Briones is a small, very picturesque medieval hilltop town in the Rioja wine region, and indeed one of its hidden treasures. It has one of the richest cultural heritages in the whole of La Rioja. For not only do some of the best, and most long-lived wines emanate from this sub-zone, but it also offers beautiful scenery, a strong culinary tradition, perfectly intact medieval architecture, a wealth of culture and numerous boisterous festivals (fiestas) to keep you celebrating all night long. It is the only town in the region to be located on the right bank of the river Ebro, a privilege that offers visitors unrivaled panoramic views of the spectacular River Ebro Valley and the surrounding vineyards.
Briones is located in La Rioja Alta, one of the three Rioja subzones (along with Rioja Baja and Rioja Alavesa) that have constituted this ancient wine appellation for centuries. La Rioja has a history of vine cultivation stretching back over a thousand years; the wines from this region are included in the oldest Denominación de Origen (appellation) in Spain. The settlement was founded in approximately the 2nd century BC when the Romans conquered Spain and controlled the area as a territory within the Empire. Legend says that Briones got its name from the region’s original settlers, the Berones, who were Bronze Age nomads that occupied these lands long before the Roman army arrived.
As the Roman civilization and its control of Western Europe collapsed in the 5th century AD due to the attacks of the Visigoth and other tribes, so too did their military presence in the Iberian Peninsula. The first visitors to the Rioja region were the Vandals, from modern-day East Germany, who were soon overthrown by the Germanic Tribe of the Visigoths. Officially, they ruled ‘Hispania’ as a territory under the stewardship of the Roman Emperor, although formal control and day-to-day administration were organized by the Visigoths. The Visigoth capital during this time was Toledo, and they kept a firm hold over Spain until the Moors from North Africa invaded in 711.
Although the Islamic forces quickly subdued the population in Andalusia (southern Spain), northern Spain resisted conquest and several Christian Kingdoms remained independent from the Moorish territory of ‘Al-Andalus’, Briones and the Rioja region did briefly fall under Moorish control in the 9th century, before King Ordono of Navarra (an independent territory) reconquered the region in the mid-10th century. Briones and the Rioja region were subsequently handed over the Christian Kingdom of Castile in the mid-11th century. During this time, the ruler of Castile, King Ferdinand III, decided to cede control of Briones and other territories Rioja to his nephew, Diego Lopez de Haro.
Middle Ages to Napoleonic times
It was during this period that the wines of Rioja started to gain some official recognition, indeed during the Middle Ages, the wines were so important to the economy that the Major of the administrative capital, Logroño, banned carts from passing along the roads near to the bodegas, fearing that they would disturb the wines. Centuries before, Rioja also saw the birth of the Castilian (Spanish) language. The 13th-century poet, Gonzalo de Berceo, was the first recorded person to write in Spanish rather than Latin, immortalizing the wines of the region in verse.
Briones and the Rioja region as a whole enjoyed several centuries of prosperity and relative tranquility, although several skirmishes occurred with neighboring Navarra, who wished to re-take control of the valuable Riojan territory. Despite their best efforts, however, the region remained attached to the Kingdom of Castile until 1837. In the 17th century, Spain entered the so-called Siglo de Oro (Golden-age) and many important artist, musical and cultural works occurred during this time.
Sadly, the 19th century would see many years of turmoil and conflict that engulfed Spain. After the French invasion of Spain during the Napoleonic wars, the country fought numerous wars to try and put down uprising across South America from independence seeking colonies, spurred on by Spain’s weakening international position. Conflict also arose domestically across Spain, with the various Carlist Wars engulfing the nation. The Carlists were a group who sought to restore an overthrown Monarchy in Spain. Briones actually sided with the Carlists, whilst the majority of La Rioja supported the modernizing liberals.
Despite the wars of the 19th century, it is during this period that the initial signs of a modern wine industry began developing in Rioja, with the first Bodega (winery) being founded in 1860 in the shape of Marques de Riscal. The Catalyst for this development was Phylloxera, a parasite that destroyed almost all of the vineyards in Bordeaux. This crisis encouraged French winemakers to look further afield and many experts from Bordeaux came to Rioja Alta and the lands surrounding Briones in the ninety-nineteenth century to found wine estates. They discovered favorable conditions for growing what are today the local varieties (Tempranillo, Garnach, Mazuelo, and Graciano) and also brought with them the first Cabernet Sauvignon vines. And so, a vibrant wine industry was born!
