Travel, Etc. --> A Food and Wine Tour of Spain
A Food and Wine Tour of Spain
By Mark Gapinski
In mid-September, my wife and I participated in a Food and Wine Tour of Spain sponsored by Seminars International and led by Dr. Linda Elman, a professor of Spanish. The tour promised the 12 participants a 10-day deep dive into the wine, food, and culture of Spain and boy, did it deliver! We visited wineries, wine cellars, wine shops, wine festivals, and wine museums. On the food side, there were restaurants, tapas bars, street vendors and cooking schools. And I shouldn’t fail to mention castles, fortresses, ancient walled cities and museums to boot.
Dr. Elman and tour leader Anita Baker, an energetic British lady with an inexhaustible knowledge of Spanish history and culture, provided an ongoing narrative to bring all these experiences to life. Rather than write a long, blow-by-blow story about this trip, I’ve decided to highlight a few experiences that I think will be of greatest interest to readers. This, the first, will feature a visit to the wine caves of the Ribera del Duero.
Wine Caves from the Early Renaissance
Aranda del Duero, founded in 961 (no, I didn’t leave off the first 1!), is the capital of the Ribera del Duero wine producing area. Thirty feet or so below street level in Aranda lie miles of tunnels and caves used primarily to make and store wine. We were fortunate to be able to visit these caves with the staff of Don Carlos Bodega Historica as guides. The tunnels and caves were dug during the late 15th century, just about the time Columbus landed in the Americas. Numerous caves were initially dug by wine producers around the city, but over time, the individual caves were connected into an almost 6-mile network of tunnels.
The tunnels are accessed by a claustrophobia-inducing stairway that winds its way three stories underground. The cellars themselves were dug into the stone by hand, with the resulting rubble being hauled out up the narrow stairway. Surprisingly, no wooden timbers were used to support the tunnels, there was only an occasional stone arch to provide support. Since these tunnels are over 500 years old, I guess they made the right call.
The cellars were used not only to store wine but to make it. The juice from crushed grapes (must) was carried down the stairway in 30-gallon animal skin vessels and dumped into the large wooden barrels in the cellars. The scale of this effort is mind-boggling given the tens of thousands of gallons of barrel storage in the cellars. Once the large barrels were filled, fermentation began and created another set of issues. Carbon dioxide, a by-product of fermentation, is heavier than air. As the fermentation proceeded the tunnels would begin to fill with carbon dioxide. While vent holes had been cut in the stone, air circulation was poor. There were actually a few weeks when it was not possible to enter the tunnels without risking asphyxiation!
The quality of the 15th-century wine made in the cellars must have been pretty dreadful. The only skin contact was during the stomping/pressing process, so the wines were likely pretty pale by today’s standards, more like a rosé I’d say. There was limited capacity for racking or clarification, and lack of drainage in the caves suggests that barrel cleaning and sterilization between vintages was likely minimal. I imagine that the fact that the wine contained alcohol was its foremost attribute.
The caves are still used today, but mostly for storage of small quantities of bottled wine. Wine related events are frequently held in these cellars by local producers.
We returned to Don Carlos and were treated to a tasting of two lovely Ribera del Duero wines in their cellars. As we were leaving, our tour guide asked if we would like to visit the “Sacred Room.” It seemed to me there was only one answer to this question! As we neared the top of the cellar stairs, there was a recessed doorway in the wall that was filled with a large mirror. In a scene directly from the “Phantom of the Opera”, our tour guide touched a button on her remote control and the mirror slid to the side revealing a door. She keyed in the combination to the lock and we entered the “Sacred Room.”
This small room contained the bottled crown jewels of the Ribera del Duero. There was Vega Sicilia “Unico” from more than a dozen vintages dating back to 1958. Multiple vintages of Pingus and Pesquera lined the shelves. This was the first time I had actually seen a bottle of Pingus. Sadly, at 1803 euros ($1980) /bottle, the 2004 Pingus was about $1900 beyond my prIce point!
Next Week : A Visit to the Pago Carraovejas Winery
Do you find travel experiences like this one appealing? If so, place your name on the “interest list” for future wine and food tours of Spain by emailing Dr. Linda Elman at firstname.lastname@example.org or Lesley Reser of Seminars International at Lesley@semint.com
October 23, 2019