Cut off from the Old Castile in 1983, tiny La Rioja, with its 5,045 km² (1,948 sq mi) and 320,000 inhabitants, could easily for overlooked by tourists to Spain, were it not for its famous wines, generally regarded as the country's finest. La Rioja was for many years the only wine region in Spain to earn the prestigious grading of Denominación de Origen Calificada (D.O.C.), until Priorat got the same status in 2003.
La Rioja's vineyards were founded by the Romans, and it has been theorised that when they later settled in the Bordeaux region, some of the plant cuttings that they took with them may have originated in the Rioja vineyards in the form of the ancient Balisca grape, the ancestor of the Cabernet family. Planted over gently rolling hills in the Ebro valley, with the Cantabrian mountain in the backdrop, the Rioja vineyards are not just Spain's most prestigious, but also the most picturesque and beautiful.
The local economy revolves around wine making, and unsurprisingly most of the tourist attractions in La Rioja are also wine related. Wine tasting tours of the main estates are a definitive must for wine lovers. They include such names as Artadi, Marqués de Murrieta, Marques de Vargas, Remírez de Ganuza, Ramon Bilbao, Roda, Torre Muga, and Valenciso.
The cuisine of La Rioja is relatively simple, emphasising fresh local ingredients, which tend to be cooked to accompany the Rioja wines, rather than the other way round. Many recipes use white asparagus, artichokes, Piquillo peppers (typical of the nearby Basque Country), or Mediterranean specific vegetables like fava beans (caparrónes), chard and borage. Morcilla (Spanish black pudding) and Riojan chorizo are also popular.
Quintessential Riojan dishes include chuletillas al sarmiento (lamb chops, usually grilled outdoors during festivals or special events), gallina en pepitoria a la Riojana (chicken slow-cooked in a Rioja white wine sauce), patatas a la Riojana (potatoes cooked with chorizo sausages, paprika, chili pepper and bay leaves), perdiz asada al Rioja Tinto (roast partridge flambéed in Spanish brandy before being cooked in wine) and perdiz escabechada (partridge cooked with vegetables in wine and seasoned with herbs).
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