The 20th century would herald many changes, struggles, and upheavals, both for Spain and the Rioja region. The outbreak of the Spanish Civil War between the Nationals, who supported General Francisco Franco and the liberal republicans cost the lives of over 700,000 Spanish nationals and installed Franco as the Fascist Dictator of Spain from 1936-1975. Briones, like all Spanish towns, saw the effects of the War most severely in the communities’ division as people sought to declare sides. The subsequent outbreak of World War II had little effect on the population of Briones, as Spain remained neutral throughout the conflicts. After the death of Franco, Spain converted with surprising ease to democracy and has emerged as one of the most important cultural, economic and political forces in Europe today.
Of course, in addition to the events that dramatically changed the political landscape across Spain, key changes were happening closer to home within the Rioja wine-making industry. The wines of the region were officially recognized in 1926 with the establishment of the Consejo Regulador (regulatory board) the board was legally certified in 1953 as a government body. Then in 1991, a government order granted a superior designation to be added to the wines of Rioja – Denominacion de Origen Calificada Rioja (DOCa). A proud day for the Riojan community!
Today, Briones remains one of the most important vineyard sites in the Rioja Alta Region, a stunning vineyard location that is one of Spain’s most enchanting and captivating. Managing to be both modern and thoroughly traditional at the same time, Briones has an outstanding artistic and historical heritage, a reflection of past and historically strategic position. It contains many grand houses, and according to historical research, the oldest dwelling in the region, which can be found in the beautiful Plaza de España. In fact, Briones epitomizes a typical Riojan town – a compact, friendly center of art, culture, and history with a wide choice of excellent restaurants nearby. Not to mention the Dinastía Vivanco Wine Museum on the outskirts of the town. So, you may come simply to drink Rioja all day long, or to appreciate the fine gastronomy and stunning landscape, but whatever you are searching for, we guarantee you won’t leave disappointed!
Gastronomy & Wine
Rioja has long culinary tradition and is celebrated for its seasonal, country fare including fresh fruit and produce from local market gardens, succulent lamb, and game from the region’s farms, and of course, fresh seafood and fish from the Atlantic, supplemented by trout and other fresh-water fish from local rivers. Add into this mix a surfeit of delicious local wines and you have the recipe for a memorable feast.
Classic Riojan dishes include Lechazo asado, which is roasted young, milk-fed lamb, Chuletas, lamb chops grilled over vine shoot embers, Bacalao a la Riojan, which is delicious salted cod with red peppers and Patatas a la Riojana, a delicious stew of potato, chorizo (spicy paprika sausage) garlic, onion and peppers. Game is also very popular in the winter months, with quail being a particular highlight. Cooking tends to be traditional, and few chefs mess with the tried and tested formula. However, more avant-garde and experimental cuisine can be found in the region, try the restaurant at the Marques de Riscal winery for a modern-day interpretation of classic Riojan food. In Briones, we recommend the restaurant Los Calaos, a fantastic little local eatery with traditional food and a neat underground cellar.
It goes without saying that wine aficionados are in for a treat, for Rioja produces some of the best and most varied wines in Spain, the choice of styles and price levels is staggering. One of the joys of drinking Rioja today is the diversity of both the old and new styles produced across the region, you can sample delicious, light, American oak-aged reds from classic blends or drink potent, concentrated 100% Tempranillo reds aged in new French oak. A major misconception is that Rioja equals red, as many fine whites and even rosés are made, in both the traditional and modern styles. The main red grape is Tempranillo, which produces cherry and strawberry scented reds of great aging potential.
This extensive wine museum is located just outside the town and is a fantastic addition to the Riojan cultural scene. The museum and wine production area are vast, very Falcon Crest, stretching over 9,000 square meters, they contain five permanent exhibitions, in addition to temporary exhibitions and of course, a tasting room! What better way to get acquainted with the history and wines of this region, at the end of your tour you will able to taste a range of their Riojan wines.
Tour La Rioja with your own chauffeur, accommodation at luxurious wine hotel & fine dining at top restaurants in Rioja & Basque Country