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Tasting Spain and Portugal

The Terrace at Quinta do Crasto

We're just back from almost two weeks in Spain and Portugal. I've been fortunate. While I can't claim to have visited every wine region in the world (who could?), I've been to many of the more important ones--perhaps even most. But I had not been to Portugal (other than the Azores) and while I've been to Spain a number of times, I'd never been to any of its wine regions. So it was with that as a significant motivation we planned this trip. My reaction after returning? I wonder why we waited so long? It was wonderful!

I did the planning. There are alternatives. There are tour companies in both countries that specialize in guided wine tours. And Howard Friedman--a DC-based importer of Spanish wine--leads a group to Spain every year (as do others in other cities). But I've planned a lot of trips and I've learned over time what we particularly like and the pace that suits us best (learned, I admit, mostly by overdoing it). And I had a sense that some of the places I wanted to go wouldn't be open to groups. At the same time, I also knew that my expertise on Spain and Portugal is pretty limited. So I did a lot of reading and sought a lot of advice. Both paid off. In fact, they were essential to the great time we had.

Both Spain and Portugal have diverse wine regions spread out across the length and breadth of the countries. Two weeks was certainly not enough to visit all. Two months probably wouldn't be. I had to choose. Rioja, of course. Spain's best known wine region. With wines I like. And for me, Ribeira Sacra was a priority. I've been struck by the wines I've tasted from this up-and-coming region. And by the stories of the area's beauty. For similar reasons, Portugal's Douro Valley was also a priority. That kind of set the parameters. There were five or six other regions that I looked at for inclusion.

For some wine regions you may visit, there are whole libraries of books offering advice. For the regions of Spain and Portugal, not so much--at least not in English. For Rioja, Maribel's Guide to Rioja--available online and updated frequently--was a valuable source. For some of the other regions, I searched articles and blog posts. Howard Friedman was generous with his advice (and it was excellent advice). Fernanda Crawford--a good friend from Air Force days who was born and raised in Portugal and later lived in Spain--was also very helpful. She not only offered her own (considerable) expertise, she reached out to friends in the Lisbon wine trade. And late in the process, Sean O'Rourke of EATour Specialist, added a lot of insights on Galicia.

My first plan was pretty ambitious (probably no surprise to anyone who's been on wine trips with me before). It had us drinking our way on a circular path from Madrid north to Rioja, then west via Ribeira del Duero, Toro and Bierzo to Ribeira Sacra...then to the Galician coast and Rias Baixas. Then south down to Porto, and east to the Douro Valley...the Dao region...and on to Madrid. Besides wearing me out just writing all that, it ignored the fact that there were weekends involved...and that most Spanish and Portuguese wineries (particularly the smaller ones) would not take visitors on weekends. That turned out to be a blessing. It forced me to break up the days of wine exploring with a few days of exploring other things. And we were all glad. It enriched the experience and ensured we never got tired of the wine visits. Even a hard-core wino like me can get weary after the 17th explanation of the cooling jackets on steel fermentation tanks.

So from Rioja, we went north to Bilbao--to see the famous Guggenheim and to sample the renowned cuisine. Then, at Howard's suggestion, we drove the north coast west to Santiago de Compestela, stopping at the Caves of Altamira (the 20,000 year-old cave paintings). It was a great suggestion--a beautiful drive. The ocean on our right and forested mountains on our left--really one of the prettiest drives I can remember. About six hours, broken up by a stop at the Caves of Altamira. The museum at the caves was excellent.

And Garmin guided us right into the square in front of the cathedral and the old hotel in Santiago de Compestela. When I say it took us into the square...I mean it put us on a narrow alley leading toward it--the only vehicle crawling along amidst hundreds and hundreds of pedestrians loyally following their tour guides. I was almost certain we'd be arrested any minute...but it turns out guests of the hotel are allowed to drive in...then valets take the vehicles away. As many will know, the cathedral is the end of the Way of St. James (Camino de Santiago)--a pilgrammage walk that begins as far away as the Pyrenees. The hotel was built at the direction of Ferdinand and Isabella ...perhaps they needed something to occupy their attention while they waited for Columbus to come back from the new world (actually, they wanted to build a good place for pilgrims to stay when they reached their destination). While the square was full of tourists, the cathedral, hotel and old city area were charming.

