It is not difficult to have a love affair with Rioja, not solely for its wines, but also the generous people, their gastronomy and the magnificent landscapes. Rioja is the wine area, which includes the province of La Rioja, a part of Alava, in the Basque Country, and Navarra.
La Rioja is the autonomous government region. It is in central northern Spain 100 kilometres south of the port of Bilbao and lies astride the A68 motorway that joins the north and Mediterranean coasts. Here they speak Castillian Spanish.
The landscapes of Rioja are beautiful and impressively diverse with ancient, hilltop fortress towns rising from the blanket of vineyards, overlooked by a panorama of the imposing Sierras of Cantabria and the de la Demanda ranges in the west, and those of Peñalosa and Yerga to the east.
The region's history dates back well to the times of the Celtic Iberians in 3000 BC well before the Romans who landed at Tarragona in 300 BC and moved inland up the River Ebro to set up camps in Rioja some several years later. The locals like to think they stopped because of the wines and gastronomy, but it's most likely their failure to cross the mountains into the Basque Country thanks to very powerful resistance from the Basques was the real reason. However their arrival in Rioja was to prove important to the industry's wine business when they introduced a degree of good commercial practices.
Though less evident in the north, the of occupancy of Spain by the Moors between 711 AD and 1492 had an inevitable on the culture, language and character of the nation as is evident from the peoples' proud nature and the many Castillian words with Arabic origins. The first written Castillian occurred in Rioja when in a 13th century Monk, Gonzalo de Berceo, penned a poem at the Monastery of San Millan writing, as he put it, in the language of the common people [rather than Latin] and for which he hoped he might receive a glass of good wine.
During the Middle Ages thousands of Pilgrims crossed the province on their way to the shrine of St James in Galicia and were very appreciative of the region's wines. Rioja wines' history is well covered in that section and it owes its prominence to the fact it has become regarded as Spain's flagship wine region, especially since 19th century, and that has created the region as it is today, both for its reputation and as a magnificent place to visit.
Being a target of its neighbours at one time or another [Navarra, Aragon, Castile] Rioja retains close ties to Castile because, as is seen above, it was in Rioja that the Castillian language was first written down. Clearly its loyalty lies more in that direction than towards the others, something still evident today. Before La Rioja became an autonomous region in its own right it was part of Castile, an association that goes back to the unifying of Spain after the marriage of Ferdinand I of Aragon and Queen Isabella of Castile [known as the Catholic Kings] in the 15th century that in turn led to the building of a colossal Empire with seemingly unlimited riches.
The strength of the family remains key to the peoples' lifestyle. This strong confidence building unity is fundamental to their personality and, just so long as they are treated with respect, one will find them both friendly and unnecessarily generous. When visiting many parts of Spain like Rioja it becomes clear that by no means all Spaniards are Latin in character, though they may betray the same love of life at times. They are proud, yes but also phlegmatic, sometimes reserved but also uninhibited, and both patient and courteous, unless they are driving a car. The new generation are demonstrating an openness their ancestors lacked, probably because the nation was so heavily subjugated during the many years following the Civil War. These are all characteristics one will find amongst the people of Rioja.
Nature and the Environment
Apart from over 60,000 hectares of vines, other prominent crops are cereals, sugar beet, apples and pears along with an abundance of sheep. So the economy is built around agriculture in general and particularly the winemaking industry and its allied products such as oak barrel makers, capsule producers, label printers and agricultural machinery suppliers and engineers and, not least, banking. Logrono vies with Palma de Mallorca to be Spain's richest city per capita.
The mighty River Ebro bisects Rioja from west to east, and with the mountains plays a key role in the geology and climate of Rioja, from the cooler, verdant west where vineyards and population centres are higher in altitude down to the warmer, arid east in the Rioja Baja. They influence the micro climatic conditions in the vineyards both feeding the water table and generating early morning mists across the riverside vineyards, while sheltering them from the worst of the Atlantic influences. More than 2,000 years ago the Ebro was navigable with sea-going vessels sailing the 500 kms from the Mediterranean to Logrono, the capital of La Rioja.
