Richard Mark James' wine & travel blog
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Spain: Cava guide, Castilla y León, Rioja, Catalonia, Aragon, Galicia, Ribera del Duero, La Mancha, Navarra, Jumilla, Garnacha, Tempranillo, Monastrell, Sherry...

Featured on this page: Cava mini-guide (on-going: buy it for £3, not free2view! Details below...) and Castilla y León "undiscovered Spain" road-trip (with some lively photos such as)...

"Saucy winery fresco @ Zamoranas"
by Brett Jones: see words below.
Latest/other Spanish posts/features/profiles:
August 2015: Cava mini-guide updated
Spain: more "wines of the moment" (May 2015)
Rioja 2007 and 2009 - Featuring my top 20 from these two "very good" vintages drinking well now... (May 2014)
Rioja: Campo Viejo Gran Reserva 2007 - surprisingly good "Gran Res of the mo" for a big brand (Feb 2014).
Spain v Australia: "festive sweeties and reds, with or without chocolate..." Featuring Gonzalez Byass' extraordinary Matusalem sherry and Joseph Puig's wacky Dolc de Lluna 2006 Merlot (Dec. 2013)...
Sparkling wines: festive fizz including tasty Cava from Conde de Caralt, Enric Nadal, Juvé y Camps and Mas Miralda (Dec. 2013).
A couple of Riojas of the moment featuring Soligamar Reserva 2008 by Ortega Ezquerro and Marqués de Válido Reserva 2008 by Bodegas Muriel (Sept. 2013)
Loxarel - Catalunya: "...Check out their wild '109' Gran Reserva: hard to find fizz with much more flavour and complexity, except Bolly RD perhaps!" (August 2013)
Quaderna Vía, Navarra: profile of this organic vineyard & winery with four nice reds reviewed (July 2013).
A trio of Rioja featuring reds from Carmelo Ortega, Cantos de Valpiedra and Carlos Rodriguez (May 2013).
Garnacha / Garnatxa, red white and rosé (part 4 in my 'World Grenache Competition' series Feb 2013, featuring all shades of Garnacha wines from Rioja, Aragón and Catalunya).
Catalan "wines of the moment" (Aug 2012)
Terras Gauda - Galicia and Castilla León (April 2012)
Catalonia & Aragón "wines of the mo" (Oct 2011)
La Rioja Alta (Oct 2011)
Bobal, Monastrell, Garnacha, Tempranillo (Sept 2011)
Torres/Rioja @ Belfast Wine Festival (Sept 2011)
Cava: “fizz of the mo” (Aug 2011)
Rioja: Alvarez Alfaro (May 2011)
Rioja duet: Lagunilla (Nov 2010)
Llopart Cava - Upper Penedès (June 2010)
Winery snapshots (Llopart, al Límit, Ijalba, Parra-Jimenez, Parxet/Alella/Tionio, Bonastre, Ètim, Palacio Vega, Raimat - 2010 to 2006).
New Wave Spain (July 2008)
Rioja free zone! (Feb 2007)
Monastrell: Jumilla (May 2005)
And mas more to come... If I ever get round to restoring my original original web material from 2001-2003 such as:
Rioja: CVNE / Contino inc. rare vintages (that one's done), Cava & Penedès Institute trip, Torres: Mas La Plana vertical tasting, "Mucho Español" mixed Spanish tasting report...

Cava mini-guide
"Creative Catalan Bubbly..."

