On the food and wine trail from Madrid to Barcelona

Criss-cross­ing Spain’s wine coun­try can be fill­ing and ful­fill­ing

USA TODAY International Edition - - LIFE - Sarah Maiel­lano

Span­ish wine­mak­ers have a say­ing: “If we have wine in the cel­lars, we have no prob­lems.” That sen­ti­ment holds true for vis­it­ing Spain: As one of the best wine-pro­duc­ing coun­tries in the world, vino — be it tem­pranillo from Rioja, a flute of cava, or tx­akoli in Basque coun­try — is ev­ery­where. A road trip from Madrid to Barcelona takes epi­cures through some of the best wine­mak­ing and food re­gions of Spain.

RIBERA DEL DUERO

About an hour north of Madrid, the re­gion of Ribera del Duero is mak­ing a name for it­self world­wide, thanks to its tem­pranillo wine pro­duc­tion. Tourism is still a grow­ing in­dus­try here, so it’s im­por­tant to make ad­vance reser­va­tions with winer­ies or go with a tour com­pany, such as Ru­tas de Vino. One of the larger winer­ies, Bode­gas Por­tia, is open to the public and serves el­e­gant meals in its res­tau­rant over­look­ing vine­yards. The menu in­cludes a few re­gional spe­cial­i­ties: Lec­hazo asado (slow roasted baby lamb), cecina de León (cured veal), and mor­cilla from Bur­gos (blood sausage).

RIOJA

When phyl­lox­era halted wine pro­duc­tion in Bordeaux in the late 19th cen­tury, the French brought their wine­mak­ing skills to Spain. With a stun­ning moun­tain­ous land­scape that grows ex­cel­lent tem­pranillo, as well as white grapes, Rioja is one of the world’s best wine re­gions. The el­e­va­tion makes this wine more acidic, al­low­ing it to be aged for a long time.

The most pop­u­lar time to visit Rioja’s winer­ies is dur­ing the fall grape har­vest. Still, go with a tour com­pany or make ap­point­ments in ad­vance. In Haro, the wine­mak­ing cap­i­tal of the re­gion, Bode­gas Muga is open to the public, of­fers English tours, and gives a good over­view of the process of mak­ing Rioja.

Af­ter the har­vest, grapes are de-stemmed, but not crushed — they’re given a small cut and put into pri­mary fer­men­ta­tion in large oak tanks. Over the course of 10 days, sugar in the grapes con­verts to al­co­hol. Then, the mix­ture goes through sec­ondary fer­men­ta­tion — called mal­o­lac­tic fer­men­ta­tion — in bar­rels. Rioja ages in both bar­rels and bot­tles; the ag­ing time is in­di­cated by a col­ored la­bel on the bot­tle:

u Green: Aged less than two years

u Red: Cri­anza, aged a min­i­mum of two years

u Dark red: Ris­erva, aged min­i­mum of three years

uBlue: Gran Ris­erva, aged a min­i­mum of five years

Af­ter the tour, guides pro­vide two or three tastes of wine in a pri­vate room.

Out­side of Haro, a tour of Bode­gas Baig­orri fea­tures its in­no­va­tive sys­tem of wine­mak­ing, which uses grav­ity to move grapes and wine through the a process. The visit ends in an el­e­gant res­tau­rant, where lunch fea­tures Rio­jan spe­cial­ties, in­clud­ing bean casse­role and baby leeks with an­chovy fil­lets, paired with Baig­orri wine.

Rioja is known for its veg­eta­bles, in­clud­ing pep­pers, ar­ti­chokes, as­para­gus, beans and peas. Make sure to try patatas a la ri­o­jana, a potato stew with chorizo and dried red pep­pers, and Rioja’s fa­mous lamb chops bar­be­cued over dried grape vines. For a move­able feast, the re­gion’s ad­min­is­tra­tive cap­i­tal, Logroño, is known for its ta­pas.

SAN SE­BAS­TIAN

A beach town with more Miche­lin stars per capita than any­where in the world, San Se­bastián is heaven-on-earth for food-lov­ing trav­el­ers. While the rest of Spain eats ta­pas, in Basque coun­try, it’s all about pin­txos: cheffy house spe­cial­i­ties meant to be eaten in two bites. Since pin­txos eti­quette is dif­fer­ent than that of ta­pas, it’s help­ful for first-time vis­i­tors to join a tour to get ac­cli­mated.

“There are so many bars that it can be over­whelm­ing to first-time vis­i­tors,” said Katharine Giery, Jr., a guide with Tene­dor Tours. “One key point that many guide­books

get wrong: lo­cals don't belly up to the bar and fill up a plate, as if it were a buf­fet,” she said. “We go around from one place to the next, hav­ing one pin­txo and one drink at each place, kind of like a rov­ing cock­tail party.”

Giery rec­om­mends vis­i­tors go to Tam­bo­ril and Martinez for their clas­sic cold pin­txos on the bar and hot pin­txos from the kitchen; Borda Berri for the slow­cooked-and-then-seared pork ke­bab; Casa Urola for hy­per-lo­cal and hy­per-sea­sonal pro­duce cooked on a char­coal grill; and Tx­uleta, for cro­quettes and grilled steak skew­ers. For dessert, try La Vina’s tarta de queso, a cheese­cake with a blis­tered crust.

Lo­cals use the phrase “poco pero a menudo,” which means “a lit­tle, but of­ten,” to ex­plain the wine drink­ing cul­ture in San Se­bastián. Giery rec­om­mends or­der­ing “the lo­cal white wine, tx­akoli, which is fresh, crisp, and ever-so-slightly ef­fer­ves­cent, tart ap­ple cider that’s low in al­co­hol, and since we are quite close to the Rioja wine re­gion, a cri­anza (slightly aged red).”

PENEDÈS

Just a 40-minute drive from Barcelona, head to Penedès, one of the old­est wine re­gions in Spain and one of only two re­gions that are per­mit­ted to make cava. When the Cham­pagne re­gion of France was struck with phyl­lox­era in the 19th cen­tury, lo­cal vint­ners saw an op­por­tu­nity. They used lo­cal grapes to cre­ate sparkling wine us­ing the cham­pagne method. To­day cava is known world­wide.

Though the big pro­duc­ers (Freix­enet, Codor­niu, and Tor­res) tend to take up most of the cava shelves in in Amer­i­can stores, there are more than 200 cava winer­ies in Penedès. Many are open to the public and of­fer tours in English.

PHOTOS BY SARAH MAIEL­LANO, SPE­CIAL FOR USA TO­DAY

Rioja’s red wine is pri­mar­ily tem­pranillo that is blended with other grapes, in­clud­ing gar­nacha, and gra­ciano.

The coastal vil­lage of Ge­taria, just out­side of San Se­bastián, is known for its seafood and tx­akoli wines.

Gam­bas al ajillo, gar­lic shrimp, is a sta­ple among ta­pas. Try the ver­sion at La Casa Del Abuelo in Madrid.

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