THE WINE & BEER ISSUE -May June 2018
by BJ Oudman
Mention Spanish wine and most people think of Rioja. No wonder, since according to Decanter magazine, that region produced the most wine consumed worldwide in 2015. However, exploring Spain’s wine country involves much more than one appellation. Rioja is beautiful, with its roll- ing hills and proximity to the ocean, but branch out for some vines less discovered. The Duero River valley in northwest Spain is lined by many fantastic Denominaciones de Origen (DO). Ribera Del Duero is the best known, being home to Vega Sicilia, the most famous winery in Spain.
Nearby are other smaller DOs including Cigales, best known for rosé, Rueda, home of rich white verdejo and Toro, growing Tinta de Toro, its unique clone of tempranillo. Being less famous, these regions produce wines that are not only delicious but are often great value.
In celebration of our 10-year anniversary, my partner and I decided on a road trip through northern Spain to explore the home of many of our favourite wines. After landing in Bar- celona followed by days of tapas indulgence in the town of Logrono, we headed west, leaving behind the Rioja landscape rich with vibrant fall colours in the rolling vineyards. The land became less mountainous, the vegetation more sparse. As we traveled the scenic byways, I noticed occasional clusters of odd buildings – small old rundown shacks built in no particular pattern, no formal roads in sight. Not just a singular incidence, this phenomenon existed near almost every town we passed. Perhaps this was simply just a less popular region of Spain, showing its age and a lack of affluence?
Our destination was the town of Valoria la Buena in Cigales, where our hotel was in fact a magnificent castle restored by the proprietor, Enrique Concejo, who also turned out to be the owner and winemaker of Concejo Bodegas. Tradition prevailing over a corporate lifestyle, he felt compelled to leave Madrid and return to follow in his grand- father’s footsteps in this tiny town, population 658.
We checked into our luxurious suite and with four hours to kill before dinner (the Spaniards consider eating at 9 p.m. early), we jumped at Enrique’s offer of a tour, starting off at his family’s 300-year-old winery. We drove up and there it was – the mystery of the shanty towns revealed! The shacks were actually all small bodegas. In centuries past, every Spanish family made wine. But rather than taking up space in their homes, they built small buildings for that purpose within a short walk from town, creating a “wine village”. There were more than 50 buildings – some decrepit and falling apart, some completely underground, others lovingly rebuilt, complete with shingled roofs. The sole common factor was that all required a venting outlet, officially called a zarcera. From mismatched stone domes that resembled giant mushrooms to the more traditional chimney, zarceras led to the surface from deep underground rooms, allowing air to enter and CO2 created during the fermentation process to leave, visible evidence of winemaking in times gone by. Unwittingly, these wind outlets were also energy efficient, assisting in temperature control and reduction of underground humidity, vital for the proper storage and aging of wine, and a concept currently used in architectural design of new underground cellars.
Some of the bodegas appeared non-operational, including the one we visited. Stepping through the door and down a steep and rickety staircase led to a veritable museum of wine – vertical screw press, earthenware storage vessels, a table holding glasses, now filled only with stories. Large wooden fermentation barrels were clearly marked with numerical chalk lines, a rudimentary method of tracking the volume of wine tapped from the barrel to prevent running out, as well as to monitor unauthorized consumption!
Amongst all the bodegas sat a grassy area scattered with picnic tables and children’s play sets. Historically the centre of the community, this site still lures locals to gather at the village on Sundays to tap their wine, cook on fire pits and socialize in these unique villages found only in a tiny region of the world. Tempranillo may be Spain’s best-known grape, but despite regional variance in terroir and vinification, it truly is the stories eman- ating from the zarceras that make the wines of the Duero River Valley unique.