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Spanish Wine Country: The Rioja Region Guide

Updated: Feb 2

You can DIY your Rioja wine tour! We wanted to do a wine tour, but none of the options fit our schedule. So we built an itinerary and planned the logistics ourselves.

Christine's father is huge fan of the Tempranillo grape. He would proudly bring bottles of Muga and Izadi wines to his wine club. So, when we were planning our Spain itinerary we decided to take a detour between Madrid and Barcelona to the Rioja wine region. Let me preface this post by saying, we love Napa and Santa Rosa in the USA. Both locations share picturesque vineyards with rolling hills but the value in Rioja is out of this world!

Not much is written about how to get around Rioja without a tour bus. But in March 2023 we did our own bespoke tour of Rioja. Here is how we did it and what we learned.

1. Getting around is easy: we rented a car from the Madrid train station. Using Avis we were able to reserve and then pick up a car on Monday morning. A couple weeks prior to the trip we went to our local AAA and picked up an International Drivers Permit (IDP-- you do not need to be a AAA member) which is valid for use in 150 countries. This requires filling out and submitting a form, your drivers license, and costs about $30. It is essential to bring your IDP and your license to rent a car in Spain (Avis may require 2 credit cards to hold the deposit). The Avis-Attendant gave us a hard sell on the 75 Euro insurance, which we declined, however we took detailed photos and videos of the car when we picked it up in case there was any issue on the drop off. We drove easily out of Madrid and were in wine country within 2 hours. There was very limited traffic and it was easy to pay tolls as we went using both cash and credit cards. Driving in the small towns was easy and stress free and there was always public parking, in lots above and below ground. There are a lot of round-a-bouts, so if you aren’t familiar it is good to brush up on the rules of the road beforehand. If you don’t want to drive, you can just as easily take the train from Madrid to Logrono directly (which will take you to the heart of Rioja), at Logrono there are a few rental car desks, some even in the train station (like Hertz), Avis is about a 10 minute walk. Logrono is a very safe and friendly town. The train station is easy to navigate and has an information desk with staff who speak English.

2. Planning Wineries and Where to Stay: at first we looked at expensive winery tours, but these tours did not fit our timeline, availability, or interest. With a bit of research we learned that all the wineries and towns we wanted to visit were within a 20-30 minute radius and individual tours and tasting were so inexpensive compared to Napa. Typical tastings were about 7 euros (that was not typo!) and individual tours cost 10-30 euros. Anyone who has been to Napa lately knows how great of a deal this is. We visited three wineries in 24 hours: Muga, Izadi, and Marques de Riscal. We got on their websites ahead of time and sent emails to let them know when we planned on visiting. All got back to us very quickly to confirm the hours of their tours and tasting rooms. All the tasting room attendants speak great English (much better than our Spanish).

Here’s a breakdown of the wineries we visited:

Muga: Muga has a great reputation in Rioja, it is in the tiny town of Haro which is an

straight shot from Madrid. We found a free surface lot across from the tasting room

entrance, and headed for the tasting room. The bathrooms were clean and the staff

very kind and enthusiastic. They had plenty of seating and lots of swag at reasonable

prices. The best deal was the wine! They had several bottles we don’t get in the US and

the 4 wine (choose your own) tasting was less than 10 euros. In addition to that you

could get full pours of wine for about 4 euros each. As an added treat they had some

amazing sparking wines and an award winning rosé. Although this is red wine country

there was plenty for sparkling and white wine lovers too. The staff gave great

explanations (in English) and offered multiple pours. We didn’t want to leave and

unanimously agreed it was our favorite winery and tasting of the trip. It is also

conveniently nestled next to several other tasting rooms so you could plan a whole

afternoon in Haro (we didn’t see any close by food options for lunch so we checked into

our hotel after).

