In the 1860’s, Phylloxera, a tiny plant louse, hit Bordeaux hard and virtually all of the vineyards in the region were ruined. Desperate not to lose their wine entirely, Bordeaux winemakers travelled to Rioja and invested heavily in the region in order to continue making wine until a solution could be found. Our trip with Iberian Wine Tours followed this “phylloxera trail” and what we experienced was a journey filled with terrific wine, culinary delights, and a lifetime of experiences we won’t soon forget.
Before the Phylloxera epidemic, Spanish wine was largely produced as bulk wine, which was not intended to be aged and nor did it command the prestige and prices as the fine wines from France did. But after Phylloxera devastated Bordeaux, French investment both in terms of money and technique revolutionized the Spanish wine industry forever. Today, Rioja produces excellent wines that frequently receive very high scores from the mainstream wine press while at the same time producing some incredible bargains.
To provide some context for our upcoming week, our tour started in Bordeaux at the Cité du Vin. Only two years old, this ultra-modern building is a glaring contrast to its historical backdrop. Designed in the shape of a decanter, it stands out while drawing you in, immediately making a statement that this is no ordinary museum. It features a full history of wine from grape to glass via interactive displays, videos of winemakers and wine regions, aroma samples to train your wine tasting senses, a stunning cylindrical wine shop, and a wine tasting room at the very top where you can enjoy a complimentary glass of wine from a selection of several countries paired with nearly 360-degree views.
When discussing Bordeaux wines, one often hears the descriptors “left bank” or “right bank”, which references regions on either side of the Garonne River. The Left Bank is on the southwest side of the river and comprised of Appellations d’Origine Contrôlée (AOCs) that include Pauillac, Margaux, Ste. Estephe, St. Julien, Médoc, Haut- Médoc, and Graves. On this side Cabernet Sauvignon is the dominant wine produced. The Right Bank on the northeast side covers AOC’s such as St. Emilion, Blaye, and Pomerol where Merlot is the main variety. Our tour took us to both sides to find out for ourselves if we had a preference.
Our second day began with a trip to Pauillac, a village in the heart of the Médoc, and a visit to the magnificent Chateau Pichon Baron. Founded in the late 17th Century, it is part of a very esteemed group classified as a second Grand Cru Classé. We were shown some of their vineyards to understand the region’s unique terroir followed by a tour of the winery and a tasting of their 2009, 2010 and 2015 vintages. The visit was capped off with an exquisite lunch inside the Chateau paired with their 2007 and 2002 vintages.
Without question, the morning spent at Pichon Baron ranked among our top winery experiences to date and we teased our guide Jeremy that he had peaked too early. He smiled with a knowing wink and a look that said, “just wait”. Our afternoon visit was to none other than Chateau Mouton Rothschild, a classified First Growth and arguably one of the most famous wineries in the world. We were treated to a winery tour that included a private tasting along with a viewing of the exhibit of original artwork behind their iconic labels. At that tasting not only were we treated to Mouton, but also to Fifth Growths Clerc Milon and d’Armailhac.
Our journey continued the following day to the Right Bank with a trip to St. Emilion, a village so full of history it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It was everything we imagined from a French village in this region—cobblestone streets, stone fences, and vineyards as far as the eye could see. Our first stop was to Château Beau-Séjour Bécot, a Premier Grand Cru Classé in the classification of Saint-Émilion. As with many wineries in this area, it has a long history and has changed hands numerous times over hundreds of years. Translated, Beau-Séjour means “beautiful stay”, a name given by a General visiting the area in the late 18th century. In 1969, Michel Bécot acquired the estate that was then known as Chateau Beau-Séjour Duffau Lagarosse and renamed it Beau-Séjour Bécot. He already owned a small vineyard and set out to acquire more vineyards, and modernize the winery. In the mid-1980’s he also hired world renowned consulting oenologist Michel Rolland, in his quest to bring the wine quality up to classification level. Prior to tasting their wines, we were taken on a tour of the winery’s underground cellar, complete with a small chapel, and incredible private family collection of wines dating back to 1941.
Our next winery visit in St. Emilion was to Chateau La Couspaude, another in the area with a long and storied history which we’ll delve into in a future designated article. In the early 1960’s, the Aubert family acquired La Couspaude when it was in a state of disrepair. They immediately replanted 80% of the vineyards then set out to renovate the buildings and update the winery. They completed renovations in 1985 which includes an impressive underground cellar built into the calcareous rock. All that hard work paid off in the mid 1990’s when La Couspaude was classified as a Grand Cru Classé.
After tastings on both the Left and Right Banks, we firmly believe any wine lover should not have to choose a favourite. Both areas produce world-class wine and both are worth a visit in person. However, one thing that the Bordelaise DO seem to be able to agree on is that any Bordeaux wine is still better than Burgundy!
Other than the wine, a visit to St. Emilion would not be complete without a tour of the monolithic church. The largest underground church of its kind in Europe, it was an important stop along the pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela. Built in the early 12th century, it features a bell tower over 50 metres high and exploring the subterranean naves and catacombs is time well spent.
