A couple of decades ago, planning an international experiential trip required a travel guide or vacation specialist familiar with your destinations and desires. And the guide would likely add you to a group, restricting your travel dates, or you would have to recruit a minimal number of family or friends to make a group. And it got expensive having an agent to organize everything from flights to ground transportation to lodging, restaurants and historical and cultural landmarks. Now, in this DIY age, with a little internet help, you can easily cobble together a trip that is specifically created for your interests and desires.
Many countries and many wine regions now boast of wine tourism routes where you can find wineries in scenic areas that welcome visitors. Spain has several established and supported routes throughout the country designed to direct oenophiles into wine regions and to wineries, where they will be enthusiastically welcomed for a tour and tasting and perhaps food. Many of these wineries now have restaurants where you can dine in the cellar or dine overlooking the vines or at tables set up between the vines.
Spain, Italy and France are always first, second and third, in changing order, in worldwide wine production by volume and by exports. Spanish wine production spans the country from east to west and from north to south with 60 different denominations of origin (DOs) that establish the wine rules of engagement for each particular region. These rules usually include dominant grape to be used, secondary grapes and percentages allowed, harvest yield allowed by hectare (almost 2.5 acres), and harvest timing, among other things. And at least 26 of the DOs have wine routes to be discovered and explored. A very up-to-date website, winetourismspain.com, can offer ideas on how to begin building this adventure for your family, your friends or even a honeymoon, an anniversary or a coming-of-age celebration. You can, of course, rent a car and drive these routes but winery car and van service is available, and road and off-road biking, horseback riding, electric scooter and Segways can be incorporated for parts of the trip as well.
I just returned from a firsthand look at the wine route of Ribera del Duero, about an hour and a half north of Madrid on the Duero River and, then farther west and closer to Portugal, the wine route of Rueda. Both wine-producing regions are old, as evidence of vines and wineries dates from well before the days of Jesus. But both regions codified their production methods into DO status in the early to mid-1980s. Ribera del Duero makes almost exclusively red wines, with Tempranillo, known locally as Tinta Fina or Tinta del Pais, being the grape, and Rueda makes almost exclusively white wines from the Verdejo grape. Both regions have significant altitude, which allows for more grape hang time on the vine, helping to concentrate flavors and accents within the grape. The regions are quite hot and dry, which allows for relatively easy organic and sustainable production. One Ribera producer told us, “We have three months of winter and nine months of hell.” Something to keep in mind when planning a trip.
Bodegas Vega-Sicilia put Ribera del Duero on the wine map with its Unico wine respected worldwide as exceptionally worthy. Prices for Unico are now close to $400. And Pingus, another winery in the region, restricts its output to fewer than 500 cases, with no flagship Pingus production in underperforming vintages. Pingus can be found for somewhere around $1,000 per bottle. These wines and prices challenge the first growths of Bordeaux as some of the premier wines of the world. But respectable wines of Ribera del Duero can be found in the $15 to $45 range and will challenge wines sold at double or triple those prices.
Most of the wines we tasted in Ribera showed either red and/or black cherry flavors with varying degrees of leather, licorice and aromatics. Look for Comenge, Protos, Bodega Cepa 21, Emina, Villacreces, Mvedra and Val Travieso. There are more than 300 wineries in the region, many of them sparkling new with fairly massive production of 600,000 to 3 million bottles annually. But Mvedra is a two-sister collaboration that produces just 20,000 bottles a year.
Rueda, a short drive down the Duero River, employs predominantly Verdejo grapes (85% required by law to call it Verdejo) but allows for Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay to complement a final blend. Verdejo is Spain’s most popular white grape with its tropical fruit and fragrant citrus notes. Rueda has 70 wineries with more than 1,500 growers contributing grapes to some winery or cooperative. Night harvesting is the norm to bring relatively cool grapes to the production facilities. Look for Montepedroso, Cuatro Rayas, Ramon Bilbao and De Alberto, where we tasted among other things their lovely Dorado, a fortified, sun-bleached, oxidized wine reminiscent of a fine Amontillado Sherry.
And all around these easily arranged winery visits are centuries of vibrant Spanish history. There are monasteries turned into five-star hotels (at castillatermal.com), with every imaginable luxurious amenity. There are ancient hilltop castles and museums to help make their history palpable. Gilded frescoed churches anchor most villages. The Duero River is a major migration route between Africa and Europe for many bird species and there are national park tours to get you close to the action. The people we met of Ribera del Duero and Rueda are excited to show the world what they have and what oenological and gastronomical excitement is there. And pricing for these adventures would be but a fraction of what a Bordeaux or Burgundy tour might cost. It’s way less expensive than you might imagine for what could be the most dynamic experiential vacation of your life.
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