On Cloud Wine (and Dine): Explore Spain’s Top Enotourism DestinationsIt’s no secret that wine is a billion-dollar industry, but what some may not know is that the U.S. just had its 26th consecutive year of growth in wine sales. People in the U.S. are drinking more wine and enjoying it on more occasions. This growing affinity for wine influences not only what wine lovers purchase – but where they go and what they do.
With that growing enthusiasm it’s no surprise to see a corresponding increase in enotourism, as consumers seek to taste, drink and purchase more wine, often right from the source. Fortunately, most of world’s wine regions are very welcoming to visitors.
Since food and wine go hand in hand, where there is greatness in one, there is bound to be greatness in the other. Spain has been a longtime trailblazer in creative and progressive gastronomy, particularly in the northern regions. We may be biased but the Ribera del Duero and Rueda regions are a wine lovers paradise! So, while international travel can be an investment, it’s well worth it. If you’re thinking of planning a food-and-wine-fueled Spanish journey, the following guidelines are easy to follow, whether it’s your first or fourth visit!
Start your adventure by flying into Madrid, Spain’s capital city. Just a two-hour drive from the high plains of Castilla y Leon, it’s the perfect springboard to the Ribera del Duero and Rueda wine regions.
Even if your trip is wine-centric, plan on giving yourself at least a day to check out this remarkable city. Madrid is known for its many museums and eateries, varied enough to satisfy every interest. No matter how you fill your time, be sure to visit a few of the many tapas restaurants that line the very walkable streets. Or, you can save some steps by hitting the Mercado de San Miguel to sample a vast collection of classic tapas (croquetas, boquerones, pintxos and more) under one roof. Be sure to stop by Plaza Mayor to see Madrid’s historic main square and the charming cobblestoned alleys that surround it. In fact, one of the world’s oldest and continuously-running restaurants is located just outside it’s walls.
Whether you prefer red or white wine, from Madrid you can easily road-trip up to Ribera del Duero and Rueda. That’s up, in the sense that it’s about a two hour drive north … but also in that as the elevation increases, on the right day, you will literally drive through the clouds!
These regions entertain and educate about both the ancestral and the modern sides of the vineyards, the wineries, the people and of course the wine. While some wineries have an open door, for the best experience it is always a good idea to plan ahead and make an appointment. Especially if you prefer an English-speaking host.
The Rueda region is home to Verdejo, Spain’s most popular white grape and native to the region. The style of these wines tends to be aromatic, crisp and refreshing, Sauvignon Blanc drinkers will feel right at home. There are also plenty of complex and fuller-bodied options, so those that enjoy a deeper white wine will find a lot to enjoy here too, especially with the use of barrel fermentation, lees stirring and oak aging. In either style, Rueda Verdejo will show generous acidity and fruit, with aromatic citrus or tropical notes. Thanks to sandy soils, some older vineyards (particularly in the Segovia area) have never been affected by vine pests and disease. This allows vines to live well past 100 years old, which you can see at wineries like Herrero Vedel, Bodegas Naia and the historic Martinsancho.
As the new generations steps up, we are seeing the Rueda of the future take shape. There is a relentless push for quality improvements through innovation, experimenting with fermentation techniques and a variety of oak treatments, as well as alternatives such as concrete eggs. For great exposure to this style of modern winemaking from a young winemaker’s point of view, Jose Pariente is a must-see.
Rueda boasts a lengthy winemaking heritage and thus, a great diversity in Verdejo styles has developed over time. You can check out the region’s sparkling wine, a traditional method wine known as Espumoso and enjoy breathtaking underground cellars and history at the same time at Bodegas Mocen. Perhaps a lesser known side of Rueda Verdejo is the wine’s ability to evolve in the bottle. For a lesson in wines that can age beautifully, or a comparative tasting of 10 years’ worth of vintages, check out Finca Montepedroso.
The wineries in Rueda are pretty close to each other, so hitting two or three in a day is doable. While in the area you can also stop in Segovia to see the famed Roman aqueduct and many other architectural gems dating as far back as the 12th century. Valladolid, the area’s largest city, is a great stop for all things gastro-focused. Try the award-winning restaurant, Los Zagales, with their unique take on tapas or local favorite, Gabi Garcia.
When it’s time to move on to red wines, you’ll want to head east to Ribera del Duero. Get ready to fall (more) in love with Tempranillo. Much like Verdejo, it’s a very versatile grape. Depending on the techniques used in the vineyard and what direction the winemaker takes, this grape can produce a fresh, medium-bodied wine full of red fruits, or it can be a full-bodied, inky powerhouse with spices and fruit on the blacker side. Pinot and Cab drinkers won’t be able to resist either expression.
A single visit to Bodegas Emilio Moro can show many iterations of Tempranillo. This winery is an ideal place to see how different soil structures and elevations will impact a wine. When talking about soils, a lot of the conversation is about what is going on underground, and what happens there is important. But just a short trip to the vineyards will show you the drastic differences between each vineyard’s topsoil. You can actually taste and feel the different flavors and textures of the vineyards at Sanchomartin (grey and chalky) versus that of Valderramiro (brown clay).
After sampling pure Tempranillo wines, it would be good to see how the varietal acts in a blend. At several classic Ribera del Duero wineries, including Finca Villacreces, it is common to blend Tempranillo with Cabernet Sauvignon. While that adds unique characteristics to the wine, it remains unmistakably Ribera. For those who like to stay active, this winery is also a good place to work off some of the food and wine you’ve undoubtedly enjoyed so far. Pick up a bike and take in the scenery as you ride alongside the vineyards and the Duero River, which gives the region its name.
No wine region visit is complete without going back in subterranean time. After more than 1,000 years of winemaking, Ribera del Duero is home to countless underground cellars. At Bodegas Ismael Arroyo, the Val Sotillo wines are just as enchanting as the cellars where they are matured. Other than the electricity installed in the mid 1990’s, these beautifully eerie and temperately cool caves have largely remained the same for over 500 years. They serve as home to countless barrels and bottles of precious wine.
To get a great sense of the region’s past, visit the exciting restoration project at Cillar de Silos and Dominio del Pidio, where the caves store more than just bottles. As you walk past the 600-year-old wine press and examine the framed records of early wine trade and the ancient tools used for harvest, you will feel the centuries-old heritage that is a core part of Ribera del Duero’s identity, first hand.
There is plenty to see and do in the area. Rounding out your voyage with other activities is easy in Ribera del Duero. Consider a visit to Peñafiel Castle, a world-class spa, a canoe ride along the river, a hot air balloon ride, or even visiting a deer farm or vulture refuge. These activities are all easily accessible.
This kind of trip is not just for those inspired by wine, it can be a source of inspiration itself. No other food or beverage has been as enduringly magical as wine. When paired with food it transcends nourishment into pleasure. Its aromas can trigger memories our conscious mind has otherwise forgotten. Wine elicits passion like no other, bringing people together in a ways as deep as the vineyard itself and can create a near spiritual experience even for the most secular among us. Just seeing rows of grape vines carries a romantic presence absent in the rest of the agricultural world. You simply must experience it for yourself.