Sierra Cantabria - 1,100 metres [3,370 feet]
- Sierra de la Demanda - 2,250 m. [6,900 ft]
- Rioja Alta [High Rioja] - 450 m. [1,380 ft.] to 700 m. [2,150 ft.]
- Rioja Alavesa [Rioja of Alava] - 450 m. [1,380] to 700 m. [2,150 ft.]
- Rioja Baja [Low Rioja] - 300 m [920 ft.] to 450 m. [1,380 ft]
- Average Rainfall- 450 mm [18 inches] in the west to 350 mm [14 inches] in the west
- Average Temperatures - 12.8Âº C [55Âº F] in the west to 13.9º C [57º F] in the east
- In the mountains rainfall can reach 1,000 mm [40 inches]
- The soils are a mixture of limestone, clay and sandstone
Every town and village has at least one Fiesta a year but amongst the important ones are two related to wine - La Batalla de Vino in Haro at the end of June, where after attending a service at a small chapel in the mountains above Haro, they multitude resort to an increasingly wild party of spraying each other in wine as they walk back to the city to eat and drink through to the early hours. Aficionados buy new white clothes for the event every year. More sedate but hugely enjoyable is San Mateo during the third week in September to celebrate the wine harvest with an orgy of eating and drinking, well what else would one expect.
Two other Fiestas of note are the Medieval Festival in Santo Domingo de la Calzada in the autumn and a charming and ancient dance festival known as Danza de los Zancos [stilts] at Anguiano, which is tucked away in the Sierra de la Demanda on the road to Sala de los Infantes that is on the other side of the mountains. This is in late June.
Tourism is flourishing in Rioja, not least amongst Spaniards who flock there for long holiday breaks. They travel from Madrid, Barcelona, Zaragoza, Bilbao and other regions to visit Bodegas [Wineries], taste the wines and enjoy the ambience and gastronomy. With the growing numbers of overseas visitors it's important to book early, especially spring though to autumn, to be sure of a room in one of the many boutique and mass-market hotels that are springing up everywhere.
Briones with its superb Wine Museum, or Ollauri with its deep, underground wine cellars should be high on your itinerary, as also should be Laguardia, a beautiful walled town with narrow pedestrianised streets and several impressive Bodegas. At historic Santo Domingo de la Calzada there is the legend of the cockerel, and nearby is charming Ezcarray that serves the ski station above with highly rated restaurants. Also popular are the Monasteries of San Millan de la Cogolla [Suso and Yuso] tucked into the Demanda foothills not far away.
The Parador in Santo Domingo de la Calzada is an old convent with an excellent restaurant. The tourist invasion of the past 20 years has encouraged the opening of good quality restaurants across the region with a choice of local dishes and / or internationally known menus. Unusually for a red wine region, but not surprisingly for a place so near to the great Bilbao market, they consume a lot of fish; one town of 10,000 people actually has 7 fishmongers!
Traditional dishes like Patatas Riojana [Pieces of Spanish sausage / chorizo and Pork in a potato broth] or Cocido Riojana [Chick Peas with chorizo, fish and vegetables as a broth] are very warming and tasty in winter and a typical style of food to be found amongst agricultural and mining communities inland where altitudes average 600 metres [1,840 feet]. The ubiquitous lamb has a special place in Rioja, not least when eating baby lamb cutlets [chuletillas], Roast Lamb [cordero asado] or Roast Kid [Cabra Asada] both of which will invariably be falling off the bone and so juicy. A bottle of Crianza or Reserva Rioja with either is a match made in heaven.
Logrono is famous for its Tapas Bars, especially in the Calle Laurel [Laurel Peso] by the Market in the Old Quarter off the Plaza Principe de Vergara. Wandering around these bars is a special experience as is a tour of the Tapas Bars off the main square in Haro; not to be missed on Sunday evenings when the whole family is out.