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

Updated: Sep 17, 2023

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, Spain, an area famous for wine production. I am, by no means, any type of wine expert but Rioja wines have been a favourite for years. ATB (Approved Travel Buddy) 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. Rioja 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.

Landscape view over the valley showing the roofs of the wineries

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.

Two wheeled wooden wagon with rusting metal and cracked wood sitting half in the shade on a concrete pad

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.

View of a footbridge crossing a dirty stream. The bridge is concrete with a thin metal railing. Buildings line the water on both sides.

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 side of a white-washed building with arched windows.

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

A tasting room. It is dark with a stone wall on the left and stairs in the rear. The tasting stations are topped with multiple bottles of wine.

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

Inside a large barn-like setting with a peaked roof. Long lines of barrels are on racks laid on the floor.

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

Two old skeleton keys on top of a wine barrel

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.

An old time pasteurizing machine with a large black tank on the back and red wagon wheeels

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.

Caged rack of bottled wine

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

A stack of 3 layers of wine bottles completely covered in mould.

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 we realized that it was only mid-morning and 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 carry the bottles for the rest of the day. Having made this decision, we wandered to the next planned tour at Gomez Cruzado Winery.

Entrance sign with "Gomez Cruzado" written in script above red block printing "Bodega Fundada en 1886"

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.

close up of shiny stainless steel wine stills.

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

The entrance to a winery. The wall is made of different sizes and shapes of sand-coloured brick and white grout. A large white sign with black block letter printing reads "R. Lopez de Heredia Vina Tondonia. S.A."

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 bogedas.

A glass of white wine in front of a tasting plate covered in crumbs.

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.

Woman in front of metal fence, holding the bars and making a pouty face expression

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

two old brick buildings in poor repair. The left has a yellow door without glass in the window and peeling paint. The right building is plain brick with a large garage-door style opening, no door. The word "Bodegas" is printed in black on a white sign above the doorway

So, we headed into town to find a vinoteque. We had a lovely wander around Haro, exploring winding roads and the vibe of the town.

Street corner in Haro with a mural of a police officer arresting 2 drunk men on the left. On the right is a buillding with a stack of barrels in front and a banner with the words "haro capital"

We were delighted to come across this incredible view

Landscape view of a valley with wineries in the middle ground, and mountains in the background

We had an absolutely delightful day, if slightly wine-sodden. I enjoyed learning more about a favourite wine and I was delighted to find a white wine that I actually enjoy, and can find occasionally at the specialty wine store in my area.

close up of a cork in a wine barrel. The cork is surrounded by a small piece of burlap

Thanks for meandering along with me! I'd love to know your thoughts, ideas, and questions, so use that comment section! Share the link with your wine-loving friends heading to Spain! Become a member/subscriber (it's free!) to get notified of new content and access to the (women's) FB travel discussion forum. *Note to commenters: You must be logged in to comment under your name/website.


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