Standing along the brass rail of a crowded storefront bar in the Casco Viejo neighborhood of Logroño not long ago, surrounded by an arc of friends I hadn’t known an hour before, I was eating a half-sandwich of freshly grilled sardines with tangy guindilla peppers and drinking a wine I probably would have passed up if it had rolled by on an airplane cart. My glass of 2003 Solagüen Crianza, a soft, translucent red that cost all of $1.65, seemed to shine in the dim light. It tasted tart yet viscous, like a Table Talk cherry pie. I’d spent the day sampling decades-old Riojas, fascinating wines that offered up glimpses of truth like a Lorca poem. I could discuss each of those for an hour, consider their attributes, chart their progress. This wine I didn’t want to talk about, just drink. At that moment, in that place, it felt exactly right.
The Rioja is Spain’s most celebrated wine region. In some areas of the country, its name actually serves as a synonym for wine: the way to request a glass of generic red is to shout “un Rioja!” at the barman. Despite all of its $100 bottles and spectacular new wineries, it also remains a bastion of unpretentiousness in an increasingly urbane nation, an area renowned for an elemental way of life that’s rooted in the land and the livestock, and in the farmers and viticulturists who work them. Yet for such a central and evident place, an amorphous stain near the top of Iberia, it can be maddeningly difficult to access. Eating and drinking there at El Soldado de Tudelilla, acting out the useful Spanish verb potear—which connotes a Spanish version of a pub crawl, only with better nutrition—I remembered a doctor I know and his wife, bright and resourceful people, who’d called upon their return from a recent trip to complain that they’d traveled right through the Rioja and yet somehow missed it. They’d had in mind a Spanish version of Burgundy or Tuscany, but instead of gentle slopes and leafy trees and enchanting villages with picturesque cellars, they’d encountered a craggy brown landscape that reminded them of Wyoming. They saw faceless apartment blocks ringing Logroño and charmless wineries along the highway that look like giant warehouses.
Had I known that they were going, I would have sent them to the Casco Viejo. It sounds counterintuitive, I know: accessing a rural, agricultural region through the paved, narrow streets of the most crowded piece of its only city. But no spot better encapsulates the charms of one of Europe’s last remaining authentic places. The Rioja ranks among my favorite areas in Spain—I’ve returned there more than a dozen times over the past 15 years—but it isn’t Burgundy or Tuscany. The terrain is impossible, for one thing. I often describe it as something a fourth-grader would draw; its improbable towns are perched precariously atop hills that jut upward from the landscape. Some of the wineries are stunning, but most could easily double as refrigerator factories. And Logroño, which seems so generic from the outside, only becomes worthwhile when you get all the way to the middle, to the part that has been around since the beginning of the Dark Ages: a jumble of bars and small shops that is shuttered to the world by day and only comes alive as the skies darken. Then, at about nine o’clock, the doors open and people start to fill the narrow streets.
Many are travelers, passing through. Spaniards well know that eating tapas in Logroño isn’t the cutting-edge gastronomic experience it is in San Sebastián, or the traditional one it is in Seville, but it is infinitely more fun. Still, most of the people you’ll see there are locals, whether part of the wine industry or not. They’re heading out after work to spend time with friends, eat a few snacks, and drink a few glasses of tinto or rosado that, likely as not, was made by someone they know. A few hardier souls move on to a restaurant dinner, but it’s usually enough to eat and talk for a couple of hours and then head home, having followed your wandering tasting menu to half a dozen bars, gobbled up a grilled anchovy here and a bit of rabbit stew there, washed it all down with perfectly complementary wines that seem to have been tailor-made for this purpose alone, tugging on the ties to the local culture all along the way.