World-class wine country can be found two hours north of Madrid. Popupla editor Daniel Schwartz took a spin around Ribera del Duero and Rueda, beloved vineyard regions flying under the international tourist radar — but not for long.
SPAIN – Madrileños have it good. Not only do they enjoy a great quality of life in a city that’s climbing its way out of a nationwide recession, they also have a luxury that many epicureans travel the world for — easy access to wine country and all the sensual delights that come with it. Ribera del Duero and Rueda are Spanish Designations of Origin that produce some of the country’s best red and white wines, respectively. Just two hours north of Madrid, the region's dramatic landscape gives rise to a variety of flavor profiles and many wonderful wineries. My favorite experiences were at boutique operations dotting the countryside.
FIRST, A LAY OF THE LAND
Ribera del Duero, with its gentle rolling hills, stark, semi-arid soils, and extreme everyday temperatures, produces robust red wine almost exclusively from bold Tempranillo grapes, locally called tinto fino. (Famous wineries to know are Vega Sicilia and Dominio de Pingus.) Rueda, though similar in climate, is on the other end of the spectrum, making mostly white wine from Verdejo grapes, which aren’t really grown anywhere else. Both regions rely on the famed Duero river as it snakes through Castile and León, an area rich in art, culture, and castles, like the name implies. Nearby, historic Valladolid, Burgos, and Segovia make for nice city breaks should the small towns and endless countryside grow old.
NOW, LET’S DRINK SOME WINE
Inside a 200-Year-Old Family Home
Bodega y Viñedos Martin Berdugo may be fresh on the winemaking scene, but that doesn’t mean the roots don’t go deep. The family enterprise in Ribera del Duero has a state-of-the-art winery located on vineyards that have been planted by ancestors for more than two centuries. Overlooking the town square in Aranda de Duero, the family’s 200-year-old museum of a home is one of the best-preserved Castilian residences around. An original pianola, elaborate 19th-century attire, and plenty of high society storytelling make for a magical welcome to the region. Groups of all sizes can book a tour of the winery or home by ing the family ahead of time.
At a Michelin-Starred Restaurant
Bodegas Ramon Bilbao in Rueda just had their first harvest, and the results are promising. Winemaker Sara Bañuelos’s Hungarian-oak-fermented Verdejo is vibrant yet surprisingly balanced, and is best savored in the winery’s beautifully designed, sun-soaked, one Michelin-starred restaurant, La Botica de Matapozuelos. Contemporary takes on traditional small plates are served with the region’s signature lechazo (roast baby lamb), as well as wines from Bilbao’s Rioja location.
In an Underground Labyrinth
The drinking experience at Rueda’s El Hilo de Ariadna is unique in that it revolves around the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur. (Why? Because the legend ends with Dionysus teaching mankind how to make wine.) To get to the tasting rooms, guests must pass through an underground labyrinth of reclaimed wine cellars, each dedicated to one of the story’s characters. The virgins sacrificed to the Minotaur, for example, preside over young white wine. At the end of it, the restaurant pairs a selection of Grupo Yllera wines with a set menu featuring delicious baby lamb.
With Some Live Music
Picture this: You're surrounded by 25 acres of Tempranillo, swirling a glass of well-regarded red, as a band performs in the background and the smell of barbecue fills the afternoon air. That's what a weekend could look like at Bodegas Neo, a laid-back Ribera del Duero operation with serious cachet. The winemaker, Isaac Fernández Montaña, is family with the folks at Vega Sicilia. The owner, Javier Ajenjo, is the chef behind Le Club, a private event space in nearby Aranda de Duero that hosts monthly blindfolded wine-pairing dinners. (Contact the winery for more details.) Ajenjo is also a musician, and it shows — the winery is outfitted with a fully functioning recording studio designed by Philip Newell, former head of sound engineers for Virgin Records. Talk about a sensory experience.
After a Massage
Tasting fatigue is a thing, and it will start to set in after a handful of winery visits. For relief, the full-service spa at Bodegas Arzuaga Navarro in Ribera del Duero offers vinotherapy in the form of massages, facials, and dips in a wine-infused jacuzzi. Also on site: A wine cellar for more tours and tastings, a lauded contemporary restaurant for inventive meals paired with Arzuaga wines, and an upscale 96-room hotel that makes for a leisurely respite during any wine-soaked adventure.
PLAN YOUR TRIP
Where to Stay
Lodging can be found in Valladolid and other regional centers, but the best places to stay are located on the vineyards themselves. Hotel Abadia Retuera and Castilla Termal Monasterio de Valbuena are both luxurious, five-star hotels set inside old monasteries that have wine operations to boot. Other options include Finca Torremilanos, a respected winery with an elegant boutique hotel in an old chateau, and Pesquera AF Hotel, an industrial building turned stylish 36-room boutique from the Bodegas Tinto Pesquera empire.
When to Go
It's best in September and October during the wine harvest, or vendimia.
Good to Know
Contact the winery to book tours ahead of time, especially if you want them in English.