La Rioja, the fêted wine region of northern Spain, straddles the Ebro River valley in a long sprawling curve while Haro, Rioja’s wine centre, sits like a gateway in the north-west corner of this region. The huge flat valley is ringed by mountains with rugged rocky outcrops thrusting cantankerously out the top. In places, narrow fins fan out from the rockface. Against a backdrop of blue thunderclouds, which is how we approached Haro, it is all very dramatic. In the valley bowl, terraced vineyards splay outward prettily.
The minute you enter the town of Haro, it’s clear that the zest for life centres firmly on the growing of juicy red grapes (mainly the Tempranillo varietal) and the crafting of those voluptuous wines Rioja is so famous for. Statues focus on wine and cooperage, and horn-playing (a feature of the copious wine festivals, I wonder?), and everywhere there are views across the vineyards. Besides Tempranillo, other varietals cultivated in Rioja include Grenache (Garnacha) and Carignan (known here as Mazuelo).
Haro is a very walkable town with a mix of architectural styles, from the 12th through to the 18th centuries. Daily life plays out mostly on the plazas, mainly because of the endless tourists that come barrelling through. My first impressions were of iron-lace railings, aged crumbling stone, peeling wooden balconies and alcoves, and in-between, some beautiful stone façades with bas-relief crests. But of course, it’s the wine tasting that most visitors come to this town for. And a very good place to start is L’Estación de Tren, Haro’s train station, where seven of the region’s recognised wineries, or bodegas, are clustered.
Haro’s most celebrated festival is the Batalla del Vino, or Battle of Wine, held each year on 29 June. Townspeople don a white shirt and red scarf, then climb the nearby mountain and proceed to bombard each other with thousands of litres of wine from buckets, wineskins, sprayers — whatever is most effective. It started in the 13th century when every year, on Saint Peter’s Day, citizens had to officially mark the property lines between Haro and neighbouring Miranda de Ebro. Four centuries years later this practice had foundered. Aggression set in. To lay claim to their boundaries, people started throwing wine at each other — and a festival was born.
One theory for the origin of Haro’s name is that a lighthouse once stood on the mouth of the Ebro River, near the neighbouring village of Cerro de la Mota. ‘Faro’ (a beacon) is North Castilian for lighthouse. This evolved over time into Haro (with a silent ‘h’).
If you’ve had the opportunity to sample any luscious Rioja wines (and you just happen to be hopping onto a plane and heading off for northern Spain), it’s great fun to go directly to the source for more insight into this Spanish wine alchemy.
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