Since the 11th century La Rioja region in the Basque region of northern Spain has been known for its wine-making. They’ve had centuries to perfect the technique that is now protected by D.O.C., the qualified designation of origin certification given to certain locality-specific foods and wines throughout the world. Only Rioja wines with the D.O.C. label are from La Rioja.
La Rioja is made up of three main areas: Rioja Alavesa, Rioja Alta and Rioja Baja. The first two are more continental in climate, while Baja is more Mediterranean thus warmer and drier. Alta is the highest area in elevation and produces lighter wines while Alavesa produces full-bodied reds. Some DOC wines also come from the nearby Navarro region but not all wines from here have the certification.
You can tour the bodegas (wineries) of the area and do wine-tastings but be aware there are over 500 bodegas in this area so you’ll never get to them all. The most prestigious wineries are in Riojo Alta and Rioja Alavesa.
The capital of Rioja Alta is Haro, dating from the 11th century and home to many fine bodegas. They also have an annual summer wine festival Batalla de Vino, held on June 29, San Pedro’s feast day. Everyone in town dresses in white and hits the streets with red wine in any container they can find which they spray and throw over each other.
One of the prettiest routes to follow is from Haro to Logrona, a distance of about 30 miles (50km). Along the way, Brinas has lovely mansions once home to the wine nobility, Labastida is an impressive Basque fortress town, and San Vincente has a hill from which you’ll get great views of the area. Other places of note are Abalos, a small village with a dozen wineries, and Villabuena de Alava which has 33 wineries.
Laguardia is a slightly larger town with narrow historic streets crammed full of bodegas. The town’s tourist office has good maps guiding you through the wine district.
In 2006 a hotel opened in Elciego designed by Frank Gehry who did the Guggenheim Bilbao – modernity meets history in spectacular style.
If you want to fly to the area you’ll need to come in to Bilbao and then hire a car or go on a tour. Logrono is the capital of La Rioja and has a small airport that you can fly to from Madrid or Barcelona. You can also reach the region by train but most people drive there so they can tour the bodegas. If you don’t want to drive yourself there are excellent guided tours which show you some of the prettier towns and best bodegas.