You drive up the hill and notice the brown tourist road sign alerting you to a photo opportunity up ahead. You slow down, wondering what on earth one can see other than scrubby brush. Once cresting the peak, a whole panorama of the region spreads out like a map at your feet.
An ancient church sits on a hill, the contours of a city are just discernible on the horizon, swathes of vineyards ripple with more colours than you can describe and rising heat haze blurs the landscape like an Impressionist artwork.
Like a child first spotting the sea, your excitement makes you impatient and after taking dozens of pictures which will inevitably fall short of the original, you get into the car and drive into Rioja country. This is where your adventure begins.
In the north of Spain, east of Catalonia (famous for its Cava sparkling wine) and the Priorat region (strong, high-quality red wines grown on slate soil), La Rioja is formed of three regions: Rioja Alta, Rioja Baja and Rioja Alavesa. The latter is part of the Basque country, an autonomous region with its own culture, language and police.
Why visit La Rioja? Because it has everything a cultural magpie will adore.
Fly into Bilbao and take the time to visit its distinctive Guggenheim Museum and enjoy the lively nightlife. Take a bus or hire a car and drive along the coast to San Sebastián (Donostia in Basque), widely acknowledged as the gourmet capital of Europe. Spend an evening wandering the bars of the Old Town, sampling extraordinary pintxos (similar to the better known tapas) and unforgettable hospitality. Ask for a glass of Txakoli and admire the pourer’s skill.
See how close you are to the French border? This proximity has a direct influence on the world-famous Rioja wines we know today. Stop off in Vitoria-Gasteiz, a lesser-known city and all the more charming for it. Wide boulevards, green parks, impressive architecture and home to the Artium modern art gallery, Vitoria is a welcoming place in which to base yourself.
Spanish monks have produced wine since mediaeval times but Rioja’s wines grew in fame during the 19th century. Imported vines from America carried a lethal aphid which devastated large areas of European wine-growing regions. The Phylloxera pestilence blighted the French wine industry
Neighbours from Bordeaux and Languedoc bought Rioja wine and vines to fortify their own blends. La Rioja’s success story had began. Yet French wine buyers were more than consumers. They offered advice to the Spanish bodegas – winery, storage and wine bar and shop all mixed together – to age wine in barrels. Red wine Rioja wineries used American oak first, whereas today it is mainly French oak barrels.
Drive south to the famous vineyards, planted as high as 800m (2600 feet) and thriving due to warm Mediterranean winds. Stop at any of the vineyards and take a tour. The Rioja country takes its reputation seriously. In April 1991, it was awarded the official recognition of a Denominación de Origen Calificada (DOC). These viniculturists have a worldwide reputation. And rightly so.
When you think of Rioja, you naturally assume red. Mostly known for its heavy, rich wines, Rioja reds have strong woody flavours added by oak barrel ageing (up to three years) before filling the bottles for further maturing.
Quality labels like “Reserva” or “Grand Reserva” have distinct rules about the length of ageing in both barrels and bottles. Other wine labels focus more on terroir (or origin) than production process.
More than 60% of the grapes are Tempranillo (red). Other grapes are permitted under the name Rioja – thus other grapes, e.g. Grenache, add more subtlety and variation in taste.
Far less known are the white Rioja wines (mainly of the Viura grape, but again blends with Malvasía and Verdejo are common). Their reputation is for early drinking, light summer favourites, while oak-aged harvests are growing in popularity to hold their ground against more complex Bordeaux whites.
This unusual wine is at the heart of Tread Softly, the Beatrice Stubbs novel on wine crime. Here’s our antagonist, Arturo Aguirre, on his most famous product.
“Can you begin by telling us about white Rioja? What makes it so special?”
Aguirre angled himself towards his interviewer, projecting his voice past the microphone towards the knot of observers. “Everything. From nose to palate to finish, this is an exceptional wine which can stand comparison with any Australian Chardonnay or Californian Sauvignon Blanc. Not only can it compete with the wines of the New World, but it takes on French Chablis, Portuguese vinho verde and Italian Pinot Grigio.”
The journalist took a breath for his next question but Aguirre anticipated him.
“You’re going to ask me why? Good question. Tastes change. For the past two decades, we have seen a trend to the fruit-focused, crowd-pleasing, oaky whites. Easy to drink, higher in alcoholic content and even the driest has a sweetness on the palate. Wines such as our neighbours’ Verdejo or Albariño also favour this tropical fruit robustness. Add to this accessible taste the power of New World marketing, and you understand why the traditional white has fallen out of favour.”
Inexperienced he may have been, but the boy recognised his cue. “But white Rioja is now one of the most popular wines in Europe, grabbing a huge slice of market share from other white wines. Where did this sudden interest in traditional whites spring from?”
Aguirre gave an understanding nod. “Another good question. To find the answer, we must look backwards. Rioja, in contemporary public perception, stands for fine red wine. It was not always so. In the nineteenth century, the region was famous for its white wine. Have you ever asked yourself why red wine is described in Spanish as viño tinto? Tinted wine? Not as in other countries: rouge, rosso, red or negre? Because the majority of the region’s output was white and as a result, subject to higher tax. So the wily viniculturists added a ‘tint’ of red to their best-selling whites, avoiding tax and spreading the name of Rioja all over the globe.”
A murmur rustled through the onlookers. Not only was he an entertaining speaker, but he taught them something as well. He kept his eyes on the journalist.
“Fascinating. So why has the general public, not only at home, but abroad, embraced white Rioja again?”
“If I knew the answer to that, I would retire, right now.” The laughter came, as expected, and this time Aguirre bestowed a gracious smile on his audience.
“All I can do is guess. After twenty years of the mass-produced uniformity of sunny, fruity and disposable wines, the traditional, time-honoured methods have once more been recognised for delivering depth. Open a bulk-produced Chardonnay and a white Rioja and compare. At first taste, the Chardonnay comes out fighting. Consistent to the last drop, it tells you of the maker and his methods. A reliable if unexciting wine. The Rioja, with a more savoury, green-apple note to begin, develops an earthy, mouth-coating taste, revealing its mineral sources, and deferring finally to a buttery lemon finish. A journey from first taste to last, it tells you of the soil, the climate, the land. That is not simply a wine. That is an adventure.”
His rhetoric, his gestures, his passionate evocation of the sensory experience brought forth a round of applause. He spotted Inez and Paz exchanging a look of familiar admiration. Yes, they’d seen it all before. But like a fine Gran Reserva, every year he just got better.
Whether you visit for wine, food, history or landscape, a trip to La Rioja will stay with you a very long time.
Learn more about the story of this region and its most famous export here.
If you’d like to read more of Tread Softly, I’d recommend pairing it with a fine white Rioja and some olives. Enjoy.