For many wine lovers wishing to visit a favourite wine region, one of the big hurdles is figuring out how to travel from winery to winery and not be self-driving. Hiring a driver is the common solution but this can get expensive. If you are seeking an alternative, take a look at Spain’s most prestigious wine region, Rioja. Located in Northern Spain, close to famous towns like San Sebastian, Pamplona, Burgos and Bilbao, Rioja is partly in Basque country and extends into Navarre and La Rioja. There are almost 600 wineries in this relatively small region and many of them are within walking distance of each other.
Start In Bilbao
Bilbao, the designated Wine Capital of the Rioja region, is the perfect place to start your trip. Situated on the Nervion river just off the Atlantic Ocean, Bilbao is easily accessible from Europe’s major airports, including Madrid. Arriving at the small beautifully designed Calatrava airport gives a hint of what lies in store.
The Basque people of Bilbao take their art and architecture seriously with building designs by some of world’s most famous architects including Canada’s very own Frank Gehry. His amazing design of Bilbao’s Guggenheim Museum has helped lead the change for Bilbao, taking it from a largely industrial city to one of the most livable cities in Europe. The Guggenheim was the first major addition to Bilbao’s riverfront 25 years ago. Since then, the entire shoreline has transformed from an industrial zone into a playground for the citizens of Bilbao. Where once stood warehouses and shipping yards there are now miles of pedestrian walk ways, biking paths, parks, athletic grounds, shopping and restaurants, and museum spaces.
Heading to Haro
From Bilbao, it is an easy one-hour train ride to Haro where you will find the densest population of wineries in all of Spain! The train leaves every day at 3:30 pm from the beautiful Bilbao-Abando train station close to the Old Town. In Haro you’ll find a wide range of hotels and apartments to choose from for accommodations. Once you have settled in, spend a few hours exploring the ancient streets and enjoy a tapa or two along the way at the many bars and cafes.
An excellent departure point for your first couple days of touring is the Barrio de la Estacion, where you will find clustered close together 7 very important wineries: Bodegas Bilbainas, La Rioja Alta, CVNE, Lopez de Heredia, Roda, Gomez Cruzado and Muga. Each has vibrant wine tourism offers and welcome guests 7 days a week. Plan on dining in at least one of them and my recommendation would be the lively wine bar at La Rioja Alta or Muga’s lovely outdoor terrace. Also plan to visit Bodegas Manzanos, the oldest winery in Haro, located in the town centre. Here you will discover underground cellars and an interesting wine museum. Plan at least two days to see all these wineries!
Next stop, the ancient town of Briones, just an 8km taxi ride from Haro. This hilltop village is perfectly preserved and its quiet streets and amazing views of the Rioja vineyards serve up a relaxing break after a few hectic days of wine tasting. Treat yourself to a stay at the newly opened Santa Maria Briones Hotel, awarded the Top Wine Tourism Hotel in Rioja for 2023. The beautifully finished rooms and first-class restaurant will indulge your senses and appetites. Within the town borders you can walk to two family wineries, Miguel Merino and Betolaza. It is essential to call ahead at these small Bodegas as they don’t have a dedicated person looking after wine tourism but are happy to welcome you with advanced warning.
From Briones it is a quick 15 minutes’ walk to Bodegas Vivanco where you will find a fascinating winery with one of the most important wine museums in Spain. I highly recommend planning to lunch at the estate after the tour and tasting. This stop deserves at least 3 to 4 hours to fully appreciate what the Vivanco family have created in homage to the history of Rioja and winemaking.
On The Camino
After a few days in Briones, I suggest you continue 32 km southeast to Logrono either by train, bus or taxi. Logroño is at the heart of the Rioja, situated between the Rioja Alta and Rioja Alavesa regions and the vineyards east of Rioja Oriental. There are many accommodation options, including a few new hotels in the old city center, but I recommend a long-time favourite, Sercotal Calle Major.
Logroño is an important stop on the Camino Trail and has many beautiful and ancient religious structures to visit, including the gothic Santa Maria de la Redonda cathedral. The town is famous for tapas or pinchos, as these small bites are known in the north of Spain. Although the Calle Laurel is the most famous of the tapas streets, be sure to check out the bars and restaurants of Calle San Juan. You will find more locals here and a better selection of the best wines of Rioja in the wine bars.
Within the city you can visit the ancient cellars of Franco Espanolas, where Ernest Hemingway famously enjoyed their Diamantes wines back in the middle of the 20th century. These beautiful cellars are extensive and your tour provides great background on the development of the wine trade in Logroño. Another interesting option within the city limits is the Rioja Oriental winery of Arizcuren. Although the vineyards are located east of Logrono, the wine is made at this urban winery located beside owner Javier Arizcuren’s architecture office. By taking a quick taxi ride outside the city you’ll find the huge wineries of Campo Viejo and Marques de Murietta. Both have interesting wine tourism programs with excellent dining options.
With these winery visits you will have tasted wines from all three Rioja regions – Alavesa, Alta and Oriental without the hassle of self-driving and with minimal use of taxis. Keep in mind that even with all the wonderful sights and tastes, you’ll have only just skimmed the surface of this fascinating wine region. There are almost 600 wineries in total! So much depth and variety you will be wanting to return even before you arrive home.
By Peggy Perry