"I'm not going to over-bore you with the full-monty geographical or technical stuff, as the Cava region is quite vast and extends beyond Catalunya... But this gradually expanding guide, originally published in 2008 and updated a few times a year, is more about bringing your attention to a few lesser-known sparkling gems and hopefully also to encourage you to explore beyond Barcelona and the region's nice beaches and coastal towns, out into real Cava country... head for those green hills!" Includes wines from these dozen stand-out Cava wineries: Llopart, Carles Andreu, Perelada, Parxet, Raimat, Bach, Lavernoya, Mont Àrac, Blancher, Parató, Loxarel, Enric Nadal and many many more...
UPDATED August 2015featuring new 'entries' from these wineries, big and small: Vallformosa, Chozas Carrascal, Segura Viudas, Freixenet, Marqués de Monistrol, Campo Viejo, Jaume Serra, Castellblanch, Marqués de la Concordia/The Haciendas Company, Castillo Perelada and Juvé y Camps. Also includes some latest thoughts and figures on Cava export markets and updated profiles on a couple of stand-out cellars. BUY THE 15-PAGE PDF (and growing) OF THIS GUIDE FOR £3 - NOT FREE2VIEW! MORE INFO AND PAYPAL PAYMENT BUTTON ARE HERE.
More bubbly Catalans added as and when I discover them - and you'll find more here too: Wines of the moment 2005 - 2010.


Undiscovered Spain: Castilla y León

Wines (words below...)

Bodegas y Viñedos Pilcar - Cigales
2008 Carredue
ñas rosado (Tempranillo 13%) - tasty and creamy red fruit cocktail vs fresh tangy twist, very pleasant and gluggable. 83-85
2005 Viña Concejo (Tempranillo) - quite coconut and vanilla oaky but beginning to show some nice maturing smoky fruit and underlying lively raspberry and black cherry; firm dry texture yet with attractive rounded edges so not overpowering on the finish.
Second bottle (there was a little confusion over the vintage so I'm not sure if this was actually the 2005 and the above 2006? Either way, they didn't taste the same to me although this one might have been open longer) - less oaky and more interesting with smoky vs herbal fruit; seems more concentrated and tighter on the palate yet with 'sweeter' texture and perhaps more elegant finish. 87+
1999 Reserva - soft and mature with 'sweet' dried fruit vs 'savoury' meaty notes; the oak has totally melted into the wine so rounds off its texture nicely, elegant and complex and mature now really. Good with the tender beef cheeks (much nicer than it sounds). 89+

La Setera - Arribes del Duero
2008 La Setera white (100% Malvasía 13%) - floral aromatic and nutty, nice yeast-lees edges with quite rich honeyed notes too; steely and lemony with yeasty tones adding a bit of wild complexity, zesty vs oily texture; juicy mineral finish vs a tad of concentration and weight. Absolute bargain at €3. 87+
2007 La Setera red (100% Juan Garcia 13%) - peppery, youthful black cherry fruit with lightly smoky edges; vibrant mouthfeel with lightly leafy vs liquorice side, again fresh acidity with dry texture and cherry fruit, touch of weight too. 85+
2006 La Setera red (100% Juan Garcia 14%) - leafier nose yet with maturing tobacco and baked cherry edges too; pretty firm and dry vs again that refreshing bite, a tad more % weight and more structured vs good depth of fruit, although perhaps a little harder too. A touch schizophrenic but certainly has presence. 87
2005 La Setera Crianza (100% Juan Garcia 14.5%) - very rich colour, intriguing mix of lightly spicy oak and earthy, smoky, meaty edges; pretty powerful, extracted and grainy which is a pity as it's also quite lush with 'gravy' vs dark cherry flavours. Bit clumsy in the end but interesting. 85+
2004 La Setera Crianza (100% Juan Garcia 14.5%) - seductive rich and slightly rustic nose with black fruits and cassis undertones; lush liquorice and tobacco flavours and coating of tannins vs tangier fresher side, chunky although balanced finish. 88+
2003 La Setera Crianza (100% Juan Garcia 15%) - much more mature with meaty tones yet still quite perfumed minty and cherry-ish; attractive 'sweet' fruit and richness with leather notes, dry grip but not over the top or cooked; still has a touch of underlying freshness to offset its fairly big and punchy nature, lovely mature liquorice fruit vs wild herbs and lively tannins. 88
"2007" La Setera 'Special Selection' red (Touriga Nacional from 25 year old vines in Portugal, 8 months in French oak, 13.5%) - very floral with violets, dark plums and cassis underlined by subtle coconut spiced oak; delicious flavoursome and ripe vs slightly savoury fruit, firm yet rounded texture; quite concentrated and tasty finish with good balance tannins vs fruit, freshness vs power. Pretty delicious actually: get planting TN in Arribes! 90+

