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Northern Spain – Wine Geek on the Road

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One of the nicest things about the world’s nicest wines is that—almost invariably—they are grown in some of the most BEAUTIFUL parts of the world. Think of Tuscany, Burgundy, New Zealand, Napa, South Africa, Greece… even Traverse City, Michigan (not exactly Queenstown, N.Z., but not too far off).

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Geek had the occasion to visit Spain’s Galicia (ga-lith-ee-ah) region recently to attend an event in the Rías Baixas zone on the Atlantic Coast. While there, it would have been a shame not to visit a few other locations and check out the latest there. So we also made a quick jaunt to the Basque portion of Rioja, and continued on to Calatayud and then a couple of fabulous days in Barcelona/ Catalonia.  Alas, unable to make it to San Sebastian… but that would be a trip in itself—maybe later!

When most people think of Spain, they picture sun baked plains, Moorish castles, bullfights and maybe beaches. And sure, they have plenty of those, though the culture of bullfights is fading away. However, Northern Spain has much more to offer (as well as the Moorish castles and beaches). An absolutely beautiful area, it doesn’t always resemble the hot, dry Spain in our mind’s eye; it can be wet, green and humid. Yes, it can be hot. But it also can be cool; all the coastal areas throughout the country (the world for that matter) make having a jacket/sweater in the evening obligatory, and doubly so in the north—especially around crush when autumn starts to show itself. And there are mountains here—and we mean real mountains, like the Pyrenees, with ski resorts and lots of snow. We’re sure some people have misconceptions about Michigan too: mention Michigan, and people think of Detroit, cars, crime, Motown and Eminem; then show them Torch Lake, Leland, Ann Arbor, or Pictured Rocks for example and they say ‘Really?’. So evict your previous notions on Spain and explore its diversity.

Spain, like many of the world’s great vineyard area’s is, or has become, a wine & food lover’s paradise: as wine tourism has ballooned over the past decade, so too have the affiliates of fine wine—fine dining and lodging, and nowhere is this more evident than in Spain. The aforementioned San Sebastian in the Basque region has more Michelin stars per capita than any city in the world. The now closed best-restaurant-in-the-world El Bulli was located in Roses, on the Costa Brava, 2 hours north of Barcelona. Barcelona itself is an incredible foodie town—Wine Geek had no less than 30 ‘must go to!’ restaurants from fellow sybarites for only 2 nights available to dine (we’ve already booked our next trip). Not to mention the wonderful restaurants in and around Rioja (Logrono, Bilbao) that help their wonderful wines show their best.  In addition to the wines you’ve heard of—Rioja, Albariño, Ribera del Duero, those value-priced old-vine Garnacha wines from Calatayud and Campo de Borja (and don’t forget Cava)–there are scores and score of little-known gems sprinkled throughout the region; from the gorgeous whites of Somontano, to the stunning old-vine wines of Priorato, as well as the Mencia-based ‘cognoscenti’ wines of Ribeira Sacra and Bierzo. It’s a treasure chest of authentic, singular wines frequently made from indigenous grapes.  The people are fabulous as well, and very proud to tell you of their favorite restaurants and favorite wines; indeed we had three people stop at our table at lunch in Barcelona when they noticed we were conversing about food and wine with our server—to tell us where we should have our next special meal. That really is special.

 

Transportation: Plenty of flights into Madrid or Barcelona from various; if you indeed want to focus on the north (which we recommend—Madrid is a trip by itself) then Barcelona is the better choice. Though you can of course and fly into a 2nd city such as Bilbao or Santiago de Compostela, or maybe better, the train: the AVE high-speed train—from Madrid to Barcelona in 2:30 (at 200+ mph)—and you can take in the countryside. Yes, this is the same type of train that had a tragic accident on its way to Santiago in August of last year, but what are the chances of that happening again? Unless you are staying in Barcelona and ‘visiting’ the wine regions while sitting at a wine bar, you will need a car. As mentioned previously, our favorite European car rental service by far (it’s a different experience in Europe than here in the USA) is rentalcars.com.

