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Don Quixote reincarnated – A Spanish Odyssey Part 1

May 3rd, 2013

A great work of literature is a wonderful thing, and always a pleasure when you get to visit where one was set, or to possibly re-enact it, in as much as modern life allows. Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra wrote about Alonso Quijano and his fantasied alter ego Don Quixote, the wandering knight.

winetrip-Spain-

Last week I became Don Quixote and with a fellow wine importer in tow to play the part of Sancho Panza ( Don Quixote’s travel companion ), we flew into Barcelona to do a 2,200KM wine trip through Spain. We would end up in La Mancha but not quite yet. This article will be in two parts and will document a journey through cold, sunny and rainy Spain.

Our flight from Cork landed on Sunday into Barcelona airport and the Spanish equivalent of Sky Sports messed up our plans to watch Barcelona play football that night ( the game was moved ). So we drove directly from the airport in our rented Volkswagon and with the aid of our trusty GPS ( who is called Margaret ) towards Pamplona, the city of the bulls.

Pamplona is Basque country and is also in the region called Navarra. It is a busy stop for pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago de Compostela. For those not in the know, this is the way of St James, an ancient pilgrimage from France to Compostela on the West coast of Northern Spain. Pamplona is also known for the running of the bulls and was made famous by another well known literary figure, Ernest Hemingway.

Hemingway's Hotel Pamplona

Hemingway's Hotel Pamplona

When we eventually reached Pamplona and our hotel, we raced the sunset in order to try get a beer in the famous Plaza del Castillo. It was a race well run, but the sun beat us and we instead found ourselves inside Café Iruña, made famous in Hemingway’s first big book, “The Sun Also Rises”. Now, with the well-earned cold beer in hand after the four-hour drive, the series subject of tomorrow’s journey could be discussed.

Where Ernest had a tipple

Where Ernest had a tipple

I won’t bore you with tales of a very strange Tapas ( or Pintxos ) bar we ate in. Suffice to say we had to eat our starters on one table and our main courses at another. The waiter was as confused as we were but the average wine quenched our thirst and we suffered on for our art.

The next morning we headed into the countryside, for you do not find too many vines in big towns and cities. The Navarra wine region lies between Rioja and the French border to the northeast. The foothills of the Pyrenees descend towards Navarra from the north and the Ebro River runs up from the south into Rioja to the west. The region can be broken into 5 different wine locations, Valdizarba, Tierra Estella and Baja Montana to the north. Ribera Alta in the middle and Ribera Baja in the south.

A Bodegas in Navarra

A Bodegas in Navarra

One of our most popular wines comes from Navarra, Pago de Cirsus. It is from the Ribera Baja in the south. We were rummaging around in the north west and came across a couple of great estates. I can’t say too much now as they may be following my blog ( illusions of grandeur ) and my bargaining position would not be strengthened by then knowing I was interested. It’s a bit like being a teenager again. “Does she like me?” “Yes, she does”. “But does she Like Like me?”

We also came across a wine fountain in Navarra. It is beside a very famous monastery in Ayegui on the Camino. Right beside the path that the pilgrims walk is a fountain that has two taps. One serves wine and one serves water. It is free to pilgrims and we were told that in high season, they go through 3,000 litres of wine a month, which is 4,000 bottles or nearly 7 pallets of wine. So if you find yourself on The Way of St James, you know where to get a free drink.

The Wine Fountain on the Camino de Santiago

The Wine Fountain on the Camino de Santiago

We headed south to Pago de Cirsus and saw their spectacular castle ( man made by the film producer owner ). It is all part of a luxury hotel complex nestled among the vines. Its kind of in the middle of nowhere and boasts a very well regarded restaurant which we had to refuse lunch in (Sancho Panza has not forgiven me yet ). The fancy digs kind of goes against the price point of the wines which are definitely among the best value wines we sell.

Pago-de-Cirsus

Onwards and westwards we went, towards the medieval village of Lagardia in the Rioja Alavesa. There are three regions in Rioja, Alta, Baja and Alavesa. All have very different characteristics and Alavesa is widely believed to be the best, but some of the winemakers argued that the best region is where Alavesa borders the Alta.

Such is the importance of Rioja in the wine selling world that we were scheduled for two nights here and we had meetings set up with existing and potential new suppliers. One of these new winemakers ( who we have been courting for a while ) told is the best French wine is made in Rioja. This refers to the fact that is was the French who came here after phylloxera had wiped out the majority of French vines in the middle of the 19th century.

among-the-Rioja-vines

The wine business was of course well established in Rioja, but the French introduced oak which is a big component of Rioja wines today. The classical definition talks about Joven, Roble, Crianza, Reserva and Gran Reserva wines. These are all determined by how much time the spend in oak and also how much time they spend in bottle before being released. The more oak, the more money in general terms, but Gran Reservas are in many cases over oaked, in my opinion.

What is interesting to see is that many of the new generation like to experiment outside the official rules, and thus making much more interesting wines. A French wine maker called Tom Puyaubert is one who is very experimental. He make the Exopto wines that we have been selling for about six months. I love when winemakers experiment. It makes for much more interesting wines.

The black teeth in a Rioja sunset

The black teeth in a Rioja sunset

While this has been a whirlwind tour of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza’s wine adventure, I will continue in Part 2 and recant tales of a crazy winemaker in Rioja, a hilltop sunset vineyard picnic, a list wallet and phone as well as a very scary drive into Valencia in the worst rain I have ever seen. Hasta Luego Amigos.

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