La Rioja is the best known wine region in Spain, located in the north of the country between Basque country and Catalonia. La Rioja is a very charming region to explore and I believe in ten years time it will be very heavily touristed and well-known. Right now it is still pretty quiet and you really need a basic understanding of Spanish to get around. There are a number wineries, or bodegas as they call them, that have recently built spectacular reception centers and buildings designed by famous architects. We didn't see any of these noteworthy places but there were a lot of new buildings and recent infrastructure improvements all over the area.
We started our exploration of La Rioja in Logrono, the biggest town in the region. (We stayed in a hotel run by a family of heroin addicts who, you might imagine, were a bit difficult to negotiate with when we decided not to stay there the second night and asked for our money back.) At the tourist office there we got a large stack of information about the wine and the bodegas of the area and a few different maps. We quickly discovered that most of the bodegas did not have set operating hours, at least not in May, and we needed to call ahead to make an appointment for winetasting. The region is composed of a number of small villages and the bodegas are spread out among a spider's web of small highways and roads, not all of which were on our maps or clearly labeled. So, finding somewhere to visit and taste wine was actually quite a bit of work and stretched my telephone Spanish skills to the max. After a couple of days touring the highways and byways of La Rioja, which was actually quite pleasant in itself, we managed to visit three bodegas.
All of the bodegas in La Rioja are quite small, family-run businesses. At each of the bodegas we visited we were greeted warmly and given a tour of the facilities, but little or no English was spoken. In the beginning I did my best to translate what I understood to Yvonne, but I quickly discovered that her knowledge of French and Italian allowed her to catch as much or more Spanish than I did and as often as not she would correct me.
The DOC wines of the La Rioja are primarily tempranillo grapes and they can be joven, Crianza (aged three years, one in oak), Reserva (specially selected grapes, aged three years, one in oak), and Gran Reserva (specially selected grapes, aged two years in oak and three in the bottle). The first bodega we visited, Solabal, in Abalos, made a young wine that was slightly carbonated through the winemaking process. They claimed that this style was unique to their local area. Yvonne and I both really liked it and bought a couple of bottles--at a price of 2 Euro!
The other two wineries we visited were Bodegas Heredad Banos Bezares in Brinas, and La Piscina. We bought a number of bottles of wine at each bodega which we were then forced to drink for the remainder of our roadtrip.