In northern Spain, near very famous French wine regions such as Bordeaux, lies the oldest and most renowned wine country in Spain, La Rioja. Producing 250 million liters of wine annually, La Rioja still manages to fly under the radar, so it's a great spot to find quality wine without too massive of a price tag. Also, in La Rioja you don't need to know much about wine to get by. Try to order “something like a cabernet” and they'll laugh at you since wine from Rioja is typically classified not based on the grapes it contains, but based on how it has been aged. There are 4 “types” of wine that you will be able to order in La Rioja:
- Joven - aged less than 1-year in oak barrel
- Crianza - aged 2+ years with at least 1 in oak barrel
- Reserva - aged 3+ years with at least 1 in oak barrel
- Gran Reserva - aged 5+ years with at least 2 in oak barrel
You can find both white and red wine in La Rioja, though the vast majority of wine produced is red with the majority of that being made from Tempranillo grapes (but again, don't order a Tempranillo!).
Now on to the fun stuff. While in La Rioja, you can visit wineries for tours and tastings. Here are the wineries I chose to visit while in town:
If you've ever been to very fancy wine regions, this winery will be reminiscent. It's an all glass structure with incredible views overlooking a valley to one side and mountains to the other. That said, the structure isn't just for show. The entire wine making process happens below the impressive main entrance with gravity being its starring member. This winery is incredibly proud of their ecological and delicate wine-making process and believe that their unique practices allow the grapes to show their true flavors. Their wine tasting is complete with two pinchos which are surprisingly complementary to the wine.
The drive towards Finca Valpiedra results in a surprising arrival. As you emerge from the single-lane dirt road you see the large building that is Finca Valpiedra as well as the stunning views out over their large surrounding vineyard and the adjacent river. Due to it's name-brand recognition, there's a bit of a premium for tours and tastings here, but you are able to request a tasting only. In this case, they still provide a mini tour and tell you much of the winery's history so that you have context while tasting their wines. It's the much more budget-friendly approach.
This location is just one of the wineries owned by the Companía Vinicola del Norte de España (CVNE). CVNE (lovingly transposed to CUNE for ease of pronunciation), has been around for well over 100 years and has a history true of many Rioja wineries. Due to the Phylloxeravirus that was attacking many French vines in the late 1800s, there was a large immigration of famous french wine makers to the Rioja region. Two Spanish brothers jumped on this influx of talent and claimed their opportunity to lay down roots in La Rioja. Thus was born CVNE. It is still run by decedents of its founders.
They have a wide price range of wines available with a solid middle being the Cune Reserva priced at €9.99. That said, if you want to splurge, their 2004 Imperial Gran Reserva was rated the #1 wine by Wine Spectator in December 2013. That of course has sold out (or been stored in their impressive cellar), but you can snag another vintage of Imperial Gran Reserva for just under €50.
A visit to R. Lopez de Heredia is a must when in La Rioja. This is the oldest winery in Haro and has a great atmosphere complete with outdoor seating to enjoy your tastings. If you're into whites, this will be an especially interesting stop for you as this winery likes to age their whites in oak longer than some wineries age their reds. Similar to CVNE, this winery remains in the family. An interesting fun-fact is that each generation of owners has made a contribution to the physical structure of the winery which creates a unique and striking visual.
Oh yeah, their chairs also have wine glass holders in them. Clutch.
Located very close to R. Lopez de Heredia, you'll be surprised to find this winery experience to be quite different. Their tasting property is in the middle of town with an ultra-modern feel. You can opt to a tour and tasting for €10 or you can simply visit the tasting room and taste by the (small) glass. Founded in 1890, this winery also has a rich history, again, with its origins in the French Phylloxera crisis. They now own four wineries, each with a few different labels within the brand. They have some very good inexpensive wines while their higher-end wines didn't necessarily seem worth the price tag. Nonetheless, it's a great place to peruse a complete wine list and taste anything that seems interesting.
If you can plan your trip accordingly, a stop in Haro on June 29th for their annual wine festival (or Batalla del Vino, as they call it) will be time very well spent. I hope I can make it :)!