La Rioja

A visit to Spain in October, during the middle/end of the harvest season (vendange) is a great way for wine enthusiasts to experience La Rioja. La Rioja has always been a vital part of Spain’s history. Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, Moors, and finally, medieval Crusaders have all played a part in the area’s history. The Romans, however, made wine a part of their culture wherever they travelled, and La Rioja was no exception. Ancient sites of Roman wineries still exist in and around the area today.

After the Romans came the Moors, and wine making all but ceased. It wasn’t until after the famous “El Cid” liberated Spain, and medieval Christianity brought trade via the Crusaders through the region, that it flourished again. The Benedictine monks of Cluny in Burgundy, known for their viticulture, helped to establish three monasteries in the area. The vines they planted were mostly white grapes. In the fourteenth century, English traders acquired a taste for a local Rioja wine, which was a blend of white and red wines called Blancos Pardillos. Over time, development of lighter reds came about satisfying eighteenth century English and French courts.

The real improvements to Rioja’s viticulture began around 1780 when the need to prolong wine during transport brought about experimentation with different woods and preservatives. Studies were made of the techniques used by great chateaux in Bordeaux. With the outbreak of the Peninsular War, progress was halted until 1852, when the Bordelais came south to Rioja seeking vines because their vineyards had been blighted with “oidium”. When phylloxera devastated Bordeaux in the 1870’s and the “French” influence really took hold in the Rioja, many of the region’s finest bodegas (winery) started production on what we now consider as the great wines of Rioja. Today, Rioja is divided into three regions: Rioja Alta, Rioja Alavesa, and Rioja Baja. Rioja Alta is composed primarily of alluvial soil, calcareous clay and ferruginous clay. As the name suggests, much of this area is in higher altitudes. Approximately 45,000 acres. The Rioja Alavesa terrain is “terraced” and consists mostly of limestone and clay. Approximately 25,000 acres. The Rioja Baja is comprised of alluvial clay with large areas of ferruginous and calcareous clay. Generally wines from the Baja have a higher alcohol content. Approximately 37,000 acres.

Aging Requirements

Joven/Del Ano: Wine with little or no aging in oak casks. Must be comprised of 100% Rioja grapes, as with all Rioja guaranteed origin wines.

Crianza: Wine in its 3rd year, matured for at least 1 year in oak cask, at least 1 year in bottle.

Reserva: Carefully selected wines, aged for at least three years, of which at least one is in oak cask and the rest in the bottle.

Gran Reserva: Wines which have been aged at least two years in oak cask and at least three years in the bottle.

Rioja is a wine, with Denominación de Origen Calificada (D.O.C. Qualified designation of origin) named after La Rioja, in Spain. Rioja is made from grapes grown not only in the Autonomous Community of La Rioja, but also in parts of Navarre and the Basqueprovince of Álava. Rioja is further subdivided into three zones: Rioja Alta, Rioja Baja and Rioja Alavesa. Many wines have traditionally blended fruit from all three regions though there is a slow growth in single zone wines.

There are seven permitted grapes: four red (Tempranillo, Garnacha, Carignan or Mazuelo as it is called locally in Spain, and Graciano) and three white (Viura or Macabeo, Garnacha Blanca and Malvasia). The vast majority of Rioja wines are red; it is the reds which are best known and most prized. Finally, there are two main styles of Rioja reds. The traditional style is light in color and body, characterized by a somewhat gamey strawberry flavor profile. The modern style is inky dark, almost opaque, with generally higher alcohol and more tannins. Most grapes need to go through malolactic fermentation to soften harsh and bitter tannins. This style profile is considered to be more appealing to international consumers. It is possible for Rioja wines to be 100% Tempranillo, but increasingly rare. The other grapes provide color, structure, tannins for aging potential and fruit-forward flavors to the blended wines that are considered to be a classic Rioja blend.

I got to visit a handful of wineries while I was here. And there are tons and tons to visit from small family-owned to larger corporations. Take your pick!

First off is Vinasperi. In the heart of Laguardia (another city in Spanish wine region), it has been past down from generation to generation for over 500 years. They only have a annual yield of 27,000 bottles but they keep on the tradition of making wine. 

Laguardia is a medieval town atop a hill with a full view of wineries from the region. Underneath the city, lie 300 13th century walkways and rooms then turned into wine caves due to their ideal specifications needed by the wine process.

They also have a special wine that the heads of the family preserve which they only produce 3,000 bottles. The Reserve wine they produce only amounts to 5,000 bottles and the rest is Crianza wine. 

The cool cave

A beautiful setting for wine tasting.

The second one I visited was much larger; called Ysios, it has more finance and more capacity to sell throughout the world. They make 10 million bottles a year. 

The French and American oak barrels in the cold room.

We got to try a 2005 bottle which was light, similar to Burgundy wine.

Another cool winery up the road with futuristic designs.

Ok…so that was a short introduction to Spanish wine. But what about the food?

Though La Rioja is a small region in the north of Spain most famous for its high quality wines; the cuisine of La Rioja may not be as famous as its wines, but there are some fabulous classic dishes from the area.

