Interested in exploring the Spanish wine region of Rioja? I’ve got some firsthand, no-fail recommendations for tasting, dining, accommodations and cultural enrichment.
If you begin your stay in Haro, there’s really no need to drive if you want to visit the eight wineries clustered around the historic Haro train station. They’re all within comfortable walking distance of the town center although most of the Spanish tourists I spotted were driving and taking advantage of the ample parking.
The winery tasting rooms that I visited in Haro – La Rioja Alta, Muga, CVNE and Bodegas Bilbainas – and those at outlying wineries – Marqués de Riscal, Bodega Dinastia Vivanco, Torre de Ona – are all stylish, comfortably appointed and well equipped for English speaking guests. Muga’s tasting room was stocked with high-quality goods and teaming with eager shoppers who were offered gracious and informed hospitality. Walk-in tasting fees at CVNE were very modest and I had a quiet table to taste all eight wines on offer at my own pace.
Lunch time, however, can pose a challenge as all the restaurants are located in Haro which requires a hike back to the center of town. The private dining room at La Rioja Alta is the solution and I can recommend their delicious cuisine but take note that reservations are required in advance. You won’t find Uber or taxi service readily available so visits to outlying wineries do require driving.
Where to stay
Considered by locals as the best hotel in Haro, Los Agustinos Hotel is located in the center of town in an historic building dating from 1373. The four-star hotel once housed an Augustinian monastery, convent, military garrison, jail and hospital and is just steps from the winery quarter. Built around a light-filled courtyard, the hotel’s restaurant served excellent local fare.
Wines of note
La Rioja Alta
Vina Arana Reserva 2008 – This seamless blend of Tempranillo and Mazuelo spends three years in American oak resulting in an elegant, ferrous wine with dark cherry, black currant and tobacco.
La Rioja Alta Gran Reserva 890 2004 – Orange zest, chocolate, balsamic and black tea with great purity of fruit that extends through the finish, a rare occurrence in a Gran Reserva.
Torre de Ona, sister winery to La Rioja Alta, is located in LaGuardia in the Alava province of Rioja Alavesa.
The dormant estate vineyards and view of the Pyrenees mountains at Torre de Ona.
Torre de Ona 2012 – Tempranillo and Mazuelo blend aged in Russian and French oak. Ferrous and mineral with black tea, black cherry and raspberry on a charming mid palate with cedar and brown spice apparent on the finish.
Bodegas Bilbainis winemaker Alejandro Lopez Garcia at the winery’s heralded single vineyard, Vina Pomal.
Tempranillo Blanco Reserva 2013 – Fumé-style with ripe Meyer lemon, chalk and saline mineral notes that’s a benchmark for Rioja.
Alto de la Casetta Viña Pomal 2012 – A blockbuster with deep, dark black fruit and restrained use of oak.
Viña Pomal Vinos Singulares Graciano 2012 – Lively aromas of camphor, cherry and ripe cranberry with resolved tannins and delicate finish.
Muga’s Juan Muga.
Muga Selection Especial 2011 – Graphite, mulberry, chocolate, monolithic black core with coffee and tarry notes on the finish.
Muga Gran Reserva 2009 – Bordeaux-like with toast, black currant, black pepper, licorice, camphor and clove with notable fruit purity and balance.
Torre Muga 2011 – Blackberry, mulberry, fig and prune with very resolved m+ to high tannins and seamless amplification of fruit without overbearing oak influence.
Elciego: Where to stay and what to taste
Marqués de Riscal’s Jose Luis Muguiro.
The stunning Frank Gehry-designed Marqués de Riscal hotel and spa built in 2006 on the grounds of the original Herederos del Marqués de Riscal winery which was founded in 1858 is a juxtaposition of old and new. The hotel and winery which comprise the Marqués de Riscal City of Wine are located in Elciego, a southern village in the Rioja Alavesa province of Alava. The hotel’s breathtaking architecture houses both a Spa Vinothérapie Caudalie and the Michelin-starred Marqués de Riscal and Bistro 1860 restaurants.
Riojan Chef Francis Paniego creates locally-inspired haute cuisine at Marques de Riscal and showcases traditional dishes and ingredients at the less formal bistro. There’s a charming wine bar off the hotel lobby with an expansive outdoor terrace and dramatic views of the medieval town of Elciego. The winery which marked its 150th anniversary in 2008 offers several different tours by reservation with a 90-minute tour and tasting of two wines starts at 12 €.
Wines of note
Barón de Chirel 2012 – A 70% Tempranillo-dominate blend that includes Cabernet Sauvignon is sourced from the three-hectare Las Tapias vineyard and produced only in the best years. Deeply black-fruited with chocolate on the nose and plummy, earthy notes of Cabernet Sauvignon making an appearance on the mid palate.
Frank Gehry Selection 2012 – Only 5,000 bottles of this 100% old vine Tempranillo were made so the wine isn’t readily available in the United States. Without question, one of the best Tempranillo wines that I’ve ever tasted with a rush of black tea, orange zest, balsamic, earth, umami and dark fruits like mulberry and plum. According to Riscal Technical Manager Luis Hurtado, “It only compares with 1945.”
Briones: What to see and what to taste
Vivanco Winemaker Rafael Vivanco Saenz.
For a one-stop cultural immersion, you’ll want to devote most of a day exploring Vivanco’s state-of-the-art underground winery and barrel cellar and world-class Museum of Wine Culture. The 4,000-m2 museum, educational center, tasting room and restaurant were built over the original winery in 2004. Founded by Pedro Vivanco, one of Spain’s first credentialed winemakers, the estate is now managed by his sons Rafael who is the winemaker and Santiago who oversees the museum and foundation.
Winemaker Rafael Vivanco Sáenz works with indigenous varieties from the 440-hectare estate vineyards in Rioja Alta and makes a full range of wines from blanco to late harvest. The winery offers docent-led winery and museum tours starting at 21€, tastings and a fine dining restaurant with stunning views of the estate vineyards and nearby town of Briones.
A must-visit in nearby Briones is the Church of Our Lady of Assumption (Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de la Asunción). This Isabelline Gothic style church dates from 1521 and houses an altarpiece of incredible beauty.