The Rioja wine region, located in the north of Spain, is one of the most famous wine regions in the world. With over 600 wineries producing a wide range of wines, the Rioja is known for producing some of the best wines in Spain. Celebrated for its reds often made from Tempranillo grapes, the Rioja is a popular destination for wine enthusiasts.
I visited the Rioja wine region as part of a 1 week trip through northern Spain, and I’m going to be honest – I know very little about wine. I know I like it, and I knew this region was famous for it. So badabing badaboom, a couple days of my trip were planned. I did basic research on where to go, and headed out to learn more about Rioja wines with tours and tastings.
I am not a wine expert, and I am writing this blog post for folks like me. Consider this your non-pretentious and approachable guide to the Rioja wine region for first-timers.
There are hundreds of wineries and bodegas to visit in the Rioja, and this is by no means a comprehensive list. It can be intimidating to plan a trip in a wine region with so many options and places to choose from. And that’s not even considering how to avoid the snobby places that turn their nose up to people who don’t know much about wine.
In this blog post, I am sharing the wineries I visited that made me feel comfortable as a first-time wine traveler and provided a unique and enjoyable experience for all types of visitors. I curated this list of beginner friendly places that offer great wines, but also great travel experiences, such as beautiful views or interesting architecture. If you’re a novice wine drinker and you’re looking for a fun experience in the Rioja, this blog is for you!
First Timer’s Guide to the Best Wineries in the Rioja Wine Valley
About the Rioja Wine Valley
The Rioja wine valley is located in northern Spain, stretching along the Ebro River and encompassing the regions of La Rioja, Navarra, and parts of the Basque Country. You can roughly categorize the area into three sections – Alavesa, Alta and Baja.
Wine production in the Rioja region began in the 11th century when French monks brought the grapevine to the area. However, it wasn't until the 19th century that the region became known for its quality wines. The phylloxera epidemic that devastated many vineyards in Europe in the late 19th century did not affect Rioja as severely, which allowed the region to continue producing high-quality wine until today.
It is one of the most renowned wine-producing regions in the world. The Rioja wine valley is an excellent area for wine production due to its unique combination of climate, topography, and soil. The climate in this region is continental, with hot summers and cold winters, and the mountainous terrain provides ideal conditions for growing grapes. The soil is also varied, with a mixture of clay, limestone, and sandstone, which contributes to the complexity of the wines produced here.
Common Types of Wines in the Rioja
The most common wines produced in the Rioja wine valley are red wines, made primarily from the Tempranillo and Garnacha grapes. I was surprised to find that there are other wines though, including white and rose. Whites are typically made from Viura and Malvasia grapes. The distinct characteristics of the Rioja wines include their rich, full-bodied flavor with a balance of tannins and acidity. They are known for their complex aromas, with hints of berries and spices, and vanilla.
The Rioja wines are classified according to their aging process, which can range from joven (young) to gran reserva (great reserve). The different categories indicate the length of time the wine has been aged in oak barrels and in the bottle, which influences the flavor and aroma of the wine. You’ll notice that a lot of the wines I mention at the various wineries below come with reserva in the title. Apparently I have a preference!
Wine Tastings in the Rioja
For most of the wineries on this list, you will want to make a wine tasting and tour reservation ahead of time. A couple of days before is usually sufficient, but for some of the really famous ones like Ysios or Marques de Riscal, you might want to book a week or two ahead of time. Typically, there is a calendar of tours listed on their website, and you can book just like you would any other day trip of activities.
You can often book just a tour or just a tasting, but some places only offer a combined experience. Make sure to check the language offered when you book. All the wineries I list here offer English tours. The tours typically cost between €15-€40, depending on how prestigious the winery is and what is included in the tasting. Most tastings offer 2-4 generous pours of wine. Usually, you’ll sample one white and the rest red.
