La Rioja: all in its own good vine
Home to one of the world's most popular reds, the Spanish region of La Rioja is rooted deeply in history, food and of course, its wine - and autumn is the perfect time to visit
Vines near Banos del Ebro and San Vincente de la Sonsierra
Bar Soriano on Calle Laurel
Its name is recognisable the world over – a byword for its best-known export – but La Rioja, a swathe of hills in northern Spain, is more than just a grape-growing region, it is a land steeped in history; with gastronomy and viniculture as rich as the wines that make it famous. Harvest time is a wonderful season to visit, when the fields are ablaze with a hundred shades of reds, browns and greens and the place really comes alive.
The birthplace of the Spanish language and along the route of the Camino de Santiago, La Rioja is a region of religious, economic and historic importance. But it is its red, rocky soil that defines it and as soon as you arrive, you’re made aware of the strong ties its people have with the land.
Everywhere you look, the food, wine and the people are intertwined; from the livestock reared high on the hills, leading down to the olive and almond trees, then the numerous vineyards and finally the vegetables and cereals covering the plains. It’s unashamedly rustic – and that’s a huge part of its charm.
Logroño, the capital of the region, is home to more than half of La Rioja’s meagre population of just over 320,000. On the Plaza del Mercado, one of the city’s beautiful squares, locals go about their business while tourists relax in outdoor cafes and take photos in front of the 16th century Santa María de la Redonda Cathedral. Logroño’s ancient centre, which dates back to Roman times, is a mass of tiny winding streets.
The Rio Ebro runs through the city’s heart, lined by a beautifully maintained riverside path. Starting in the northwest at the Puente de Sagasta and running east past the Universidad de Rioja, it winds through urban parks, playgrounds and bike tracks, with locals out for their morning run.
If the river gives the city life, then food and wine are what course through its veins, especially along Calle Laurel, where locals claim there are more than 80 tapas and pintxos bars shoulder-to-shoulder on this pedestrianised strip. Here, you can pop into a bar, have a glass of beer or wine (your choice is simple; red or white) and try some local tapas delicacies, including sardines with fiery pimientos, little potato croquettas flavoured with fish or vegetables; tiny rounds of local cheese with honey and walnuts; cured meats and olives; chunks of chorizo served with runny egg or slivers of steak on chewy bread. Served in bite-size pieces, you try one or two morsels – ask for the house speciality – and then move on to the next bar.
Some of the older establishments serve only one thing. My favourite was Bar Soriano, whose singular dish is a stack of large fried mushrooms drowning in garlic butter and skewered onto a piece of bread with one tiny shrimp floating in the top mushroom. A little taste of heaven.
Using Logroño as a base to discover the area, you’ll need a car to get around to the villages and wineries (known locally as bodegas). However, if you plan on doing some wine tasting – and why else would you be here – it’s a good idea to let someone drive. We toured with Rioja Trek, with a local guide who knew lots about the history of the area and the best places to eat and drink.
An excellent way to start your visit to La Rioja, and to give you a real understanding of the region, is with a trip to the Vivanco Dynasty Wine Culture Museum in Briones. This enormous museum was opened in 2004 by Pedro Vivanco, beside his family’s vineyard. It explains the importance of wine to La Rioja and looks at all elements of the culture surrounding wine production – from its discovery some 10,000 years ago, to the role it has played in civilisations all over the world ever since.