In my experience there are several types of wine drinkers : Firstly, the connoisseurs, passionate and educated about wine. They can spit, slurp and gurgle their way through the finest ones, not to mention being able to identify a glass of murky red, from the merest of whiffs. Secondly, there are those who enjoy drinking wine, but know absolutely nothing about snazzy bouquets or earthy tones, although they’re not averse to learning. Lastly, there are the occasional wine sippers who don’t like to appear unrefined in the company of other connoisseurs, but who are generally at their happiest when knocking back a glass of cheap plonk after a bad day at the office.
Yet wine drinkers of all kinds can appreciate the Rioja region of Spain. Not only does Spain have a centuries-long history of wine producing, but the country’s modern wine history began in La Rioja and, to this day, it remains the most famous and celebrated wine producing region in the country.
Stretching roughly 120km along both sides of the Ebro River, the Rioja region of north Spain is the smallest mainland community and is situated near the Basque country. Flanked by the distant but mighty Cantabrian mountains, it has a landscape of gently undulating hills dotted with vineyards and quaint medieval villages nestle among the rolling greenery.
To help out those occasional wine sippers who may be thinking of visiting the beautiful region, there are three varieties of Rioja wine : red, white and rosé. Red is the most well known variety of the region, and counts for 80% of overall production. Although the flavour depends on the exact blend of grapes used and the age of the wine, red Rioja tends to be fruity, while some well practised ‘sip and swillers’ may also detect tones of chocolate, spice, and oak.
There are around fifty or so wineries in the region open to the public, and, as you would expect, there are many companies offering wine tasting tours. There are far too many to list, but you would be hard-pressed (sorry, couldn’t resist!) to find one that didn’t suit your needs. Some offer guided day-long packages to local wine cellars, or bodegas, and include wine tasting sessions and lunch in a local restaurant, while others offer you a guide for part of the tour, but then allow you the freedom to do as you wish for the remainder of the day.
But if you ever need a break from all that grape talk, there are plenty of other things to do in the region. The tiny village of San Millan de la Cogolla is home to the world famous twin monasteries, Yuso and Suso, declared a world heritage site in 1997.
In the town of Santo Domingo de la Calzada, on the banks of the Rio Oja, you’ll find a magnificent 12th and 13th century cathedral sitting proudly among a rabbit warren of medieval streets.
Haro, a town at the epicentre of La Rioja’s wine land, celebrates ‘La Batalla del Vino’ every year on the 29th June; a fiesta involving the recreation of a battle that sees all participants doused from head to toe in wine.
Other regional fiesta’s attracting tourists include ‘La Vendionia’ in Logrono on the 21st September, where colourful floats fill the streets and there’s grape treading and wine tasting. The May 12th parade in Santo Domingo de la Calzada extends to neighbouring villages, and the ancient Danza de los Zancos in Anguiano on the 22nd June, has wonderful displays of traditional stilt dancing.
The Sierra de Cebollera is an area rich in natural beauty and wildlife, and is famed for its wild pine, beech and Pyrenean Oak forests.
The landscape of the Rioja region as a whole, allows for such outdoor pursuits as hunting, fishing, horse riding, mountain climbing and cycling, and even the most hardened wine connoisseur might relish the chance to emerge from among the vines and explore more of this stunning and peaceful region.
La Rioja naturally embraces lovers of fine wines, but it will just as warmly welcome you whatever your alcoholic persuasion. Its tranquility and unspoilt beauty reason alone to pay a visit to this passionate region.