La Setera 'natural sweet wine' - tried a spot of this after lunch, it's made from "raisined" Merlot grapes i.e. shrivelled and dried out on the vine. I didn't write a note but it was unusual and very nice!
"Old desert vines @ Viñas del Cenit" by Brett Jones
Bodega Viñas del Cénit - Tierra del Vino de Zamora
2006 Venta Mazarrón (Tempranillo from 25 year-old vines, 8 months in 2nd and 3rd fill barrels, 14.5%) - quite chocolatey oak on the nose with spicy berry fruit underneath; 'sweet' vs dry textured, a bit too toasted / charred on the finish.
2006 Demora 
(Tempranillo "old vines," 18 months in 50-50 new and 2nd fill barrels, 14.5%) - quite a bit of vanilla on the nose and palate again; more structured though with greater depth of 'sweet' berry fruit, gripping coating of grainy textured tannins; perhaps has better balance despite its power, but still not sure about that oak.
Cenit - "older vines" still, all around 14-15%+ alc. with 24 months in barrel including malo-lactic fermentation (the 'second' after, although sometimes at the same time as, the alcoholic fermentation) and lees-stirring. In the last 6 months of ageing, 20% of the wine goes into more, high-toast new barrels; then some of it is selected, blended and put into yet more barrels! At least, I think so... all that barrel talk got a bit confusing.
2006 - again rather charred chocy oak dominates, it's pretty concentrated and chunky though with very firm yet attractive texture; not sure what the fruit potential is as it's rather swamped in toasty oak.
2005 - further vanilla notes but there's some richer sweeter fruit emerging; less grippy tannins although still structured and chunky with quite punchy alcohol vs lush backdrop of oak / probably fruit, lingering vanilla flavours although not unattractive.
2004 - grainy cedary oak, again this is concentrated with that 'sweet' vs dry coating and underlining power; good depth on the finish with the oak fading out a bit, leaving a nicely textured 'sweet & sour' finish, some weight and darker fruit too.
2005 Cenit VDC = Viñas del Cenit (or "DB wine", its macho nickname: work it out from the initials!) - even more oak really, chunky and intense but what a waste of the best fruit!

Bodega Viñas Zamoranas - Tierra del Vino de Zamora
2005 Novo (Tempranillo 14.5%) - very light coconut spice and maturing savoury notes; spicy dried berry mouthful, rather dry tannins and bite with a kick of alcohol; there's also a touch of sweetness vs firm framework, a bit lacking on the finish. 80
2004 Tresántos (Tinto de Toro 14.5%) - smoky / rustic aromas but not too, with developing tobacco vs cooked tomato tones; more liquorice like and lusher 'sweeter' on the palate vs meaty flavours too, rather firm and solid mouthfeel vs a richer gutsier side, punchy and dry. More character even if old-fashioned, the tannins are a bit aggressive and rustic on the finish. 83-85
2004 Los Zorros - even funkier (barrel problem?) but it's minty too; however, it's quite rich and lush-textured vs again very solid extracted tannins, gutsy with underlying sweet smoky flavours; it shows fair depth and is livelier and less soupy than above although still rather rustic in style. €6 ex-cellars. 85-87
2007 Vi
ña Malva white (Verdejo 13%) - still quite zingy vs oily textured, attractive zesty appley flavours vs fatter honeyed side. 85
2004 
Tresántos Vendímía Seleccionada (14.5%) - similar profile to the above reds, smoky with richer fruit then punchy and cidery finish; a bit out of kilter and baked, but it cut nicely through the lamb at dinner. 85

