Rioja wine is undoubtedly one of Spain’s most recognised exports; when ordering a glass at any Spanish bar, chances are it will come from the northern wine-making region. There hundreds to choose from, many with their own distinct shades and flavours, typical of the area from which they are from. Rioja, having spent centuries producing wine of the finest quality, is a region dedicated to its wine-making. Officially, La Rioja is divided into three regions: Rioja, Rioja Alavesa (the Basque Country) and an area in Rioja, east of Logrono, which belongs to Navarre.
However, the Rioja wine producing region has its own frontiers, containing the three sub-regions Rioja Alavesa (belonging to the Spanish Basque Country), Rioja Alta and Rioja Baja.
This piece will focus on the first of these regions: Rioja Alavesa. This is the wine production area in Rioja that lies to the north of the River Ebro– the second longest in Spain. As is normally the case in large wine-producing areas, there is always a river nearby. The vineyards to the north of the Ebro are part of Rioja Alavesa, which is sheltered by the Sierra de Cantabria mountain range. These imposing masses of granite limit the negative influence of the cold northern winds, allowing the grapes to flourish. Similarly, the level of rain in the Alaves region is also curbed by the close proximity of the mountain range; the clouds tend to thin out a bit before entering Rioja Alavesa (take a look at both sides on Goggle Maps to understand where it really rains!), which is good for the wine, since too much rain would mean less exposure to the sun which is needed for the grapes to ripen.
If you plan a trip to Rioja it is vital that you explore the entire region, and that you are not limited by the official frontiers we have described. A casual observer might not notice the difference between one region and the next, but closer inspection would bring to light some fascinating contrasts in architecture and wines to taste within the three regions. The architecture of the houses in Rioja Alavase, for instance, are more reminiscent of the typical buildings of the Basque Country, and there are, of course, tangible differences in the accent and dialect of each region’s people. Gastronomy in this part of the Basque country is made up of a rich mixture between Basque and Riojan styles. Most restaurants deliver excellent value for money and mouthwatering menus, which– unlike much of the rest of Spain –are often favourable for vegetarians.
As for the wines, there are palpable differences between the wines of Rioja Alavesa and the wines of Rioja Alta. The larger wineries can be found in the Rioja Alta region, where vineyards typically extend across different villages or towns and the best known brands of Rioja are often produced. In the case of Rioja Alavesa, production is often more limited in quantity and wineries are not so well-known (despite some very important exceptions). The Alavesa region is, however, renowned for its carbonic maceration wines. These are very fresh wines, which are made using the same process for alcoholic fermentation as the wines in Beaujolai in France. When these wines are young they offer all the character of the local grapes (most typically trempranillo for these wines).
Wine sampling aside, there are many wonderful places to visit in Rioja Alavesa. Many small, isolated villages can be found in the high hills, which historically served as defensive barriers against enemies. From these villages, which can be seen on the horizon from afar, you can get fantastic panoramic views of the vineyard lansdcape. On the road from Haro to Logrono (north of the Ebro) you will be able to spot several of these villages, such as Laguardia or Labastida. Laguardia, which contains an underground labyrinth of wine cellars, is unique in that cars are not permitted to pass above, so as to ensure that these cellars do not suffer from vibration. Other towns of interest are Elciego, Villabuena de Alava or Lapuebla de la Barca, which is so-called thanks to the boat service that maintained communication between both sides of the river in the past.
A trip to this part of Spain brings us to a land where vineyards are quite simply everywhere. Life here is entwined with wine (pun intended) and the locals tend not to talk about much else other than the harvest and the quality of Rioja’s grapes. And to be perfectly honest, they’ve every right to: Spanish wine simply does not come any better.
This article is a guest post by Winetourismspain, a Madrid based travel agency specialising in wine tours in the Rioja region of Spain. I love wine and I love travel, particularly within Spain, so I am more than happy to publish guest posts like this. If you represent a brand that you feel would be a good fit for Spain For Pleasure then please get in touch via my contact page.