Marques de Riscal (winery and hotel): After Muga, we made our way to the town of

Elciego, with an iconic church and the now iconic Frank Gehry designed Hotel, Marques

de Riscal, which is run by Marriott. As an Ambassador status member, we booked two

rooms with points (so our bill was $0) and it was well worth the points. Firstly, parking is

free to guests. You get to stay in rooms designed by Frank Gehry and have access to the

wine bar, library space, complimentary breakfast and more. They even have a Michelin

starred restaurant onsite. The “Riscal Suite” was particularly posh if you are looking to

celebrate a special occasion. The staff went out of their way to make us feel like VIPs.

The winery is on the property and we made it for a late afternoon tour. It took us on a

short walk into the fields, where they have been grandfathered into growing Cabernet

Sauvignon, then we went into their historic buildings for a video and visual of all aspects

of the wine making. Then into a three-wine tasting session. It was about 90 minutes and

typically costs 30 euros per person. They also have an extensive gift shop. Although they

were not our favorite wines of the trip, seeing the Gehry building is a must and the tour

was very informative and special. We definitely recommend staying in Elciego given

how central it is in Rioja and is an excellent jumping off point for any winery.

Izadi: Izadi is closed on Mondays but we emailed with them and they were able to work

around our Tuesday schedule (we drove up to Bilbao earlier in the day to see the

Guggenheim Museum, a post will follow). Izadi is about 30 minutes from the main train

station in Logrono. We showed up 15 minutes early, there is a free parking lot, and got

an enthusiastic greeting and a table set for 4 people. It was the most intimate tasting

room, but again we were met with extremely inexpensive, yet rare wines to taste (7

euros per tasting, 4 euros per glass). No sparkling here but there were white and rosé

options if you aren’t into reds. They had less swag but lots of wines to try and some food

options too).

3. What to Eat: At the wine tastings we were typically presented with crackers and sometimes the occasional charcuterie board. But all that wine tasting made us hungry so for dinner we headed to Logrono. We headed to the most famous tapas’ streets in Spain, Calle Laurel. Calle Laurel span roughly 3-4 blocks and is pedestrians only. It is lined with different tapas shops, each with a different specialty. We showed up after 7 pm as places were opening. In the summer, we were told there are lines everywhere. During our visit in March 2023 it started out quiet and then quickly filled with locals and students. We never waited more than 5 minutes for anything. We did 5 rounds of tapas, from the famous Bar Soriano (mushrooms and shrimp) to grilled meat, all items were freshly made to order. We recommend walking the street and seeing what catches your eye before diving in. Highly recommend starting at Bar Soriano given its popularity as it fills up the quickest. We parked on the grand via in an underground garage, for about 8 euros for the evening. Aside from Logrono we ate at our hotel, however each town had its own little cafes and bars that were extremely welcoming to out-of-town guests. Some of us in our group spoke Spanish, others did not, yet we were all able to get around and were treated kindly.

Leaving Rioja: We spent 48 hours in Rioja, we tasted wines, drove the countryside and spent one morning in Bilbao. We left Rioja from Logrono via train to Barcelona which is roughly a four hour ride on a high speed train. We also returned our rental car to the Logrono Avis. Remember those photos and videos we took? They were essential because after returning the car, we received a note stating Avis would charge us for damage found on the car. We shared our photos of the car at pick up and pointed out the scratches they found were already on the car and the complaint went away. Key Takeaway: when renting a car abroad documentation is key!

In summary, although not much is written about Rioja and several expensive tours exists, it is very possible to rent a car and do it on your own. Go to your local wine store and pick up some Rioja wines, find ones you like and then google the winery, in most cases there is an email with a very enthusiastic person on the other end who will invite you to visit, or you can find their hours of operation. All tastings are extremely reasonable, parking was very easy (in March, although we know the summer months are much more hectic), the people very kind, and the food fresh and delicious. If you love Napa or visiting other wine areas, you will absolutely love Rioja.

Questions about Rioja? Leave a comment or contact us!

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