At Totally Spain we’ve organised hundreds of winery holidays to Laguardia and the Rioja Alavesa wineries and we continue to be bowled over by the towns and villages, the wineries and the views. We revisited Rioja Alavesa last weekend, taking one of our custom packages and have come back buzzing. Here’s what we packed in:-
Interested in visiting the Rioja Alavesa wineries?
1 What do we like in the Rioja Alavesa Wine Region?
We love visiting Riojan wineries which are now very well set-up for visitors. Many bodegas are stunningly beautiful, their wines are exciting and varied, and the backdrop of the mountains and valleys is beyond words. Of course, the Riojan cuisine, as always, is amazing. Soul food with wine. We had a wonderful lunch on the first day and really tasty food at our 4 star Hotel Villa de Laguardia for dinner and buffet breakfast. And even our roadside snack in a little bar in a village was delicious.
2 What did we do in Rioja in just over 24hrs?
Tight on time we still managed to tour 3 wineries, laze over lunch in a cosy mediaeval plaza in Laguardia, people-watch aplenty while sipping delicious coffees, had a spa treatment and, to cap it all, ate our evening meal by the outdoor hotel pool while watching the sun set over the vineyards. Magical.
3 Why do we keep recommending Laguardia to our clients?
Laguardia is the quintessential Riojan hamlet. It’s honey-coloured streets are both cinematic and, around meal time, so enticingly aromatic. It is a beautifully kept 13th century fortified town. As with all walled cities such as Carcassonne or Lucca, it has a magical mediaeval atmosphere. What makes Laguardia extra special is what lies below the cobbled streets. It’s underground network of 300 or so caves – many of which are still used to produce or store wine – is larger than the town above. To protect the Emmental-like structures below – the only vehicles allowed into the centre are the tractors delivering the grapes to the caves in September – so it’s extremely child-friendly!
It’s a lovely place to visit a winery, have a long lunch, take a stroll around the town by the tree-lined Paseo del Collado and savour a coffee in a square – which is exactly what we did! We even met a great friend – Maria – owner of the wonderful Erletxe casa rural – and purveyor of delicious honey. Our lunch in a restaurant called El Portico on Calle Mayor beside the Abbot’s Tower included typical dishes such as ‘patatas a la riojana’ – a great stew with potatoes, smoked paprika and chorizo and succulent ‘rabo de buey’ – oxtail stew. The wine included in our set-course-menu was called Ayesa made in Laguardia. Doesn’t get more slow food than that. We had coffees at Hospederia Los Pasajes on the Plaza Mayor from where we saw the cutest chime at 5pm.
4 Rioja Winery Visit #1 El Fabulista
El Fabulista is a traditional cave-winery in the centre of Laguardia that produces young wines from tempranillo grapes. Here they still press their grapes by foot! Our guide Julia was very helpful and explained the traditional techniques of wine-making. She spoke of the former owner of the palace and cave – Felix Samaniego (a well known writer of fables and erotic fiction). She said that by request, they can provide an actor dressed in period costume to read passages of the writer’s work during the wine-tasting section of the tour.
5 Rioja Winery Visit #2 Ysios
Next was the Ysios winery – now owned by the Domecq group which is part of the Pernod-Ricard empire. The winery commissioned the Spanish architect Santiago de Calatrava to pick the site and design the bodega and that he did in 2001. Our guide Silvia took us around the building and illustrated the architect’s work as well as that of the winemaker. Ysios is also a tempranillo producer – working with a number of artists and celebrities to create their wines. A great visit and wonderful wine!
6 Rioja Winery Visit #3 Marques de Riscal
And from the new we went to the very very old. The Marques de Riscal winery was established in 1858. The tour weaves in and out of some wonderful gardens and historic buildings. Lots of walking around meant we got to know lots of the people on the tour and were sad to part from our new acquaintances when it was time to go. There we saw the exterior of Frank Gehry’s City of Wine building (a hotel, spa and Michelin-star restaurant completed in 2006) but it wasn’t the focus of the tour. We did get to see a lot of the production stages of their wines and were like children on a school tour when we were taken to the bottling and boxing section of the winery – something we didn’t get to see elsewhere. Our guide was again fantastic. As with all wineries, it’s possible to purchase wine at the shop. In addition to its wines, the Marques de Riscal also sells some food produce and merchandise. The winery also has a large café.
