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Rioja: where wine meets design

Publish Date: 21 Apr 2017

Authored by: Alex Prichard

Find out what's so special about northern Spain's Rioja region in this roadtrip diary first published in the April/May 2014 issue of Halliday Wine Companion magazine.

The Cantabrian Mountains provide an impressive backdrop to the gold, red and green patchwork of vineyards that spread across Spain’s Ebro Valley during autumn. This picture-perfect landscape is the country’s most famous wine-producing region: Rioja. Also a byword for Spanish fine wine, Rioja the region sits 400km north of Madrid and today blends the traditional with the ultra-modern – in winemaking as well as tourism.

Historically, Rioja produced predominantly white wines, but now it’s the reds that account for most of its production – mainly tempranillo-based blends. In Spain, producers are only allowed to plant the grape varieties authorised for a particular region, so in La Rioja, plantings are dominated by tempranillo and garnacha, or grenache as we know it, along with smaller amounts of graciano and mazuelo, or carignan.

The white wines that are still produced here are typically relatively neutral, easy-drinking wines made from viura (macabeo), sometimes with a touch of malvasia and garnacha blanca, or white grenache. Only a visit to the region affords the opportunity to seek out the tiny proportion of those white wines made traditionally; wines that have seen extensive oak and bottle ageing, often for decades.

For the visitor, La Rioja represents a rare opportunity to experience this great blend of tradition and modernity. A traditional red Rioja will be a heavily oaked, aged wine with plenty of tannins and savoury characteristics, which makes it an excellent food match, particularly with the region’s many hearty pork and bean-based dishes. But winemakers are increasingly seeking to make wines that are more approachable in their youth and that have bolder fruit flavours that will appeal to consumers around the world. 

La Rioja by Per Karlsson 2014

La Rioja is a wide region, split into three zones cut by the River Ebro, famous for being the scene of one of the last battles in the Spanish Civil War. Rioja Alta sits to the west, Rioja Baja to the east and Rioja Alavesa in between – the only one of the three to fall in Basque Country. There is a huge variety of altitude and soil throughout the region and harvest can begin as much as six weeks earlier in Rioja Baja compared with Rioja Alta. Hiring a car is almost essential for visiting the bodegas, or wineries, across the three zones. Wineries in all three zones are easily reached in day-trips from Rioja’s capital, Logroño.

One highlight is the family-run Dinastia Vivanco. The winery was established in 1915 and today has an impressive visitor centre, including a panoramic restaurant, Museum of the History of Wine Culture and Bacchus Garden, which is home to vines with more than 200 different grape varieties. Dinastia Vivanco routinely wins awards for wine tourism on the global stage, though Rafael Vivanco, the winemaker who runs the family business alongside his brother Santiago, estimates that 80 to 85 per cent of their visitors are Spanish. During vintage, the winery sees around 2000 tourists a day and its modern design allows the winery to function, while remaining open to visitors. The aim, says Rafael, is “to preserve a taste of history and tradition” while providing a great experience. 

The sophistication of Dinastia Vivanco aside, the cellar door experience in the region is very different to what the Australian wine lover might expect. Many wineries do not open to visitors and those that do will often require appointments or bookings. And rather than just tasting your way through a winery’s selection, expect to choose from a range of paid options that might include a winery tour and a tasting of wines paired with tapas or lunch. You need to set aside at least an hour per winery, and add extra time for keen photographers who wish to capture the stunning scenery and colours.

Samaniego by Per Karlsson 2014

At Bodegas Baigorri, the seven-storey winery has been built into a hillside, with many of its floors hidden beneath a striking glass hilltop box, which offers visitors an incredible panoramic view of vineyards and mountains. Founded in 2002, Baigorri prides itself on its state-of-the-art, gravity-driven winery, which is designed to be as gentle as possible on the grapes and provide an encompassing, year-round experience for visitors. Despite the winery’s youth, many of its grapes are sourced from vineyards that are more than 40 years old. 

Winemaker Simon Arina Robles explains that in these circumstances, making a wine that is 100 per cent tempranillo is almost impossible. “Because with the old vines you always have at least one graciano or one mazuelo vine in the vineyard,” he says. This old-school approach to the vines is combined with very modern winemaking. Baigorri has its own research division and Simon and his team are constantly experimenting with technical aspects of production, such as skin contact, carbonic maceration and trials with an egg-shaped fermenter to ensure they are producing wines that embody the “new Rioja”.

Marques de Riscal and Dinastia Vivanco by Per Karlsson 2014

La Rioja need not solely be about the wine. Those interested in architecture can make time to visit the town of Elciego, home to Marques de Riscal, one of La Rioja’s oldest wineries, founded in 1862. In 2006, this small Basque town saw the opening of the controversial Frank Gehry-designed Marques de Riscal hotel. Its brightly coloured titanium ribbons stand out against the comparatively neutral colours of the landscape. Its arrival saw visitors to the winery jump from around 3000 to 70,000 per year. 

For something more historic, head to the medieval hilltop village of Laguardia and lose yourself in its narrow, angular streets. Here you will find the remains of two 10th-century towers and the 12th-century church of Santa Maria de los Reyes.

Back in Logroño, don’t expect your day to wrap up early. The Spanish are notoriously late diners and while the bars may be open all day, it’s not until 9pm that the area around Calle Laurel, home to a seemingly endless array of tapas bars, comes alive. Many bars have their own specialty – everything from foie gras, black pudding and octopus to mushrooms, chorizo and ham. You can hop from one bar to another trying dish after dish. For a traditional, rustic meal and a chance to sample some old Riojan wines at reasonable prices, head to El Rincon del Vino. If you are after a more modern take on Riojan cuisine, try El Rincon de Alberto, both are in the heart of Logroño.

Rioja is a stunning part of the world, with dramatic scenery and vineyards, and a place that offers a unique juxtaposition of modern and traditional, not only in its architecture, but also its food and wine. Unlike the wine regions of France or even Italy, it is definitely a road less travelled by tourists, which gives anyone who makes the effort the opportunity to discover their own Riojan secret.

Photos: Per Karlsson

Next article: 5 homegrown tempranillo wines to try

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