The Wine & Gastronomy of Spain
Iberian Traveler offers exclusive 2 to 7-day private guided tours of Spain's premier wine growing regions of the Rioja, Ribera, Navarra, El Bierzo and Catalunya's Priorat for small groups (minimum of 4, maximum of 16) from early March through late November.
Custom designed self-guided wine and gastronomy tours of Spain's most popular wine touring destinations are available year around for individuals, small groups of friends or families. Contact Iberian Traveler for additional information or to request a custom tour package.
No adventure in Spain would be complete without a visit to Spain's oldest and best known wine region, considered the "benchmark" of Spanish winemaking. Stunningly beautiful year around, the Rioja is an ancient region dating from the Neolithic era, where you'll find atmospheric fortress towns on a hill, some with their medieval wall still intact and filled with Noble homes displaying their heraldic shields. There are enormous Gothic churches, each with its own amazing, ornately gilded Baroque altarpiece, but seldom seen by the visitor as these churches are kept tightly shut other that for mass. Ancient burial markers (dólmenes) lie scattered about in the fields, intermixed with the wineries; boutique, large and industrial. You'll also find a number of charming family run country inns and luxury hotels, and superb Riojan and Basque cuisine.
Spain's oldest DO consists of three distinct sub-zones; the Rioja Alta, whose capital is Haro, the Rioja Baja, the majority of which lies in the very dry, and much hotter southeastern portion of the Rioja, and the Rioja Alavesa, that section of the Rioja the province of Álava, the Basque Country. The Rioja Alavesa, with 13,000 hectares of vineyards, and the Rioja Alta, hold the most interest for wine tourism, as they boast the most prestigious wineries, including the oldest, most aristocratic and traditional wineries; López de Heredia Viña Tondonia, Muga, Marqués de Riscal and Bodegas Marqués de Murrieta in the Rioja Alta, and the younger, family owned wineries of Bodegas Finca Valpedra, Roda, Remirez de Ganuza. In the Rioja Alavesa you'll find Bodegas Luis Cañas, Ostatu and Eguren Ugarte. The DO also includes some of the best cutting edge and architecturally stunning wineries like Bodegas Viña Real, Regalía, Ysios and Baigorri. A tiny section of neighboring Navarra also belongs to the Rioja Denomination de Origen.
Wine making in the Rioja dates from the time of the Phoenicians, followed by the Romans, who are believed to have established most of the traditional vineyards in existence today. Wine making continued throughout the middle ages, pilgrims on the camino carrying back with them the reputation of the wines from the Rioja, with modern winemaking finally taken off in the late 1980s. There are currently more than 500 wineries making up the Rioja DOC, with 300 in the Rioja Alavesa, and more than 63,000 hectares of vineyards under production.
Considered one of the most legendary winemaking regions in Spain, the Ribera del Duero, a short drive northwest of Madrid on Spain's northern plateau, is home to some of the most elegant red wines in the world. The appellation, or DO, straddles four provinces in Castilla y León: Valladolid, Burgos, Soria and Segovia. The fabled "Milla de Oro", the Golden Mile, lies along both sides of the Duero River in Valladolid province and is often referred to as the heart of the region. Here you'll find the renowned vineyards of Vega Sicilia, Pingus, Hacienda Monasterio, Aalto, Arzuaga Navarro, Abadía Retuerta and Mauro (the latter two sit just west of the appellation's official limits). And as fabled as these wineries are, the region is filled with outstanding boutique wineries, including López Cristóbal in Roa, Hermanos Pérez Pascuas in Pedrosa, Ismael Arroyo-Valsotillo in Still de la Ribera, Bodegas Comenge in Curiel de Duero and the quite small, but award-winning wineries of Bodegas Veganzones and Briego in Fompedraza.
Ribera's earliest underground cellars, with their distinctive stone chimneys, called "zarceras", were built in the 13th-century in towns across the region and still serve to protect the wines from the extreme climate changes. The limestone caves, dug by hand, provide the perfect conditions for aging these fine ones. One of the best examples of these cellars is the 400-meter long wine storage cellar of Bodegas Ismael Arroyo-Valsotillo in Still de la Ribera. The extremes of weather, from scorchingly home summers with moderate to low rainfall and harsh, cold winters, combined with the unique soil conditions and higher elevation, create the ideal growing conditions for the Tempranillo (early ripening) grape, known locally as Tinto Fino, or Tinta de País, but it is the great passion for producing great wines that make the Ribera del Duero so notable. The maximum yields are limited to 7,000 kilos per hectare by the DO, but the average yields for the past 25 years have rarely exceeded 3,600 Kilos per hectare, as the wineries have reduced the quantity in pursuit of quality.
