Exploring Rioja – Part One: Haro

​Fly into Bilbao and drive just over an hour and you will be in Haro – the self-proclaimed capital of Rioja. There has been red wine production in this area of Spain for hundreds of years but it wasn’t until the mid-19th Century that the Rioja we know and love today was being made.

Along with the rest of the Rioja region, Haro has great importance due to a number of factors: the Ebro river, the climate, the soils but, the major influence for Haro, was the train station – it was the train station which made trade possible.  

With phylloxera destroying vineyards in Bordeaux, French grape growers and winemakers made their way to the easily accessible Rioja region. Here they found vast swathes of winemaking going on but the styles were simple and young – there was no ageing happening. These French wine merchants brought with them their experience of oak ageing and set to work on changing the wines of Rioja. Oak ageing is so important in the Rioja region and, in order to call a red wine ‘Rioja’, one of the requirements is that it must have gone through at least one year in oak.

For a wine to be labelled a Crianza it must have gone through at least one year in oak and a further year ageing in bottle at the winery.  For Reserva wines it is at least one year in oak and two years in bottle in the winery.  For Gran Reservas it is three years in oak minimum and then a further five years in bottle. These minimums are set out by the control board (Consejo Regulador DOCa Rioja) and, in practice, most of the bodegas age for longer than these stated.

What struck me on visiting the bodegas is just how much space is needed for all of these bottles which are going through their requisite ageing periods.  They say in Spain that the wine is ‘sleeping’ and, when you have 5 million bottles sleeping at any one time, that’s an enormous amount of storage needed – not to mention the other millions of litres ageing in oak casks.  Lucky, then, that much of this is done underground in vast cellars – with just the right conditions for ageing wine.

If you think 5 million bottles is a lot, just think, that is at one bodega only. There are hundreds of bodegas in Rioja. Hundreds. So where does all this wine go? Well, the UK imported 37 million bottles in 2014. Rioja is the UK’s favourite red wine but it is also popular all across the world, especially in North and South America. The Spanish keep approximately 20% of their wine for themselves.

So – what about Haro itself. In 1891, Haro was the first town in Spain to have electric street lighting. Wine had made the town rich and so they were able to afford such luxuries. Today the town is very small, about 12,000 inhabitants. Much of its money now comes from tourism although you will see many locals out and about in the bars and restaurants. There’s a Cathedral, a small art gallery with a nice view over the town and a pretty town square. There are also lots of bronze statues around the town to go and find which highlight trades from the past – and that’s about it. You come to Haro for the wineries and they are well worth a visit.  Of the 21 wineries in Haro, we visited four: Muga, Bilbainas, Heredia and Gomez Cruzado.

The wineries are all within a very short walk of each other which ensures you have a great time in Haro without a designated driver!  I’ll go more into styles in Part Two of my blog but, as a broad brush we found Muga and Heredia to be more old school and traditional and then Bilbainas and Cruzado more forward thinking, producing newer styles of Rioja.

Without wanting to go through each one line by line and give a run down of all of the wines we tasted, I just thought I’d lay out some of the notes I made and the thoughts I had at the time in order to whet the appetite and give some direction.  Who knows, maybe you’ll want to visit someday!

Bodegas Muga

Bodegas Muga – have been trading since 1932 and pride themselves on their authenticity.  A keen favourite with most wine people I’ve spoken to, unfortunately for me, their wines were too traditional – I prefer more fruit forward Riojas.  

We just turned up for a wine flight – a tasting of six of the wines.  The tasting room (which I’ve heard so much about) actually smelled of vinegar and then bleach, which didn’t help with the tasting at all, but we were in there at the end of the day and perhaps it was an unfair reflection and the staff were just getting ready to go home.  They have a nice display in the shop though and a great oldschool till (not in use).

As for the wine: they carry seven wines and two Cavas.  My favourite was the Torre – they only make 30,000 bottles a year from 60 year old vines and you can really taste the intense fruit flavours.  Torre retails at around €60 a bottle with a much higher price point in restaurants.  