Bodegas Otero - Valles de Benavente
2008 Rosado (Prieto Picudo & Tempranillo) - attractive juicy gummy red fruits with perfumed rose petal notes; a tad of creamy weight vs nice fresh finish. 83-85
2007 - fatter and creamier / oilier with ripe strawberry flavours, again still quite crisp vs weightier finish; tastier now but drink it up soon. 85
2008 Rosado (100% Prieto Picudo) - floral and fruity nose, finer style with fresh leaner structure and a bit more oomph (13.5%); tight at first with more elegant red fruits unrolling as it opens up, attractive style.85+
2006 Otero Crianza (Prieto Picudo 14%) - light coconut dusting plus a nice touch of smoke (or "bretty" farmyard notes perhaps?) and ripe resiny fruit / liquorice; quite but not very firm with good weight vs smoky 'tarry' fruit. Needs 6 to 12 months yet approachable now. 85-87
2005 - smoky cheesy development vs underlying herbal berry fruit; more baked on the palate vs firmer texture, perhaps richer yet has tougher tannins although fair concentration too, and is still quite tight on the finish. 85+
2004 - deeper colour with toasted coffee vs savoury notes, minty vs dark berries; similarly smoky, nice and lush on a firm framework, lovely ripeness and dark fruit with coffee edges, dry vs savoury finish. 89+
2007 Joven (Prieto Picudo & 
Tempranillo) - quirky minty blueberry and cassis aromas; quite rich and coffee-ish vs a bit of grip and chunky fruit. 85+
2008 Verdejo - clean, zesty, grassy citrus style; turning oilier on the palate. Good with their tasty queso de ovejo (ewes' milk cheese). 80+
1970 Rosado - the vintage is correct! Julio dug this out of a personal dusty stash shoved in a corner of the cellar by his grandfather, I think. Surprisingly alive, a kind of dry Amontillado / red wine ageing profile; rounded and oily with nutty oxidised notes yet still a bit of fruit underneath.

Bodegas y Viñedos Agribergidum - Bierzo
2008 Castro Bergidum white (Godello 13%) - honeyed vs green edges with a bit of yeast-lees weight and cream then mineral bite; rounded and quite full countered by juicy green finish, nice style. UK: Tesco wine club in a mixed case. 85+
2008 Castro Bergidum rosado (Mencía 13.5%) - deep colour with perfumed cherry and raspberry 'boiled sweet' aromas; spicy crunchy and tart vs quite powerful weighty and rounded, juicy zesty and quite long.85-87
2007 Castro Bergidum red (Mencía 13.5%) - violet and pepper aromas vs smoky 'tarry' meaty edges; pretty chunky 'sweet' blueberry vs nice tannins and fresh bite, vibrant fruit vs firm finish. 87+
2007 Spanish Steps red (Mencía 13%) - similar to above although funkier and more peppery; quite smoky and lush vs leafy edges, similar finish with perhaps rounder mouthfeel. Tesco wine club mixed case.87+
2005 Encomiencia red crianza (Mencía 14%) - a touch of dusty vanilla oak on the nose; however, it has concentrated palate with rounded tannins, nice rich fruit vs again those leafy edges and beginning to show a touch of tobacco too; stocky and firm but not drying, punchy and peppery vs 'sweet & savoury' finish. 89-91
2008 Odorus white (Godello 13%) - despite the name this isn't smelly at all showing touches of yeast-lees complexity; more intense than the white above (from older vines apparently), concentrated oily and exotic vs crisp and green, elegant vs weighty. Very nice. 89

