On the food and wine trail from Madrid to Barcelona
Criss-crossing Spain’s wine country can be filling and fulfilling
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).
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.
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).”
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.
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.