It took us about two years of living in Spain before we finally made our way north, to one of the most famous wine regions in the world. We spent almost a week exploring the Rioja wineries while traveling with a group of certified wine experts. All in the name of research for our guide on how to tour the best bodegas in Rioja Spain.
In this Spain wine blog post, I want to help wine travelers to Spain understand a little more about this famous wine region. I provide an overview of how to go about touring the wineries and recommend the wineries we visited. All of the wineries we toured offer tours and tastings and many also can arrange some premium wine tour experiences.
Time needed: 15 minutes.
In This Spain Wine Blog, You Will Learn
- What is Rioja wine and why is it considered some of the best Spanish wine
We explore the history and terroir of the wine region
- How to find a bodega in Rioja to learn more about Spanish wines
We share our favorite bodegas and explain how to visit them
- How to determine which Rioja wine tours are best for you
We recommend a few ways to explore Rioja even if you don’t have your own car
*This post contains compensated links. Find more info in my DISCLAIMER.
The Most Famous Of Spanish Wine Regions
We live in one of the least known wine regions of Spain, Emporda. On the opposite end of the spectrum is the region where the most famous Spanish wines originate. When looking at a Spain wine regions map, Rioja certainly isn’t the largest region on the map. It is certainly one of the most common wines to find at a Spanish wine tasting anywhere in the world. Although there are many regions where travelers can find great wine tours in Spain, Rioja is the region that most wine travelers focus on. That’s why we wanted to create this comprehensive guide to wine tourism in Spain with a focus on the Rioja region.
In addition to the quality of these famous wines, Rioja is also a beautiful region of Spain, with rolling hills and small villages. It is exactly what many people imagine a Spain wine country to be. The Ebro River flows through the region as well, separating it into the seven valleys of Rioja. Although we focused on wine tastings, there is a lot of nature to explore in the area as well.
What Is The Rioja Wine Region In Spain
The Rioja wine region includes over 50,000 hectares of vineyards. The wine region spans three different political or geographic regions of Spain: La Rioja, the Basque Country, and Navarre. Most of the wine region falls within La Rioja. Rather than the borders of the wine region being based on the city or county lines, the borders are more determined by natural features. This includes the Ebro River and the foothills of the Sierra de la Demanda and the Sierra de Cantabria mountain ranges.
Rioja is a certified wine region under EU and Spanish law. It was the first Spanish region to receive the DO status. It later received the DOCa or Denominación de Origen Calificada. This is the highest-level wine classification in Spain. Only two Spanish wine regions hold this classification, Rioja and Priorat, which is closer to Barcelona.
The Three Rioja Wine Regions
The Rioja map is separated into three primary wine regions, Rioja Alta, Rioja Oriental (formerly Rioja Baja), and Rioja Alavesa. Most of the more famous bodegas are located in Rioja Alta and Rioja Alavesa. These Rioja vineyards are located in the regions that are most easily visited from some of the more popular cities in Northern Spain, like Bilbao and San Sebastian.
Rioja Alta is where many of the oldest bodegas are located, in and around the town of Haro. It is the westernmost region and sits at higher altitudes, i.e. Rioja Alta or high. Because most of the area falls within La Rioja, it is sometimes referred to as La Rioja Alta. Haro is a small town but loaded with wineries. Some of them are so close to each other that the wineries almost look to be one. Several of them are clustered around the historic railway station that was the main transport hub for years.
Rioja Oriental is the easternmost section of Rioja, which is dryer and warmer than the other two regions. The region is still known to many wine lovers as Rioja Baja, its name for generations. Rioja Oriental essentially means that it is the Rioja of the east.
Rioja Alavesa is part of the Basque Country, so it is common to find wines from here in Bilbao and San Sebastian. It’s also pretty common to find Rioja wine tours that visit some of the wineries in this area on day trips from Bilbao and San Sebastian.
Rioja Grape Varieties
There are a few primary Spanish red wine varieties produced in Rioja. They grow both local, Spanish grapes as well as more well-known international varieties. These grapes produce mostly red wine, although it is also possible to find white, rose, and even sparkling wine in Rioja.