Bodegas Margón - Tierra de León
2007 Pricum Albarín Barrica (13.5%) - aged on the lees for 8 months in large wooden vats. Creamy toasted nose with aromatic peachy fruit; quite toasty palate yet has nice green fruit freshness, a tad of yeast-lees creaminess and nutty development; attractive weight vs quite crisp acidity on the finish. Its character was perhaps a bit swamped by the oak at first but it opened up nicely over lunch - see opposite for more comments. €6.50 ex-cellars. 85+ at first later readjusted to 87+
2007 white (from cask - selected parcels of Albarín, more wood) - more buttery with toasted hazelnuts yet still has nice floral freshness and apricot fruit underneath; tight and mineral mouthfeel vs toasty and fat. Not entirely sure at the moment, needs 6 to 12 months to express itself (and hopefully not any longer in oak). 87+
2007 Pricum rosado (
Prieto Picudo 13.5%) - partially wood-vat fermented. Very deep colour, a bit baked / oxidised and lacking aromatic fresh fruit; however, this unusual rosé has great texture and weight, fascinating style although not for everyone. 85-87
2008 rosado from tank - livelier cherry and raspberry fruit and zesty aromatics; still pretty stocky and dry textured with nice zippy finish. Bottle it now! €10 87+
2007 Pricum Prieto Picudo (14%) - quite a bit of rubbery smoky oak but also has attractive floral cherry fruit lurking in there somewhere; rather charred texture although again some refreshing bite underneath, not too grippy tannins considering it had a very long maceration. Should perhaps knit together better over time, tricky to say now how it will develop thanks to that oak: see notes opposite over lunch. 87+?
2007 Prieto Picudo single parcel (from barrel) - quite vanilla oaky but with greater depth of fruit, rounder v dry bite.
2007 Prieto Picudo different parcel, sandy soil (from barrel) - smoked bacon oak, some sweet fruit but...

2008 Late Picked Verdejo (from barrel) - picked in December in the snow so an ice wine style! Citrus and grapey aromatic nose and mouthfeel vs quite lush and sweet although not very; creamy edges vs very fresh bite, promising oddity. Was about 14% when I tried it but still fermenting very slowly, maybe around 10% unfermented sugar although doesn't taste like it! He only made 3 casks from 3 to 4 ha carefully selected from very old vines.

