Our other passion at Best Coast Wines (besides of course, wine) is travel. Grant and I are big into hitting the open road with a map, a vague plan, and a thirst for adventure (and of course, wine).
Our company was born on a road trip, with Grant and I driving up and down the Central CA Coast in Grant’s old pickup truck, the Red Ranger. We were searching for that first perfect Zinfandel. Along the way, we found lots of other wonderful things that you can only find on a great roadtrip. But more on that another day.
This is the first part of an infinity-part series on our travels to wine regions across the globe. Enjoy!
Best Coast Wines Road Trip: Rioja
When the word ‘Rioja’ rolls off someone’s tongue, what do you think of? In my mind, images of giant bulls, brave toreadors, and old Spanish gentlemen joyfully pouring wine out of wine skins appear in my mind’s eye. As it turns out, if we add in gorgeous vineyards amid a backdrop of rugged mountains and a hot sun, we aren’t that far off from the glorious wine region of Rioja.
Earlier this week, my wife Gabby and I got to spend a day in Rioja during our trip to Spain. We rolled into the town of Haro, the “Capital of Rioja” in the early AM, and despite the day’s forecast high of around 84 degrees F, it was chilly (i.e. big diurnal temp swings, a good sign for a great wine region). After finding a little cafeteria and fortifying ourselves with tortilla espanola and small but strong cafes, we were ready for a day in wine heaven.
We visited the bodegas of CVNE and R. Lopez de Heredia, two old guard Rioja bodegas founded in the 19th century. Both bodegas are steeped in over a century of tradition, and still make their wines much in the same way they have been made for the past 100+ years (Lopez still even makes their own barrels). We got to see their immaculate yet decidedly old-school wineries, with their giant French oak fermentation tanks and endless rows of stacked American oak barrels for aging, as well as their gloriously moldy cellars where wines are aged for years, if not decades, before they are released for public enjoyment.
As a student of the wine trade, I found myself thinking about the similarities and differences with the winemaking in our beloved California:
Similar to CA:
- Warm Climate: Rioja wines are some of the ripest, most fruit forward wines in the old world, while still maintaining that earthy soul and firm acidity we associate with European wines. If you love California Cabs and Zinfandels, I’ll bet you’ll love Rioja’s Tempranillo-based wines too.
- American Oak: traditional Rioja wines are aged in American oak barrels, so you’ll see those same telltale notes of vanilla, coconut, and dill that you’d see in American oaked California wines. We can thank Spain’s historical colonial relationship with the Americas for this, as well as their on-and-off hostility with France (the other land of good barrel wood) for the last 900 years or so.
Different from CA:
- LONG Tradition: There’s about two millennia of winemaking history here, and they make full use of all that they’ve learned. Needless to say, they are very good at making wines from Tempranillo. Fun fact: the Romans were the first to cultivate vines in Rioja, and some historians think that the vines they brought up to Bordeaux, the famous French region just across the border, were actually cuttings from Rioja. Do not bring this up with the Bordelaise. Two thousand years later, they’re still a little sore about it.
- Tight Control of Rioja DOCa: Like much of the old world, there are strict winemaking and aging guidelines as to what wines are allowed to be called ‘Rioja’. A list of the requirements can be found here, but suffice to say they do a good job of informing the consumer of what to expect when buying a certain bottle of Rioja and maintaining high quality. The flipside of this regulation is a curtailing of winemaking creativity, since winemakers are more limited in what grapes and what techniques they can use and still call the wines Rioja. In California, regulations like this only apply to the geographic origin (the American Viticultural Area, or AVA). Aside from the AVA, American winemakers can grow whatever they please, and vinify the wines however they want, leading to a broader range of wine styles in each American wine region.
- World Class Architecture: it’s safe to say the Rioja has the most amazing winery architecture in the world. The region features works by Frank Gehry (Marques de Riscal), Santiago Calatrava (Ysios), and Zaha Hadid (Lopez de Heredia), among other lovely contemporary masterpieces. If you’re an architecture and a wine buff, you’ll need to come here and check it out. Bonus: the wonderfully architectural Basque city of Bilbao, with its own Gehry and Calatrava works, is about an hour from Haro by car. Double secret bonus: try the deliciously simple dry white Basque wine Txocoli with pinxos, a perfect pairing if there ever was one.
All in all, I would highly recommend a visit to Rioja, a dynamic wine region steeped in long tradition with an eye towards the future. If you’d like specific details or recommendations on what to see and where to visit, shoot me an email at nick (at) bestcoastwines.com and I’d be happy to share more.
If you liked this adventure, please take a look at our other Best Coast Wines Road Trips:
And check out the rest of our blog for wine pairing advice and other fun things!
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