Galicia: though we keep calling this Northern Spain, that is still a very vast area, so one’s options are immeasurable. Therefore Wine Geek will fill you in on the highlights of his recent itinerary. Starting in Galicia, the larger city that sees the most tourists is Santiago de Compostela. This is strictly due to the El Camino de Santiago, or ‘The Way of St James’, a VERY popular pilgrimage for Christians that starts in the French Pyrenees and ends here. Approximately 150,000 pilgrims complete all or part of the walk each year, though this city gets around 1,000,000 visitors each year…that’s around 850,000 people watching the clearly fatigued and battered pilgrims arrive at the Cathedral, take off their boots and collapse—Geek and Mrs. Geek were two of them (the watchers, not the hikers). Lots of hotels here, but the best by far is A Quinta da Auga. Quite nice, but you likely won’t see too many pilgrims staying here. As for food, a great lunch/dinner spot is San Jaime, right around the corner from the cathedral. And a quite fabulous restaurant, loaded with history and lots of famous past diners is Restaurante dos Reis…inside a gorgeous Parador (a federally owned luxury hotel). There is also a famous gastronomic restaurant worth a detour eponymously named Yayo Daporta.  We however spent most of our time in this region in a town called Sanxenxo; this is the heart of the Rias Baixas zone.  A small, lovely town right on the beach (a hidden bay off the Atlantic). Right out of the movies, one could hide here for months, and indeed, there are enough 45-65 foot sailboats harbored in the bay to confirm lots of successful people know this already. The place to stay—which is charming plus–is called Hotel Sanxenxo. Don’t miss having a cocktail on their terrace bar. As for restaurants, limited—and we hope you like mussels, since they serve them at breakfast, lunch & dinner! Indeed, there are ‘mussel farms’ a short drive away—you can take a 60 minute ride on a boat with glass sides and watch the process—and then eat the freshest mussels you’ve ever had–washed down with Albariño—right on the boat. But for Sanxenxo restaurants, Carmen was the favorite, followed closely by Marlima. Several sophisticated wineries here, but none as beautiful and hospitable as the wonderful Martin Códax Cooperative in Cambados. A must, must visit.

Rioja: For a long time in the US, Spanish wine and Rioja were one in the same—it was pretty much all we saw here, other than the iconic Sangre de Toro wines of Penedès from the Torres family. It is quite clear that once you leave the larger towns of Logrono and Haro, wine is the industry of this region (and of course, creates the need for all the other industry to support it). Bilbao is the largest city in the area—and it is in the Basque region of Rioja. A fantastic city with some great restaurants including the restaurant within the Guggenheim Museum there (a MUST visit) called Bistro, as well asa VERY good restaurant across the street from the Guggenheim (within the Silkin Gran Hotel Domine). The top table in town however is called Zortziko—rather high-styled but exquisite. Near Haro—in the midst of wine country–there is a really cool wine museum, within the Dinastia de Vivanco winery, that is worth a detour. As for hotels, the number of hotels that are VERY modern/high-styled is very interesting and attests to the attraction of this area for vino-tourism, but the first choice would be the Marques de Riscal hotel between Haro & Logrono. An absolutely beautiful and bizarre hotel (designed by Frank Geary) –it looks like a giant crumpled piece of aluminum foil–with a Michelin-starred restaurant within. The aforementioned Silkin Gran Domine is pretty special as well if you prefer an urban rather than rural feel. As for wineries, likely none better to visit than the iconic R. Lopez de Heredia in Haro; fantastic, traditional, age-worthy wines—and a beautiful facility to boot. Bodegas Faustino is another great visit; they too are ‘old-school’…been making their wines pretty much the same way for 150 years. And for a slightly different take—Telmo Rodriguez is a stupendous producer of mostly site-specific wines (not the norm for Rioja) at his Remelluri estate….loved by the somm crowd in particular. One could spend a couple of weeks in this zone and just be scratching the surface.

Catalonia/Barcelona: Lots of cool wines produced between Rioja and Catalunya—notably the super-value, old-vine Garnacha wines from Calatayud, Carenina, and Campo de Borja—but not a bunch to do otherwise. Barcelona on the other hand, is a magic bag, full of things to do and a great jumping-off point to visit wineries in Penedès, Priorat and Monstant. Lots of eloquent input regarding where to stay and dine while in Barcelona, so just a few highlights from Geek that might tip the scale as deciding what to do there. As for hotels, endless options but near the top of the heap is the Hotel Arts Barcelona, near the harbor. Managed by Ritz-Carlton, but better than any Ritz that Wine Geek has stayed in—it’s close to perfection (loaded with great dining options as well). Two other great choices are the Ohla Hotel (exquisite, but a bit more noise than Hotel Arts) or the Eurostar Grand Marina. You will be thrilled with any of these three. As for dining, it is an embarrassment of riches, from Tapas bars (Pinxtos) to the most cutting-edge, high-end dining on earth. For restaurants that focus on Catalan cuisine, try Ca L’Isidre (Geeks fave) or Restaurant Windsor. Of course one must visit La Rambla—watch for hooligans at night—and while there some of the best Tapas in the city are at Taller de Tapas. And one more must visit for foodies: the Boqueria…one of the world’s great food markets. As for winery visits, the Torres Family in Penedès (less than an hour from downtown) is as hospitable and classy as can be—and the wines and experience rock. If one wants to go further afield, Priorato is less than two hours from downtown Barcelona, and there you will find some of Spain’s most compelling (and rare) wines. Alvaro Palacios is the ‘king of the hill’ in Geek’s opinion, but Buil & Giné makes excellent wines as well (and frankly, Geek’s not had a bad wine from Priorat!). Of course there are numerous Cava producers located near Barcelona as well, with Juvé Y Camps being one of the loveliest and most prestigious.

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