"Saucy winery fresco @ Zamoranas"
by Brett Jones: see text below.
Words
The vast evocative Castilla & León region, which lies roughly between Madrid and the north coast stretching almost from Rioja across to Galicia and Portugal, isn't exactly "undiscovered," for Spanish wine lovers at least. Hip Ribera del Duero needs little introduction and other areas such as Toro (for reds) and Rueda (for whites), which are found to the east, south and west of Valladolid, appear to have gained some ground in the recognition stakes in the UK and US. But on this winery tour, we travelled resolutely west of that charming small city taking in Cénit and Zamoranas in the new-ish DO (Denominación de Origén) of Tierra del Vino de Zamora, and La Setera in Arribes del Duero a stone's throw from the Portuguese border; then north to see Otero in the fledgling appellation of Valles de Benavente, Margón in Tierra de León on the way to that fine eponymous city and further northwest still to the Bierzo region and home to Latin-tinged Agribergidum.
Having said that, the first visit was to Bodegas Pilcar in the slightly better known (but not much) appellation of Cigales, which snuggles on Valladolid's northern side and so is the closest wine region to explore if you're staying there. My train from Madrid arrived after the group had left for a tour of their cellar, but I met them later with Enrique Concejo from Pilcar at Restaurante Los Zagales de la Abadia in the old town, where I tried Enrique's wines while relishing a rather tasty array of dishes (see notes below).
Arribes del Duero or Arribes for short - actually now the DO's official name as apparently they were bullied by Ribera del Duero to drop the latter bit, which is ridiculous since it's the name of the river that flows through both of them! - caresses the frontier with Portugal where Duero turns into Douro. The landscape around La Setera is like wild dry moorland reminiscent of Ireland or Dartmoor without the water. I got to know Juan Garcia here, the John Smith of grape varieties by name perhaps but nowhere near as common. You mostly only find it around here, and it's the majority red variety planted in Sara Groves-Raines (originally from Northern Ireland I think) and her husband Patxi Martinez's seven hectares of vineyard (17 acres); along with Rufete, Bastardo (also seen over the border) and a Tempranillo 'clone' called Tinto de Madrid. As for whites, there's a little Malvasía, Verdejo and Albillo (I'd never heard of it either, nothing to do with Albariño from further north).
Despite backbreakingly low yields (about 2000-2500 kg of grapes per ha, to throw in a bit of geeky info), La Setera's wines are reasonably priced at €3 to €10 across their range. Sara and Patxi also make a few different (soft white, hard pressed and blue) wonderful goats' and ewes' milk cheeses, which we sampled at lunchtime at the very memorable (food and setting) restaurant & hotel Posada de Doña Urraca in Fermoselle. They said they sell about 30% of this cheese from the farm gate - the 'cheesery' is across the yard from their very compact and bijou 'winery' - which is surprising that many people manage to find the place at all! Outside of Spain: RDM Wines in Wales will soon be stocking their wines, Pamisa in Switzerland and Bernhard Kistler in Germany.
Back at the Posada, who cure their own "acorn-fed Iberian Black Pig" ham by the way (which was utterly delicious needless to say), we were filled in with a bit of detail during a tutored tasting. The key terroir features in this neck of the woods are altitude (vineyards planted at 700 to 1000m, over 3000 feet), the river influence in a "continental / Mediterranean" climate, 350-400mm rainfall (i.e. not much but higher than in the south but lower than further north) and granite / slate soils. Total area under vine is 750 ha, 80% of it your main man Juan Garcia (good to see they're championing this rather than the same old same old varieties) with an increasing amount of Bruñal (red). They appear keen to trial Touriga Nacional from across the border, which looks very promising judging by the "experimental, doesn't really exist" 2007 red noted opposite! Out of the region's 634 growers, the majority are members of five co-ops with 14 wineries in total.
Heading back east a little towards Zamora took us into another recently created and, from my point of view, uncharted appellation: Tierra del Vino de Zamora, logically enough. Bodegas Viñas del Cénit's winery is located in the middle of nowhere, down a dusty dirt track and slightly up a hill. The winemaker took us to see some very old, gnarled vines nearby in one of the most extraordinary vineyards I've ever seen (pic. above). We're talking sandy: it was like walking on a sloping high-altitude (750m = 2500 feet above sea level) beach, planted with super old Tempranillo (allegedly 250 years...the vineyard perhaps but the vines? Anyway, obviously pre-phylloxera for sure).
He quipped that "wine from the 50 year-old vines goes into the joven ('young wine')," which rather eclipses what some winemakers from certain countries claim on their labels. His wines are sold in the US, Switzerland, Germany and Belgium, by the way (more info on distribution from AV+ Madrid); which may or may not explain his fondness for oak - see my notes. Such a pity, as I could see what rich complex vibrant fruit there was underneath... his defence or explanation was frank enough though: "I started using less new oak, and lower toast, in 2006. Originally we were targeting the US entirely, but then I wanted to change the style."