Rioja Red Wine – Tempranillo Rioja And More
About 90% of the wine produced each year in Rioja is red. The most common grape associated with Spanish wine is Tempranillo and this is the primary grape grown in Rioja. Other grapes grown in Rioja include Garnacha, Carignan, and Maturana. Before this trip, we were most familiar with Garnacha, which is one of the primary grapes grown in Emporda.
Rioja White Wine and Rioja Rose Wine
Most people associate Rioja wines with the most typical red wines that are produced in the region. But, there are also white Rioja wines that should be tracked down.
Some of the more popular white grapes grown in Rioja include Viura (which is also known as Macabeo), Garnacha Blanca, Malvasia, and Maturana Blanca. It’s also common to find Chardonnay in Rioja.
Although the most traditional Rioja wines tend to be red or white, there is no avoiding rosé wines when tasting wine in any European wine region. A small percentage of the wine produced each year in Rioja is rosé, which they refer to as rosado. Because we visited in the Spring, we drank a lot of rosé. I had no complaints. Often it was the first wine to taste at a winery, almost like an introductory wine, before we got to the serious tasting.
What Are The Different Rioja Wine Classifications
In order to understand Rioja wines, it is important not only to understand what grapes are used but also to understand the aging categories and how to read labels. I did a lot of research before we arrived in Rioja. Part of this was because we were traveling with professional wine tasters and sommeliers from the US. In large part, this was also because I wanted to know how to buy Rioja wine at my local wine shop. Sometimes buying European wines can be intimidating because the labels are so unfamiliar.
The Rioja wine taste comes from a variety of factors. Whereas many Spanish wines produced in other regions tend to focus on younger wines, Rioja is most known for its barrel-aged wines. This is what makes the Rioja taste distinctive among Spanish wines.
Crianza And Reserva – What Does This All Mean?
There is a traditional classification system for aging wines, focused on the terms Crianza and Reserva. Rioja wine labels often say whether the wine is Joven, Crianza, Reserva, or Gran Reserva. The easiest is Joven, which means young. These wines spend little or no time in the barrel and are intended to be drunk young.
Rioja Crianza wine is aged at least one year in oak and one year in bottle. Crianza can be both red and white wine, but the white wine only needs to be in the barrel for six months. For both Crianza wines, the bottles are released to the market in the third year. Rioja Reserva wine is aged at least one year in oak, but they are not released to the market until the fourth year after harvest. This means the wine spends a combination of three years in oak and bottle.
Then, there is Rioja Gran Reserva, which includes a total of five years of aging, with at least two of those years in oak barrels. For white Rioja Gran Reserva, there must be a minimum of one year in barrel. This strict classification system is why many people think that Rioja is the best Spanish red wine. Basically, this classification system helps wine drinkers to understand whether they are purchasing a young, easy-to-drink Rioja (Joven or Crianza) or a complex Spanish red wine (Reserva or Gran Reserva).
Recently, the consortium that regulates Rioja wine production started to adjust the wine labels to provide more information to consumers. In the future, wine labels will start to say more about the vineyards and the production. For most wine drinkers, though. understanding the difference between Crianza, Reserva, and Gran Reserva is a great start.
The Best Rioja Wines
Rioja wine prices vary drastically. Within a grocery store in Spain, including the ones where we live, there are bottles of Rioja on the shelves for as little as €2. Considering the price of wine in the US, I still find this unbelievable. Of course, a €2 bottle probably tastes better than what is known in the US as Two Buck Chuck. That said, we generally tend to splurge a little more when purchasing wine for our home. A €2 bottle is hardly the best Rioja wine on the market, by a long shot.
Similar to other European wine regions, there are certain Rioja vintages or wineries that are more well known. These are the wines that can cost a lot more. We found many wines in the €7-15 range that we tasted while in Rioja were really good and a great value. Of course, we also tried some wines that were a lot more.
When looking at vintages, though, most of the winemakers we spoke with said that 2016 was a great year – the best in the last five years. If looking for an investment, most people we spoke with said that 2001 was the best Rioja vintage in a century. Very interesting!
Recommended Rioja Bodegas For Tours And Tastings
Rioja includes over 600 bodegas – it’s obvious we didn’t visit all of them. About 200 of the bodegas are open for tastings, tours, or wine tourism experiences. The region hosts about 850,000 wine tourists a year making it one of the most popular wine destinations in Spain. We managed to visit a good number of Rioja bodegas in one week. We visited family-owned boutique wineries and some of the most historic and well-respected wineries in Spain. And, we visited wineries in each of the three regions within Rioja: Rioja Alta, Rioja Oriental, and Rioja Alavesa.
