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La Rioja, Spain: A Wine Lover's Day Trip from Bilbao

Bilbao is an industrial city in northern Spain and is considered the capital of the Basque region. The main reason we were travelling to Bilbao was to visit the autonomous community of La Rioja, an area famous for wine production. I am, by no means, any type of wine expert but Rioja wines had been a favourite for years. ATB Mady has a more refined palate and was eager to visit the area.

We travelled from Bilbao, via bus, for a wine tasting tour of the Rioja district. This district lies within the borders of the town of Haro. All the wineries are clumped together surrounding the rail line in the Ebro Valley, making it very easy to walk around and visit multiple wineries. The Camino de Santiago goes right through this area. We clutched our paper maps of the wineries and off we went, finishing our morning coffees as we walked. Rijoa is home to many wineries, from small family-run bodegas to ultra-modern industrial producers and everything in between. Most of the wine produced is a red (tinto) wine but white (blanco) and rose (rosado) are also made from the native tempranillo grape.

Wine has been made here since Roman times. Winemaking was less popular during the Moorish occupation but was brought back by Christian monks by the beginning of the sixteenth century. The wines were mainly consumed by locals due to the isolated location trade was difficult. Commercial wineries were established in the mid-1800s.

Commercial winemaking began when phylloxera, the vineyard-destroying aphid, began killing the French vineyards. Spanish winemakers began exporting large quantities of Spanish wine to Europe and New York. However, phylloxera, driven out of France, began devastating Spanish vineyards in 1901.

Our first stop was CVNE Winery, aka Cune. Cune is the second oldest winery in the district (by 2 years). The winery was started by two brothers who knew a lot about business but nothing about vinting. They wisely hired the best wine-maker they could find.

The tasting area looks modern but it is inside the oldest building (1879) on the site.

The barrel storage area is called the Eiffel Nave because it was actually designed by Gustav Eiffel-- better known as the designer of the tower in Paris.

These are the keys that are still used to open the various parts of the winery.

This pasteurizing machine was bought by the brothers because they thought it might prevent spoilage. It took 7 years to realize that pasteurizing wine was a really bad idea.

The Rioja region only sells wine when it is ready to drink. After the barrel-aging, they rack the wines for the appropriate amount of time for each vintage.

The tour continued and our guide took us deep into the cellars under the Rio Tiron where the very best wine is stored.

Yes, that is mould. lots and lots of mould. The wine inside is fine, the bottles are washed and labelled after an offer is made. This bunch is the King's favourite.

After tasting some amazing wine (3 half glasses) with generous pours. It was only mid-morning and we were realizing we were going to have to pace ourselves. We knew we wanted to purchase Cune's Gran Reserva but decided we would return later rather than carrying the bottles for the rest of the day. Having made this decision, we wandered to the next planned tour at Gomez Cruzado winery.

This is a boutique winery located in a century-old home and was founded by a pair of native Haro residents. The current owners are another Spanish family who live most of the year in Mexico.

This winery used more modern technology for the fermentation process. Here, we sampled 4 wines: 3 red and one white. None impressed us.

Our third stop was the Lopez de Heredia winery... no tour, we went straight for the tasting.This is another of the late 1800s smaller family bogeda.

I found a white wine, I actually like! Here, we tried 5 wines. I bought 2, including the white. Then we headed back to Cune to buy the really, really good Gran Reserva.

They closed early! They told us they were open until 4. We arrived t 3:58 and the gates were locked. I had to prevent Mady from climbing the fence