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!