Each of the wineries we visited offer wine tours and tastings when reserved in advance through their website. At a few, you might be able to just stop by unannounced, but this is less common. We experienced a variety of Spanish wine tourism experiences while there, in part because the Rioja wine consortium arranged our trip. We did some pretty cool things and met some amazing winemakers. Although it might not be possible to replicate everything we did in Rioja, each of these recommended wineries offers their own unique experiences so it is best to contact them and see what they can arrange.
Rioja Wine Tours Pro Tip:
Most tastings in Rioja cost about €15-20 per person, but there are premium experiences that will cost more. Almost all wineries require an advanced booking.
Bodegas In Rioja Alta
Finca Allende – Briones, Rioja Alta
Briones is an adorable village in La Rioja that is home to less than 1000 people, but there is a strong wine tradition. The Celts founded the village in the 2d Century BC. It was one of the largest producing wine villages in the area prior to phylloxera, an insect plague that destroyed wine production in the area in the late 1800s. Briones is only a 30-minute drive from Logroño, where we stayed during our visit.
There remain a few bodegas in the village including Finca Allende Rioja. Miguel Ángel de Gregorio started producing wine in Briones in the 1980s in a 17th Century mansion. Finca Allende owns several vineyards in the surrounding area, some of which they planted decades ago. They continue to use some pretty traditional methods to cultivate grapes, including using donkeys to till the soil.
Many Rioja wineries label their wines based on the name of the vineyards where the grapes are grown. For Finca Allende, their vineyards include Calvario, Mártires, and Aurus. Miguel took us to two of his vineyards and he is quite the character, passionate about wine and food and the history of the region. You can arrange a tour and tasting at Finca Allende by booking ahead of time via email.
Bodegas Muga – Haro, Rioja Alta
Bodegas Muga Rioja is one of the most well-known Rioja wineries. They are located in Haro, one of the main wine production cities in Rioja. There are a handful of wineries in Haro that are located in the historical Barrio de La Estación or railway station district. Most of the Muga facilities are over two centuries old and simply stunning. But, they have a contemporary wine shop and tasting area as well. It’s a perfect mix of history and modernity.
Muga offers a variety of wine tourism options in addition to tastings and tours. They arrange hot air balloon rides over the vineyards or segway tours among the vines. All of these tastings can be booked on the Muga website. One of the most unique experiences is seeing their own in-house cooperage, where Muga produces many of their own barrels by hand. In general, learning about the importance of barrels to the character of Rioja wine is key to any visit to Rioja. Most wineries have thousands of barrels stored in their cellars but Muga is the only one who makes their own barrels on site.
Bodegas Bilbainas and Vina Pomal – Haro, Rioja Alta
Bodegas Bilbainas is also located in the railway station district of Haro but is unique in one main way. Not only is it a centuries-old winery, but it has one of the largest underground cellars in Rioja. The cellars cover a distance of over 3400 square meters. In 1901 a group of Bilbao businessman established the Bodegas Bilbainas. Around the same time, the co-founder of the company started another wine label under the name Viña Pomal. They eventually merged to create one of the great wine houses of Rioja. Visits can be made to the bodega by emailing the winery directly. Tours include a walk through these famed cellars as well as a wine tasting in their contemporary tasting room. There’s also a chance to visit their vineyards, some of which have stunning hilltop views over Haro and Rioja Alta.
Hacienda El Ternero – Castillo y Leon, Rioja Alta
The original hacienda dates to 1077, but recently Hacienda El Ternero became one of the most unique wineries in Rioja mostly due to its location. Technically Hacienda El Ternero is located in Rioja Alta, but geographically they are the only DOCa Rioja winery that is located in the geographic zone of Castillo y Leon, not in La Rioja, Navarra, or the Basque Country. Originally it was part of a monastery. Some of the buildings used for the winery today date to the 17th and 18th Centuries. At one point the land included a hospice for pilgrims traveling on the Camino de Santiago.
Our first tasting occurred in a small chapel, which is a first for us, along with some local meats and cheeses. They are also passionate about wine tourism, with all sorts of unique ways to explore the vineyards. We toured the vines on a segway (neither of us fell off!) and ended our segway tour with a lovely wine tasting under the trees with 360-degree views of the vineyards and mountains around us.
