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We hit the ground running at EMILIO MORO in Ribera del Duero, our focus during the first half of RIOJA ROUNDUP. This region was the northern border for the Moorish occupation, so it’s heavy on fortresses, monasteries, churches, and the pilgrims’ way, Camino del Santiago.

Winery owner Cesar Pitarch Rodriguez was host at CONVENTO SAN FRANCISCO in Peñafiel. “Love his hair,” one guest said. We loved the barrel tasting. At 100K bottles, this winery is on the small side in Ribera.

"Great tasting! And it’s not even lunchtime yet!" Our RIOJA ROUNDUP group (clockwise from left): Ray and Madelyn Miamidian, Hope and Jeff Rabinovitz, Carol Cotter and Mark Alexander, Sherry Goldin, Barbara Friedman, and Amanda Cottrell.

Minding their Ps and Qs, hoping for more wine. “Soon!” we promise.

Beneath castle of Peñafiel lies PROTOS. Underground are 2 km of tunneled cellars, whose air vents are stone chimneys that crop up like mushrooms all around the hillside.

Founded in 1927, PROTOS was the first producer to commercialize wine in Ribera. Despite its size (5-million bottles), its wines never fail to impress.

Ray and Jeff appraise the PROTOS Gran Reserva. Jeff is wondering how he can smuggle a bottle into the Quidditch game (note the official Harry Potter Quiddtich jacket).

Steve Cottrell ponders life with a cellar full of our favorite PROTOS, which is…

Tah-dah! PROTOS’ special selection Finca El Grajo Viejo 2009, from 70-year-old tempranillo vines. Loads of opulent ripe fruit, spice, and balsamic notes. To. Die. For.

La Dolce Vita's Claudio Bisio gets a bottle to go (then tragically breaks it when it rolls out the van door).

Like a zillion pilgrims before us, we stop in BURGOS to see the cathedral, the second largest in Spain and a now UNESCO World Heritage site.

Part 2: RIOJA! Our first stop is MIGUEL MERINO, at 35K bottles the smallest producer in this vast land. Rioja produces 400 million bottles annually—50 times the volume in Barolo. But it’s half that of megalith Bordeaux.

Sherry Goldin cradles her precious cargo from MIGUEL MERINO, while the winemaker, born in 1949, wears his 49ers cap.

A Kodak moment in MIGUEL MERINO’s front-yard vineyard, in the heart of Briones.

Ray and Maddie: How’s this pic for your Rioja album cover?

Jeff and Hope pose with Miguel’s Rioja Reserva 2005—an elegant rendition from Briones’ cooler vineyards.

Our first full day in Rioja begins at RODA, a modernist producer and tempranillo specialist. The thistle adorns their most coveted wine, Cirsian, sourced from 80-year-old vines in Rioja’s three subregions.

Harvest is underway when we arrive at CONTINO. Located on an oxbow in the Ebro river, this unique microclimate allows for the ripening of tricky grapes like graciano.

CONTINO winemaker Jesus de Madrazo Mateo and guests watch the destemming of tempranillo.

The timing is right to taste partially fermented must. Better than Welch’s!

Here Jesus offers skeptical Steve a sip of viura must, destined for his white blend. As opaque as pineapple juice, it has a tropical taste as well.

And now, an al fresco tasting beside CONTINO’s vineyards by the Ebro, still straddled by an ancient Roman bridge.

Jesus with his offering: Garnacha, Reserva, Gran Reserva, Viña del Olivo, and Graciano.

The mood is good—and what’s not to like? Great wine, glorious weather, a plate of manchego cheese and sausage, and a gracious winemaker host.

Day 4 combines the old and the new, starting at LOPEZ DE HEREDIA, the Last of the Mohicans. Next to a 19th century cellar is their modern decanter-shaped tasting room, designed by star architect Zaha Hadid.

MARQUES DE RISCAL boasts the most famous of Rioja’s modern architecture. Here, the swank hotel designed by Frank Gehry.

Selecting the grapes at MARQUES DE RISCAL. They expect 2012 to be a good vintage.

Cherry-hued tempranillo at MARQUES DE RISCAL. Drink up! It keeps the heart strong.

Our group at CASTELLO DE CUZCURRITA. We couldn’t enter the castle because the owners were in town, gathered for a baby’s christening. "What a life," we sighed.

Barbara wonders, “Who drank all the wine?!”

Ah, all better now!

We compared Señorio di Cuzcurrita (tempranillo from mixed vineyards) with Cerrado del Castillo (tempranillo from the clos or walled-in vineyard beside the castle).

The Cerrado del Castillo topped the swoon-o-meter for everyone, including Hope.

Cheers to double-fisted drinking!!

Amanda cuddles a pogo stick in the shape of a dog at REMELLURI, our final winery, where they cooked us lamb chops over an open fire.

Our farewell dinner at REMELLURI. Yes, it was as cozy as it looks. Envious? See our RIOJA ROUNDUP itinerary here and you can be next!

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