As we began heading south toward Rioja, we stopped in Sauternes, a region synonymous with dessert wine, and home to Château d’Yquem—the only wine in the region classified as a Premier Cru Classé Supérieur. We spent a wonderful couple of hours at their next-door neighbor Chateau Suduiraut, a fine quality dessert wine in its own right classified as a Premier Cru. On the property sits its impressive castle with an 18th-century French garden designed by Le Nôtre, the same architect that designed the Palace of Versailles. The winery also happens to produce stunning wine. We tasted the 1999, 2006 and 2013 vintages, all of which were excellent and demonstrated how well these wines develop with time. A very fitting end to our time in France.
Our first destination in Spain was the coastal city of San Sebastián located in the country’s Basque region. Known for its incredible dining scene, it boasts the most Michelin-rated restaurants per capita in the world. There is no better way to see this city than by sampling Pintxos (tapas) and Txakoli (a local basque wine pronounced “chock-oh-lee”) in the Old Town. Our Pintxos tour was led by the energetic Eli Susperregui of Mimo, a food & travel company specializing in cooking courses and culinary tourism. Eli led us to 6 local Pintxos bars ranging from traditional to modern with each stop including a glass of wine paired with a delicious sample of the regional fare. This was an absolute highlight of our trip that rated on the fun factor while being a great way to immerse one’s self in the local nightlife.
Of course, when in San Sebastián one must experience more than just the Pintxos. Our restaurant of choice was Rekondo. Owned by a former Matador, it is a place where traditional Spanish food is the focus and the wine list is exceptional. Named by Wine Spectator as one of the world’s top 5 restaurant cellars in the world, it currently houses 127,000 bottles of wine. While the quantity is staggering and requires 3 rooms, it’s the quality that is extraordinary. It includes an entire cabinet dedicated to Chateau d’Yquem and a vertical of Mouton Rothschild dating back to 1945.
The next morning, we set off to explore more of the Basque region, specifically the wine appellation of Getariako Txakoli. At the base of the region is the small town of Getaria which is about 25km west of San Sebastián. It is a charming fishing village that sees less tourists than San Sebastián and as a result, feels a bit more authentically ‘local’.
Heading up from the village into the green rolling hills you’ll find yourself in the middle of Spain’s most unusual wine region. Here the rainfall is about 200 times that of a typical wine region and the vines are trained on high pergolas to help with ventilation preventing any mildew that might thrive in this wet, cool environment. The majority of grapes grown are Hondarrabi Zuri which produce the local Txakoli, a slightly fizzy, dry white wine with high acidity and low alcohol content. We paid a visit to the most renowned Txakoli producer, Txomin Etxaniz, and enjoyed their wines paired with the family’s home cured anchovies and spectacular views of the Cantabrian Sea.
We continued our journey to Rioja and ended up in the historic town of Haro where the “railway district” is home to a number of world renown wineries. Our first stop was Roda, founded in 1987 by Mario ROtllan and Carmen DAurella – the name coming from the first two letters of each surname. A relatively young winery, it is more modern in style and its state-of-the-art facilities in comparison to its traditional counterparts, but has already proved itself as a reputable producer. Our private tasting not only included a stellar line up of wines, but also their equally delicious olive oil.
A short walk down the street, but seemingly worlds away in terms of style and size, we then visited Bodegas Muga. It is a family owned winery and one of the older ones in the region. It has been very successful in exporting to more than 50 markets worldwide and, consequently, is much more recognizable outside of Spain versus its local neighbours. It is one of the only wineries that has its own cooperage as well as a restaurant on site, considered to be one of the best in the village. We were treated to a multi-course lunch that included white asparagus, bean soup, and grilled lamb paired with several of their wines including the 2012 Selección Especial and the 2010 Prado Enea.
The following day, we enjoyed a warm, sunny morning so opted to walk instead of drive from our hotel in Villabuena (the next village over) to meet with winemaker Javier Guzman. To give you some indication of how enchanting and off-the-beaten-track Navaridas is, its population consists of just 207 people.
If the walk itself past miles of vineyards isn’t enough to make every wine lover swoon, the tasting venue was as perfect as we could have ever imagined. Guzman has set up his “tasting room” on a ridge overlooking the village. And by tasting room, we mean a stone slab that was found in the vineyard now perched on two stone pieces surrounded with tree stumps as chairs. While it may sound rustic, it was pure magic and without question the most stunning tasting view we have yet to experience.
Our last winery stop of the trip was to Amaren, the sister winery to Luis Cañas. A tribute to winemaker Juan Luis Cañas’ mother Maria Ángeles, the winery works with just 65 Hectares of vines, more than half of which are more than 60 years old. Here Juan uses concrete tanks as was done in the past in order to allow for greater extraction of the fruit. We found their wines to be incredibly balanced and elegant and very age-worthy.
The end of our tour was marked by a farewell dinner at Venta Moncalvillo, a Michelin-rated restaurant run by Carlos and Ignacio Echapresto in the tiny village of Daroca. With only 46 inhabitants, the village is the smallest in the world to offer Michelin star dining. Carlos is the Sommelier, Ignacio is the Chef, and their partnership is nothing short of gastronomic bliss. Every bite of the multi-course dinner was paired perfectly with an equally brilliant wine. This was the second time we had the pleasure of experiencing the Echapresto brothers’ offerings (the first at Valpiedra winery almost 2 years ago) and certainly reinforced the merit of being awarded a Michelin star.
While we’ll be writing up the individual wineries, restaurants, and experiences in future articles, this post serves as an overview of just a small sampling of what one can expect when visiting this incredible part of the world. Between the wine, food, history, and beauty, we are hard pressed to think of anywhere else we’d rather be.