We stayed the night at the astounding Hotel El Convento half-an-hour away, which is a mecca of sumptuous kitsch and high-quality camp. Room after room full of immense 'old-school' or neoclassical paintings, hefty intricate furniture, more voluminous chandeliers than in a chandelier factory, the odd smattering of slightly incongruous deco pieces and a gilded red / blue / yellow colour scheme to die for. Highly recommended indeed. The whole place was rebuilt in 1943 retaining the original architecture and is owned by the same person who owns Bodega Viñas Zamoranas, which is located alongside the hotel, restaurant and spa complex. The winery is full of surprises too, which actually used to be a disco and has a strange saucy fresco painted on the roof in "astrology on ecstasy" mode (pic. at top).
They only buy grapes, i.e. don't own any vineyards, from two DOs, Toro and Zamora obviously (the latter terrain mostly at altitude overlooking the Duero with 60-100 year-old vines), which are overseen and transformed by two consultant winemakers (both women in fact, like all the winery staff). Apart from that magnificent ceiling, it's a pretty typical cellar equipment-wise etc. although they do have 500 barrels (not sure if that's impressive or not). My tasting notes are across the page; followed by dinner in the hotel's suitably enormous Mediaeval-style banqueting hall decked out with stained-glass windows.
Next stop: Bodegas Otero in Benavente, which lies roughly half-way between Zamora and León and in the heart of a fledgling appellation called Valles de Benavente. I use the generic "appellation" as this area isn't a D.O and, by the sound of it, they don't really want to be. So good for them, I say, as does it really matter? Boss Julio Otero López (pic. below) explained further: "we think the quality is already there so we don't need it, and it costs a lot of money (implying into the Junta's coffers and other regional bodies) with more controls and admin. There are only six wineries anyway." Producers here decided to nurture their local red varieties Prieto (= tight or dark) Picudo (= pineapple-shaped, pointy) and Mencía.
"Julio Otero digs out a dusty 1970 rosé,
much to RMJ's amazement..." by Brett Jones.
"Vineyards have halved from around 5000 ha," Julio continued, "as we pulled up several old mixed vineyards but have replanted (the latter) as well as added Tempranillo, Cabernet and Merlot." Otero owns 43 ha (106 acres) and buys grapes from contracted growers depending on the year. I'm told Prieto Picudo is a tricky one to master as it can grow in all directions: old-vine stock in small spaced-out bushes and new plantings in narrower rows. For budding scientists among you, there are two clones: one with small berries and the other one's are olive-shaped, but "they're virtually the same generically... We sell mostly rosé locally, this grape is good for that (I can vouch for this, see opposite)." Otero's main export markets are the US and Germany.
A 100+ km drive northwest brought us to the town of Ponferrada on the edge of the Bierzo wine region in León province, and with it a change in backdrop (greener, rockier) and air (it felt more mountain-like). Not far from here you'll find the astonishing Las Medulas World Heritage site, where a vast surreal red & yellow sandstone landscape bears witness to the Romans' (ah, there I go mentioning them again!) ruthlessly efficient, and dangerous, mining techniques. The melting water-canoned hillside has been hypnotically scarred leaving behind a panorama of Martian rock formations. It's an attractively steep, calorie-burning walk up to the site and there are a few hiking paths going off in different directions from here.
Victor Arroyo Alba at nearby Bodegas y Viñedos Agribergidum has been working with Nick Oakley Wines in the UK to create some exciting new wines (see opposite). Although Bierzo remains a little obscure, Victor's operation has been going for over 20 years and he built a new winery in Pieros-Cacabelos in 2002. Their 65 ha (160 acres) are sown mostly with the Mencía variety (they make 80% red and a tiny bit of rosé) and Godello, a high-quality white grape rather than nephew of a prehistoric movie monster. Victor told us that "Mencía might be related to Cabernet Franc or might be from Italy originally," which adds up looking at my tasting notes. He's also experimenting with a Brut Natural (completely dry) Cava-style sparkling wine made from Godello, which with, at that point, eight months bottle-ageing on the lees was showing potential.
A good trek eastwards across open swathes of quite dry yet green, gently rolling yet deceptively flat-looking land, brought us to Bodegas Margón and yet another new winery building in the middle of nowhere. Like much of this whole plateau-ed region, you soon lose your sense of altitude as the vineyards here actually lie at 700 to 800m (2500 feet) above sea level. Margón is owned by two wealthy wine-enthusiast families, the González and Martínez who employ Raúl Pérez Pereira as consultant winemaker, apparently one of Spain's leading white wine specialists which makes sense looking at their well-crafted whites. They have 25 ha (62 acres) spread around the village, mostly planted with Prieto Picudo and Albarín in deep clay soils with sand and pebbles and close to the, as I said, 'flat-looking' ground. The weather can be quite extreme here with wind, low rainfall and stark hot / cold contrasts: I was told even in summer it can go from 35°C in the afternoon to 5 at night! Read on for further comments...