Although the Denominación de Origen of Ribera del Duero has only been in existence since July 1982, starting with only 8 wineries, winemaking in the region dates back more than 2000 years, to the time of the Romans who had a settlement (Clunia) at what is now the small village of Baños de Valdearados in the Burgos province. As of October 2010, the Ribera del Duero counted 255 commercial wineries with 35,000 hectares in production, about a third of the area of their rival to the north, scattered along its 115 km length, with major winemaking centered in and around the towns of Peñafiel (Valladolid), Roa and Aranda de Duero (Burgos) and San Esteban de Gormaz (Soria), all of which sit along the banks of the Duero. The "Golden Mile" lies just west of Peñafiel. Here, most of the vineyards are located at lower elevations and wineries employ special towers t move he heavier, colder air the settles in over the river valley in order to protect the grapes from the dangers of an early fall frost, common to the area.
DO Navarra, with more than 11,500 hectares under production, is composed of an extraordinary diversity of climate with Atlantic, Continental and Mediterranean influences, and a broad landscape extending more than 100 kilometers from Pamplona in the North to the Ebro River and the Rioja in the South. The DO consist of 5 distinct wine making regions: Baja Montaña, Valdizarbe, Tierra Estella, Ribera Alta and Ribera Baja, and like the Rioja and Ribera del Duero, is home to a wealth of premium wineries, including three of Spain's (currently) thirteen official D.O. de Pagos. What is a DO Vino de Pago? It is a very top classification a winery estate in Spain can achieve, similar to France's Gran Cru Classé, and not to be confused with the "Grandes Pagos de España", a non-profit organized to promote single-estate wines. These Pago wineries can only produce wines from grapes grown and aged on their own estate, and the estate must have an international reputation for producing wines of the very highest quality. Although best known for its light, fruity rosados, the region produces a selection of esteemed chardonnays and well regarded tintos from tempranillo, merlot, garnacha tinta and cabernet sauvignon grapes.
Señorío de Otazu, a 14th-century estate, designated an official Pago in 2009, sits on 865 acres of land surrounded by an expansive forest on the banks of the Arga River, across from the small hamlet of Echauri and is Spain's northernmost vineyard for the production of fine red wines. The estate enjoys an exceptional microclimate, sheltered year around by the Peña de Echauri Mountains to the West and the Perdón range to the South. Bodegas Otazu is a delightful fusion of art and architecture, nature and great wines. Keeping the original wine presses on display in the bodega's cellar, Otazu has added a high tech, contemporary designed winery, an architectural marvel, that was listed as one of the top 25 wineries in the world in 2005 and featured on the cover of Kliczkowski's "Wineries Bodegas - Architecture & Design". Visitors here will also find a 16th-century French chateau-like palace, 14th-century dove coast-defensive tower and the small, jewel-like, 13th-century Romanesque church of San Esteban, along with the avant-garde wine making facility, with the most impressive space being the vast underground 3,600 square meter vaulted aging cellar housing two thousand oak barrels, which the winery calls its "cathedral" of wine.
Bodegas Irache, Navarra's second DO de Pago, was founded in 1891 and is located in the village of Ayegui at the foot of the historic Montejurra Mountain, two kilometers from the historic Roman town of Estella. The original vineyard supplied wine to the royal houses of Navarre as early as the 12th-century, and its history is closely associated with the adjacent monastery, the first hospital for pilgrims on the way to Compostela.
Señorío de Arínzano, in the tiny village of Aberín, on the route of the Camino de Santiago, was the first winery in the north of Spain to be awarded the DO de Pago. This noble estate, spanning some 1,700 acres, with its medieval tower, 18th-century palatial residence and Neoclassical chapel, belongs to the Chivite family of winemakers, Spain's oldest wine producing family. In 1988 the family purchased the estate and commissioned Pritzker Prize winning architect, Rafael Moneo, a fellow Navarran, to design its state-of-the art wine making facility. This soaring, cutting edge space, with its 100-meter long catwalk, a bridge-like structure wedged between sections of the roof's framework, was inaugurated by the King and Queen in 2002, and is a knock-out!
Although the best known wines of Navarra are the light, fruity rosados, the region also produces a selection of esteemed chardonnays and well regarded tintos from tempranillo, merlot, garnacha tinta and cabernet sauvignon grapes.
