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Wine Tourism in Rioja, Spain

May 6th, 2009-- by Allan Wright

I recently returned from an incredible bike tour in Rioja, Spain. I was guiding a private group of 22 women as part of my duties running Zephyr Wine Adventures.

I love Rioja.  It is an amazing place with fantastic bicycling routes, beautiful scenery, excellent hotels,  good food, and nice people.  It is really a top wine tourism destination and yet I usually find it practically empty of wine tourists.

One reason for this lack of visitors compared to other regions, is the established system of wine tourism. Unlike many US wineries, almost no Rioja wineries are open for visitors on a regular basis. Instead, wineries will open for pre-scheduled groups or will have designated times for tours.  As an American, I hate that type of schedule. For one thing, if I am vacationing in Rioja the last thing I want to do is pre-schedule my day. For another, I don’t want to sit (or walk) through a tour every time I want to visit a winery.

Of course, I can see the Spaniards’ point. They undoubtedly don’t want to just pour wine but want to give each visitor a flavor of the winery itself.  Still, if a visitor is ready to pay three Euro for a tasting and might buy a bottle of wine afterward, it seems as if wineries in Rioja might consider opening up for tastings on a drop-in basis.

Having said all of that, on our bike tour we were a private group and were able to schedule arranged tours and/or tastings.  One of these tours stood out as the single best winery tour I have ever taken and an example of how wine tourism in Rioja can work well.

Bodegas López de Heredia Viña Tondonia is a 131 year old winery situated on the outskirts of Haro, the main wine town in Rioja.  It is the oldest bodega (winery) in Haro, one of the three oldest in Rioja, and still family owned.  And it is this age and family connection that made for such a unique tour.

Our guide was Maria Jose, who I believe is the great granddaughter of the founder. Maria Jose was excellent and filled with passion about her subject. Viña Tondonia has a vast cellar system and the winery prides itself on not selling wines before they are ready to be sold.  It was absolutely amazing to see the pencillin-covered walls and bottles in the many cellar rooms, bottles that had not been touched in some cases for over 50 years.

If you go to the winery’s website, you’ll see an example of how wine tourism in Rioja can actually work. They have an “arrange a visit” form where you can write (in English if you want) when you want to visit, who you are, and what your specific interests are. The winery will then (hopefully) respond to help arrange your tour.  If all works as planned, you’ll get a private tour of one of the most unique wineries in the world, rather than just being another visitor to a winery tasting room.

So while winery tasting rooms definitely have a role to play in wine tourism, the private touch you get in Rioja can be quite amazing.

Tags: Allan Wright · Spain

5 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Armands Brants // May 6, 2009 at 7:50 am

    May be some day you would like take a short trip to the most northern wineyard? But you have to come on particular dates to have fun there.

    Take a look here -
    http://famouslatvia.com/sabile-wine-hill/

  • 2 Paige // Aug 3, 2010 at 2:38 pm

    Do you know of any 1 day or 2 day biking tours in Rioja?

  • 3 Allan Wright // Aug 3, 2010 at 2:41 pm

    Hi Paige,

    Unfortunately, we don’t know of any one-day biking tours there. There are very few biking tours in Rioja anyway!

  • 4 Paige // Aug 12, 2010 at 1:43 pm

    Thansk Allan. Can you rent bikes anywhere and do self-guided tours?

  • 5 Allan Wright // Aug 12, 2010 at 1:51 pm

    We actually rent our bikes in Pamplona, hours away, and drive them in for each tour. No one rents fleets of bikes locally. It is possible you can find a bike rental place with a few bikes but I don’t know of any.

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