Best Wineries to Visit in the Rioja Valley
On the outskirts of the small town of Elciego, you’ll find one of the Rioja region’s oldest and most famous wineries – Marques de Riscal. Founded in 1858, Marques de Riscal is known for its innovative approach to winemaking. It was one of the first wineries in the Rioja to incorporate modern technology into their production process, a fact that they will boast about often during the tour. In addition to a winery, Marques de Riscal also has a 5-star hotel, a Michelin-starred restaurant and an elegant spa onsite. This is a one stop shop for a luxurious wine-focused stay in the Rioja!
You might also recognize Marques de Riscal from its mind-bending architecture. I was already familiar with the winery's architect, Frank Gehry, from his beautiful buildings in Dusseldorf Germany near where I live. At Marques de Riscal, Gehry designed the building to resemble a bunch of grapes with a swooping roof, colorful ribbons of titanium, and an asymmetrical shape.
Even if you’re not a guest at the hotel, you can take a tour of the facility and sample some of their wines. You need to reserve ahead of time online, and it comes with a fairly high price tag. In general, this tour wasn’t my favorite because it was rather impersonal and a bit pretentious. Regardless, Marques de Riscal produces a range of wines, but its most famous is the Marques de Riscal Reserva. Made from a blend of Tempranillo, Graciano, and Mazuelo grapes, the Reserva is aged for at least three years in oak barrels. The wine has a rich, full-bodied flavor with notes of black cherry, tobacco, and vanilla.
Known for its stunning architecture and excellent wines, Ysios is another famous winery in the Rioja region that is well-worth a visit during your trip in Northern Spain. Located on the foothills of the Sierra de Cantabria Mountains in the heart of the Rioja Alavesa region, the scenery around Ysios is absolutely beautiful. I think this is probably the most picturesque of all the wineries on this list!
The winery was designed by Santiago Calatrava. I am from Wisconsin, and I always loved the art museum Calatrava designed in Milwaukee. I even remember when it was built. Needless to say, I knew I wanted to visit Ysios and see more of Calatrava’s work! Its unique wave-shaped stainless steel and cedar wood structure is a sight to behold. Calatrava says it is meant to resemble a row of barrels.
Owned by Pernod Ricard, Ysios is known for producing high-quality wines with a strong focus on the environment and sustainability. Visitors can take a tour of the facility, learn about their production process, and enjoy a tasting of their award-winning wines. I particularly liked the tour here. It was unpretentious and interesting, especially wandering through the super modern aging cave. The tasting room sits at the apex of the wave-shaped roof, offering a lovely view over the vineyards.
Located directly across the street from Ysios, it is easy to visit these two wineries back-to-back. Their styles and flavor profiles are completely different, so don’t worry about getting bored! Bodegas Javier San Pedro Ortega is a family-run winery that has been producing wine for several generations in this region. The winery is known for its traditional approach to winemaking with a creative spin. They have different brands from different farms, including modern varieties and more traditional ones.
I really liked the quirky tasting room at Bodegas Javier San Pedro Ortega. The mismatched furniture, deep leather couches and unusual decor makes it approachable and casual. This feels a great place to learn about wine without being judged or talked down to. I didn’t need a reservation ahead of time, and the tasting was more of a DIY approach than set options. The server made suggestions based on my preferences, and served a unique mix of wines specifically for my tastes.
A must-try wine from Bodegas Javier San Pedro Ortega is the Crianza, a red wine made from Tempranillo and Graciano grapes. It is aged for 12 months in oak barrels, and has a ruby red color with aromas of red fruit, vanilla, and spices. I also remember loving the white wines here. They had a sweet yet briney texture, full of minerals and rich flavor.
Located in the Rioja Alavesa subregion of the Rioja wine valley, Bodegas Baigorri is known for its modern approach to winemaking, It has earned it a reputation as one of the most innovative wineries in Spain. Founded in 2002 by a local businessman Pedro Martinez Hernandez, this passionate winemaker turned his unique concept into reality. You can learn more about it in the little museum they have inside their wine shop.
