Travel tip sheet for Bierzo

Villafranca del Bierzo

I am planning to do some fixed pages with all of these details (and a bit more hopefully), but for now I will post it as it is. Hopefully this is helpful for those wishing to travel to Beirzo.

Where is it? Bierzo is a geographic region that sits in the north west of Leon, on the border with Galicia to the west and Portugal to the south. It is about 400Kms from Madrid on the very good AP6 – Autopista del Noroeste, a very new superhighway from Madrid to A Coruña. The nearest airport is Leon, but you will need a car. While there are buses that service the area, the services are limitted.

Where to stay? You have more than a couple of options here, with a number of villages to stay in and different quality and style of hotel. Villafranca del Bierzo must be one of the prettiest little villages around and Las Donas is the best place to stay in Villafranca del Bierzo for my money. A small, modern hotel with lovely staff and owners, right in the centre of town, but still with excellent views of the river and bridges. A double room will set you back a very reasonable 78 Euros and a very good breakfast at the hotel will cost you 10. They also do a very nice dinner for a reasonable price. If you want something more traditional, head over to Cacabelos, about 4kms from Villafranca, to La Moncloa de San Lázaro. While more traditional, they have all the mod cons and even a could of rooms with Spa baths. They also have an excellent restaurant, bodega and shop full to the brim with local produce. Lovely people too, they made up a take home lunch for my wife on hearing she was a bit jet lagged!

Other options include Casa Méndez in Villafranca with also has a great restaurant. There is also a Parador in Villafranca, which was one of the more homely (read run down) paradores, but it is undergoing a full renovation and should be fantasic when finished. As a bonus it is just down the road from the Descendientes de J. Palacios bodega. There are also a swag of Camino de Santiago hostels around, which are quite cheap and cheerful for the most part.

Where to eat? As mentioned above hotels seem to hold the gems of the region. There are of course others around, I just haven’t been to them yet…if you go somewhere great let me know! Both Casa Mendez and La Moncloa de San Lázaro have restaurants that are seperate to the hotel (i.e. you don’t have to be a guest at the hotel to eat there). There is also a couple of good restaurants in Ponferrada, the only one I’ve been to is La Casona.

An interesting side note is that the region is the home of the Prada a Tope restaurant chain…not sure if thats a good thing, I’ve never been to one.

Whats good to eat there? There is lots to like in terms of food here. One really good tip I picked up from the guys over at Catavino is to ask “Qual es lo muy typica aqui“, or what is most typical here. You do need to know some Spanish to understand the answer, but often that doesn’t really matter, just ask them to bring it out! The one thing that I really love from this region is the cured meats. Much of the meat here is smoked in the curing process due to the humidity in the valley. The thing I like most is the cured Galician beef called Cecina (or Cecina de Leon to give it’s full name). Sliced thin like jamon and served with a little oil, it is magic stuff. Occasionally served with a little chili sprinkled on top (quite rare in Spain). Coming a close second on my list is Morcilla de Leon, which is not actually a saussage but a kind of goop that uses onions instead of rice, usually served with some potatoes. Super good.

Morcilla de Leon

Morcilla de Leon

In general, beef and lamb are the top meats here and the Asador is still king (good to see). One of the key dished in north western spain is the chuleton. This is a large (usually around 1-1.5kg), ribeye or t-bone from grass fed older Galician working ox/cow and is some of the best meet in the world for my tastes. There is also wonderful array of fresh and preserved produce from the local fruit trees. Plum, cherry and figs are made into jam, things are pickled (pickled figs with your chuleton are excellent), excellent cheeses and nut products like chestnuts (either preserved in brandy or in a paste). Deserts are the usual Spanish fare: a milk based flan or something with chocolate. The layer cake is also popluar.

Contacts:

Hotels:

Hotel Las Doñas
Ribadeo, 2 (Calle del Agua)
24500 Villafranca del Bierzo, León

Telephone: +34 987 542 742
Fax: +34 987 540 257
Email: info@elportazgo.es
Web: www.elportazgo.es

La Moncloa de San Lázaro
Calle Cimadevilla, 97
24540 Cacabelos, León
Telephone:
+34 987 54 61 01
Fax: +34 987 54 90 56
Email: info@moncloadesanlazaro.com
Web: www.moncloadesanlazaro.com

Casa Menez
Espíritu Santo, 1 E
24500 Villafranca del Bierzo
Telehone: +34 987 54 24 08
Fax: +34 987 54 00 55
Email:
info@casamendez.es
Web: www.casamendez.es

Restaurants:

La Casona
Calle Real, 72
Fuentesnuevas E – 24411 Ponferrada
Telephone: +34 987 45 53 58
Fax: +34 987 45 53 58
Web: www.restaurantelacasona.com

Bierzo in a nutshell…(part 2)

Mencia vine in BierzoSo, I’ve finished traveling all around the place (I hope) and back into writing up my last trip to Spain….