Speaking of Garmin, turns out that navigation systems in areas like Galicia or the Douro Valley aren't so reliable. Garmin responded to a number of our destination addresses with messages of "No such address listed." No probem. Google Maps found the addresses. So we used Google Maps navigaion...and it worked several times. What I didn't realize was that it sucked data (on data roaming) at a rate that might have bankrupted me--even with a good international plan--if I hadn't backed off. For a while, our technique was to use the postal code in Garmin to get us to the area and then turn Google Maps on to get us the final mile to the destination. That is, until Google Maps placed the winery we were trying to find in the middle of a river and the hotel we were trying to find in the middle of a small shopping center. A bunch of times we had to surrender to that last resort that men hate..stopping to ask for directions--either by asking a passer-by or by calling our destination. It seemed like most times we did the latter, it turned out we were so close we probably should have heard the phone ring at the other end. Anyway, those who--like us--have become accustomed to depending on electronic navigation, be warned.

Ribeira Sacra was as pretty as advertised. Almost impossibly steep slopes terraced with vineyards rising above the river (several rivers, actually). In fact, we found all of Galicia quite lovely--though diverse. In the west, pretty coastal harbors. In the east, green mountains and valleys. The weather was really nice while we were there--not a given, in a region that sees some of Europe's highest rainfall. And the food was outstanding. More about that--and about each of the regions--in subsequent posts.

After a charming stop at a winery in Rias Baixas, we drove south to Porto, where we stayed at The Yeatman--a classic, peaeful, elegant hotel with stunning views across the Duoro River at the city (The Yeatman, like most of the port houses, is actually across the river from Porto in Gaia). It's built into the side of the hill, terracing down with the entrance/lobby on the top floor--so every room in the hotel--and all the public rooms--have a fabulous view of the river and Porto terraced up the other side.

Then we started back east--driving about 120 km up the Duoro Valley. Another lovely region of steep slopes on either side of the river--but, at least in the central and eastern Douro Valley, more rocky and brown compared to Ribeira Sacra. While Porto and the western Douro Valley are rainy and cool, the central valley (sometimes known as Cima Corgo) is drier and temperate and the eastern Douro Valley is hot and dry. The roads snaking up from the river through vineyards and little towns in the Cima Corgo region were an adventure. Some of them were barely--and I mean barely--wide enough for our van! Great job by Jay, driving. And we saw lots of those little roads as our electronic navigations systems led us on wild goose chases. With one exception (an end of day tasting) the extra time we'd built into the schedule to allow for getting lost was sufficient--and in that case, our hosts were understanding. All in all, a charming area.

I'm not sure there are many wine regions making world-class wines that are less known in the US than the Dao region, south of the Douro Valley. While several of the "in the know" wine writers who have visited talk about elegant reds and complex whites, I was unable to find a single bottle in the DC area (it's possible that there is some and I missed it...but I looked pretty hard). So while in the area (it's only ~100 km south of the Douro) I wanted to visit. Even that wasn't easy. Wine tourism may not be non-existent there...but whatever the term is for one-step above non-existent would be appropriate. They're just not yet very used to people wanting to visit. But we did--and we were really glad.

And in a moment of serendipity, while searching for our hotel in Viseu, the electronic navigation took us to a little shopping area. We stopped and asked a couple of people standing outside a restaurant where the hotel was. It certainly wasn't in their little shopping center--but it turned out that restaurant was the one we wanted for dinner. So once we found the hotel, we knew exactly where to go for supper. And the guy who gave us directions turned out to be our waiter!

The next morning, we blasted off for Madrid--a ~five hour drive across central Spain. Not all that fascinating a drive (which was why Howard had recommended we drive the north coast on the way across). For this part of the trip, we just wanted ot get to Madrid as fast as we could. That gave us a good weekend to enjoy being tourists--which we did--and to relax at the classic Hotel Ritz (which we also did).

So that was the trip. Rioja...Bilbao...the north coast...Santiago de Compestela...Ribeira Sacra...Rias Baixas...Porto...the Douro Valley...the Dao...and Madrid. As I think back--at the risk of wearing my arm out patting myself on the back--I wouldn't change a thing. That said, the fact that it turned out so well was more due to great advice and taking the time to do research than to any magical insights on my part. And, as always, the trip was made especially enjoyable because we shared it with friends.

Well...that's the overview. It was longer than I really intended...but I enjoyed the trip so much that I had a lot to say (at least I thought I are, of course, entitled to your own opinion!). Posts on each of the major regions will follow.

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