SERRADA, SPAIN — The path was studded with rocks and swirly turns but I didn't mind — my electric bike quickly gained speed and I rolled through. If I was riding on a bike path maybe I would pedal faster, but I was gliding through the emerald vineyards of Finca Villacreces in Spain's Ribera del Duro wine region and I wanted to absorb every scene.
The area's signature Tempranillo grapes grow abundantly here and I was there to witness everything from the vines, to the harvest, to the wine.
Surrounded by a pine forest and the Duero River, Finca Villacreces winery offered a bucolic vision of traditional Spanish winemaking. Founded in the 13th century by Franciscan monks, I explored the estate’s 171 acres of vineyards that supply Tempranillo, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot grapes. As the region’s biggest organic winery, Villacreces doesn’t use sulphates and it employs butterflies, ladybugs and birds to eat insects instead of insecticides. The grapes are harvested by hand to preserve the quality.
Strolling and biking through the sandy and rocky terrain, I learned about the fermentation process that produces the winerie’s signature Pruno wine, a deep burgundy, fruity wine created with Tempranillo and Cabernet Sauvignon grapes. I sipped Pruno at the elegant picnic that was laid out for a scenic wine tasting among the twisting vines. Gourmet cheeses, charcuterie and regional dishes blended with the wines to create savoury flavours.
A visit to the Villacreces chapel, filled with Medieval artefacts and paintings, gave the perfect glimpse into how the region’s wine history is connected to the monasteries that originally planted many of the vineyards.
Above: The wine region in Spain's northern plateau is beautiful and celebrates its rich wine heritage with an insightful museum, right.
RIBERA DEL DUERO
The wine regions of Ribera del Duero and Rueda boast 304 different wineries spread across the two areas located in Spain’s northern plateau and the north-western communities of Castile-Leon. While Ribera is noted for producing red wines and Rueda for white, both supply a fascinating view of the centuries-old wine traditions that remain unfamiliar to many people outside of Spain. The small villages, monasteries and castles that make up Ribera and Rueda wine routes provide a multi-faceted cultural experience.
Ribera del Duero’s wine route traces through 100 towns and four provinces but my exploration focused on the storied province of Valladolid.
Penafiel, marked by a castle and an extensive wine museum, is Valladolid’s main town for wine history. Perched atop a cliff, Penafiel Castle, which dates back to the 10th century, is the highest point in the region and offers breathtaking view of the Duero valley that spreads out below it. The castle’s high sandstone walls are crowned with eight turrets that rise above two courtyards. I climbed to the top of the fortress to take in soaring views of the valley and terra-cotta-coloured rooftops of the town.
In the southern section of the castle, the provincial wine museum displays the town’s significant wine heritage. The life-like exhibits showcase traditions like potters making wine vessels and toneleros, the artisans who handcrafted wine barrels. A vivid graph of all of the grapes produced in the regions served as a good introduction to the tasting room which offered sips of Ribera del Duero wines.
Penafiel also hosts Plaza del Coso, a Medieval bullfighting arena complete with wooden balconies and building crevices to hide from rushing bulls. Standing in the middle of the sandy circle surrounded by 48 adobe structures, I could almost feel the vibrations of screaming crowds and stampeding bulls. After traipsing through a castle and a bullring, the best respite is a visit to Molino de Palacios, a rustic restaurant that serves traditional Castilian dishes like the town’s signature lechazo churro or roast lamb, inside of a 19th-century mill. I returned to another of the region’s historic landmarks, Castilla Termal Monasterio del Valbuena, a 5-star hotel and hot springs spa tucked into a 12th-century monastery.
Above: From the top of Castilla Termal Monasterio del Valbuena you get awesome views of the town that spreads out below.
My introduction to Verdejo, the ancient white grape varietal that has grown in Rueda for centuries, comes through the region’s first commercial vineyard, Finca Montepedroso. The limestone-rich soil produces grapes that yield full-bodied, citrusy Rueda Verdejo wine, considered the most popular white wine in Spain.
Finca Montepedroso’s 61 acres roll out over the plateau that’s located in the middle of the country. In the 17th and 18th centuries, Rueda wines were favoured by Spain’s royals and Rueda was designated as an important wine region. During the 19th century, many of Rueda’s vineyards were destroyed but a resurgence in interest during the 1970s helped spur the recognition of the Origin Appellation Rueda in 1980.
Rueda winemaking requires complex technology. The harvests are at night with machines that help reduce oxidation. Finca Montepedroso ages the wine in stainless steel tanks instead of wood, with weekly stirrings.
A highlight of Rueda wineries is viewing the night harvest, which start with a hearty dinner featuring Rueda wines (naturally) and then hopping on a bus out to the vineyards around 11 p.m. Flashlights come in handy — it was so dark I couldn’t even make out the rows of vines until the harvest machines rumble closer. The lights shined on the grapes as the arm of the machine rose above the vines and picked the grapes using a vibration system. The machine shovelled the grapes into a nearby truck that transported them to the winery where they would be shielded from sunlight and high temperatures to prevent fermentation.
Above: The ancient glass jars where the wine is aged is what mesmerizes visitors to the region.
In the small medieval town of Tordesillas, Bodega Muelas de Tordesillas, a quaint winery run by two sisters, served up reds a Verdejo white and Vermouth. As the last family-run winery in town, Bodega Muelas provided tours of their underground cellar. The town also hosts the Royal Monastery of Santa Clara, which was originally built as a palace in 1363. After so much wine drinking, roaming through the gothic archways, statues and intricately painted murals sobered me up rather quickly.
In Serrada, the village is noted not just for wine but also for art. Bronze statues, vivid murals and recycled art pieces line the streets. There are 50 sculptures that create an open-air museum for visitors and locals, alike.
But perhaps Serrada’s most creative offering also connects with wine. At Bodegas de Alberto, traditional wine production has been preserved for 350 years. Headquartered in a 17th-century farmhouse built by Dominican monks, the winery highlights five generations of Rueda wine heritage. Walking through the extensive mazes of underground wine cellars revealed stone walls that held dozens of wine varieties. The winery produces Tempranillos and Verdejos and even a Sauvignon Blanc, but it’s the glistening forest green bottles that catch my eye. Large shapely carafes with narrow necks fill the courtyard. They are called damajuanas and are the traditional vessels for artisan wines. These contained Verdejo wine that was oxidized over 10 to12 years. The wine is called Dorado and it’s mixed for a complex flavour.
The Dorado was potent but it was the hand blown damajuanas shining in the sun that I’ll always remember. For me, these gently curved jugs symbolized the beauty and traditions of Spain’s Rueda and Ribera wine regions, just waiting to be discovered by the rest of the world.