Rioja Region Earns UNESCO Tourism Blessing

Tempranillo may be king in Rioja, but sustainability is beginning to reign, too. (Photo: vicenfoto/Shutterstock)

The Rioja region of Spain is known for red wines that are fruity and tannic, most notably tempranillo, Spain's king of grapes. (Roughly 75 percent of the grapes grown in the region are tempranillo.) Wines from the region are often a great value. Many of them over-deliver on taste compared to the price, which is why I always make a bee-line for the Spanish section when I'm on one of my "let's try a bunch of random new bottles" kicks.

I recently visited Rioja DOCa as a guest of Wines of Rioja. On the trip, we visited wineries in each of Rioja's three sub-regions: Rioja Alta, Rioja Oriental and Rioja Alavesa. Wineries throughout the three regions take sustainable measures, but it's the Rioja Alavesa region I want to highlight today. This area, which is also known as the Basque subregion of Rioja, was recently awarded a Biosphere Responsible Tourism certification from UNESCO, also known as the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. The label is awarded based not only on sustainability, but also on cultural diversity and social responsibility.

Biosphere Responsible Tourism

bairgori vineyards, rioja alavesa, spain
The Biosphere Responsible Tourism certification will ensure that this land outside Bodegas Baigorri in Rioja Alavesa won't be compromised for future generations. (Photo: Robin Shreeves)

When it comes to tourism, this international certification is awarded when a region ensures "compliance with a series of requirements based on the principles of sustainability and continuous improvement." The products and services in the region are designed with the model of non-agressive tourism, tourism designed to ensure that the region isn't compromised for future generations.

We've all come to realize that sustainability is a priority, but sustainability is so much more than protecting the environment. It also must encompass people, too — protecting them and treating them with dignity. The Biosphere Responsible Tourism certification takes this into consideration.

Biosphere granted Rioja Alavesa the certification based on five objectives that are defined by the World Tourism Organization:

  • Inclusive and sustainable economic growth
  • Social inclusiveness, employment and poverty reduction
  • Resource efficiency, environmental protection and climate change
  • Cultural values, diversity and heritage
  • Mutual understanding, peace and security

Educating tourists

walking in vineyard
Visitors to the wineries and vineyards of Rioja Alavesa may learn about sustainability and sustainable tourism practices while visiting the region. (Photo: Daniela Sacalov/Shutterstock)

Of course, this is a certification given to a region that's actively promoting its enotourism. The Rioja DOCa as a whole has more than 800,000 visitors a year, and it's Spain's biggest wine destination. That's one of the reasons why Cristina González, deputy of promotion of employment, commerce and tourism in says it's important to make sure visitors know sustainability is a priority.

"The Biosphere seal also implies integrating tourism as an activity that can and should contribute to human development and provide travelers with a high degree of satisfaction, making them more aware of the problems of sustainability and fostering sustainable tourism practices," she said after receiving the certification.

The wineries and the wine

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Bodgas Baigorri is a modern winery in the Rioja Alavesa. (Photo: Robin Shreeves)

Our tour through Rioja DOCa included a visit to two bodegas in the Rioja Alavesa region. The wineries couldn't look more different on the outside, but the wines were both excellent examples of the region's dedication to making fine wines with local grapes.

Bodegas Baigorri is a modern winery that's almost completely inside a mountain. It has eight mostly concrete levels that reach 37 meters underground. Sustainability is practiced "A to Zed" as winery employees put it. The winery works completely on gravity flow. The wine is never pumped from one tank or barrel to the next; rather, it's allowed to flow down from one vessel to the next using only gravity because Baigorri believes "wine is different when made with gravity." The idea behind a gravity flow winery is that the wine is moved more gently from one vessel to the next, creating a wine that's had less mechanical intervention and been battered and bruised less during its journey from press to bottle.

Baigorri has a separate lab for sustainable, investigative projects. Currently, they're working on what is essentially a cork with time-release sulfur. The sulfur would release naturally over the life of the wine, so if a wine is opened shortly after bottling it would have little sulfur added. If it was opened 15 years later, the sulfur released over the years would help keep it fresh in the bottle. That project is still in the works.

And the wines? They're excellent. The three wines you see pictured above are a mazeulo (also known as carignon), a garnacha and a tempranillo that we blind tasted. The wines were all intense in flavor, and while my knowledge of mazeulo wasn't enough to guess what variety it was, I was able to pinpoint the garnarcha and the tempranillo.

Bodegas De La Marquesa, cellar steps
The 100 plus-year-old steps that lead to the cellars of Bodegas De La Marquesa. (Photo: Bodegas De La Marquesa)

The village of Villabuena de Álava is small. About 237 people live there, alongside 36 wineries, most of them incredibly small producers. Wine is serious business in the village. Bodegas De La Marquesa, a 5th-generation, family-owned winery, is one of the larger producers in the village. The winery is old, the steps leading down to the winemaking facilities are over 100 years old, and the cellars are what you'd expect a very old wine cellar to look like — damp, a little dirty and with the air of romanticism of an underground wine cellar.

Bottling under both the bodega name and also the label Valserrano, the winery produces several different bottles of tempranillo. The standout for me was the 2014 El Ribazo made from a single vineyard of 34-year-old tempranillo vines. It's an old-style Basque tempranillo with berry and spicy flavors. One of their wines that may be easier to find here in the U.S. is the Valserrano Crianza, a blend of 90 percent tempranillo and 10 percent mazeulo. It's an entry-level Rioja that's balanced with dark fruits, blueberry and a little spice on the tongue.

If you can't find these wines at your local wine store, try my "random new bottle" game in the Spanish section. Look for wines from Rioja DOCa. Find the reds, which will be primarily made from tempranillo. Buy a couple at different price points. Take them home and enjoy. Maybe do some research on the winery's website to find out a little about the wine and the winery. Whether your wines come from Rioja Alavesa or one of the other two sub-regions, you're likely to end up with at least one new wine that you'll want to buy again, assuming dry, fruity red wines are your thing.