Rioja: Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Winemaking (and a teeny bit of actual drinking)

Our three-day visit to the Rioja wine route in Spain has made us experts at making wine.

Spain's Rioja wine region

Prior to this trip, my personal sommelier XFE and I felt fully confident that after watching two seasons of Moonshiners, several tours of distilleries (including Jameson in Ireland) and quite a few breweries (mostly in Colorado), and probably a total of a hundred wineries on three continents, we were conversant in the basics of turning a grain or fruit into a fermented adult beverage.

When planning our trip to the Rioja region, we ran into a wrinkle that we’ve actually run into before. Spain (like other parts of Europe) requires advance bookings for visits to their wineries. Fine. But in most cases, you can’t just go in for a tasting. You have to do a tour of the facilities.

Now, as I mentioned, we go on a lot of winery visits. We go out to Virginia wineries twice a year to taste the latest vintages and stock our wine closet. We’ve been to Napa and Sonoma. We’ve been to Northern Italy. We’ve been to the Barossa region of Australia. We’ve done many, many tours. This is not our first wine rodeo.

So being required to go on tour after tour after tour where there’s actually only a tiny bit of variance in the process (hmmm, you use American oak barrels instead of French oak? Wow.) just so we can have a tiny taste of two of your least popular wines? It’s excessive. In no instance were the wines served as good as wines we subsequently bought and tasted.

My suggestion? I’d rather hear more about the wine itself. What notes should I look for? Which specific ones are available for sale in the US (since the wineries won’t ship)? How long should we store it if we buy it? How is this one different from this one? That kind of stuff.

Nevertheless, we made reservations for tours at four facilities: Bodega Lopez de Heredia in Haro; Bodega Baigorri in Samaniego; Marques de Riscal in Elciego; and Bodega Ysios in Laguardia. Our mid-November trip was around two-to-six weeks after harvest and bottling (depending on the facility), so things were definitely quiet and reservations were easy to arrange.

We started our trip with a pleasant morning drive to Haro, about an hour and a half south of Bilbao. The countryside was beautiful, with steep cliffs of iron on each side of the road and early morning fog burning off.

Spain's Rioja wine region

Haro is one of those small old Spanish towns that has one road entering it, and Lopez de Heredia was one of the first spots right off the road. You couldn’t miss it. Well, and the modern decanter shaped tasting room building also gave it away.

Lopez de Heredia in Haro, Spain
Tasting room at Lopez de Heredia

You see, the big thing in the Rioja region is to have some fancy-schmancy architect build your facility or tasting room. In the case of Lopez de Heredia, the tasting room was designed by an Iraqui-British architect, Zaha Hadid.

The tasting room is the only nod to modernity at Lopez de Heredia. They are extremely proud of their adherence to the old ways of doing things, using many of the traditional methods they’ve honed over the last 130-plus years to make their Vina Tondonia. They make their own barrels and have an onsite cooperage, a source of great pride for our lovely young tour guide. And, in case you were wondering, they use American oak.

Barrel making at Lopez de Heredia in Haro, Spain

We also got a peek at some of their very creepy underground storage vaults where bottles of wine were just coated with cobwebs and dust. You could not make out a single label. In many cases, you couldn’t even tell that they were bottles. Our tour guide explained that killing the spiders would be environmentally insensitive since they provide a necessary service of eating other pests. The amount of post-harvest wine gnats floating in the air would seem to suggest—to me at least—that the spiders were not holding up their end of the deal, and just maybe, we could break out a feather duster and tidy up a bit.

Wine storage at Lopez de Heredia

At Heredia, we tasted crianzas, reservas and gran reservas – terms which refer to how long the wines have been aged. They were all very, very good and were bargain priced, although that did us no good since they don’t ship to the U.S. Heredia, like other wineries in Rioja, uses a U.S. distributor, which means you can’t get all of their wines, and the staff at the wineries don’t know which ones you can get. Quite frustrating. We ended up buying a bottle to drink, and a small dessert wine to take home.

Wine storage at Lopez de Heredia

Haro has 19 or so wineries, but we had only made reservations at Heredia, which had been recommended by the guy at our favorite local wine store. There was, however, a tasting room right next door to Heredia that we had read about during our research – Bodegas Roda. As promised, it was small and to the point. You could taste Roda wines and even their olive oil, which we did.

Bodegas Roda in Spain

We then headed down the street to Bodegas Torre Muga, which is a very large and modern operation that, quite wisely, has a wine bar where you can sit and try a flight of wines without going through the tour business. It was here that we made a very odd discovery: although the Rioja region is deservedly known for its wonderful reds, the whites were just as good, if not sometimes better. This was true at Muga, which had a wonderful blanco that we fell in love with.(They also had some of the best buttery crackers there, which I. Tore. Up.)

Torre Muga, Rioja, Spain
Didn’t like anything. Anything at all.

Tomorrow: Wine bankruptcies, the role of gravity in winemaking, and why you should not choose a winery based on a cool, architecturally interesting building.

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