January 28, 2011

30 Days of Spanish Wine

This past September and October, I accomplished one of my life goals: to walk the Camino de Santiago, from St Jean Pied-de-Port, France, to Santiago de Compostella, Spain. This trail took me through 800 kilometers of Spanish countryside and towns, weaving through some of the great Spanish wine regions. Before  leaving, I came across an interesting story on Palate Press be fellow Portlandian Ryan Reichert. It gave me a few ideas of what to expect and look out for, and now that I'm back, and have had time to reflect on the experience I want to share my own experience.

First of all, my wife and I planned to hike for 30 days, which meant we averaged about 18-20 miles each day. We had a few days of easy walking, a few nights in hotels, but mostly we kept disciplined about our distances and stayed in pilgrim hostels each night. Which meant that each night, what was most on our mind were the necessities; getting our packs off our backs, cleaning off the dust and sweat, and replenishing ourselves with food. Wine was of course part of our meals, and though sometimes it was more than just part that, most of it was humble, local and undistinguished.

One of my favorite experience throughout the trip was how much our surroundings changed, and how each region became distinct from the previous as we passed though them. This applied to the wine as well. The first major region we passed though was Navarre. The wines here tended to be more modern, and more homogeneous tasting, round and fruity. During the first few days of hiking, the last thing I wanted to think about was tasting notes on muscle relaxants and sleep aids. There are certainly great Navarre wines out there, but the simple vino tinto served with our pilgrim meals of Sopa de Ajo & Tortilla Espanola were pleasant and welcome. One landmark for pilgrims is the wine fountain of Bodegas Irache (check the webcam), which offers free wine to passing pilgrims to help ease the pain.

On day ten of hiking, we entered into the province of Rioja, staying over night in Logroño. Logroño is the capital of Rioja, and has a very robust food and wine scene. Sadly we misted the fall wine celebration, though a fountain was still died red from the celebration. But we did spend our afternoon and evening wandering the four blocks next to our pension, filled with tapas bars of all kinds. I'll write more on my thoughts about tapas bars and culture in a later post, but this was our introduction, and we were not disappointed. For the equivalent of a dollar, you could get a glass of Rioja joven, and a few more dollars would get you any number of small dishes like Patatas Bravas, or a plate of grilled mushrooms. Most bars offered a selection of wines, including some fantastic reservas and gran reservas. But the simpler, fresh Rioja joven suited the straightforward tapas that were the norm.

After the provence of Rioja, we entered a virtual wine dessert of the Meseta, a high flat land more suited to grain than vines. Still, wine was a staple, and we could find a decent selection of Ribera del Deuro reds. I started to notice that a common aperitif served at bars was sweet vermouth, served on ice with a slice of orange and a spritz of soda.

The province of Léon hosts the Bierzo region, which makes wine from the Mencia grape. I took particularly to these wines because they are fresh, medium bodied wines, not overly tannic, but fairly versatile. I glad to see a few examples of these wines in the Portland market, including a bag in box offering which is an incredible value. Also common in the city of Léon is Prieto Picudo, which was made as both red and rosé. I can't say any were memorable, but worth taking note of in general. Léon also offered some of the best ham and chorizo we tasted on the trip. There are lots of tapas bars spread around the city, each offering their own selection of sausage, cured ham or slow roasted pork.

Santiago itself lies in the province of Galicia, famous for its octopus, its potato and cabbage soup Caldo Gallega, and its Albariño. Rias Baixas is perhaps the only celebrated white wine of Spain aside from Cava. Its typically served in little porcelain cups, and pairs well with Queso Tetilla, a local cows milk cheese, and Membrillo, or quince paté.

The Camino was at its heart a journey of introspection for me. But that introspection was balanced with a camaraderie and fellowship formed with other pilgrims. Perhaps the most memorable evening of the trip was an birthday celebration in Ponferrada. A dozen of us gathered to celebrate the 60th birthday of a women we had just met. We set the table, opened a few bottles, and raised our glasses. Buen provecho & Salud.

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