I like to be open-minded when it comes to wine. My palate continues to change, so I’m always trying new wines from new places. I used to think white Zinfandel was very avant-garde. Then there was my Chardonnay period. The more buttery and oaky the better. If it looked like canola oil and poured like maple syrup, I was in.

Over the years, as my tastes changed, so did my wine preferences. I grew to love California’s Central Coast Rhone-style wines (blends of Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre, or GSM’s) and bold Napa Cabs. When my travels took me to Europe, I discovered that the house wines in France and Italy were always delicious, and tried new varietals. Something about the mixture of tannins and that “dirt” taste that comes from the terroir made for great drinking.

The one wine region I could never appreciate was Spain. With Tempranillos from the Rioja region of Spain being the most widely available in the US, I tried many labels. I always found them to be rather bland, a single note that lasted for an instant and then evaporated.

That all changed on my recent trip to Northern Spain, so let me tell you about my journey. But first, a quick primer in Spanish wines.

Like France and Italy, Spain has very specific laws around the growing and production of wine. At the low end of the spectrum are house and table wines, which have very few requirements. The next level up are the DO (denominación de origen) and DOC or DOCa (denominación de origen calificada). DOC wines are strictly regulated regarding grape varieties, crop yields, wine-making methods, and aging. The DOCa’s are the highest quality of this class, and there are only two in Spain—Rioja, and Priorat.

Within the DOC and DOCa categories, aging is a big deal, and there are three levels based upon how long wine is aged in the barrel and the total aging before release. For red wines (which make up most of the production), Crianza wines are aged for the shortest time, 6 months in the barrel and 24 months total. Next up are the Reservas, aged 12 months in barrel and 36 months total. The most aged wines are the Gran Reservas, which are aged 18 months in barrel and 60 months total. That’s why it’s rare to find a new vintage of Spanish wine, unlike their California cousins where it’s not unusual to buy a 2019 Cabernet in 2021.

Another fascination to me was that a great deal of Spanish wine is aged in American oak, versus US wineries, which largely use French oak. I asked the reason, and it’s because American oak ages more quickly and softens the wine.

Since I was in the Rioja, we’ll leave Priorat for another time. The Rioja region is located in North Central Spain, about midway between San Sebastián and Madrid, with the vineyards impacted by the Bay of Biscay/Atlantic Ocean and the Cantabrian Mountains to the north, the Ebro River which flows through the region, and the Mediterranean to the south. Within the greater Rioja are three zones: Rioja Alta, Rioja Alavesa and Rioja Oriental (or Baja). Since I visited the first two, I’ll talk about those.

I visited a number of great producers, some of which export to the US but most of them do not. First up was Roda, near the town of Haro on the Ebro River in the Rioja Alta Zone. By American standards, Roda is a mid-size producer, making about 35,000 cases a year. In addition to producing Rioja Tempranillo, they also make the bolder Ribera del Duero version, which is grown in an adjacent region to the south and west of Rioja. This gave me an opportunity to do a comparative tasting, and, at least for Roda’s wines, I preferred the Ribero del Duero with its darker, more intense fruit (and probably higher alcohol).

Like other wineries I visited, Roda is serious about operating sustainably. For example, in the fermentation barrel room, the floors have radiant heat. When it becomes too dry for the wine, they turn on the heat in the floors to vaporize water, which is piped into the room, and achieve the perfect humidity. Out in the vineyards, they avoid the use of pesticides and don’t irrigate. In addition to producing excellent wines, Roda is good to the environment as well.

Now I traveled to Rioja Alavesa to visit the next winery Eguren Ugarte. This winery is the epitome of a family-owned enterprise, with a six-generation legacy. I was fortunate enough to meet the patriarch himself, Victorino Eguren, who still drives an hour each way to his winery at least once a week at the age of 87. Victorino started his career as a wine salesman, driving to all the local bars to sell wine that he delivered in his little deux cheveaux pick-up truck. In 1987, he and his wife Mercedes (who is now 90) decided they wanted to create a place where people could go to have fun, so they started the winery.

Victorino recruited five of his friends to excavate some 2,000 square meters of callao, or underground tunnels, to store the wine. This massive project took five years to complete, and today has 2 kilometers (almost 1 ½ miles) of “streets,” which are shown on a detailed map Victorino drew himself. Carved within the tunnels are txoko, or little caves, which people can rent to store their Eguren Ugarte wines for €600 (about $750) per year. Each txoko has a locked gate, and some of them have stone tables with seats so that members can do wine tastings in their own cave. Or, they can have the restaurant that’s part of the winery caters to anything from meats and cheeses to full meals.

