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Visiting Wineries in Rioja? Here's What You Need to Know.

My reason for being in Spain last year was to visit the “culinary capital”, San Sebastián. But when I was planning my trip, I realized that only about an hour and a half away lies Spain’s premier wine region: Rioja. I was amazed at the plethora of winery experiences available here; I saw everything from traditional caves to architecturally impressive contemporary wineries. This unusual variety is one of the reasons Rioja a must-visit for any wine lover – it’s an incredible meeting point of tradition and modernity. You can visit both destinations in the trip that I took which is now featured on Lot18 as Michelin-Starred Spain: San Sebastián and Rioja.

As it turns out, Spain’s winemaking tradition is richer than I ever expected. Here are some fascinating facts I learned while I was there:

•Spain has more land under vine than any country in the world

•When phylloxera hit Bordeaux in the 1870s, the French came to Rioja to satisfy their wine needs. Wine was made here, transported by train from Rioja to Bilbao and then shipped up to Bordeaux. In 1902, phylloxera struck Rioja, and all the vines had to be dug out and replanted. The French went back to Bordeaux, and the Spanish replanted their vineyards.

•After the vines were grafted with American rootstocks and replanted, “guardians of the grapes” would watch the vines, staying overnight in the vineyard in little brick huts. You will see these all over the vineyards in Rioja.

•Rioja is made up of 3 areas: Rioja Alta, Rioja Alavesa and Rioja Baja. Rioja Alta and Alavesa are located closer to the mountains, while Rioja Baja is drier and warmer.

•There are about 1,000 wineries in Rioja. We went to Rioja Alta, known for the best quality wines. There are about 400 vineyards in this region.

•In Rioja, about 85 percent of the grapes are Tempranillo. Other red grape varieties include Garnacha Tinta (red Grenache), Graciano, Mazuelo and Maturana Tinta. Whites include Viura, Malvasia, Garnacha Blanca, Tempranillo Blanca, Maturana Blanca and Turruntés (Torrontés). You will also find some varieties recently permitted like Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Verdejo.

When you visit Rioja wineries, keep in mind:

•About 99 percent of the producers are APPOINTMENT ONLY and they may or may not speak English. If they speak English, it may not be easy to understand. I recommend either going with a reputable tour company with an English-speaking wine expert or contacting the bodegas you want to visit by email and set up your appointment. The best tours will take you to Rioja Alta.

•The only one you really don’t need an appointment for is Marques de Riscal It is one of the region’s biggest bodegas so don’t expect an intimate visit. You may get a bit more personal attention if you make an appointment, though.

•Keep in mind that often times the wineries you have heard of (that are imported into the US) may not necessarily be good wineries to visit, and/or make good wine relative to others in Rioja. You need to do your research.

One of the highlights of my entire trip was visiting to Bodegas Baigorri. The massive glass box that you can see from the road is impressive in itself, but what I found underneath was probably one of my favorite experiences in wine travel.

Beneath the box is a highly sophisticated, multi-level winery cut into the side of the mountain. What makes this winery so interesting is that the entire winemaking process is driven by gravity. This eliminates the need for mechanical methods, allowing for a much gentler process. It reduces the damage to the grapes while keeping the flavors intact. Being underground, especially in a climate like this, helps to keep the temperature cool and consistent and reduces the need for energy.

After getting an in-depth look at Baigorri’s winemaking process, I recommend treating yourself to one of their fabulous wine-paired lunches. It’s absolutely delicious, and with a view of the vines as far as the eye can see, you’ll want to pinch yourself.

And you can visit Bodegas Baigorri as part of the San Sebastián and Rioja package we’re featuring today!

Have travel tips to share? Tweet @MindyJoyce

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