I would strongly recommend taking a tour here, because the winery itself is a fascinating piece of functional architecture. Built into a hillside, the wine is produced and aged without pumps using a gravity-flow system. On the tour, you’ll get to explore the different levels of the winery, seeing exactly how the design aids in the production. The facility's unique design allows for the use of natural light and ventilation, making it a low-environmental impact production process. The building's architecture is a work of art, with its sleek and modern design blending seamlessly into the surrounding landscape.
Bodegas Baigorri produces a range of wines, including white, rosé, and red wines. One of the best wines produced by the winery is the Baigorri Reserva, a red wine made from Tempranillo grapes that are grown in the winery's own vineyards. This wine is aged for 18 months in French oak barrels and then an additional 18 months in the bottle before release. The resulting wine is a deep ruby color with aromas of black fruit, vanilla, and spice. On the palate, it is full-bodied and complex, with a long, lingering finish.
Of all the wine tastings I did in the Rioja, the one at Ostatu was the most fun. The staff was knowledgeable and friendly, the courtyard is charming, and they have some comically large wine glasses that are perfect for an Instagram Boomerang. Ostatu is a small-scale family-owned winery in the Rioja Alavesa region.
The winery is situated on a historic 16th century property, and remains a family-run small-scale operation. The current owners, the Saenz de Samaniego family, have been running the brand since 1989. Visitors to the winery can take a tour of the facility, learn about their production process, and enjoy a tasting of their award-winning wines. I didn’t take a tour here, and was able to simply walk-in for a tasting.
The winery produces a range of wines, including white, rosé, and red wines. One of their best wines is the Ostatu Crianza, a red wine made from a blend of Tempranillo and Graciano grapes. The wine is aged for 12 months in French and American oak barrels and then an additional 6 months in the bottle before release. The resulting wine is a deep ruby color with aromas of black fruit, vanilla, and spice.
Relatively new on the Rioja wine scene, Amaren was established in 1995 by Juan Luis Cañas, the owner of the prestigious Bodegas Luis Cañas winery. The winery takes its name from the Basque word "amaren," which means "of the mother." This is a tribute to Juan Luis Cañas' mother, who taught him the importance of hard work, respect for nature, and dedication to quality.
Focusing on traditional methods, Amaren still manually picks the grapes during harvest. It also primarily uses French oak barrels for aging. Amaren's vineyards are situated in the foothills of the Sierra Cantabria Mountains, where the climate is perfect for growing Tempranillo grapes. The winery also features a tasting room and terrace with stunning views of the vineyards and mountains.
You’ll need a reservation for a tour and tasting here, as they do not allow walk-ins. While Amaren offers a range of wines, its flagship wine is the Amaren Tempranillo Reserva. This red wine is made from 100% Tempranillo grapes. The wine is aged for 18 months in French oak barrels and then an additional 18 months in the bottle before release. The resulting wine is full-bodied deep ruby wine with firm tannins and a long, complex finish.
For the real connessiours, the 2010 Gran Reserva is exceptional. Made from a blend of Tempranillo and Graciano grapes and aged in oak barrels for 36 months, this complex wine has a strong aroma of dark fruit, vanilla, and spices. The wine has a full-bodied taste with a long finish, making it perfect to pair with some of the famous strong Jamon and queso in Spain.
How to Get Around the Rioja
The Rioja is a pretty large region, and the easiest way to get around is by car. Obviously this is not ideal if you are doing wine tastings. Always make sure you’re traveling responsibly between wineries. Choose a designated driver, or sip and spit — but also make sure you’re properly refueling on food and water between stops. In my case, I traveled with two friends and we were in the wine region for 3 days, so we each took a day as DD.
If you prefer to hire a driver or have a private guided tour, there are a few options. Keep in mind, this will be expensive. You can find wine taxi tours on the region’s tourism board website. They also have a list of good private guided tours. The cost varies depending on how many people are in your group, but it starts at around €280 per person.
Do have questions or comments about this Rioja wine guide? Tell me below!
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