While I didn’t get to eat underground, I did thoroughly enjoy a family-style lunch in the restaurant. With Rioja Alavesa being adjacent to the Basque region, the meal was a Basque feast, including appetizers of grilled mushrooms and blood sausage smothered in tomato sauce (I was afraid to try, but glad I did because it was delicious), followed by enormous pots of two different kinds of beans, a tomato salad and lambchops. The dessert was a custard pudding with a caramel sauce. The meal was paired with Victorino’s 2020 Blanco (new because whites have a much shorter aging process), which was a blend of 5 grapes, including Viura, the main white grape in Rioja, Sauvignon Blanc, Garnacha (Grenache) Blanca, Tempranillo Blanca and Chardonnay (unexpected in Spain). Next up was Cincuenta, a red DOCa, and a 2014 Rioja Reserva, redolent in dark red fruit and the taste of the dirt.

What do you do after indulging in such a feast? Taste more wine, of course, and that’s what we did at Bai Gorri, a winery that prides itself on producing wines sustainably. After completing their harvest manually, they bring 12 kilo (about 25 pound) crates to the sorting room for destemming. One of their two machines is automated, powered by solar energy. Once ready for the stainless tanks (which are designed by the owners), the “must” (unfermented grape juice) is transferred to these tanks using a gravity flow process. From the tanks, the wine is then aged mostly in oak barrels, both American and French, the choice dependent on the quality of the grapes. The results are 12 varietals—1 white, 1 rosé, and 10 reds. That makes sense once you learn that Bai Gorri, a Basque name, translates to “Yes, Reds!”

Want to try these wines? Then you’ll have to come to visit on a Wine Lovers Travel trip because, like many of the wineries we visit, Bai Gorri is not sold in the US.

My final day in the Rioja, in the Rioja Alavesa region, was filled with some of my favorite experiences from this whirlwind journey.

The first stop was the fairy tale village of Laguardia, an ancient walled city now blocked off to cars and filled with wineries, restaurants, and shops, as well as about 2,000 residents. Here I visited a unique winery with a great story. Casa Primicia, located in the heart of Laguardia, was built on top of old tunnels that snake underneath the town. Originally built in the 9th Century as a fortress to control the verdant area, the building has survived fires, church ownership, and many changes of hands. Casa Primicia, which began producing wine in the 1970s, now stores its wine in the tunnels, which provide the perfect temperature and humidity for the wine. Grapes are grown just outside the town. I got to experience both.

Back in the village, I learned that a huge fire in the 15th Century destroyed everything except for the town’s two churches and the building which now is Casa Primicia. The original owners donated it to the church because they thought it would prevent them from going to hell. In the 19th Century, the world had changed, and it was decided that the church owned too much property, so they sold it to a family, which used it for wine production. The current owners, the Madrid family, started wine-making in the 1970s and rented the building until 2005 when they purchased it. Today, my host Iker Madrid, and his cousin are the third generation producing Casa Primicia’s s delicious wine, which I got to sample in the vineyards, about a five-minute drive from the walled village.

Once I tasted it, I understood why Casa Primicia won the Grand Prix in Bordeaux in 1993. My favorite was the 2014 Reserva, a blend of 70% Tempranillo and 30% Cabernet Sauvignon. Today, it is forbidden to plant Cab in the Rioja, but since it was planted by Iker’s grandfather Julian Madrid back in the 1970s when it was permitted. So, you could say this wine was actually “grandfathered” in! Iker said Julian was a pioneer in creating blends outside of the norm, and it showed. Can’t wait for the shipment that I purchased to arrive.

The day finished with an amazing lunch at Hospederia de los Parajes, attached to a small hotel back in the walled town. Since lunch is the main meal of a Spanish day, I splurged on a filet covered in goat cheese and baked for 25 minutes in clay that’s been wrapped around it. When delivered to the table, the waiter makes a show of cracking open the clay, unwrapping the parchment paper that protected the meat, and then placing it on a pool of port wine reduction sauce. So decadent and so good. Paired with a 2013 Remirez de Ganuza Reserva that was a DOC, it was a heavenly lunch.

No visit to Rioja would be completed without at least doing a photo stop at Marques de Riscal, the winery, and hotel designed by Frank Gehry. With a stunning explosion of metallic steel ribbons in iridescent pastel colors, the structure makes a definite statement and does not at all blend with the surroundings. But that is always Gehry’s point, to be bold. Sadly, the inside of the hotel (now operated by Marriott) and the winery have absolutely no architectural charm. The interiors were as generic as the exterior was exceptional. Too sated from lunch and all that earlier wine, I didn’t taste at Marques de Riscal. Fortunately, this is a wine you can purchase in the United States.

While there was no time left to visit Rioja Baja, the third of the three Rioja zones, there was little need. This is where the largest wineries are located, the ones that produce more commercial product that is the majority of Spain’s exported Rioja wine. I’m sure it’s beautiful to traverse, but not of great interest when you’re seeking out unusual wines and wine experiences.

Until I had experienced Spanish wine in Spain, I didn’t appreciate the variety and nuances. Nor did I know how the growing and production makes it so different than the mass production Spanish wine which is more easily obtainable in the United States.

That’s the thing with travel. You can watch TV shows, see places in the movies, read about it…even take virtual trips on YouTube and Tiktok. But nothing, absolutely nothing, compares with being there in person. Start traveling again and experience the magic and the wonder yourself.