The trip is on! Left Monday and arrived Tuesday morning in Lisbon (Lisboa). Picked up our car and drove to Salamanca, a beautiful old city with a famous university and history. We stayed in a small hotel in part of the buildings surrounding the huge Plaza Mayor, The Petit Palace Las Torres. Highly recommended for location, location, location and uber modern. Being a university city the Plaza is constantly alive…and can be noisy at night. We tried to find a restaurant but it was almost 5pm so they were all closed…except we found a bar that served tapas (pintxo’s in the Basque country and sometimes called pinchos – phonetic for the Basque spelling). the bar was at the opposite end of the plaza from us and called Tapas de Gonsalas. The tapas were excellent and the server friendly, but what was really impressive was the wine (none price over €3.50 a glass!). We started with a Rueda which is made from Verdejo grapes in a region along the Duero River but not quite in the Ribero del Duero region. This is my favorite Spanish white wine..if you find one make sure it says Verdejo on the label as some in the region are made with inferior grapes. It is a beautiful wine with some minerality and a slight lemony finish. Talking with the barkeep, I was going to order a glass of La Rioja but noticed two wines on the board I had not had before. They were Toro’s. I have never seen one in the U.S. They are produced in an area just to the west of Valledolid (from Salamanca head north to Zamorra, then east to Toro). It is a quaint old town. We walked into a bodega (wine shop), and found there were dozens of the these wines which are produced in small quantities and mostly drunk in the region. It turned out the two we had at the bar (Romanica and Primo, priced at about €12 a bottle!), weren’t the best and bought two others at about €20 each to bring back). After a nice lunch of tapas we drove to Vallabuena which is situated in the Ribero del Duero district. There we stayed in an incredibly hard to find old hotel (but worth it!), and the next day had an appointment at Pesquera, (the Duero’s Vega-Sicilia is the most expensive wine in Spain), then to drove to the town of Pesquera and on to Penafiel which is the heart of the Duero region. It is a beautiful town with a huge limestone castle at the top that can be seen for miles. After driving around for a while we got hungry but once again, everything was closed until at least 8pm. Frustrated, we asked everyone we saw for a restaurant and had several false leads, and finally after driving for a couple of hours found one that was open about 15 miles away! It was mainly a bar with a dining room but since we were the only customers the barman set up a table in a corner and we met a really nice Spaniard named Dino, who swapped stories on wine with us. The dinner was lamb chops and they were good but be advised that very few people speak English in this region, even fewer than in the Basque Country. We left Dino at the bar and drove back to our home base and went to bed exhausted at 11:30pm!
It was hard to get up the next morning but we did in time to make an 11:30 appointment at Pesquera, but when we arrived were told it would be at 12:30, so we went down the road to Emile Mora where I went in and had a short tour. It is one of the better Ribera’s.
Our tour consisted of eight people and our guide Alejandro (not the owner, just the same name), did an excellent job of explaining about the winery in English followed by Spanish. As we were about to start the walkaround, in came Alejandro Fernandez, the founder, in 1982, of the winery. I have only met a few other people with as much passion for winemaking as him. He greeted us and talked for awhile then we began our tour. First stop was the original wine press which dated back to the 1800’s and was used by Alejandro in making his first two vintages, before building to the current winery which is adjacent. Then we toured the modern winery which has about 30 stainless steel fermentation tanks, a huge crusher and de-stemmer, and underground tanks that have small hatches on them to pump the hoses from them to the tanks after about a week of fermentation. From there the must (wine after being pressed and fermented) is put in oak barrels and depending on the wine aged for one to three years before being bottled. Note that every four months the wine is transferred to other barrels so the sediment can be removed and the barrels washed for reuse.
Alejandro’s (the owner not the guide) philosophy is pure and simple. First, he believes in using 100% tempranillo grapes (Vega-Sicilia uses 80-90% tempranillo and the rest either cabernet sauvignon and merlot – they are the only one who blends Bordeaux grapes with tempranillo while others here use garnacha and a few other grapes). He uses only natural yeasts and no pesticides or herbicides are sprayed. He also believes wine is best without filtration so decanting is required before serving. This man, like Robert Mondavi in California and Alfredo Currado in Piedmont, Italy, was responsible for a revolution in Ribero to make quality wines. I was fortunate enough to meet both men. Before him, there were few wineries here and quality was miserable due to unclean conditions and equipment. Now, Ribero’s are a recognized and respected name in the world of wine. Alejandro was born in 1932 and is still active and energetic in the winery’s operation. His career began as a carpenter and then he started a business making and repairing farm equipment until he saved enough to pursue his dream. He started making wine in 1982 with his first vintage in 1985.It and the second vintage were pressed in the old winery but then everything shifted to the modern facility. Consider the accomplishment when California’s span as a respected region along with La Rioja’s is just 50 years.
Following a tasting, we then had lunch in Penfiel at Meson de San Jose, a asiada, or restaurant the specializes in roast lamb, especially a dish called lechazo which is cooked until it is falling off the bone…amazing with a glass of Ribero, and a specialty of the region.
We are now back at our hotel relaxing before long drive tomorrow to León and Santiago del Campostella and A Coruña on the northwest coast of Spain.
Adios, amigos y amigas!
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