La Rioja Wine Festival

Las Fiestas de San Mateo

During my first year living in Madrid I bought my first ever car, a red Volkswagen Golf which ended up living with me for 15 years clocking up over a quarter of a million kilometres in the process. For the very first weekend away Kirsty and I headed for Logroño, the capital of the La Rioja wine growing region. In those days before the internet we never used to bother booking accommodation in advance so we were surprised to find that we were having a problem finding a room in a city that I’d never previously heard of other than knowing that the Logroñes football team probably came from there. As Kirsty walked out of another hotel giving me the thumbs down to show it was full I saw some lads across the street carrying extremely large paper mache heads. It was only then that it clicked … it was fiesta time.

La Rioja-Briones
Photo Credit: Juan Tiagues

All over Spain during the month of September there are grape harvest festivals (see Fiestas de la Vendimia). On the international stage wines from the la Rioja region are the most famous with annual production surpassing 250 million litres so you can imagine the enormity of wine harvest celebrations here. The local name of the festival in Logroño is ‘Las Fiestas de San Mateo’ which is named after Saint Matthew and celebrated on the 21st September which is his feast day. But what fun is there in a one day fiesta? In typical Spanish fashion a whole week is dedicated to celebrating San Mateo which typically takes place from about 16th to 23rd September though dates may vary slightly.

The ‘chupinazo’ marks the beginning of the festival when a rocket is set off in the town hall square. The rocket is the sign that a week of madness has begun as youngsters start engaging in food fights and everyone gets soaked by water thrown from balconies overlooking the streets. Once the fiesta has officially started many people head straight for Gran Via to see the incredible wine fountain where (make believe) red, white and pink wine shoots high into the sky.

The streets of the city are packed all week and you’ll spot plenty of the ‘big heads’ (Cabezudos) roaming around often following the many bands whose typical fiesta renditions make this so typical of the atmosphere of so many other fiestas all over the country. There are fireworks galore, morning bull runs and evening bullfights and one of the unique highlights is the opportunity to crush grapes by standing on them alongside hundreds of fellow festival goers.

Rioja Wine Tour and Festival

For budget traveller there’s nothing to stop you making your own way to Logroño during the third week of September and enjoying the festivities, just be sure to book your room well in advance as the city is packed. The nearest international airport is Bilbao which also attracts domestic flights from Madrid and Barcelona. Buses and train services link Logroño with Spain’s two main cities as well as with Bilbao.

If your wild party days are behind you but you’d still like to visit the San Mateo Festival along with the opportunity to discover the Rioja region staying in fine hotels and enjoying private wine tastings at some of La Rioja’s celebrated wineries then we’ve got something very special for you. Beginning in Bilbao we’ve put together a small group tour that offers the best the region has to offer in terms of culture, history, gastronomy, wine and fiesta.

Sample Tour Itinerary

The tour is 5 days and 4 nights with the following itinerary:

DAY 1: Our guide will meet you in Bilbao and escort you by road to Haro which is the most famous of La Rioja’s wine growing towns. Here you’ll be staying at the historic Hotel Los Agustinos which is located right in the town centre within walking distance of some great tapas bars and restaurants. If you haven’t visited Bilbao before you might consider arriving a day early and spending a night in city so that you can spend some time visiting the magnificent Guggenheim Museum.

DAY 2: This morning we’ll head out to the impressive Museum of Wine Culture which was set up near the Vivanco family’s estate near Briones. The Dinastia Vivanco was opened by King Juan Carlos in 2005 and is undoubtedly one of the world’s great wine museums.

We’ll then visit one of the oldest wineries of the region before heading to a charming restaurant in Haro for a traditional Riojan lunch. After lunch we’ll take you into the historical village of Briones where you can wander its ancient streets. The evening is free to explore the tapas bars of Haro.

DAY 3: Today we head out to one of the region’s oldest wineries and one of the most prestigious where you can learn about their wine making techniques during private tours and enjoy wine tastings. We then continue on to Logroño for lunch whilst the festival of San Mateo is taking place. Your hotel in the city is the Sercotel Portales which is ideally located near the Plaza del Mercado. In the evening you’ll be free to enjoy the festivities. Be sure to walk to Calle Laurel which has got to be one of the best streets in the whole of Spain for tapas bars. Never have I seen so many in such a small area.

Grape Harvest
Grape Harvest in La Rioja

DAY 4: Hopefully you didn’t overindulge last night so we can hit the road early on the way to Elciego for a wine tour of another of the region’s premier producers and a visit to the amazing Hotel Marques de Riscal which was inspired by Guggenheim architect Frank Gehry.

One of Spain’s best kept secrets is the stunning hilltop town of Laguardia which is our next stop. Here we’ll take a private tour of the medieval town including a visit to a renowned underground wine cellar. After lunch we return to Logroño where you can enjoy some of the parades through the city and watch performances from those ‘Big Heads’ who continue to crop up in my description!. You can also opt to join a guided tapas tour of some of the city’s finest eateries with an expert local guide.

DAY 5: Sadly it’s the end of your visit to La Rioja. Transport is provided back to Bilbao Airport or we can arrange to drop you off at a hotel in Bilbao city should you wish to add on an extra day at the end of your visit to go and see the Guggenheim.

 Photo Credits:
Thanks to the following photographers for allowing me to use their images in this article:
Rigel for the Rioja images / srgpicker for the ‘Big Head’ images.

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