As I mentioned before, I do like Spanish wine. It is very easy to drink and also affordable. Since I was doing a food and wine trip for my birthday, it was only fitting that I spend my actual birthday in Rioja, the most famous wine region in Spain. We only had one day and wanted to pack in as much as possible, so we decided to splurge and do a private Rioja Spain wine tour with Basque Tours. We planned to visit four wineries for tastings, one for lunch, and then also see the medieval walled city of Laguardia.
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Andoni was our driver and tour guide. He picked us up at 8:30 am in San Sebastian and we headed to Rioja. We made sure to eat breakfast before we left. It took about two hours to drive to our first winery, so Andoni gave us an overview of the region and Spanish wine. There are three sections of Rioja – Rioja Alta, Rioja Baja, and Rioja Alavesa. We would be visiting Rioja Alta and Rioja Alavesa. The town of Haro (in Rioja Alta), is really the wine capital of the region and we would be visiting several of the best Rioja wineries there.
In Spain, they refer to regions as denomination of origin and there are more than 50 of them! Each one has its own regulations and specifications for bottling. The regulations in Rioja are actually pretty helpful for casual wine drinkers like myself. You look on the back of the Rioja wine label for the colored sticker and then you have a good idea about the quality/age of the wine. If the label is red it is a Crianza, which has been aged one year. Purple means it is a Reserva, which has been aged two years. The highest end wines are Gran Reserva and have a brown sticker. Andoni told us that they would use the cheapest wines to make Kalimotxo, which is a mixture of red wine and Coke (not Pepsi!), which I will have to try at some point. You could tell Andoni was very knowledgeable about wine and Basque Country.
The first winery we visited was Muga in Haro. This winery felt like an upscale Rioja wine bar. I was really impressed with the pours, they were not stingy. Our tastings were more like full glasses and because of a mix up we got an extra glass of wine to share. We didn’t even have to do any sweet talking! They also had crackers so that we could cleanse our palettes.
We learned quickly that shipping to the US or even the UK was ridiculously expensive. Most wineries work with distributors globally, so just ask for the list of distributors and buy it once you get home. Of course, you can also buy directly from the winery, but you can only fit so many bottles in your luggage. Plus some countries may have restrictions on how much wine you can bring back without paying a tax.
We visited two other wineries in Haro, that were just a short drive away. La Rioja Alta also had a tasting room that felt like a wine bar. They gave me a cork screw as a gift. Then we walked across the street to Gomez Cruzado. Here we tasted the wines in the barrel room. Next we drove to Rioja Alevesa, which was not too far and the countryside was beautiful. We went to Ostatu for our next tasting. You could feel that this was a smaller family owned winery.
Lunch in a Cave
We ate lunch at the Eguren Ugarte winery and it was just perfect. The back part of the winery was caves and that is where we had our food. It was a simple but tasty lunch of jamon, cheese, and baguettes that paired perfectly with a bottle of Rioja tinto. By this time we were really feeling the wine so we couldn’t finish the bottle. It wasn’t a problem though, they packaged it up for us to take with us. We drank it the next day.
After lunch, we headed to visit Laguardia, a nice medieval walled town on top of a hill. We got great views of the countryside and it was nice to take a walk after all the food and wine. You really feel like you have gone back in time. Also, it would be the perfect setting for a Renaissance Fair.
Then, Andoni graciously offered to drive us to Bilbao, so that we would not have to take the bus there later. We told him one of the reasons we were going to Bilbao was to see the Guggenheim because we were impressed by the building, designed by Frank Gehry. He took us to see another Frank Gehry building, which is a high-end hotel in Rioja. The Hotel Marqués de Riscal is part of the luxury collection from Starwood. Although we didn’t go inside but it is quite impressive just from the outside. I may have to splurge next time and stay there. The design is so unique, it is definitely a piece of art in the middle of the Rioja vineyards.
After that, we were on our way to Bilbao. It was nice that Andoni had bottled water for us in the van. Pretty soon after we left I have to admit, I fell asleep. Our Rioja tour was a jam-packed day, with plenty of wine, and the van was really comfortable. Russell managed to stay awake and enjoyed chatting with Andoni. They bonded especially since Andoni had also lived in England.
In conclusion, I have to admit some of the details of my wine tasting day may be a little cloudy, but I do remember really enjoying every wine I tried. In addition, I am proud to report that neither of us was even hungover the next morning. It is hard to beat Spanish wines when it comes to quality for the price. And it is hard to think of a better way to spend your birthday then visiting wineries in Rioja. Andoni really went out of his way to make sure we had an amazing time.
Have you visited Rioja? Its one of the best San Sebastian day trips. I would love to hear about your experiences.
Expert Tips for Visiting Rioja Wineries
- Be sure to eat a good breakfast and drink plenty of water.
- Ask for the list of distributors in your local area instead of carrying bottles home or paying for expensive shipping.
- Look at the Rioja labels for the sticker that will give you a good idea of the quality of the wine.
- If you are interested in a luxury hotel in Rioja, check the availability and price for the Hotel Marqués De Riscal here.
No financial compensation was received, but Basque Tours did offer a discount on our tour. As always, opinions are my own.
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