Majestic carry the 2011 Torre for £50 – see it here


Heredia – The winery was founded around 1877 which makes Heredia the oldest in Haro.  The tour, expensive relative to the others (€30 each), took us to every part of the winery including their cooperage and cellar (which, for me, was the highlight of the trip).  The cellar is the longest cellar excavated by hand in Spain.  It was completed in 1892 and holds 12,900 barrels – pictures can be seen earlier in this blog.  Some parts of the cellar are up to 200 meters long.  It is a very atmospheric and awe-inspiring place which oozes old school wine making.  Without wishing to sound like a cliche, it is like stepping back into history – it’s not to be missed.  

The shop however is very contradictory:  the bar is made from the stand they took to the Brussels 1910 exhibition whilst the shop itself, constructed around it is, in fact, the casing they used to use to protect the stand when it has been off travelling.  The tour has many wonderful delights including the still-in-use vats from early 1900’s, the bottle room holding every vintage since 1942 and the beautiful tasting room itself.  

The wines, maybe unsurprisingly, are traditional and spicy with much longer ageing than is required by the regulator (although that may have something to do with the age of their oak – they only use old, never new, so it’ll take longer for the oak to impart any flavours).  They only make three here – their Tondonia range – all exceptional Rioja’s, made with love, care, attention and tradition.

You can get the Reserva in Waitrose for around £27 – see it here

Gomez Cruzado

Gomez Cruzado  This was a nice surprise of a visit.  Cruzado is the 7th oldest in Haro and is committed to making Rioja in the traditional way.   There is a distinct difference here though – not only does it feel a different kind of bodega, the wines themselves are different.  The smallest winery in Haro, they have young winemakers who bring a more forward thinking style to the wine.  Whilst keeping to traditional oaks and oak ageing, they have embraced more modern techniques into their winemaking using stainless steel for fermenting their reds and using concrete eggs for their whites.  They create 250,000 bottles a year and, with Mexican ownership, it’s no surprise that over 70% of their trade is to Mexico and USA.  

These are wines that pack a punch – the fermentation in steel maintains all the intense black and red fruit aromas.  The wine itself is smooth, rich, fruit forward and delicious!  

You can get it in the UK – Laithwaites stock it for around £17 – see it here

Bodegas Bilbaínas

Bodegas Bilbaínas is the oldest bottling firm of La Rioja, it has the largest area of underground cellars in the region and the largest area of vineyards in Haro.  And it feels the most modern.  The tasting room is in the shop with a temperature controlled, customer controlled, wine dispensing machine.  They are the only winery where we found we could buy meat and cheese to eat along with our wine-tasting (it was amazing – as it was all over Rioja). 

​This was the first place we headed when we hit Haro – meat and cheese and biscuits were ordered and, as a celebratory start we tried the Vina Pomal, Blanc de Noirs Cava Reserva – what a way to start our trip.  It was exceptional – the best Cava I have ever tasted, bubbles of velvet with a crisp, refreshing acidity which made the UK seem like light years away.  Could very easily hold up against Champagne.  

Unfortunately, I have not been able to find it in the UK but they do ship!

They had a range of Rioja’s in the tasting room, displaying a range of styles from the traditional to the more modern.  My favourite was the special 100% Garnacha Reserva from 2010 – Single vineyard, vintage, juicy black fruits, typical Rioja spice (but not too overwhelming) – this wine hit every mark for me.  I can’t find it in the UK but keep your eye out for it, I’ve occasionally seen it being sold and imported online, so there’s hope for the future!

The above wine is a Reserva and, Mr N (who accompanied me on the trip), at times also preferred the Reserva on offer over the Gran Reserva.  Just goes to show that you may not always prefer the Gran Reserva – it’s a matter of personal preference – and it also highlights that there are some great wines out there at different levels and price points.

I’ll go into more detail on my part two where we travel to Logrono, I’ll talk about the forward thinking wines of Rioja, outline further the ageing process and, of course, chat through the bodegas we visited!


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