Travel, Etc.

Travel, Etc.

Travel, Etc.

Travel, Etc. --> A Food and Wine Tour of Spain Part 3

A Food and Wine Tour of Spain Part 3... The Rioja Wine Harvest Festival
By Mark Gapinski

Harvest Festival, traditionally known as the Feast of San Mateo. Lagroño is the capital of the province of La Rioja and is the center of trade for Rioja wine. Each year, for the past 60 years or so, the town plans and enjoys a huge annual festival celebrating all things wine. 

The town was already bomping when we ventured out from our hotel on Saturday morning. Brass bands roaming the streets created a festive atmosphere. Local social clubs, established primarily around wine, were setting up tasting stations around town featuring local delicacies, and, you guessed it, wine! These local delicacies grabbed my attention. It’s important for you to realize that some dogs in Spain speak better Spanish than I do, and almost all of them respond to spoken Spanish better than I. Thus, I was never entirely sure for what I was standing in line. The first stop turned out to be a deep-fried pork belly sandwich with a small glass of Rioja, I presumed a delicious steal for 2 euros ($2.25).    

As we continued to explore the center of town, I came across another tasting station. This one had a very long line. Surely they must be serving Iberian ham with Gran Reserva Rioja, I imagined, so naturally, I joined the line. As I neared the tasting station, I readied my 2 euros for morrito con pimiento verde. I had no idea what morrito was, but the green pepper sounded encouraging. With my delicacy now in hand, it was time to determine what it was. Breaded and fried, my first guess was that it was of porcine origin. Having been told that the Spanish eat everything from the pig except the oink, I began a body part inventory. I thought it might be an ear, but alas, too small. While tasty, it was tough, mighty tough. The pepper was grilled and delicious and the wine was definitely a step up from the first stop. Not entirely amazed with this morsel, I assured myself that at least I had experienced a truly local delicacy. So local, in fact, that neither our tour leader, a Spanish professor and our local guide, who was also fluent in Spanish, could tell me what a morrito was. More on this later…  

After a walk on the culinary wild side, we took up a place in the town center that was set up for the main event of the Festival, the “Pisado de la Uva y Ofrenda del Primer Mosto a la Virgen de Valvanera” that is, the “Pressing of the Grapes and the Offering of the First Grape Juice to the Virgin of the Vines.” At precisely 12:30 pm, a procession from a nearby church brought the statue of the Virgen de Valvanera and ceremoniously placed her on a flower-covered table near the center of the stage. Next, dozens of children in traditional dress brought basket after basket of grapes to the stage and deposited them in a large wooden vat.

When the vat was full, two young men rolled up their trouser legs and entered the vat. Hands on each other’s shoulders, the two men stomped the grapes then stomped them some more. When the stomping was complete, a small vessel was filled with the “mosto”, must, or unfermented grape juice. A local priest blessed the must and then made the offering to the Virgin of the Vines. Harvest and winemaking in the La Rioja was now officially underway! The ceremony underscored for me how intimately the business of wine was intertwined with the social and religious life of this community.

After the ceremony, it was time to eat again, so we were off to the Calle Laurel. In Lograño, Calle Laurel is the place for tapas. The street itself is only 100 or so yards long and about 25 feet wide. Its entire length on both sides is lined with tapas bars. By 1:30 pm Calle Laurel resembled Georgia Street on the night before the Super Bowl. Since not all tapas bars are created equal, I was told it was vital to seek out the most crowded ones since they would have the best tapas. And so I did. I slowly muscled my way to the bar at the Pasion Por Ti. Miraculously, I was able to get the bartender's attention pretty quickly, I ordered a croquette skewered to a spear of Iberian ham, roasted artichokes with crispy ham, and grilled lamb chops with potatoes and red pepper.

The by-the-glass wine list was impressive, but when I ordered the 6 euro glass of López de Heredia Viña Tondonia Tinto, even my feeble Spanish told me “No mas” meant I needed to make another choice. They did have a great Roda Rioja, also for 6 euros, and two glasses were mine. When I turned around, I could not believe my eyes, it was if the Virgin of the Vineyards herself had parted the crowd. There sat my wife at a table! A table no less, with two chairs! Granted, I did have to nudge a six-year old off one of the chairs, but hey, this is a bar. There’s plenty of room for two on your brother’s chair. Fortunately, their parents agreed.

The tapas were wonderful, but the grilled lamb chops with the Rioja were heavenly.   After lunch, we pinballed our way down the remainder of the Calle Laurel and left the town center taking a much quieter stroll through the parks that line the Ebro River. On returning to our hotel, I asked the receptionist if she could please tell me what a morrito might be. “Pig lips or maybe, snout” she replied without hesitation. Mystery solved, maybe.

Next: A Basque Cooking Class

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 lindae25@gmail.com or Lesley Reser of Seminars International at Lesley@semint.com