Is Rioja ready for wine tourism?

After visiting the Rioja wine region in Spain this week, and as a follow up to my previous post about whether or not the wine industry is ready for tourism, there appears to be a number of challenges this region faces, and perhaps some things other regions can learn from.

Rioja is an extremely impressive wine region to visit. I can’t think of another region that offers this kind of extreme contrast in winery experiences. From the hundreds of traditional wineries with their underground tunnels and caves, to the new, architecturally-designed modern wineries, Rioja is full of surprises and is visually stunning. There is so much old world history here, as you’d expect, yet there are many wineries with technically very sophisticated, and very modern production facilities.

The restaurant at Bodegas Baigorri

Here’s the challenge:
Most wineries are appointment only: Rioja spans 3 different regions and consists of about 1,000 wineries. I visited Rioja Alta, the region known for the best quality wines. There are about 400 vineyards in this region. About 99% of the wineries are appointment only. Most of them are either set up for small groups or not set up for tourists at all. Visitors that come with expectations from other wine regions may be disappointed. It’s not like Napa, for example, and you can’t just drive to wineries and do tastings. The only one you really don’t need an appointment for is Marques de Riscal. It is one of the biggest wineries and they do several tours a day in different languages. But, if this was your only experience of a winery in Rioja it would only tell you one side of the story of this diverse region.

Two other issues: language and language. If wineries are open to visitors, staff may or may not speak English. If they speak English, it may not be easy to understand.

Popular producers may not offer the best visitor experiences. Wineries consumers may have heard of (i.e: wine that is imported into the US) either, may not be open to the public, may not offer a good visitor experience, and/or may not make good wine. At this point the consumer would need to do a lot of research to find the right wineries to visit.

Iconic wineries may not offer the best visitor experiences. Wineries consumers may have seen in magazines and guidebooks because they were designed by a famous architect, may not necessarily offer great winery experiences or maybe they do not make high quality wine. In some cases, these were not designed with the winemaking process in mind and are more of statement by the architect. It does not necessarily mean they do not make good wine, it simply means that other wineries may offer a better experience, perhaps top quality wine is not the focus. The same goes for hotels, an iconic lobby may not mean the hotel rooms/staff/restaurant will be fantastic. Sometimes these architecturally designed properties set consumer expectations so high that it makes it very hard to live up to them. But, understandably, the reason for doing this is to attract attention.

Bodegas Ysos, Rioja, designed by Santiago Calatrava

The hotel at Marques de Riscal designed by Frank Gehry

I visited Bodegas Baigorri and it’s definitely one of the most impressive wineries I’ve ever seen. The winery is designed with the winemaking process in mind. It has a gravity-based production facility with state of the art equipment. There are about 7 levels that hug the side of a mountain so all of this is done underground. All you see from the outside is the top lobby area. They hare a fabulous restaurant that offers 5-course tasting menu with a spectacular view of the valley.

Production facilities at Bodegas Baigorri

Bodegas Torre de Oña was also fantastic. It has a beautiful tasting room, great information and excellent wines. It combines old building style with elements of modern design. I think what makes both of these experiences so great was my fabulous wine expert/guide Jenny and the tasting room manager Paola, whose English was perfect and very easy to understand. I got so much out of my visit with a guide than I ever could have on my own.

So where does the opportunity lie for wine tourism?

For small group/wine tour companies: There are fabulous tasting rooms and incredible experiences, but you absolutely have to know where to go. I think the opportunity for Rioja lies in small group tours with a multi-lingual guide that is also a wine expert. I think these small companies need to let wine lovers know who they are and how easy an amazing wine experience can be. Small group tours are also the way to go to satisfy wine lovers. The last thing people want is to go through a factory with a lot of people with a guide reading a script of how wine is made.

For wineries: Wineries that want to attract visitors should make it easy for people to book appointments on their websites and give them a way to signify which language they understand. Websites need to offer language options for all their content.

Rioja is ready for wine tourism, but it has to be done the right way. How does this compare with your experience in other wine regions? I look forward to hearing your feedback.

The guest house at Bodegas Torre de Oña

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One Comment on “Is Rioja ready for wine tourism?”

  1. tonifad October 4, 2011 at 3:02 am #

    We never went, as my brother in law’s sudden illness had us change plans. But from the planning, we felt that Rioja was more than ready for wine tourism. Answering emails promptly, being flexible with times, english as their second language, etc. etc. Everything pointed to a great experience. Add to that, that the Rioja wine region has a lot to offer in terms of culinary experiences, as well as architecture and spa opportunities. Yes, we will definitely recommend the regiona as a “wine place” to go.

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