Unfortunately we didn’t leave enough time to visit the producer of reds, rose and white wines – Baigorri – we had run out of time. Next time we are not missing out on lunch at what is one of our favourite wineries. The views of the valleys are spectacular from the building designed by Iñaki Aspiazu and completed in 2005. We recommend you try it out.
7 When is the best time to visit Laguardia & the Rioja Alavesa wineries?
This is a great destination all-year-round. We’ve enjoyed Rioja Alavesa during busy grape harvest season in September/October when the vineyards are alive with activity. In June when everything starts to bloom and then in again in Autumn for the colourful foliage. And in December, when the weather was chilly, hearty Riojan stews and warm welcomes. This time – in early May we were able to appreciate the snow-capped mountain tops of Ezcaray (part of the Sierra de Cantabria mountains) whilst eating outdoors and basking in that embracing spring time sunshine. Laguardia is a unique and affordable holiday in the peak summer months as well as it is off the beaten tourist trail. Local fiestas worth noting are the Annual Harvest Festival in September and in Laguardia the Fiesta of San Felices is celebrated from the last week of June with a Pamplona-style cow run through the town.
8 How to get to Laguardia & the Rioja Alavesa wineries?
- 90 mins drive (123km) from Bilbao Airport
- 2hrs 15mins drive (210km) from Biarritz Airport
- 2hrs07 mins drive (210km) from Santander Airport/Ferry port
- 3hrs 21mins drive (345km) from Madrid Airport. You can also fly from Madrid into Logroño airport 17km from Laguardia.
9 How to get around Laguardia and the Rioja Alavesa wineries?
We recommend Rioja Alavesa as a self-drive holiday. You will need a car to visit almost all the wineries and to enjoy the surrounding villages. As always, we can arrange a driver-guide for you if you prefer not to drive yourself. Read our guide to the benefits of a private driver and guide in Spain. Visits to the wineries need to be pre-booked and we can take care of reservations for any of the wineries in this the Rioja Alavesa and also the nearby Rioja region (read our guide here). Pro-tip: We recommend visiting no more than two wineries a day – although it is possible to visit three if you are tight for time. Many of the smaller wineries close on Sundays and/or Mondays and some of the smaller operations will not take visits during harvest time of September and October and also close during Christmas and Easter holidays. For groups, Totally Spain can make arrangements for you to dine in a winery or even in a vineyard. We can also arrange for you to take part in the harvesting.
10 Where to stay in Laguardia?
We stayed at the 4-star Hotel Villa Laguardia at the edge of Laguardia – making it ideal for coming and going to the wineries. [Thank you – as always – for a great overnight stay!] We love this place because its customer service is top-class. It’s run by the extremely hard working Lavin-Santamaria Brothers. They are also the owners of the splendid Villa Lucia wine museum nearby and a highly successful catering business that has even catered to the King of Spain when he visited the Basque Country.
The food here in both restaurants is excellent and very reasonably priced. It has a lift with brilliant panoramic views of the vineyards. And the Wine Oil Spa circuit is fantastic after a day’s sight-seeing! And the wine shop in the hotel is really handy for some last-minute purchases of wine, other alcohol and local olive oils. It’s a great hotel for families and small children – its suites are easily converted to family rooms. It also has a small play area indoors and a large playground in the gardens with an outdoor pool and limited access to the indoor pool. Next visit – we’ll come with a bit more time – and we’re going to hire their bikes and cycle around a few villages – and follow that with a massage with hot grape oil and other essential oils.
Want to see more of the wineries of Rioja Alavesa? See this slideshow of Laguardia and La Rioja Alavesa wineries. And for the rest of oSpain, check out our Best Bodegas in Spain guide and winery guides to La Rioja, Ribera del Duero, Rias Baixas, Jerez and Cantabria.