tasting wine in el Bierzo

after weeks of consuming the house wines offered by albergues, drinking out of a fountain on the side of a winery, and tramping through acres and acres of vineyard all across northern Spain, we got around to tasting at a bodega (wine cave, basically) on day 26. up until this point, we hadn’t much opportunity to do anything resembling a tasting like those so common around the U.S. I wouldn’t be surprised if wineries in the more traditionally tourist-friendly areas did those types of tastings but when you’re going everywhere on your own bipedal power there’s no real “short side trip” to do anything, much less taste wine.

while Rioja is perhaps better known as a wine-producing region in Spain (at least by me prior to this trip), el Bierzo also has exceptional vine-growing soil and its own thriving wine industry. prior to the arrival of Romans, the region was populated by the Hispano-Celtic Astures people who shared origins with the people of Galicia. while agriculture and an assortment of vines came to el Bierzo with the Roman Empire, it wasn’t until the Middle Ages and expansion of monasteries (primarily those of the Cistercians) that wine production took off. the industry was nearly obliterated in at the end of the 19th century as a result of a phylloxera plague that destroyed nearly all the vineyards in the region (as well as most of those in Europe, actually, thanks to over-eager British botanists who inadvertently brought the aphids back to Europe on North American vines). the economy of el Bierzo suffered greatly as a result and it took decades of cultivating hybridized vines before wine production regained its level of importance; its doing quite well today and in 1989 received the Denominación de Origen designation.

as far as cultivating grapes, el Bierzo shares useful climate elements with both Galicia and Castilla. levels of rainfall and humidity are similar to Galicia, as are the generally mild winters and late frosts. summers are more similar to Castilla — hot and dry. temperatures reach 22 degrees Celsius (about 71 Fahrenheit) during July and August while the annual average temperature is about 12.5 Celsius (or 54 Fahrenheit). the soil comprises mostly shale and clay and is slightly acidic and the Mencia and Grenache are the most common red grape varieties while Godello makes the most popular white wines of el Bierzo.

as we walked through Cacabelos, we passed the Cuatro Pasos bodega. we stopped in to taste and “tour” their wines (though all from the front room rather than wandering about the cellars) and help the “guide” practice her English. that proved fortuitous as her English was unquestionably better than my Spanish, particularly in a setting that involved words beyond my vocabulary range. she took us through their four wines and gave us the origin story for the winery; the name stems from a set of four bear paw prints the owner spied early one morning while out checking on vines. after tasting all four options, we concurred that we preferred the only wine not available for sale outside of Spain — from a rarer grape that produced a smaller yield and therefore meant fewer bottles produced each year. we certainly had no intention of carrying a bottle of wine with us for the remaining 180 or so kilometers and, as we subsequently discovered, wouldn’t have been able to ship any to ourselves before leaving Spain, anyway. in the end, perhaps that was for the best; we certainly learned more about our preferences as they pertain to Spanish wines!


 we hiked through the Rioja Alta, which is know for the cultivation of its grapes. around Nájera, vines of garnacha and tempranillo grapes stretch to the horizon beside the Camino. earliest evidence of grape cultivation in Rioja dates from 873 and a donation of wine from a monastery. the king of Navarra and Aragon gave the first legal recognition of Rioja wine in 1102 and protection of its quality remained important throughout the centuries. in 1635, the mayor of Logroño banned carts from passing too closely to wine cellars for fear that vibrations would disturb the quality of the product; fifteen years later the first document protecting the quality of Rioja wines was drawn up. Rioja was the first region to receive the Denominación de Origen Calificada of Spain — marking it for origin and quality.

we saw a fair few old vines (which can produce highly concentrated grapes but few per vine each year), but mostly younger ones. Rioja wines fall into one of four categories, based on age — Rioja (the youngest, less than a year in oak barrels); crianza (by far our preferred variety, aged for at least two years with at least one in oak barrels); reserva (aged for at least three years, with one or more in oak barrels); and gran reserva (aged at least two years in oak and three in bottles). the vines were just starting to green up as we walked through the vineyards; in the fall the garnacha vines turn red, the tempranillo yellow. I imagine it’s quite something to see.