Something unique I found along the way, before I get talking about food. Sal de Vino (Wine Salt):

As I said beforehand, Logroño is the capital of La Rioja region.

Its’ most famous streets to eat/drink and sample culinary delights is Calle del Laurel. 

A short and unassuming place that during the day, appears as nothing more than a back-alley but at night, is alive and electric. Visit on any weekend and you’ll have trouble squeezing down the road, with whole families (3 generations worth) elbowing each other as they slam down small bites of various tapas.

What is the most surprising and unique about this place is that most places serve only one item that they specialize in, alongside a range of beverages including the region’s wine. Put another way, they have one thing that everyone orders, thus leading to the one item menu. Stop at one restaurant for sauteed mushrooms stacked on a piece of bread and topped with a baby shrimp. Stop at another place for fried pigs ears, another for pincho moruno – a skewer of marinated meat, grilled briefly and dripping with juices. Order squid or small toasts topped with meat/eggs/veggies, and wash it all down with a corto. Corto is equivalent to a “shot” of beer or wine. Basically, you order one tapa and one “shot”, and then push your way out to the road where you quickly consume the piping hot food followed by a gulp of liquid. I’m failing to do justice to this experience, but all I can suggest is that you take the time to experience it for yourself.
We had the good fortune to experience 5 tapas bars while visiting the region.
El Perchas, specializing in Orejitas Rebozadas (Fried pig ears).
Happy pig!
Crunchy cartilage, glutinous, collagenous – the best pig ear outside of Hong Kong!
Here, they eat it as a sandwich.
Pulperia La Universidad specializing in pulpo (octopus)
Tio Agus Bar Lorenzo – specializing in meats on a stick
Love the smell of charred meat
Chistorra y Salchichon
La Tasca del Pato – serving modern versions of traditional tapas

Bacalao y Langostino en Tempura en salsa de Calabacin y del Puerro (Codfish and Langoustine Tempura style with Zucchini and Leek sauce)

Esparago en Tempura con salsa de Hongos y Iberico (Tempura of Asparagus with Mushroom sauce and Iberico ham)

White and shiny when raw, and more often found tinned, the Spanish love this stuff. La Rioja’s spicy chorizo has a smoky spice that demands, in all honesty, a nice cool beer.
Rabo de Buey con Patatas (Oxtail with Potato chips)
Media Luna (Half-Moon stuffed with mushroom, eggs and shrimp)
Right next door, unfortunately with too much wine gone to the head, we ended up in this little eatery (which I forgot the name of) but they served beautiful Iberico ham and some cool treats!
Baby fish!

La Rioja is a fun place to eat. Any place where wine is so fundamental to a location’s identity will result in a culture of food that accompany their wine. And although, I believe that a food culture is prevalent worldwide, ranging from spicy to bland and rich to light; but if I had to sum up Spain‘s food culture, or specifically that of La Rioja, in one word, that would be: ingredients.

Also, while most of Spain tends to nibble on this delicacy alone, the people of La Rioja also use it in their famous Patatas Riojanas. It is a relatively simple soup that has chunks of potatoes, fresh Spanish chorizo sausages, onion, garlic and Spanish paprika. It’s guaranteed to satisfy your hunger and take the autumn chill off!


Lechal (Suckling baby lamb): You cannot find a restaurant in La Rioja that doesn’t have this on the menu, and if you do, you should get up and leave immediately. This is Rioja. In fact, if you drive down any road, you will see barbecues in backyards or alongside houses everywhere you go. There is only one reason these exist, lamb chops. Sliced to about 1/4 inch thick, and with the full rib attached, they are succulent treasures. When they’re thrown on the grill, grapevine cuttings are added to the fire to give a slight smoky goodness to the meat, and they are finished with only a touch of rock salt over the top. The second variation on Lechal is a roasted version similar to Cochonillo (suckling baby pig), where you slow roast a piece of the lamb in a wood fired oven. Add a touch of water to a ceramic vessel, a dash of salt, and if you want to get fancy, I’ve seen a bay leaf thrown in for good measure. What emerges from the oven is a chunk of lamb sauced in it’s own drippings, with the meat literally falling off the bone. Often you’ll find it sitting on a bed of potatoes with a slice of red pepper.

Pimientos Piquillos (Piquillo Peppers): Talk about versatile, this is one food that almost any menu in Rioja will have on the list. If its roasted lamb, red peppers will sit beside it. Bacalao will be stuffed within them or the creative variation of this finds ground lamb within. You may find them on a salad, filled with cheese, on a plate by themselves, and sometimes, pureed and poured over a side of beef. If you don’t see a slice of red pepper on your plate when you order, you may want to reconsider where your eating. Typically, you can expect these Piquillo Peppers to be small and sweet, and they are almost always skinned and cooked before serving.

So there’rs a recap of Rioja food. In truth, I’m leaving a considerable amount out of the discussion (sorry on my part) but it will be visited again for sure. A beautiful weekend trip for some, but I suggest to take in the fresh air and good wine a bit longer if you can!


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