Uncork La Rioja and get a taste for more than just fine wine in this history-soaked region of northern Spain
"We pick all our grapes by hand,” declared Jesus proudly. He wasn’t quite turning water into wine, but the results were no less miraculous. Here, in Spain’s La Rioja province, Jesus Puelles takes a more practical approach to winemaking: since the 16th century, his family have been producing wine at their small bodega (winery) in the dusty foothills of the Sierra de Cantabria. From 19 hectares of vines, he produces 300 barrels of wine a year. So it wasn’t long before we were in the tasting room, sampling glass after glass of rich, earthy rioja, starting with the young crianza and building up to the glorious gran reserva.
To qualify for the rioja denomination, wineries must adhere to strict production guidelines: crianza is aged in oak barrels for a year before bottling; reserva spends at least two years soaking up the sweet vanilla from the oak barrels and a further year in the bottle; the patrician gran reserva often languishes for much longer than the minimum of two years in oak and a further two years in the bottle before being released. Even though he must have done it a million times before, Jesus’ face creased with pleasure as he rolled each wine slowly around inside his mouth, savouring its richness and depth of character.
Time can easily slip away given such a selection of fine wines, but all too soon I could hear the shrill bell signalling the arrival of the next wave of thirsty connoisseurs. It was Jornada de Puertas Abiertas (the Day of Open Doors) in Ábalos. For €7 you could buy a glass and a carrying satchel, which entitled you to taste four young wines at any of the village’s eight wineries.
The narrow streets were packed with people wandering slowly, glass in hand, chatting to friends. But this was no display put on for tourists – this was a Spanish family day out. Children ran around playing hide and seek and grown-ups sat in the sunshine, eating rolls stuffed with spicy chorizo, while a brass band played a raucous charanga that rose above the general hubbub.
Dwarfed by the neighbouring provinces of Navarra, Castilla y León and the Basque Country, La Rioja is Spain’s smallest region and one of its best-kept secrets. In the north, fertile valleys support a latticework of vineyards, almond groves and highly productive vegetable fields; as you head south, clear trout-filled rivers flow through vertiginous canyons of red sandstone while rolling uplands, cloaked in forests of black pines, Atlantic beech and Pyrenean oaks, rise up to the high rounded summits of the Iberian Range.
Fought over by Celts, Romans, Visigoths, Vandals, Moorish giants and Christian knights, La Rioja’s troubled history is littered with such exotic characters as Pedro the Cruel, Roland the Rotter and El Cid, as well as a rich architectural heritage of castles, forts, churches and monasteries that endow La Rioja’s landscape.
But today, it is wine not warring for which La Rioja is best known. The bustling hilltop town of Haro is the region’s undisputed wine capital: many of Rioja’s most famous bodegas – Rioja Alta, Muga and López de Heredia (makers of the famous Viña Tondonia) – are all based here. Sitting in the historic arcaded square, drinking coffee and looking up at the elegant mansions with their ornate armorial shields and elaborate balconies, it was quite apparent that wine production has brought considerable wealth to Haro.
Winery tours are integral to any visit to Rioja. Bodegas Muga is one of the largest still in family hands and one of the few to use traditional methods. Although we’d only phoned minutes earlier to ask for a tour – and committed the heresy of arriving at lunchtime – Manu Muga, son of one of the three brothers that own the winery, greeted us warmly.
We were led down a series of long, echoing tunnels into a vast underground network of interconnecting fermentation rooms and cellars. In place of modern stainless-steel tanks, all Muga wines are fermented in massive wooden casks, some more than 90 years old. We walked like Lilliputian figures into a viticultural time warp. The musty odour of ageing wine rose up from lines of barrels stacked to the ceiling in cool, quiet cellars, which stretched as far as the eye could see. Workers in blue overalls beavered away, rolling barrels, scrubbing out empty vats and moving crates of bottles with small forklift trucks. Above ground, in the cooper’s shop, a team of craftsmen were making the oak barrels using tools and techniques handed down from generation to generation.
Jumping from time-honoured tradition to the ultra-modern, we travelled a few kilometres into La Rioja Alavesa. Set among the rolling vineyards near Laguardia, framed by smoky limestone mountains, Bodegas Ysios represents the brave new world of winemaking.
Fresh from the success of his internationally acclaimed stadium for the Athens Olympic Games, architect Santiago Calatrava has created a remarkable futuristic winery with scalloped wooden walls topped by a gleaming aluminium roof of interlocking panels, which rolled like waves on the sea. Rising from the centre of this ocean of chrome, the winetasting room jutted forward like the prow of a ship. The precise ethic of this bold architectural statement is reflected in the winemaking: eschewing the younger wines, Ysios produces only the noble reserva, using just a single variety of grape, the native tempranillo.
