This diverse region offers more than just the pleasures of the grape, though, and a few days here can see you mixing it up in lively towns and quiet pilgrim churches, and even hunting for the remains of giant reptiles.
In La Rioja, a small region huddled around the Ebro River Valley in northern Spain, it’s easy to feel a little dazed with the scenery: the rows of shimmering olive trees and gnarled vines that stripe each umber hill with silver and pale green, the walled medieval villages whose ochre-tinged castles crown the tallest bluffs, the pale blue skies where steely clouds swirl on breezes kicked down from the jagged Cantabria mountains that hover above. It’s a fairy-tale backdrop, a faded page from a storybook suddenly come to life.
For aesthetes who prefer modern architecture to winding cobble stone streets (of which there are plenty, especially in the lovely capital city of Logroño), the region doesn’t disappoint, either. Work from Santiago Calatrava, Frank Gehry, and Zaha Hadid rise out of the rural landscape like futuristic spaceships transplanted from another dimension entirely. The whole area is a foodie’s dream, too, with Michelin-starred chefsoffering innovative versions of traditional Basque cuisine in shockingly modern dining rooms that belie their quaint village locales.
In addition to Spain’s indigenous Tempranillo grapes, the region grows Garnacha, Graciano, Mazuelo, Viura, Malvasia, Granacha Blanca, and Tempranillo Blanco (white), meaning that everything from aged red wines to young whites, to delicate rosados (rosé) can be “Rioja”—and truly, many wine experts agree that the region’s whites and rosados are currently among the most exciting Riojas to drink.