Red, White, and Rosé in La Rioja, Spain
I’ll remember the sunflowers turning towards the summer light, yearning for warmth, magnificent. With the baking afternoon heat radiating off us, we pulled off the two-lane country road one Saturday in mid July. I wanted to swim in those seemingly endless yellow fields rippling like waves to the horizon. La Rioja had spoken again.
Two summers before I was tiredly limping step by step through La Rioja’s signature vineyards on the Camino de Santiago. My simplistic appreciation for its terrain, stamped with medieval stone villages endured. I had tasted this land drop by drop and was thirsty for more.
We made the one and a half hour drive from San Sebastián to Haro, the wine capital of La Rioja. The region’s D.O. (Denomination of Origin), Rioja is made of grapes from not only La Rioja, but parts of Navarra and Álava in País Vasco. Rioja is mostly made from Tempranillo grapes, but may be a blend of Garnacha, Graciano, and Mazuelo. The three main grape growing regions are Rioja Alavesa, Rioja Alta (both at higher elevations closer to the mountains, thus a cooler climate), and Rioja Baja, the warmer, drier part of the region.
There are a number of bodegas in Haro to visit, from the large commercial wineries, to those more obscure. Depending on the bodega, most tastings will take you through the four Rioja classifications:
Joven: The youngest, which doesn’t require any aging in oak.
Crianza: Aged for 12 months minimum in oak.
Reserva: Aged for three years, at least one in oak.
Gran Reserva: Aged at least two years in oak and three years in the bottle.
It’s not just about the tasting though, a tour is essential to get a true understanding of the art and science of winemaking from vine to barrel. A premium bottle of wine’s seemingly high price tag suddenly merits deeper understanding when you have watched the winemaker hold a flame to monitor the color of the aging wine and have descended into the chilly cellars, inhaling oak mixing with moisture.
We began with a tasting at Gómez Cruzado, one of the many interesting bodegas in Haro. Our tasting began with a fruity and refreshing white — very zesty with notes of tropical fruits. Next, we sampled their Crianza, a 100% tempranillo, medium-bodied red, mature and dry, with nuances of forest fruits. We continued on with a very good Reserva where the oak flavor was fantastically integrated with red fruits. The Gran Reserva was memorable— dried fruits, stewed forest fruits, vegetable aromas, tobacco leaves, perfectly evolved. But the best was yet to come. We tasted their “Honorable,” an out of classification wine so perfectly balanced that your taste buds dance. Simply put, a hug in a glass. My wine lover wanted the embrace to last and bought three bottles.
When our guide had to step away, we began talking to a lovely couple from Slovakia. Naturally, my wine guy fell into educating them on the meaning behind the classifications. Thankful for their new knowledge, we parted ways only to run into each other again across the street at Bodegas López de Heredia.
“Tondonia” is their largest and most famous vineyard. Although we didn’t do a tour, we ordered a few glasses at their tasting room and shop. The gorgeous setting matched the quality of the wine, notably a 2003 white Reserva with a memorable freshness and youth.
Our new Slovakian friends invited us to join them on a tour and tasting at Bodegas Lecea in the town of San Asensio. This small, family run bodega was a treat. The wine was average, but the experience was unique. The cellar was part of a complex of underground passages running through the village. Dark and damp, there was an alluring mysterious feeling down in the chilly old cellar.
From San Asensio, we drove to Logroño where we would spend the night. As La Rioja’s capital, this is the perfect home base to explore the region and soak up all the wine with the city’s signature small bites. The buzzing nightlife on Logroño’s main pinchos street, Calle Laurel is not to be missed. Here, our new Slovakian friends joined us for a night of tasty bites in the crowded streets.
Sunday was jam-packed, yet the day’s activities flowed into the next in the most relaxed fashion. Maybe it was the unforgiving Spanish heat and broken air-conditioning in the car that slowed our heart rates— maybe the occasional glasses of wine mixed with chorizo and tortilla.
We began the day at an important UNESCO World Heritage Site on what is known as the “Camino de la lengua,” San Millán de la Cogolla. Tucked into a cradle of picturesque mountains, the two juxtaposed monasteries, Yuso and Suso are worth a visit, especially if you have an appreciation for languages. Here, medieval versions of the Spanish language, along with Basque were first recorded by a monk in the Glosas Emilianenses somewhere between the 10th and 11th century. These glosas, are the translated words and phrases written in the columns and between the original Latin lines of text. The actual manuscript is now housed for safekeeping in Madrid, but regardless, there is still much to see in the monastery’s church and museum, including an ivory chest containing the relics of San Millán, a patron saint of the region.
Before one last bodega tour, we made a quick visit to the 10th century walled village, Laguardia in Rioja Alavesa. The medieval town sits atop a hill set into a striking scene of mountains and vineyards. We meandered through its narrow cobblestoned streets flushed with sun and stopped in the plaza for a copa de vino. On a Sunday afternoon, the quiet town was alive with umbrellaed terraces filled with chatty abuelos and families enjoying a long lunch. We had to part with Laguardia’s small town perfection all too soon.
We finished our Rioja weekend with a tour of the well-known commercial bodega, Marqués de Riscal. Surpassing the label’s wine is their eye-catching luxury hotel and Michelin-starred restaurant seemingly flowing from the vines which surround the signature structure. Designed by Frank Gehry to invoke the wine spirit of the region through color and curve, the contemporary piece calls to be admired. In the tasting room after a detailed tour, we toasted one last time to two perfect days in La Rioja.
Special thanks to my wine guy for his tasting expertise.