by travel writer and Michael Kerr, The Daily Telegraph, January 20, 2017
On the fourth morning of the tour, when a fellow member of our group told me he’d lost the trousers he’d been wearing the day before, I wasn’t entirely surprised. We had been mixing our drinks.
Having started not long after breakfast with a tasting in Rioja, the first wine region in Spain to be officially recognised (in 1926), we had finished at dinner, 150 miles south west, with some of the offerings of Ribera del Duero, which is a promising upstart in comparison (1982).
In between, in the cathedral city of Burgos, last resting place of El Cid, we had sampled a few more wines over lunch. Among the customers, confusion was understandable. So, too, was snoozing on the coach.
Our leaders had to be a little sharper, and they were. Our wine guide was Conal Gregory, former MP for York and one of only 354 people in the world entitled to use the description Master of Wine (compared with 550 or so who have worked professionally as an astronaut).
Our tour manager for most of the week was Rachel Ritchie, who was born in Lancashire but lives and works as a wine guide and a translator in the Priorat region of Catalonia. The man who took over from her on the last couple of days, Bruno Criado del Rey, had trained as an agronomist and – as he proved on the coach to the airport – had a voice as rich as any of the wines we tasted.
And the customers? Among the 17 were five couples, five male solo travellers and one female, and Conal’s wife, Helen. Some were retired, a high proportion had worked in finance, and one, as Conal put it, was “a distinguished Portuguese gentleman spying on the Spanish”: David Delaforce, whose family have been engaged in the port trade in the Douro Valley since 1834.
"In 1982, Ribera del Duero had seven bodegas; now there are nearly 300"Credit: ap
It’s an eventful time to be in industrial espionage. In Rioja itself, there’s growing irritation among many winemakers that the classification system of crianza, reserva and gran reserva, which represents no more than minimum barrel ageing requirements, is seen by so many drinkers as a guarantee of quality. They are producing terroir-driven wines with less use of oak that trump many gran reservas in quality.
Then there’s the explosion of winemaking in Ribera del Duero, a landscape of flat-topped rocky heights between Valladolid and Aranda, which until recently was best known for cereals and sugar beet but is now producing some of the most admired reds in Spain. In 1982, it had seven bodegas; now there are nearly 300.
Our first base was Haro, which might have a population of only 11,500 but is very much the wine capital of Rioja, its squares dotted with bronzes of bottlers and pickers, its roundabouts topped by barrels, presses and sculptures of grapes. Then we moved on to Peñafiel, gateway to the Ribera, a town of 5,000 sitting below a hilltop castle that has the look of a ship left behind by the tide.
Segovia, which has a population of 53,000 and draws hundreds of thousands of tourists a year with its Roman aqueduct, Gothic cathedral and fairy-tale castle, was our base for the last night of the week, and seemed madly metropolitan in comparison. It was the only place where we had trouble making elbow room in a tapas bar.
We visited eight wineries in all, ranging from Contino, Rioja’s first single-estate producer, with its 16th-century cellars, to Abadía Retuerta, just outside Ribera del Duero, where the fermentation room had the air of a missile silo from a James Bond movie. The most memorable, for me, were Muga, Condado de Haza and Farina.
We met the elder statesman of the Muga family, Isaac Muga Martinez, before we visited his bodega. Rachel recognised him in a tapas bar in Haro and told him we were due to visit his HQ the following morning. He came over to say hello, posed for photographs and flirted outrageously with the women.
On the coach the following morning, Conal told us: “A number of the ladies last night met Mr Muga. He’s sent me an email saying he’s looking forward to today. If a number of the gentlemen want to join us, that’s fine, but he’s not bothered.”
The Muga family started selling wine to Bordeaux in 1877 when the vine louse phylloxera was devastating the vineyards of France – an enterprise recalled with the exhibit at their front gates of a steam engine that hauled the barrels. They are proud of their history, a history in which wood has been as important as grapes, for they make all their own barrels.
The result is powerful, creamy wines that are some of the finest in Rioja. We tasted them over lunch in a dining room with stone walls and a beamed ceiling, where, when we arrived, Spanish and EU flags were hanging on poles by the fireplace.