And finally on to León for lunch at Restaurante Imprenta Casado on Thursday 19 March (c/ Varillas 3; tel: +34 987218235). This particular section below was written for the Circle of Wine Writers' Update e-zine, so please forgive its slightly "lovey" nature...
"When asked to “write up the lunch” on one of these trips, I’m only too conscious that any epicurean words can quickly translate into a profound yawn for the reader who wasn’t there (“yet another nice pork-out… we were and you weren’t, nerr nerdy nerr nerr”). So, here goes nothing. A bit of context first perhaps: we’d just visited Margón (whose wines we put to the food-test over lunch) and, in sheer contrast to this lively eatery set in the hub of old-town León, one of their isolated vineyards with its weird abandoned lunar vista planted with up to 100 year-old Prieto Picudo, literally all over the show as is its penchant.
A very brief feel for the historic city of León was had strolling to our restaurant destination, somewhere I’d definitely like to come back to and delve deeper into. The most striking building en route was one of the most impressive, slightly Disney-styled banks I’ve ever seen. Trip captain and Spanish maestro John Radford (who sadly passed away in 2011) reliably informed me designed by Gaudí but retaining ye olde Castilian touches, such as castle slate-roofed turrets and plenty of stone-cladding. We occupied the downstairs red-brick cellar in Imprenta Casado and soon got stuck into the hors d’oeuvre tapas and a glass of Margon’s 2007 white. I immediately questioned whether this was the same wine we’d tasted back in their cellar, called ‘Barrica’ which I thought was on the label but not on this bottle? It just seemed much more open showing better balance of toast v citrus fruit; and slowly over lunch just got better and better with its fresh citrus edges v oily buttery texture. A food thing I guess.
Anyway, a few inevitably massive plates of tasty cured meats were duly delivered as a warm-up. A pleasant surprise this time after a lot of ham consumed on the trip (how good are the Spanish at pig in all its guises): ‘Cecina de León,’ a delicious smoky melt-in-the-mouth beef speciality. It’s actually tongue cured for about one year, our host Marcos thought (as opposed to c. 3 years for top ‘jamón iberica’), although “not too tonguey” as fellow traveller Quentin Sadler said, spot-on. Tasted like a kind of refined corned beef although much leaner. Again their white wine charmed its way in there but the oaky red was too toasty with this dish.
Margon’s white continued to really come into its own, not surprisingly, with the plumped-up mussels (not very Med-looking) in a spicy tomato sauce, with its lemony tang v rounded weight. Next up, ‘Revuelto de Morcilla’ with matchstick chips scattered around the edges. We were by now seasoned campaigners of that national dish, Morcilla black pudding; but this one was quite different, very spicy and runnier (bound with egg, usually has rice in it). The oak on the red clashed hugely with the pudding’s overt spiciness; once again the white was an attractive match as it was, of course, with the simple tuna salad, which I got stuck into thinking it could be the only veg we’d get with this meal.
On to the main (as if we hadn’t already eaten enough): slices of Dracula-leaning steak (with a touch of lemon juice?); very nice, tender and lightly pink. I was now really trying to like that red with the meat, and by the next round of bigger steaks (I won’t name names of who in our party ordered more), it was beginning to open up and go quite well with it adding a bit of sweetness. But the white was still performing well, cutting through the steak and lifting it at the same time. Finally, a lovely cheesecake: I mean a proper German-style baked one surrounded by more predictable jammy ‘coulis’. Restaurante Imprenta Casado set the scene nicely for the most boisterous lunch so far, maybe because it was the last one all together and just one more glass than usual was poured all round."
Other recommended restaurants & hotels in the area not mentioned in the text above:
Hotel Meliá Recoletos, Valladolid, solmelia.com - fairly upmarket place across the road from the long pedestrian 'boulevard' that stretches from north of the railway station (10-minute stroll); smart but not repressively so with quite spacious rooms and bathrooms.
Hotel AC Ponferrada, Ponferrada, ac-hotels.com - quite chic place on the edge of town, if black minimalism is still 'in' these days. At least you can get free wi-fi in the lobby, unlike above...
La Moncloa de San Lazaro, Cacabelos (León), moncloadesanlazaro.com - sizeable rustic restaurant big on wood and stone serving very good traditional Castilian food. They have a few rooms as well.

All rights © text by Richard M James
Photos by Brett Jones "the Wine Maestro":
This report on a Circle of Wine Writers winery tour in March 2009 was compiled & published June/July 2009. By the way, I paid for my own airfare and the rest was organised and covered by the Junta de Castilla y León and Ade Excal Internacional.