Rioja Wine Tour Report 2023

In May 2023 Tim ran two tours to Rioja.  He had previously run tours in 2017 and 2005, and was keen to take people to see how much this exciting region has evolved in the ensuing years.
We were based in the beautiful city of Logroño, with its vibrant tapas scene, and on our free nights we would bump into fellow tour members as we sampled the delights – Tim’s favourite haunt was the mushroom and prawn skewer specialist.  The more culturally minded viewed the Michaelangelo in the Catedral de Santa María.

Our flights into Bilbao arrived in time for us to enjoy a visit en route to Logroño.  La Rioja Alta, in Haro, is one of Rioja’s most historic bodegas founded back in 1890.

We learnt about the history of the estate, the importance of Haro as a wine centre and the development of the Rioja wine industry. We saw at first hand the six monthly racking that their wines undergo, and their in house cooperage – essential when you have nearly 40,000 barrels in your cellar!
We took lunch in one of their beautiful rooms, enjoying a selection of Alberdi Crianza, Ardanza Reserva and 904 Gran Reserva. 

In the Rioja Alta we visited Santalba, a family estate in Gimileo near Briones.  Only founded in 1999 this is a modern winery, with an innovative and pioneering approach.  Daughter Laura led both visits, and explained their organic approach in their own vineyards.  Our tasting was brilliant, among others we enjoyed a sparkling Method Traditional Viura made under the Rioja DOCa, barrel fermented white, a powerful unfiltered red, and an Amaro made in the Amarone de Valpolicella style, using dried grapes.

By contrast Bodegas LAN, while also relatively youthful (founded in 1972), was on a much larger scale.  LAN has the most extraordinary barrel cellar that is a marvel of technology and automation – a magnificent cathedral of wine. We tasted the D12 aged in American and French oak; the Extreme aged in French oak only. The contrast was fascinating and illustrated the effect of oak – such an important component of Rioja. Over lunch of fresh asparagus, grilled sea bass, steak and a chocolate tart we enjoyed a Rias Baixas white, their delicious Viña Lanciano, their Gran Reserva and flagship Culmen Reserva.

Just over the border between Rioja Alta and Rioja Oriental is Vinicola Real.  Ranked as a 1st Growth by Tim Atkin MW, Vinicola Real is better known by its brand 200 Monges – 200 Monks.  The winery is built near the site of an historic monastery that housed 200 monks, who grew grapes in the middle ages.
Despite being a relatively new winery, the estate has developed a stellar reputation for the high quality and ageing abilities of its wines.  Our visit covered both the history and culture of the place, and a tasting of their very high quality wines – with Reservas and Grand Reservas going back to 2012 and 2007.

Back in Rioja Alta, near Fuenmayor we visited Finca Valpiedra. Sited in meander of the Ebro, with a glorious viewing deck, this was a beautiful place.  The tasting showed yet another side to Rioja – Finca Valpiedra has a modern approach and this shows through in the wines with vibrant fruit and harmonious oak.
Highlights included the 2010 Reserva Finca Valpiedra, 2012 Reserva White Rioja and a gorgeous 100% Garnacha.

We spent a full day in the Rioja Oriental region to the east of Logroño. Historically known as the Rioja Baja region, it was renamed in 2017 to avert some negative comparisons with the Rioja Alta, which were clearly undeserved as our visits and tastings revealed.

Vinedos Real Rubio is a family owned winery who started off selling grapes to the local co-operative.  In 2004 they set up their own winery which has clearly been a great success as they expanded quickly and export a high proportion of their production. We were hosted by owner Mariluz, winemaker son Victor and Enrique who heads up their export team so we were well looked after and received great detail about their philosophy and desire to innovate.
We tasted the first vintage of a barrel fermented Maturana Blanca/Garnacha Blanca/Tempranillo Blanco blend that doesn’t even have a name yet; a 100% Maturana Tinta Rioja; Garnacha Rosado with a Provencal twist; fabulous Crianza and Reserva and their single vineyards Finca El Tordillo. The wines were exceptional and gave us a different perspective on Rioja – particularly with the involvement of the lesser known grape varieties.  We had lunch here on one tour, but even on our ‘just visit and tasting’ day we were presented with an array of cheeses, meats which complemented the wines beautifully.

Also in Rioja Oriental, in Andosilla we met up en route with owner Luis and his (confident English speaking) colleague Pedro in their organic vineyards. Pedro gave us a great insight into the family history, how organic viticulture has always been their philosophy – well before it became trendy. We then headed to the winery itself and met the rest of the family – we felt very well looked after. After a quick tour of the winery we headed upstairs for the tasting and yet again were presented with an array of wines that surprised and educated. Garnacha was the fore here and we tasted stunning wines from 2008, 2001 and 1998 as well as a unique Sauvignon Blanc/Garnacha Blanco blend and another delicious Rosado.

Our fabulous, relaxed snack lunch included tortilla, sausages, roast pork and more wine. It was a real test to try and get people to leave – but we only had four hours before dinner.

And what a dinner it was.  We had enjoyed every meal we were served at the wineries, but this was something different – Spanish gastronomy with an Asian twist. Tim had booked us into the restaurant of Aitor Esnal in Logroño, and ordered us the tasting menu, with a very lovely wine flight. See the blog for full details!