Bodegas in Rioja Alavesa
Bai Gorri – Samaniego, Rioja Alavesa
Bodegas BAIGORRI is located in Rioja Alavesa, the Basque region of Rioja. The winery is built on the concept of gravity winemaking. As you move from the upper levels to the lower levels of the winery, gravity takes over so there is less need to use pumps to move wine or use excess machinery to move the grapes. This is becoming a trend in contemporary wineries and BAIGORRI is the definition of contemporary. The building is a glass box where the vineyards and Cantabria mountains can be seen in every direction. Most of the action occurs underneath the main level, where they excavated ground to build. The interior is also industrial and contemporary and could be the scene of a Bond film.
When it comes to tourism, Bodegas BAIGORRI also sets a new standard. They offer tours and tastings but also operate a restaurant with views over the vineyards. The restaurant provides a tasting menu of traditional Riojan dishes, paired with BAIGORRI wines. The tasting menu is €50 per person including wine and a guided tour of the winery. It can easily be reserved on the winery’s website.
Valserrano – Bodega de la Marquesa, Araba Rioja Alavesa
Located just down the road from BAIGORRI is another Rioja Alavesa winery but one that is at the complete opposite end of the spectrum. Bodega de la Marquesa is first and foremost the only Bodega named after a woman (Marquesa) rather than a man (Marques, which is common in Rioja). The buildings that form the winery include century-old underground cellars, some of which are over 10 meters deep. They house over 2500 barrels at one time for aging. Of course, the winery, which includes the Valserrano label, is producing wine in modern facilities. The history, though, is undeniable.
Valserrano is a family-run operation with a quaint and historic feeling tasting room open for visits. The fifth generation is already taking on responsibility for production, including increasing wine tourism. Tours must be booked in advance. They offer simple tastings, tours of the bodega, and a premium tasting with a sensory element to teach travelers how to taste wine.
Bodegas in Rioja Oriental (Rioja Baja)
Bodegas Manzanos – Azagra, Rioja Oriental
Another unique visit greeted us when we ventured into Rioja Oriental, previously known as Rioja Baja. Bodegas Manzanos is a family-operated winery with bodegas in Azagra as well as in Haro in Rioja Alta. They offer probably the widest variety of wine tourism options including private dining, tastings and tours, and a Hummer tour of the vineyards. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but they have two military-style Hummers for a little 4 wheel drive style tour through the vineyards. Then, we stopped for a tasting in the middle of the vineyards. Totally bling.
It’s a young operation, where two brothers took over from their father when he passed suddenly at a young age. Most of their staff is also under 30 (as they are). This is why despite having a long history of wine making in the family, they are at the forefront of tourism in the Rioja Oriental region. They also are embarking on a massive project in Haro that is set to change the city forever, with a winery, luxury hotel, boutique apartments, and more.
Bodega Ontañón – Quel, Rioja Oriental
Our last visit during our tour of Rioja bodegas led us to Bodega Ontañón, which is also located in Rioja Oriental. They are located high in the Sierra Yerga Mountains. During our exploration of Ontañón we drank rose in the vineyards near some of the land’s chozos. Chozos are bee-hive shaped stone storage buildings that dot the landscape of Rioja. Winemakers use the chozos to store tools or to offer a place of rest for vineyard workers.
We also enjoyed a tasting on a hilltop overlooking the mountains and a tasting at their brand new winery, which was just opened. We met Raquel, the daughter of the current winemaker, who is the fifth generation of the family to produce wine in this area. It was interesting to see how they are linking their family traditions with their focus on contemporary winemaking techniques.
Something unique in Quel is that many of the local winemaking families still own their original “wineries,” which are almost like caves dug out of the rock facades in the cliffs along the river. Originally, they produced and stored wine in the caves. Now, they serve as gathering places for family and friends, often with little BBQ grills outside. It’s the perfect place to spend a weekend in the summer. And Ontañón arranges tastings at their little cave winery. They also have a bodega and a small wine museum in Logroño for visits in the city.