With a bit of background from my last post, we can get on to the wines in more detail. I was lucky enough to visit two different producers and drink a number of wines from other producers at local restaurants and bars. The thing that is common to all of these producers is that they are looking to the older mencia vineyards on the high slopes that centre around the villages of Cruillon and Villafranca del Bierzo at the west end of the valley. There is an amazing diversity of climats here, a slight move 10 meters left or right on a hill can make a difference to the amount of sunlight that a vine will receive and the soil composition. Similarly, elevation changes the character of the resulting grapes. With elevation ranging from 500 to 1100 meters, there is a wide variation in the character and class of the wines produced here. The single vineyard wines of Descendientes de J.Palacios show this really well, but more on that in another post.

Now Menica can be a tricky little beast, it is very high in tannin, moderate in acid, and has a number of traits that some will see as overbearing, at the least undesirable. A herby green tang, smoke and excessive blackcurrant to name a few. As such it is fairly easy to make hard, tanninic monsters with green notes and there are some tough decisions to be made in both the vineyard and bodega depending on the desired style and source of grapes. Many modern producers belive that a mix of tradition with a healthy dose of modern methods is required to get the best out of these hills.

Vineyards in Bierzo, like many other areas of Spain, have traditionally been small plots owned by a family for their own consumption with the left overs sold off to either a local co-op or larger producer. This hasn’t really changed too much, so many of the wines are a made from a collection of small, old vine vineyards that are still farmed by their owner in conjunction with whoever they are selling their grapes to. A number of producers are buying up small plots and working them with organic or biodynamic methods, however this is still not too far off the way people have been farming here for generations. There are also broadacre vineyards on the river flats that have been planted in the past 15 years, these are generally for bulk production and are farmed as they are anywhere else.

The majority of the quality vines are grown in the traditional gobblet or en vaso style, so no trellis or and only minimal training. Driving around the region you will see some newer vineyards with trellis, these are mainly on the lower, flat land for bulk wine production, however some newer quality planting have also use trellis. In terms of rootstock, most vines are on their own rootstock, however newer plantings are using phylloxera resistant rootstock. I haven’t done a lot of research into it yet, but I’m told that there is a huge number of clones of Mencia available. From what I can tell most people are replanting with cuttings from similar sites or with clones they prefer from long experience in the vineyard.

So, moving on to the  wine making style of Bierzo in general, the modern producers tend to like largish (2,000 to 10,000 litre) french oak fermenters for oak aged wines, while the young wines are fermented in stainless steel. There are some using old open top concrete fermenters (or legares) and holding tanks, however the use of these seems to be on the decline. I’m told many of these old tanks were hiding places for republican supporters during Franco’s purges in the 30s and 40s. A bleak reminder of Spain’s past.

There are a few things here that are common to many other regions of Spain. In just about every red wine producing area in Spain there seems to be three main styles of wine: carbonic maceration wines, young wines with or without oak, and mature wines with extensive oak treatment and aging. I am simplifying of course, and you could lump the first two together if you like and there is lots of diversity in each category.

Carbonic maceration is quite popular here. At it’s best it can produce fresh, fruity blueberry bubblegum flavored wines with that retain a savory note and they match excellently with the local food. Now, I am not often a fan of wines made with carbonic maceration, but when done well it seems to suit Mencia from Bierzo quite well. The young wines step this up a little in terms of structure and generally have some time in wood, french oak seems to be the popular choice, although many wines have a blend of american and french oak.

Mature wines, or ‘raised’ wines, don’t really follow a defined trend in terms wood treatment or aging here and the crianza system is not prescribed by the DO. So there is no fixed minimum time in wood or bottle (there are lots of other rules that govern the production however). As such producers are free to do what they like with wood aging. There are wines with full on new oak for 18 or 24 months, wines with only old wood, fermented in old lagres and everything in between. In general these are the wines that are causing all the buzz on this region and they range from huge, taninic big oaky wines to smooth, almost Burgundian styled wines. As always producer is important to pick the right kind of wines for your taste.