Other premium wineries include Bodegas Pago de Larrainzar, a newer, dynamic family owned winery which sits next to the Irache Monastery, on the French Route of St. James, with the beautiful Montejurra Mountain as its backdrop. The estate has belonged to the Larrainzar-Canalejo family for 150 years, but has only been producing a single label wine since 2004. The Bodegas Chivite estate cover 160 hectares of fertile land on the hillsides of the Granja de Legardeta in Villatureta, adjacent to the vineyards of Señorío de Arínzano. the new winery was also designed by Navarran architect Rafael Moneo and combines modern technology with the work of artisans, and is an integral part of the landscape. Pago de Cirsus, is a private estate with a single vineyard consisting of 137 hectares in La Finca Bolandín in southern Navarra. The estate was purchased by Spanish film producer Iñaki Nuñez in 2000 and completely renovated. The winemaker, Jean March Saubouda, who has been with the Pago de Cirsus since 2003, is from Bordeaux and was the winemaker at Château Haut-Brion, considered one of the 10 best wineries in the world. The winery is set for DO de Pago status in the near future.
A small, secluded and exceedingly beautiful region, El Bierzo is tucked into the Northwest corner of Old Castile, in the León province, bordering Eastern Galicia and Southwestern Asturias. Late October, post-harvest, makes for a perfect time to visit this area when the vineyards of Bodega Luzdivina Amigo, Prada A Tope, Godelia, Castro Ventosa and Luna Beber come ablaze with extraordinarily vibrant colors, while the local cuisine features dishes prepared with the abundant chestnuts, wild mushrooms and red peppers of this stunningly picturesque area of Spain. Highlights included the historic capital of Villafranca del Bierzo with its collection of noble mansions along Calle del Agua, Ponferrada, home to the superbly restored 13th-century Knights of the Templars castle, the magical "Valley of Silence", Oza Valley, a major monastic retreat from the 9th-century and the ancient Route of Saint James, laced with Romanesque churches and hospices, including the hauntingly beautiful 10th-century Monastery of Carracedo, founded to care for the medieval pilgrims headed to Santiago de Compostela.
Other delights include the remote Ancares Mountains with their traditional, pre-Romanesque, circular stone and thatched-roof dwellings, "pallozas", the remains of Celtic castros, fortified Iron Age settlements and the World Heritage Site Las Medulas, the fascinating remains of the largest open-air strip mining operation of the Roman Empire, dating from the 1st-century A.D. And for wine lovers, there are miles of impossibly steep hills covered with vineyards, producing Burgundy-quality wines made primarily from the mencía grape.
Wine production flourished here during the Roman occupation and in the 9th-century regained prominence with the discovery of the remains of St. James in Galicia and the building of the monasteries and pilgrim hospices along the pilgrimage route, the Way of Saint James. The monks kept winemaking alive and well throughout the middle ages, but production died off at the end of the 19th-century with the arrival of phylloxera. It was resurrected once again in the mid-80s with the arrival of young, energetic winemakers like Alvaro Palacios, who, after bringing fame to the Priorat, has helped make El Bierzo one of the most exciting winemaking regions of Spain.
It's normally very warm the last week of June in Catalunya, but it's also the perfect time to explore the rugged Priorat wine producing region in the rocky hills west of Tarragona, about 1-1/2 hours drive south of Barcelona. The steep, curving slopes, like those in Portugal's Douro, Sil and Miño River Valleys, create a landscape of picturesque terraces where the grapes are picked mostly by hand. Although not as well known within Spain as the Rioja and Ribera del Duero wine regions, the Priorat has been well established in the United States, having been introduced years ago, and continues to offer some of the best and most expensive wines available on the American market today, including those from the Cellers Capafons-Ossó, Clos de l'Obac, Cellar Vall Llach, Buil & Giné, Clos Berenguer, Mas Sinén and even the small and difficult to find, Celler del Pont. The production is small, but the rich reds and succulent whites are will worth the price.
As a bonus, the Priorat is surrounded by the Montsant DO, a direct competitor of, and better value, then the better known wines of the Priorat, the old-vine Garnacha being the most popular harvest. The DO was officially recognized in 2001, but the vines have been cultivated since the time of the Romans. Montsant wines tend to be softer and less powerful then the Priorat and interestingly, the D.O. produces some of Spain's most popular Kosher Wines.
A visit to the Priorat should not be limited only to wine and olive oil lovers. History buffs will want to visit the remarkable ruins of the country's first Carthusian priory, Scala Dei, founded in the 13th-century, or the fascinating lead mining museum at Belmont. There is also the restored Romanesque castle sitting high atop the city of Falset, in the center of the Priorat, or the strikingly perched, beautifully preserved stone hamlet of Siurana, one of Catalonia's most picture-perfect medieval villages and its Morrish stronghold. For nature enthusiasts, hiking trails abound in Parc Natural de la Serra de Montsant.
Dining in the Priorat can be as rewarding an experience as the one tasting itself, with excellent village restaurants serving both traditional Catalan cuisine and more contemporary fare, all sporting extensive, yet surprisingly, reasonably priced. The wine lists showcase the best of the Contestant and Priorat DOs.