The Rioja Wine Region
If you’re looking to develop your palate, or maybe just reach new horizons, Rioja is both the wine and the place for you. That’s right, Rioja is not merely a distinctive wine with a tradition dating back to Roman times, it’s also a vibrant destination offering plenty of interest to anyone looking for a European getaway!
Spain is divided up into Autonomous Communities, or provinces, which function in the same way as counties do in the UK. The province of La Rioja is the smallest mainland Autonomous Community, and is home to a very large number of Rioja wine producers. However, the Rioja wine region also stretches north into parts of the Basque Country (Pais Vasco) and Navarra. The Rioja area is squeezed in between the Demanda Mountains (Sierra de la Demanda) to the south and the Cantabrian Mountains (Cordillera Cantabrica) to the north, while the Ebro river wends its way through the region. This privileged position makes not just for the production of great wine, but also offers a varied and at times breath-taking landscape and plenty of opportunity for activities – from river kayaking or mountaineering to horseriding or walking the Camino de Santiago which crosses the region.
Now that we have a rough idea of where Rioja is, it’s time to explore a little further the history, culture and activities which await visitors to the area.
History of the Rioja Wine Region
The Rioja area has a rich and varied past still visible today through its architecture and through the many historical sites on show across the region. The Rioja wine we enjoy today is part of an ancient lineage of production dating back to the height of the Roman Empire. The history of the area is intertwined with different faiths, from early Islam to the spread of Christianity and the resulting monuments and cathedrals which are unmissable sights today. During the Middle Ages, as in many other wine regions, it was communities of monks who practiced and perfected the art of winemaking.
The first written records of wine production in Rioja come from the San Andrés de Trepeana Monastery. But it isn’t just wine which makes the history of Rioja especially interesting. The 6th century structures of the San Millán Suso and Yuso Monasteries are listed as UNESCO world heritage sites, due to their connection with the origin of the Spanish language. Spanish evolved from an older language called Castilian, and it is from the Suso monastery that the first ever written records of the Castilian language were recovered. There is plenty to be learnt about the evolution of the Spanish language from a visit to these two iconic neighbouring monasteries
Due to regional and feudal conflicts which disputed the ownership of Rioja for centuries, many medieval fortifications remain preserved on hilltops overlooking the River Ebro. Castles give an excellent insight into the historical conflicts that waged over this picturesque region, and many of them today allow visitors to enter and explore. Despite the various kingdoms which fought over the area, wine production was maintained throughout, and the first records of wine exports exist from as early as the 13th century. When the Great Wine Blight struck France and many other areas of Europe in the mid-19th century, Rioja remained untouched and was boosted to the forefront of the winemaking industry.
The success of the industry brought wealth to the area, resulting in some incredible architecture and some of the most extensive networks of underground wine cellars, which can be toured today. The beautifully preserved heritage structures make a trip to Rioja feel like a step into the past.
The famous Camino de Santiago (Way of St James) also runs right across Rioja, with Viana, Logroño, and Najera all stops on the pilgrim route. This camino, or path, marks an immensely important pilgrimage route across Europe, ending at Santiago de Compostela in Galicia. This network of pathways across Europe dates back to the early 9th century, and remains a popular hiking route today.
Rioja might be a geographically small area, but her population is no less passionate about their fiestas! Many different festivals are celebrated throughout the year, allowing visitors to experience the best in traditional Spanish culture, such as the reenactment of the Passion of Christ in Calahorra, or Haro’s annual Wine Battle (Batalla de Vino).
Despite the rich history of the area, the culture of Rioja is not a thing of the past. The larger towns showcase the best of the regions performing arts and music, and galleries display the latest movements of local artists. Whilst historic monuments abound, they often sit next to spectacular, sometimes controversial modern architecture, such as the Marques de Riscal winery building in Eltziego.
Things To Do
It’s easy to pass the time exploring the many small towns and villages in this rural area, simply soaking up the atmosphere. Heritage buildings such as the UNESCO Suso and Yuso Monasteries and the infamous Catedral de Santo Domingo de la Calzada offer remarkable architecture and a glimpse into the complex history of the area. Due to many years of contest from neighbouring kingdoms, ancient castles adorn hilltops overlooking the valley of the River Ebro, in varying conditions. Museums, art galleries and monuments can be found in the larger settlements of Haro and Logroño. These larger towns are also the best places to sample the local delicacies such as red wine truffles and pinchos (or pintxos) (a Basque version of tapas).
For the more adventurous visitor, there are plenty of outdoor activities to partake in. From storming up the Leon Dormido or Sierra de la Demanda mountain ranges to strolling along the banks of the River Ebro, there are plenty of hiking routes traversing the entire region. The most notable trail is the section of the historical Camino de Santiago pilgrimage route, which crosses the Pyrenees from France, and extends across the whole of Spain to its final destination: Santiago de Compostela. In winter, ski resorts open on the higher slopes, which are otherwise used for mountain-biking in fairer weather. For lovers of water activities there are plenty of opportunities to go kayaking along the Ebro. There are even hot-air-balloon rides and ATV hire, all of which can be booked with the help of one of the many tourist information centres around the region.
It goes without saying that if you’re looking for a wine-holiday Rioja is a good bet. But if you are looking for an active and cultural holiday (with wine as an added extra!), you will find more than enough to keep the whole family entertained. With literally hundreds of bodegas to choose from, you surely can’t go wrong. And tours of both vineyards and cellars give you a glimpse behind the scenes at how an ancient tradition of winemaking is maintained today. Remember, even after Brexit, you can still bring 18 litres of wine (24 standard bottles) back to the UK without incurring duty!
Although December to February is the coldest time of year in Rioja, temperatures very rarely drop below freezing. And with long daylight hours, the area can be visited all year round. The height of summer sees temperatures soar, inviting visitors to partake in the Spanish siesta during the hottest time of the day. In summer especially, cloudless skies abound, and rainfall becomes so rare that you certainly won’t need to pack an umbrella in July!