Wine is constant proof that God loves us and loves to see us happy. – Benjamin Franklin
Our experiences in La Rioja left us loving the region and the people and scheming on how we could find our way back for a follow-up visit to Spain’s go-to wine area. If you’re thinking about heading to La Rioja for the first time, here are some tips and thoughts from our foray into Spanish Wine Country.
Know that tastings include winery tours.
1Unlike many US wine tasting experiences, wine tasting in La Rioja is more than walking up to a bar and tasting off of a wine list/menu. The tastings in La Rioja, often at a cost, hinge on tours of the estates, the processing areas and bottling facilities and culminate with a visit to the tasting room to test the wares. In our experience, the tours lasted about an hour, sometimes more, not including the tasting component. All of the bodegas we visited standardly charged a fee for the visit, most in the neighborhood of €10 per person, which includes the tour and a series of pretty hefty pours.
Schedule your tasting appointments.
2Building off of the first point, it’s important to know that tastings generally require advanced appointments or reservations. Since the tasting constitutes a tour, you’ll need to coordinate with the bodega in advance to find availability that works. As was the case with Bodegas Ysios for us, despite booking about a month in advance, our only option was a Spanish-language tour for the time we planned to visit. This will take a bit more forethought to craft your itinerary but also allows you to select some key highlights in advance!
Manage your time.
3This was a lesson that we learned on day one! We quickly realized that what we thought was an appropriate allocation of time was way off. For our first day, we scheduled an 11AM tasting, a 1:15PM tasting and a 4PM tasting, thinking we’d even have time for a 2:30PM lunch nearby. Sounds good, right?
We couldn’t have been more wrong! Being novices to the wine scene in Spain, we assumed that 1 1/2 hours would be plenty of time for a single winery, but we found ourselves rushing from bodega to bodega on our first day, without time to stop for lunch. Our 11AM tasting and tour took us through 1:45PM, and our second tasting had us going until slightly after 4PM, making us about 25 minutes late for our final tasting of the day.
Our second day was paced infinitely more appropriately: a morning tasting at around 10:30AM, lunch with wine pairings at 12:30PM and an afternoon tasting at around 3PM. Yes, we were only able to see two wineries but this balance kept things moving along at a comfortable pace and never had us feeling rushed. Two wineries + lunch is a safe setup.
TIP 3.5: Don’t forget lunch! You’ll be wine tasting from morning until late afternoon so it really is worth penciling in lunch so you can stay awake and alert during the day. I would totally recommend the option of having lunch with wine pairings so you can continue to enjoy the wine culture of the region (find a place that appeals to you in advance or work with a guide to choose something that will be a good fit). It’s a great option that keeps you tasting tempranillos but also allows you to consume real food, not just tiny bread sticks and nibbles of cheese.
Mix modern and traditional.
4As I mentioned in a previous post, I generally prefer the vibe of Sonoma to Napa; the spirit of a mom and pop estate to a massive production. That being said, I love the glitz and wow-factor of pretty châteaux as much as the next girl! For me, balance is key, and I think that rings true in La Rioja.
We mixed big and small, and new and old to try to get a sense of the different facets of La Rioja’s production. Marques de Riscal and Bodegas Ysios are great spots for architecture lovers who will appreciate the new feel of these properties (Bodegas Ysios was my favorite architecturally!). For a homey feel, organic-certified Remelluri captured the spirit and tradition of the region with a gorgeous estate and stunning vineyards. An on-site centuries-old chapel surrounded by freshly fallen stone fruit and olive groves added to the experience.
If you had only one day in the region and could only do two bodegas, it’s worth experiencing one more modern larger-scale winery and one smaller, more traditional winery to compare and contrast.
Go with a private guide (if possible).
5Finally, go with a guide if you can. As with any wine tasting experience, drinking and driving is a no-no, so having a driver is a must. We had drivers for both days which kept everything stress-free, but we had a particularly wonderful experience working with Ikusnahi Tours for a private experience. Ernes, the founder, worked with us to craft the itinerary with two hand selected bodegas, and scheduled our lunchtime tasting menu. Having the expertise of a local who understands the scene and can deliver customized recommendations is a really special experience. As I’ve shared before, I’m not a big bus tour person but having a private guide is an altogether different experience that is wholly worthwhile and advantageous in my book… plus, it doesn’t have to break the bank! If you’re going with a small group of friends or family, splitting the costs makes it affordable and stress free for everyone involved.
Have you been to La Rioja? What are your tips or recommendations
for first-timers to the region?