However, wineries provide only one part of the La Rioja story. To touch the soul of the region you need to head into the heart of the winelands. Taking the smallest roads on the map and following them wherever they led, we wove our way among the pinstriped vineyards. As he drove, my guide, Diego, pointed out a lonely 12th-century chapel founded by the son-in-law of El Cid on his return from the Crusades and old beehive-shaped chozos (shepherd’s dwellings) that date back to before the wine revolution.
Stopping frequently to enjoy the expansive scenery, we made our way into the Sonsierra, a pocket of land trapped by a loop of the Ebro River. We were drawn by the magnetism of Castillo de Davalillo, an imposing 13th-century fortress that glowers down on the winelands from its hilltop eyrie.
Once a vital bastion in the bloody frontier wars, Davalillo provides the definitive view of La Rioja. Sitting beneath its colossal buttressed walls we looked down over the entire Ebro Valley, across vast swathes of neatly trained vines towards the distant church tower of San Vicente de la Sonsierra and the 12 stone crosses marking The Stations of the Cross. Every Holy Week for the past 500 years, San Vicente’s Guild of Flagellants have donned white hoods and progressed in a pilgrimage of penitence from cross to cross, whipping themselves across their bare shoulders until they bleed.
At the end of each day’s exploration, we returned to the village of Casalarreina where we were staying in a converted 16th-century monastery. A short walk up the street brought us to La Cueva de Doña Isabela, once a wine cellar and now a leading restaurant. Here we dined on spicy chorizo sausages cured in the rafters of farmhouses in Cameros and stalks of cardoon thistle wrapped in Iberian ham and baked in creamy almond sauce.
Food is as integral to Riojan culture as wine and celebrates the region’s prolific produce. Asparagus spears as plump as sausages vie with succulent red peppers, huge plum tomatoes and small green chillies that can remove your ability to breathe, let alone speak.
The life of a gourmand is all very well but I was in danger of being overwhelmed by all this good living. Fortunately, La Rioja has some sensational walks that are perfect for working off a surfeit of food and wine. Hoping to do just that, we set off into the Parque Natural Sierra de la Cebollera, which rises up towards the rounded summits and glacial cirques of the Iberian Range.
Following a trail through the forest, we kept our eyes peeled for the red deer, wild boar, muskrat and mink that wander these woods. Easier to spot were the ‘land art’ sculptures, masterpieces created from natural materials available in the woods. In between the dense forest of Sylvester pines and ancient Pyrenean oaks, we saw lizards made from piles of stones, a huge skull built of fallen logs and a giant teacup crafted from woven saplings.
In search of a more demanding hike, we decided to walk the 22km section of Grand Recorrido 93 (one of Spain’s designated Great Walks), which culminates at Rioja’s most important pilgrimage site: two ancient monasteries dedicated to the fifth-century hermit-saint, San Millán. So great is San Millán’s mystique that many pilgrims walking St James’s Way to Santiago make a detour from their already long and arduous journey to visit his tomb.
A gently undulating path led us along the northern side of the Najerilla Valley, skirting below high sandstone cliffs. We passed the remains of an old deserted convent, its roof long collapsed and its crumbling walls subsumed by ivy.
For several kilometres we walked through open farmland picking blackberries from the wild bushes growing alongside the track. With the exception of a farmer with his dog and gun, walking the stubble fields in pursuit of partridge, we saw no one until we reached the whitewashed houses of Matute.
A rustic lunch of bread and cheese fortified us for the steep climb ahead. We hiked up through magnificent Atlantic beech and oak forest that rang with the chattering of birds and the deep bass clanging of cowbells. Above, the path continued through fresh aromatic pine forest to a high pass swathed in gorse and wild lavender.
Dropping down into the Cardenas Valley we came to San Millán’s monasteries. The great Benedictine monastery of Yuso dominates the valley floor; tucked away in the beech woods beyond, the less ostentatious and altogether more charming Suso seems a more fitting tribute to the reclusive saint.
For the doughty pilgrims en route to Santiago de Compostela, San Millán’s blessing stiffens their resolve for the long road ahead. Having paid our respects to La Rioja’s most famous saint, we toasted him with its most famous sustenance: a bottle of the best rioja – a wine truly fit for the gods.
April to October sees the best of the weather. Spring is best for wild flowers and blossoming almond trees, while late September and October see lots of activity in the vineyards and some of the main festivals due to the wine harvest.
Most wineries welcome visitors and offer tours and tastings; many also have wine clubs that enable you to buy a barrel of wine: you buy it as a young wine, the vineyard matures the wine in the barrel and then bottles it for you, either as a crianza or reserva. A barrel equates to 300 75ml bottles.
Riojan cuisine is a celebration of local produce: fiery chillies, tomatoes, red peppers, olives, asparagus, artichokes, almonds and cardoons are all local delicacies. Lamb, pork, beef and goat are all popular, as is trout. In season, there is plenty of game, including venison, wild boar, partridge, quail and hare.
For further information check out the Spanish Tourist Board website