Jesus Viguera, head of the company’s commercial department, added a Union flag (“So you feel at home here,” he joked, “even if you don’t want to be European”), and then, hearing there were two Americans in the party, called for a Stars and Stripes as well.
Alejandro Fernandez may be 84, but in comparison with the Mugas he’s a new boy in the wine trade. He began his working life making machines to harvest cereals and sugar beet. One of them, painted yellow and green, sits outside the Condado de Haza, the second of four bodegas which, with a glitzy hotel in Peñafiel, form his “imperio tinto” – his red empire.
He didn’t make his first Tinto Pesquera – named after his home village – until 1975, but his full-bodied, deep-coloured reds were soon earning comparisons to some of the greatest in the world: his 1982 was acclaimed by the American wine writer Robert Parker as “the Spanish Pétrus”.
Fernandez wasn’t scheduled to join us, but he did, taking time out from a tasting with two importers from Sweden to chat – with Rachel interpreting – as we lunched, pose for photographs and even start an off-key sing-song.
He also added a couple of wines to the five we were scheduled to taste, uncorking them himself and pouring from a decanter. When asked which he preferred, the 1998 or the 2000, he answered: “I prefer that one [the 2000] because I’ve still got some to sell.”
The Toro region, south east of Zamora in Castile and León, is a 10th the size of the Ribera del Duero, covering no more than 6,000 hectares, but has been producing wine since the Middle Ages. Until 50 years ago, Manuel Farina told us, it was known for rustic, high-tannin reds. “They were sold for alcohol content and colour – but we didn’t like to drink them.”
The wines of today are much more subtle, thanks to the efforts of people such as his father, also named Manuel, who reduced alcohol content with earlier harvesting, and introduced stainless steel and temperature controls. So much so that Faustino’s Gran Colegiata Lágrima is the house red of the Paradores, the chain of hotels in historic buildings throughout Spain, and its Gran Colegiata Campus is the red served in business class on the aircraft of Iberia.
That information was delivered almost as an aside during our tour, which began not in the bodega but with what Manuel called un almuerzo de vendimiador – a grape-picker’s lunch – laid out on a picnic table in the shade of pine-nut trees among tempranillo vines – known here as tinta de Toro.
Having been introduced to the character and properties of individual grapes (tinta de Toro, pinot gris, moscatel and garnacha), and nibbled some Zamorano sheep’s cheese, we tasted a 2015 Colegiata Blanco, made with 100 per cent malvasia, and then a Colegiata Rosado 2015: 100 per cent tinto de Toro and with the intense colour typical of a Spanish rosé – “Perfect 10 o’clock wines”, as someone put it when we got back on the coach to head to the bodega.
A showman rather than a sommelier dominated our last lunch, in Meson de Candido, a restaurant with tiles underfoot and beams overhead that opened in the 1800s and still hogs the tourist trade in the shadow of Segovia’s Roman aqueduct.
"We visited eight wineries in all, ranging from Contino, Rioja’s first single-estate producer, to Abadía Retuerta, where the fermentation room had the air of a missile silo from a James Bond movie"Credit: ap
We began with a fresh, racy 2015 Albariño Martín Códax from Galicia and finished with a semi-sweet 2014 sauvignon blanc from Palacio de Bornos, in Rueda. In between, it was all about the suckling pig, carved here with the edge of a plate that’s then smashed on the floor. It’s done for group after group, with theatrical pauses for photography.
I’d seen the innkeeper, Alberto Candido, in action before, but he’s clearly been adapting his act for the growing Chinese market. When the plate didn’t break first time, he quipped: “Very good plate – made in Hong Kong.”
Michael Kerr travelled as a guest of Arblaster & Clarke (01730 263111; arblasterandclarke.com ). It has a Story of Rioja tour (October 1-6) led by Rachel Ritchie and featuring the vineyards and wines of Marqués de Murrieta and Contino as well as those of lesser-known producers.
Prices start at £2,245 per person, including return flights from London to Bilbao, five nights’ b&b in four-star hotels, most meals and wine, visits and tastings and the services of a wine guide and tour manager.
This article was written by travel writer and Michael Kerr from The Daily Telegraph and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.