Vivanco Wine Museum
If looking for a different way to learn about Rioja and wine history in general, then the Vivanco Museum of Wine Culture is a must visit. Developed as a passion project by the Vivanco family, one of the most well-respected wine families in Rioja, the museum includes over 4,000 square meters of space dedicated to the wine industry. From traditional means of production to the development of modern techniques, it has it all, including one of the largest selection of wine bottle openers in the world.
What is most interesting, though, is the family’s dedication to preserving art related to wine. On display are paintings from some of the top painters of the 20th Century. Combine a visit to the winery with a tasting of Vivanco wines and a tour of the contemporary wine production facilities. They are located in the village of Briones, about a 30-minute drive from Logroño. We spent about 90 minutes in the wine museum, but I could have spent two or three hours there.
Where To Stay In Rioja
There are a lot of options on Rioja hotels depending on whether you want to base yourself in one of the cities or towns, or in a more rural area or wine hotel.
Haro is often considered the capital of Rioja (as opposed to La Rioja). It is smaller than Logroño (where we stayed) but is surrounded by some of the most historic Rioja wineries. It has a good variety of accommodations and restaurants. One of the best things about staying in Haro is that you can walk to several of the Rioja wineries.
Some of the other towns include Laguardia, which is in the Basque Country, and Labastida, Villabuena, Lapuebla, and more. These are definitely more off-the-beaten-track. If looking for a luxury hotel in the heart of the wine region, definitely check out Marques de Riscal, a Luxury Collection Hotel that is part of a complex designed by Frank Gehry. It is centrally located at the border of the Basque Country and La Rioja. Check rates here.
Where To Stay In Logroño
Logroño is the capital of La Rioja and is located in the center of the region. This is where we based ourselves during our visit to Rioja. It’s a great place to base yourself because there are loads of great pintxos bars for dinner at night. We stayed at Hotel Marques de Vallejo, a contemporary hotel with prices starting at €140 a night. It was centrally located, blocks from all of the pintxos bars. We also heard very good things about Hotel Calle Mayor, which is a little cheaper but also centrally located.
How To Get To Rioja And Travel The Region
The closest airport to Rioja is Bilbao, although the region is also accessible from Madrid. To make the most of a tour of Rioja it’s best to rent a car, either at one of the airports or in a nearby city, to explore the region. You can reach Rioja in a little more than an hour from Bilbao, or a little over two hours from Madrid.
You can also reach many of the towns of Rioja, including Haro and Logroño by bus or train. But, this makes it a little more difficult to explore the Rioja bodegas on your own. Trains from Madrid to Logroño, for example, take between 3.5-4.5 hours. Bodegas Espanolas is located within Logroño. You can book a tasting and tour ahead of time, but it’s a great option within the city.
Much like most wine regions, it is a challenge at best to explore the wineries via public transportation. Renting a car makes the wineries very accessible, but of course, that means you need to drive yourself. You can book a chauffeured car for a day and be able to drink all the Rioja wine you want. This is a great option if you have four or five people in your group.
If you do not want to rent a car or a driver, the best way to explore Rioja is to book either a half day or a full day tour from a nearby city or to book a multi-day tour, which often also arranges for your accommodations. Here are some options.
How To Book A Rioja Wineries Tour
The first option is to book an all-day Rioja wine tasting tour from San Sebastian. This small group tour includes winery visits and a three-course lunch. Check the current price here. If staying in Bilbao, a day tour is also an option. This small group tour is similar but visits some of the wineries closer to Bilbao. This tour doesn’t include a full lunch, but a pintxos (Basque-style tapas) tasting. Check the current price here.
We spent five nights in Logroño and visited several wineries along with way. We were on a small group tour with other wine writers, so it was a pretty tailored experience and hard to replicate. This tour comes closest. It is a four-day tour that includes pinchos in Logrono, multiple winery visits, and more. Check the current price here.
*The Rioja Wine Consortium and RWest PR hosted us to help educate us about the Rioja wine experiences and to share what we learned with our readers, but all views are our own. I was thrilled to finally get a chance to learn about this famous Spanish wine region.
Amber Hoffman, food and travel writer behind With Husband In Tow, is a recovering attorney and professional eater, with a passion for finding new Food and Drink Destinations. She lives with her husband, Eric, in Girona, Catalonia, Spain. Together over the last 20 years, they have traveled to over 70 countries. Amber is the author of the Food Traveler’s Guide to Emilia Romagna.