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A Wine Lover’s Guide to La Rioja, Spain

One of Europe’s oldest winemaking regions, La Rioja is also the largest and best-known in all of Spain, and its charming villages, modern architecture, and elegant Tempranillo wines make it a perfect place to invest when the time is right

There’s never a bad time to visit the winemaking region of La Rioja in northern Spain. Arrive in summer, and you’ll see it as Ernest Hemingway did, who wrote about the “overfoliaged, wet, green Basque Country.” In fall, fiery leaves match blood-orange sunsets, and in winter, the vines are covered in a thick blanket of glistening snow.

It’s deep into the region, at a cross-section between La Rioja and the Basque Country, that you’ll find Villabuena de Álava, the tiny cobbled town that claims some 50 cellars and just 300 residents, most of whom, as you’d expect, work in wine. The village is one of many in the region known for its winemaking, and is a great starting point for lovers of Spanish Tempranillo wines.

The drive from Bilbao Airport in northern Spain takes under two hours, yet the scenery along the way changes by the minute. On the Basque side, it’s a steep climb through lush green mountains, but once over the jutting Sierra de Cantabria mountains, vast stretches of land striped with perfectly planted vines signal that you’ve arrived in La Rioja: wine country. Image: Alamy. Banner Image: Alamy

A Town Built on Wine

Straddling a tributary of the River Ebro—a natural border between the Basque Country and La Rioja—the town seems to have blossomed from a shallow valley, and at its heart is Hotel Viura. Comprising a collection of concrete and oxidized iron boxes by architects Joseba and Xabier Aramburu, the hotel is beloved in the region thanks to a series of monthly winemakers’ dinners, during which vintners from neighboring towns come to showcase their vintages, and Viura’s chef creates a tasting menu to match. The hotel also has a charming wine bar and shop, and a cellar that joins the bar to the restaurant via a section of the town’s ancient cave system.

The wineries in Villabuena de Álava—some large, some small—are all too happy to offer tours and tastings. Bodegas Izadi is a vast multistory winery, and offers a range of tours and tastings in the center of town. A particularly appealing way to see the winemaking process from field to bottle is by a guided tour on electric bike, which wraps up with a tasting of its icon wine Izadi El Regalo accompanied by appetizers.

The place to stay in La Rioja, Hotel Viura holds a series of monthly winemakers’ dinners that allow local vinters and tourists alike the opportunity to try a variety of wines from one regional estate, accompanied by a tasting menu by the restaurant chef.

Just seven miles (11 km) from Villabuena de Álava, Bodegas y Viñedos Artadi is one of the region’s most lauded estates. In a 2018 sale held in London, a collection of wine consigned directly from Bodegas y Viñedos Artadi went under under the hammer at Christie’s, London, fetching £42,000/$55,192.

Other interesting sites in the town include the 16th-century church of San Andrés, and the hermitages of San Torcuato and Santa María, the latter of which contains Romanesque remains.

Twenty-five miles (40 km) south of Villabuena de Álava, Finca de los Arandinos houses a boutique hotel, winery, and Tierra, a restaurant that certainly deserves a visit. Inside this Brutalist box, a calming industrial-meets-Scandinavian dining room serves a refined take on Basque cuisine, using local, seasonal produce.

The small village of Villabuena de Álava in La Rioja currently holds the world record for the highest number of wineries per inhabitant. There are some 50 wineries and just 300 people. Image: Alamy

Talking Tempranillo

“Tempranillo is very well adapted to the continental climate of northern Spain,” says Puri Mancebo of Rimontgó, the exclusive affiliate of Christie’s International Real Estate in the region. “Cold winters and very hot summers, a vast difference in altitude in the temperature by day and night—all are conditions in which the Tempranillo grape thrives. In La Rioja itself, where the climate is between continental and Atlantic, and there’s between 400 meters [1,312 ft] and 600 meters [1,969 ft] of elevation, the wines produced are more elegant, with higher levels of acidity than their southern counterparts,” she adds.

Historically, Europeans have preferred this style of Tempranillo wine, and as a result, the wineries in La Rioja have thrived. Of all the wine regions in Spain, La Rioja is the most well-known. It boasts the largest number of wineries across 158,000 acres (64,000 ha) of production—around half the size of Bordeaux—and it’s one of the oldest wine regions in Europe.

Tempranillo from Toro, a region further south than Rioja, gained popularity after wine critic Robert Parker wrote about it decades ago, says Mancebo, citing its deep red color, high alcohol levels, and strong flavor; thought to better suit the American palate at the time, “today it is the elegant La Rioja wines that are in favor again.”

In the 1980s and 1990s, Spain employed some of the world’s best-known architects to design buildings for its cultural centers and wineries. In La Rioja, there are at least 10, including Bodegas Ysios by renowned Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava. Image: Shutterstock

Design Credentials

Mancebo says that La Rioja’s success is one of the reasons that there are so many starchitect-designed wineries in the region: “At least 10, compared with neighboring Ribera del Duero, which has just two.” Most impressive of these are Marqués de Riscal by Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid’s tasting room at López de Heredia Viña Tondonia, Baigorri by architect Iñaki Aspiazu, and Ysios, designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava. Each attracts architecture tourists and wine aficionados alike.

There are other places in the world where Tempranillo has been planted, but with less success than in Spain, says Mancebo. “Tempranillo grapes have been planted in the Napa Valley, Oregon, and some places in Australia, but they have not developed that well. To make a great wine out of Tempranillo you need very low yields, and that is not great for mass production. One kilo (2.2 lbs) per vine makes a great wine.”

The Marqués de Riscal winery dates back to 1858, but was given a wholly modern design by Canadian architect Frank Gehry in 1983. Image: Shutterstock

Whatever time of year you visit La Rioja, try to come for 11am, and head for Bodegas Luis Cañas, just above Villabuena de Álava. The estate has been operating since 1928 and the family has been making wine for over 200 years; there’s a collection of fascinating photography documenting this heritage throughout the tasting rooms and cellars. There you’ll invariably find owner Luis sampling green olives straight from his garden—the ideal accompaniment to a glass of the estate’s refreshing, unoaked white Rioja. Be sure to try both.

A Christie’s Wine Expert’s View

“The majority of wine from Rioja seen at auction tends to be red and comes in three forms: Crianza, Reserva, and Gran Reserva. Classifications are determined by the amount of time the wine spends in the barrel prior to release, and Christie’s has held a number of historic sales of mature Rioja over the past 20 years,” says Chris Munro, Head of Wine Department, Americas, Christie’s New York.

“Of the many hundreds of producers, they tend to fall into two groups—traditional and modern. Some of the more traditional are Bodegas Marqués de Murrieta, Marqués de Riscal, La Rioja Alta, and López de Heredia, whereas the more modern include Muga, Artadi, and Remírez de Ganuza.”

“The wines can age for many decades; vintages to keep an eye out for are 1934, 1948, 1958, and 1964. More recent vintages to lay down for the future would be 1994, 1995, 2001, 2004, and 2005,” advises Munro. “Having been privileged to taste wines dating back to the 19th century, I can testify to their ability to age gracefully and give pleasurable drinking throughout their long lives.”

On the Market

“Vineyard properties rarely come onto the market in La Rioja, they are just too successful,” says Mancebo, “but there are currently two that we would recommend taking a look at.”

Sitting atop of the winery and cellars on a circular plot of land surrounded by Tempranillo vines, this property, on the market with Rimontgó, the exclusive affiliate of Christie’s International Real Estate in the region, offers a unique opportunity to own a state-of-the-art winery and vineyard in the heart of La Rioja Alta.