La Rioja is the smallest of Spain’s mainland autonomous communities, and without the glorious kingdom heritage of its neighbours. It was not until 1812 that it was declared an independent province, before finally being re-incarnated in its current form in 1833. It is mainly known for one thing, though it does have more going for it than that. It is home to a number of mountains, thick forests where hunting is popular, and beautiful churches, monastries, and cathedrals along the trail of the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. It also features archaeological digs where fossilized dinosaur prints are on view, evidence of a lush and wet tropical past.
But it is for its wine that the region is most famed. It is therefore ironic that the region and the eponymous denomination of wine do not align. The classification Denominación de Origen (DO) Rioja is spread across the three autonomous communities of La Rioja, the Basque Country and Navarre. The recorded history of wine in Spain goes back to Roman times, when it was produced in the coastal regions, and was then gradually transferred inland. Following decline under the abstemious Muslims, it thrived again under Christian rule, with monasteries along the Camino, in particular, occupying themselves with grape cultivation. The infestation of French vineyards by Philloxera – an insect which attacks vine roots – in the mid nineteenth century brought some French wine makers south, and their superior production techniques with them.
While Rioja is by far the most internationally well known of the Spanish wine denominations, wine is produced by almost every region. Spain is the largest producer of wine by area of cultivation, though lower yields have generally meant they rank third in production volume behind Italy and France. Together these three account for around 55 percent of the world export market. The wine producing tradition is celebrated most famously in the town of Haro in the north-west corner of La Rioja, where each year on 29 July thousands of people, clad in white, line the streets and drench each other to the bone in the “Battle of Wine.”
The region of La Rioja region is bursting with bodegas offering tours and food together with their local produce. The capital Logroño is a pretty city with a comfortable feel from where to discover more about both wine making and watch the pilgrims passing through. Away from the wine trail the monuments of the pilgrimage trail are numerous, though special mention should be made of the Cathedral of Santa Domingo de la Calzada, whose beautiful Cathedral houses a stone henhouse dating to the fifteenth century, complete with live chickens and a papal dispensation for keeping animals in a church.
The walled town itself came into existence in the eleventh century on the back of one individual, a rejected monk whose name, Domingo, is now worn by the town. He directed his frustrations to Christian charity in another way, devoting his energies to the creation of infrastructure for the passing pilgrim. A bridge, the hostel, and the church (now cathedral) are all attributable to him.
The henhouse is a memorial to one of the many miracles attributed to Santa Domingo when, so the story goes, an adolescent German pilgrim was hanged as punishment for the theft of a silver cup, which had been placed in his bag by a girl whose love for him was unrequited. The boy’s parents continued to Compostela, only to find him still hanging in the village on the return journey, but now miraculously alive. They hurried to tell the mayor, and begged him to cut their boy down. But the Mayor, just about to start lunch, scoffed at them. “That boy is as alive as these chickens we are about to eat,” he laughed. Instantly the chickens returned to life, sprouting feathers and beaks. To this day there is a saying which translates rather cumbersomely as: “Santo Domingo of the Way, where the roosters crow after being roasted.”