Bodega Irache and the fuente de vino

we saw our fair share of bodegas (wineries) along the Camino — but only one had a fuente de vino for peregrinos. we left Estella relatively early and got to Irache at the thoroughly-inappropriate-to-drink-wine time of about 8:30 a.m. did that stop us? of course not. we were the first in a wave of peregrinos walking past it, the rest of whom seemed uncertain about whether it was ok (morally or sanitation-wise) to drink wine from a spigot coming out the side of a winery. we took the initiative and tested the non-waters and found the resulting liquid pretty good, especially considering the method in which it was dispensed.

the winery is located at the site of a former monastery that began serving peregrinos in the 10th century. the abbot when the first hospice was constructed, San Veremundo, worked with King Sancho Ramirez to build Irache into one of the richest and strongest abbeys in Navarra. he is also reputed to have donated the vineyards from which Bodegas Irache now harvests its grapes. while the strength of the city didn’t last (due to righting between religious factions), the town recovered enough by 1605 to warrant the relocation of the Benedictine monastery from Sahagun to Irache.

the university operated for two centuries, but closed in 1824; the monastery closed in the 1980s due to a lack of novitiates, a century after it received protection as a national monument. today it houses a museum. the winery opened several decades after the university closed and the fountain began dispensing wine in 1981, a century later, aimed primarily at peregrinos, one would imagine as it’s mere feet from the Camino. if you’re so inclined, you can watch the fuente de vino webcam and see how and whether the peregrinos stop for a sip before continuing along the way to Villamayor du Monjardin and Los Arcos.

menu del peregrino

house wine in at the municipal albergue in Ages

as I wager many of you know, Spain is known for their late dining habits. restaurants routinely do not open for dinner until 9:00 p.m. or later, which proves monumentally inconvenient for peregrinos who start hiking by 7:00 a.m. each day and hope to be asleep, or at least in bed, by 9:00 p.m. to adjust for this, along the Camino many, if not all, restaurants offer a fixed menu del peregrino that gets served around 7:00 or 7:30 p.m. for about 10 euro, you get a starter, an entree, dessert, bread, water, and wine.

our first experience with the menu del peregrino was in Roncesvalles; the upscale hotel next to the albergue advertised theirs well and had us walking through the door to reserve seats before we knew how big town might be. the advertised start of the meal was 7:00 p.m. but when we showed up at 7:02, or so, nearly all the  50 or so seats were filled — fellow peregrinos as hungry as we were anxious to get a jump on the meal. this particular meal was served family style on long tables, which fostered a communal feel that resulted in my receiving about six left-over dessert yogurts at the end of the meal. the main course was fish and when word made it down the table that I don’t eat fish, people passed the yogurt served as dessert that they either didn’t care for or didn’t have room to eat. I managed to eat about four before tapping out; it was the best yogurt I ate the entire time we were in Spain.

my favorite meal — at the Hotel Dona Mayor in Fromista

while occasionally we had family-style peregrino meals (usually at private hostels that also had menus or restaurants), usually we had a table to ourselves. the menu options were always fixed to three or four options per course and were never veg-friendly; even the uninspired iceberg lettuce salads came with hard boiled eggs and tuna. even thinking about it now exasperates me (and re-inspires me for the CSA salad I’m eating for tomorrow’s lunch). once I figured out how to manipulate the menu, I managed fine by ordering two veg-friendlier first courses — often soup and pasta with tomato sauce. after a while, the pork or beef stock they used to make the soup got frustrating, but it for a time it served as a welcome alternative to terrible salads. on one memorable occasion, I ordered pasta with tomato sauce without meat and, as often happened, it came out with ham and chicken in the sauce anyway; our server/owner of the establishment was aghast and swept the plate away before I could take another bite to make a plate without meat. I’m never one to make a fuss about meals not coming out as expected and would have eaten around the ham and chicken, but after two weeks it was nice to have someone look after my dietary preferences.

Julian wine

the mountains, the sunshine, the sense of escape that comes with traveling an hour away from somewhere — all reasons I’d drive up to Julian while I was living in San Diego. I don’t have the same inkling to head an hour away now that I’m back in Wisconsin. even gas edging towards $5 in Southern California didn’t deter me from my Julian sojourns when I needed them.

but beyond all of that, perhaps the biggest reason I’d escape to Julian: it served as an excuse to visit the Menghini Winery. I don’t even know what drove me to stop there the first time, if it was apple pie or wine tasting or just getting out of San Diego. (I remember my second visit quite clearly, with one Miss RLD.)

the winery is located in a valley and, in the winter the wind howls something terrible around the converted barn that hosts tastings. there are resident cats and dogs, tables and chairs out the back and in the front for leisurely tasting. I went up often enough that the woman who usually ran the tastings (and whose name now escapes me) recognized me. on my last visit before I moved, it was mid-week at the end of apple season and I was the only there. they were getting ready to drain and bottle one of the aging tanks. she let me try some of the unfiltered white wine. it was a most peculiar taste, and something that, while I can’t quite describe, has certainly stayed with me.

Menghini Winery