Sunday, July 11, 2010

Into the wine country

July 5 - The Alonso del Yerro Winery and the Village of Silos

On our drive north of Madrid, we began to see many vineyards. Our first winery visit had been set up by Gys. He knew the owners, Alonso and Maria. Vinedos Alonso del Yerro  is in a small town of Roa, west of Aranda de Duero and lies within what arguably is the premier wine region in Spain known as Ribera del Duero. It took some serious searching but after a couple of misguided turns we found it.

Maria was waiting by the house and greeted us. She spoke excellent English and showed us the vineyards, talked about their vineyard philosophy and then took us inside the winery. A couple of interesting things I noted from the tour: 1) they have had the soils of all their acreage analyzed and mapped then parceled into different vineyards from which they make their wines. Soils that were not that healthy, they had the soil amended to improve the grape quality. 2) they’ve named each vineyard parcel after one of their four children; 2) they adhere to organic farming techniques, don’t use pesticides and don’t irrigate; 3) one of the things that surprised me was that they fermented the must in huge 5000 liter vertical French oak barrels (they only have Tempranillo) .

After a while, Maria’s husband, Alonso, met us at the house. He spoke little English, so Maria interpreted much of the conversation, but also we practiced hard on our halting Spanish. Alonso background is the pharmaceutical business. He was the CEO of a family-owned company and in his mid-forties decided he needed a career change. In the late 90’s he quit the family business and bought an existing vineyard and started the AY winery. 

He began by hiring top people - one of France’s best wine makers, a soil expert and later an enologist to help get things going. Needless to say, it’s not a winery run on a shoe-string. After the tour, Maria and Alonso invited us to lunch. We enjoyed a fabulous meal prepared by their chef on white linen table clothes served by one of their helpers in the dining room overlooking the vineyard. Each course was served with a different AY wine and culminated with their top wine, appropriately named Maria. Dessert was a delicate and rich chocolate ice cream served in a crystal bowl, followed by an espresso coffee, chocolates and more wine outside. Not a bad lifestyle, I thought.

After our visit with Maria and Alonso, we drove off to nearby Santo Domingo de Silos, a tiny village known for its Gregorian chants by monks from the Benedictine abbey. We stayed at an old inn, the Hotel Tres Coronas, which is situated in the town’s main plaza, across from the monastery.

This is another one of these ancient places. The Visigoths were here as far back as the 7th century. The courtyard of the cloister has a beautiful evergreen tree that we were told by two of the monks, was over 100 years old. Apparently, the cloister has an excellent Romanesque art collection, but we never had a chance to see it. 

In the evening, at 7p.m. we went to the cathedral to listen to the monks chant. About thirty monks walked in, candles were lit and the chanting commenced. It was interesting but not as moving as we had anticipated. It went on for about 45 minutes, after which they formed a line and walked passed us on the way out. 

The next morning, after breakfast, we drove north towards Burgos and then eastward to Logrono. Our destination that day was nearby. It was the micro village of Abalos, in the heart of Rioja wine country. We were staying at a hospederia, in this case, a winery/hotel. The Bodegas Puelles is a family run winery that has been around for nearly two centuries! 

We knocked on the door after which an elderly Spanish lady stuck her head out of the window on the second floor. After some discussions (that we weren‘t all that clear of), she decided to let us in. She showed us all the available rooms and told us that we had our pick. She also showed us the pool, the Jacuzzi, sauna and breakfast room. We could get used to this place.

After settling in we took a drive around to find a place to eat. It was 4pm and everything was either closed or the tapas bar offered a selection of day-old sandwiches (that we would not have offered a dog). No open grocery stores either. Even the bodegas were not open. It was a very frustrating afternoon food hunt. But once back at the winery, our luck changed. 

Anna, the bookkeeper at the winery, greeted us and took us into the winery’s tasting room. She spoke good English and offered us a taste of most of their wines. Afterwards, she told us that if we wanted, we could sit outside and have more of any of the wines. All we had to do was ask. Needless to say, we took her up on the offer and stayed put for the rest of the evening.  

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