A good bottle of wine in Spain costs three euros. Decent bottles can be as cheap as 1.50 and five euros is considered a splurge. We drink wine at dinner almost every night and we bring wine to friends’ houses for dinner. Wine is so intrinsic to the Spanish system that locals meet for un copa de vino rather than a coffee. Being 22-year-old budget travelers with a special love for wine, a weekend in Spain’s wine region seemed the indisputable choice for our first weekend away from Madrid.
We imagined La Rioja would be similar to Bordeaux, the neighboring mega wine region of France, or maybe even Napa. I pictured a toned down Disneyland of wineries. I berated my boyfriend, “Can we at least make reservations at one of the winery’s?” I thought there would be lines. In fact, it was the exact opposite. Spain, or at least its chugging tourist industry, has forgotten about La Rioja.
Look past Rome’s crowded plazas, Brazil’s samba magic, or Bali’s crystal beaches, Spain is the now the third most popular tourist destination after the United States and France. In 2014, 65 million tourists visited the country, drawn mostly to Spain’s beaches on the Canary Islands and the Balearic Islands as well as to Catalonia. Meanwhile, the most-visited ‘attraction’ is consistently the Alhambra, the grand Moorish fortress in the south of Spain.
Visitors to Spain, overwhelmed with a wealth of choices, skip past La Rioja. And that’s good news. It means you can experience the quiet allure of the Spanish countryside while tasting premier wine. Grape vines crisscross the hills and hide massive, world-renowned wineries.
Spain sneaks in as the third largest producer of wine worldwide after Italy and France. But Spanish wine has yet to capture a befitting name recognition, and little is known about Spanish wine, most of which comes from La Rioja. Oddly, the low price of Spanish wine even works to hide its prestige. A leading British drinks publication wrote that Spanish wine is considered so “ludicrously affordable” that the low price often pushes out of top luxury brackets. On our college-grad budgets, it seemed like a dream: quality wine at an affordable price, and lots of it.
We chose to stay in Logroño, the capital of the La Rioja region. In fact, Logroño is a destination in its own right. The long boulevards of the modern center transition to winding medieval streets. On Sundays, dancers and musicians dressed in colorful outfits overwhelm the small courtyard next to the sixteenth-century cathedral with music reminiscent of Spain’s Golden Age. A little market thrives in the evenings at the feet of the cathedral. Cured boar meat, smelly cheeses, mouth-watering pastries, and small trinkets can be found for sale amid the stalls that sell full meals of kebabs or handmade pizzas.
Not far beyond the city boundaries of Logroño, wineries extend far into the rolling hills of La Rioja. Little cities like Oion/Oyon famous for celebrated tempranillo wines look more like skeletons with rows of vineyards amid vacant buildings. A half-dozen visitor offices for the wineries line Oion/Oyon’s main thoroughfare. But be careful, on our stunning Saturday afternoon in Oion/Oyon, all the wineries were closed. Luckily, we found one open bar, which offered hefty one euro glasses of Oion/Oyon wine, living up to our expectation of cheap, quality wine in La Rioja.
First, what you should know about Spanish wine…
*Most Spanish wine comes from La Rioja in the northeast of Spain.
*La Rioja is primarily known for the tempranillo grape, which claims 80 percent of the region’s wine market.
*Three other grapes can be found in La Rioja reds: Garnacha (a little less than 20 percent), Mazuelo, and Graciano.
*La Rioja is a Spanish municipality, but it’s also a wine region. The wine region extends further into Basque Country and Navarre.
*Within La Rioja, different micro-climates change the flavor of the wines.
Rioja Alta (west)—higher elevation, often seen as the best quality region
Rioja Alavesa (north)—poor soils means low yields, generally full bodied and high acidity
Rioja Baja (southeast)—similar to Mediterranean climate, wines hold powerful punch
*Logroño and the small cities nearby like Oion/Oyon are in the Rioja Alta region.
*Logroño, with a population 150,000, is the capital and energetic heart of the La Rioja region.
Tips for Visiting La Rioja
- Understand the distances within La Rioja.
Without a car, it’s hard to get around to the different wineries. Only Bodegas Franco-Españolas is in the town itself. Most of the famous wineries are in little towns 20 to 40 minutes away from the city. For example, Bodegas Marqués de Riscal, known for its stunning architecture by Frank Gehry, takes about 25 minutes by car. Taxis can be called at (XXX), but they’re ridiculously overpriced. An eight-minute drive to the nearby town cost us 12 euros. Calling them from that same town to pick us up cost 18. There are buses, but they’re not readily available and might not match the timing for your winery tour.
- Book your winery tours ahead of time.
We made the mistake of assuming La Rioja = Napa = Bordeaux, and thus would have a robust tourism network for all those wishing to explore the wineries. Well, nope. We arrived at Bodegas Franco-Españolas for a tour and they were booked for the next two days, so we went to the tasting room for a sampling of ten different wines instead. The next day, we did our research and decided to check out Bodegas Faustino in the nearby town of Oino/Oyno. We called the contact phone, but the answering machine annoyingly told us they were open but unable to answer the phone. We submitted their online link to book a tour, and never heard back. So we simply showed up! Mistake. The imposing iron gates of the winery were locked and the place looked deserted. All the other wineries in the town were closed (permanently?) by 2pm on Saturday.
- Be prepared to listen to a tour in Spanish OR spend time/money to find an English tour.
With English being the language of tourism, it’s easy to believe that it would be reasonably easy to find a tour in English. But La Rioja is still hidden from the typical Spanish tourist route. Most of the other tourists with us on the tour we finally managed to book with Bodegas Ontañón were from other parts of Spain. If you want an English tour, book it early through the winery itself or with a company that organizes winery tours in the region (though expect that to cost you a little more!).
- Take a full day to enjoy Logroño.
I’d recommend spending one day visiting the town of Logroño. A full day could include touring Bodegas Franco-Españolas (an eight-minute walk from the old city) during the day, walking around the late afternoon market near the cathedral, and then exploring Calle de Laurel for pinxos in the evening.
- Don’t miss the pinxos and tapas in Logroño!
The pinxos of Calle de Laurel should be considered a key part of your trip to La Rioja. If you’re trying to understand the Spanish connection with wine, come here. Crowds of locals and tourists flow out onto the street with tapas in one hand and a glass of wine in the other. The tapas, often cooked en masse on the stove in front of the bar, are traditional Spanish nibbles. Lightly fried mushrooms dunked in olive oil and a handful of anchovies on a baguette were our favorites!
Total cost for each tapas/wine combo: 2.80 euros.
Quality: decent wine; tasty tapas.
How to Get There
We traveled to Logroño by bus, which takes 4 to 4.5 hours from Madrid depending on which company and route you choose. Buses leave from Avenida de Americas in the northeast of Madrid, as well as from the airport. Two bus companies run routes to Logroño: ALSA and PLM. One way with ALSA cost us 24 euros, but it can be as low as 18. The return with PLM cost 18 euros. Don’t forget to book your return trip from Logroño when you’re in Madrid! We saw no one selling tickets at the Logroño bus station, so it’s better to know that you’re signed up for a bus ahead of time.
To note: PLM did not let us book online with a German or American credit card. If you want to make sure you get a seat on the bus, you should either book with ALSA online or come pick up PLM tickets ahead of time at Avenida de Americas.
For More Info
Here are some links that we found helpful in planning our trip to La Rioja. They can help you get started with your own research in the blogosphere.