La Rioja

The wine region of Rioja, SpainThe wine region of Rioja, Spain
Text by Nancy Harmon Jenkins ©2008

Say the name Rioja and two things spring to mind: red wine and red peppers. But this small, mountainous region on the southern banks of the Ebro river has much more to offer then “just” sweet peppers and one of Spain’s and the world’s greatest wines. It’s a stunning region, of rolling vineyards, jagged mountain ranges (steeply upthrust and often snow-capped even in early summer), hilltops crowned by medieval castles and walled villages like Fuenmayor and Navarrete, historic monasteries, both ruined and flourishing, like medieval Suso and its Baroque sister Yuso along the Camino de Santiago, the ancient pilgrim route that cuts through Rioja on its way to distant Galicia. The Ebro, Rioja’s northern border, flowing from the Pyrenees to the Mediterranean south of Barcelona, is one of Spain’s most important rivers, accounting for the region’s legendary fertility, which explains the wine and peppers and many other remarkable fruits and vegetables—asparagus, artichokes, potatoes, cauliflower, and more.

The Rio Ebro in Rioja, SpainThe Rio Ebro in Rioja, Spain

Great wines are produced all over Spain, but there is only one Rioja. For centuries the region has been synonymous with the most impressive Spanish reds, based on tempranillo and garnacha vines. Even wine connoisseurs, however, are not always aware of the equally notable production of Rioja whites, made primarily from the native viura grape. [Go to Spanish wines]

As for red peppers, pimientos riojanos (Rioja peppers), made from little piquillo peppers, are sweet and fleshy, perfect fresh but also great gently wood-roasted and preserved in their own juices. Red peppers, whether fresh or preserved, are much in evidence in the traditional cuisine of Rioja, sometimes stuffed (with bacalao [salt cod] or lamb), dipped in batter and fried, to make pimientos rellenos, sometimes part of a stew, especially the substantial bean-and-chorizo stew, pochas a la riojana. Such hearty, big-flavored country fare is typical of this region, famed throughout Spain for the best spicy chorizos (pork sausages flavored with choricero chilies) as well as for succulent lamb dishes. The tiniest chops of milk-fed baby lamb (lechal) or kid (cabrito), no more than a bite or two on each little bone, are often grilled over fires of vine cuttings.

Other dishes typical of riojana cuisine: esparragos blancos (plump white asparagus, a regional specialty) from Rioja Baja; perdiz con peras (partridge cooked with pears in red wine); patatas a la riojana, roasted with chorizo and smoky paprika; cameros cheese, a fresh goat’s milk cheese; and all manner of salt cod (bacalao) dishes, many featuring those same pimientos riojanos. Wild fish and game are abundant in casas de comidas, the kind of unpretentious country restaurants beloved of the region’s gastronomes.

Places of Interest in Rioja

The town of Navarrete: Not far from Logroño, it's famous for ceramics, especially cooking wares.

Architectural gems: medieval monasteries and churches, too numerous to mention, but especially Santo Domingo de la Calzada on the Santiago trail, and the monasteries of Yuso and Suso in San Millan de Cogolla.

Modern architecture: Frank Gehry’s amazing winery for Marques de Riscal.

Winery visits: Although Logroño is the capital of the Region, Haro is the wine capital and home to many of the most famous houses, including Muga, Paternina, Condes de Haro, Lopez de Heredia, CVNE, and Roda, just to mention a few.

Learn much more about the wine growing region of Rioja in this video-based series.

© 2017 The Culinary Institute of America