rioja until the 19th century ensures a dramatic landscape. Peaks that climb over 7,000 feet above sea level, limestone cliffs and lush verdant valleys remain unspoiled even today.
Setting the Stage
To illustrate the evolution of winemaking in Rioja and beyond, start at Bodegas Vivanco in the historic town of Briones in Rioja Alta.
The Vivanco family has been making wine for over 100 years. They have gone from being hobbyist garagistes to premium producers sold in stores and restaurants worldwide. In 2004, the Vivancos founded the Vivanco Museum of Wine Culture. This sprawling 97,000-square-foot space includes archeological treasures from around the world. It highlights 8,000 years of history and includes permanent and rotating exhibitions.
“We built this museum as an homage to wine from a universal point of view,” says Rafael Vivanco, director of enology and viticulture. “Experts and beginners emerge with new understandings of wine in Rioja and worldwide. There are a number of activities at the museum, from art projects for kids to wine tasting courses or food and wine pairings led by experts at the on-site restaurant and gastro-bar.”
Indeed, the winery boasts ancient farming tools and aging vessels, alongside master artworks from Spanish painters (including Picasso and Sorolla). The audiovisual aids are thoroughly modern and immersive. But arguably, the most fascinating place to wander is the fragrant and diverse Garden of Bacchus, which showcases 220 varieties of grapes.
The winery itself, next to the museum, features a range of young and aged wines, from accessible to extraordinarily limited. Here, you get a sense of just how tied to the terroir the Vivancos are.
“I have always felt that our wines tell a story,” Vivanco says. “We try to show all of the Riojas that lie behind Rioja, including unique indigenous grape varieties that transmit the authenticity and personality of our vineyards.”
Soar Above Vineyards in a Balloon
Bodegas Muga is one of the most internationally recognized wineries in Rioja. It comfortably straddles the line between traditional winemaking methods and cutting-edge technology.
The family winery was founded in 1932 and is now led by the third-generation Eduardo Muga. He explains that they try to “keep tradition at the center” of everything they do. That includes harvesting by hand to investing in their own cooperage to ensure the perfect vats and casks for wine-aging. With tradition, however, they are eager to help visitors “learn about and savor wine in its ultimate manifestation.”
For Muga, that often entails getting a birds-eye view of the terroir. The winery picks up guests an hour before sunrise (it’s worth it, Muga promises). They assemble and inflate the balloon, then lift off. Visitors soar almost 1,500 feet above the estate vineyards and fields for an hour and then enjoy a well-deserved snack and glass of Rioja wine after landing.
Catching a glimpse of the wind-whipped elevated plateaus and slopes of the winery’s 620 acres of vineyards is an unforgettable experience. Seeing the diversity of trees and flowers amidst the mountains gives perspective on the complex relationship between a grapevine and the land. There’s nothing quite like terroir viewed from on high, then savored below.
Explore Terroir on a Segway
Bodegas Campillo resembles a château in Bordeaux, but it’s surrounded by 125 acres of estate vines in the foothills of the Sierra de Cantabria in the heart of Rioja Alavesa. A family winery with a wide network—encompassing six wineries with more than 5,000 acres under vine—its heart and soul are pure Rioja, says the winery’s director of marketing, Elena Larrea.
“For us, the best way to communicate who we are and what our wines mean to us is by exploring the vineyard with guests,” Larrea explains. “The best way to experience the flora and fauna and the biodiversity that influences the flavor of our wines is with our Segway tour.”
The Segways are electric, so there is no grape-harming pollution. It’s a fun and novel way to get around the vast property, see the estate’s small lake and sense its influence on the grapes. Guests learn how soils and biodiverse microorganisms affect the flavors in your glass.
Following a trip around the vineyards, savor a picnic pairing of local, seasonal specialties. Then, visit the château’s small art gallery featuring contemporary Spanish art. (Individual works from the rotating shows are for sale at the Madrid art gallery they contract with). She also encourages visitors to consider the mountain visit: a tour of the winery and estate followed by a trip by car to their mountain estate and a flight of wines and small bites.
“We want to introduce visitors to our wines within the context of our culture,” Larrea says. “We’ve had a wonderful response to these experiences, especially recently. People are ready to travel and explore again, but they’d rather do it outside. Luckily, that allows us to present them a picture of the full Rioja experience.”
Go on a Tapas Crawl
A well-rounded trip to Rioja must include at least one night spent wandering narrow, riotously colorful, cobblestoned streets. Hop from bar to bar, eating small bites of tapas and pintxos with local wines. A tapa is a small bite of what could be an entrée; a pintxo is more of a one-bite meal, often served on a hunk of bread or on a stick.
Many of the dozens of bars’ counters on Calle del Laurel in Logroño, the capital of La Rioja, are covered in small plates of cold and hot tapas. Most places focus on one or two memorable dishes, specifically mixed olives, chorizo, fried squid, Iberico ham, and mushroom “champis.”
The towns Herradura and Calahorra are also ripe for wandering and snacking, starting around 8:30 pm, and stretching well past midnight.
Follow in the Footsteps of St James
The Camino de Santiago (or the Way of St. James) is a historic pilgrims’ route that meanders beautifully through Europe and ends at the tomb of Santiago in Santiago de Compostela in northwest Spain. Consequently, a large portion of the route, open to people on foot, bike or horseback, is in Rioja.
You can certainly explore portions of the Camino on your own, or link up with an organized tour. For example, Walk the Camino offers curated routes through the most beautiful portions in Rioja. Stop range from medieval towns to monasteries and vineyards to restaurants for bites of Michelin-starred cuisine.
One journey begins in Logroño and features three days of walking toward Domingo de La Calzada, with visits to bodegas (including the Franco-Españolas, with photos of Ernest Hemingway enjoying wine, and Campo Viejo’s winery, featuring wine submerged underground) and restaurants. You’ll stay at excellent hotels at night, including Hotel Echaurren, with the Michelin-starred El Portal and its creative, modernist takes on classic Riojan cuisine.
Soak in That Terroir (Literally)
Speaking of hotels, consider pairing your Tempranillo with a little Frank Gehry. The Hotel Marqués de Riscal in the medieval town of Elciego is regarded as one of his masterworks. It appears to float in mid-air amid a Seussian sachet of billowing purple and silver ribbons. (It is, notably, the only hotel Gehry has ever designed).
While there, you can enjoy elevated Riojan cuisine at 1860 Tradición or the Marqués de Riscal Restaurant. Both are helmed by Michelin-awarded Chef Francis Paniego. You can also immerse yourself in viticulture at the adjacent Marqués de Riscal winery, the oldest in the region. (Many of the 61 guestrooms enjoy views of the vineyard). Elsewhere on the property, its library of wines date back to 1862.
You’ve learned, Segway-ed, soared, sipped, tasted, and walked the terroir of Rioja. Now, it’s time to literally soak it in. The hotel’s Spa Vinothérapie Caudalie has a serene atmosphere with treatment rooms lined with cedar and teak and an array of skin and body therapies featuring natural active anti-aging, detoxifying and firming ingredients from the grapevine and grapes.
Rioja, like the wine it produces, is powerful, complex and fascinating. Accordingly, it always leaves you ready for just a little more.