To my mind the leading producer in terms of quality is Descendientes de J.Palacios (lets call them DJP for short), a collaboration between Ricardo Palacios and his uncle Alvaro. I’ll give a full report on these guys later on, but the work that is being done by these guys is inspiring and they have brought significant muscle to the table, both in terms of experience and know how coupled with smart investment.  Focused on very high quality, DJP produce wines on a similar model to burgundy: there is a regional wine from a blend of their own and bought grapes, called Petalos, a ‘village’ wine from the vines around the village of Corullon, called Corullion strangely enough, and a range of single vineyard wines of high up on the slopes surrounding  Corullion. Similarly, Martin Codax are making some great wines here and have really worked hard to capture the essence of Bierzo and Mencia. Other producers to look out for here in Australia are Domino de Tares and Luna Beberide. Given these four producers you should be able to see a good cross section of what is going on here and get a good feel for the region.

Lunch at Meson Chuchi

Bodegas Muga Prado Ena 2000It is still the depths of winter in La Rioja, we got about 30 to 40 cms of snow today, we are snowed and not going anywhere for at least a day. A good time to catch up on posting and drinking some nice Riojas. It has been cold all week, so a big hearty meal for lunch has been the order of the day. In this part of Spain that usually means a trip to an Asador, or as I discovered yesterday, parrilla full of chuletas (lamb chops) at home, but more on this later. If you’ve ever been to north west Spain you will have seen Asador restaurants all over the place, truck stops, small villages, big towns, everywhere. The basic premise of the Asador is a woodfired oven that is used to cook just about everything in the place.

We were looking for Cabrito Asado, roasted goat, so on the advice of Jose Luis who runs Hotel de Villa de Abalos where we are staying, we made a booking at Meson Chuchi about half an hour away in Fuenmayor. And it didn’t disappoint. There is a much more famous and up market Asador in Fuenmayor, Asador Alameda, that is also excellent for lunch, but that Cabrito at Chuchi is said to be the best around.

One of the great wine and food matches available in La Rioja is Cabrito Asado and a Gran Reserva from La Rioja. In this case we chose Bodegas Muga Prado Enea 2000. While not the best vintage of this wine, it has all the classic characters: pine resin, soft wood notes, plenty of fruit but savoury overall. It was a perfect match with the goat. The wine list here is quite good, lots of options from La Rioja including big name modern wines like Benjmin Romeo and Artadi to classics like Riojanas and C.U.N.E.. The list doesn’t have vintages on it, just ask and they will be more than happy to let you know. When we ordered the Prado Enea 2000, a number of other wines of better vintages (1995 or 2001) where also offered, which is very handy if you don’t know your Rioja vintages.

Of course it would be uncivilised to jump straight to the goat, so some artichokes with jamon and garlic to start with, which were ok, then some excellent Morcilla de Burgos, blood sausage. Then out comes the goat, a whole leg for my plate. A whole head of garlic (which I did eat) and a potato (which I didn’t find room for), thats about it. Needless to say, no dinner for me that night!

I will let the photos do the rest of the talking, needless to say Meson Chuchi is highly recommended. Closed on Wednesday nights and generally for a week in September. Phone: +34 941 450 422 or book at www.mesonchuchi.com

Cabrito Asado

Morcilla de BurgosAlcachofas Riojanas

Lunch at Amelibia

Carpaccio of bacalao

Amelibia is my favourite place to eat in the old walled town of Laguardia. We ate here a couple of times on our last trip and were very keen to get back and see what’s new. It’s a small restaurant (just 12 tables) that overlooks the vineyards and across to the Cantabrian mountain range. Laguardia is just about the last outpost of Euskadi, or Basque country, and as such the food here is a good mix of Basque food and traditional Riojan food. So you will have a menu that has things like kokotxas pil pil (throat of hake in an olive oil and garlic emulsion, a very Basque dish) and rabo de vaca al tinto vino (oxail in red wine, a typically Riojan dish).

Most importantly, the wine selection is excellent. Mostly made up of local producers from Laguardia (and there are many), plus selections from around Rioja, with a few other things like Cava and sherry in there as well. We went with Artadi Vinas de Gain 2006, which has soften over the past year and is even more silky and fragrant than my last tasting. Still, there is nice line and length with a firm backbone of acid, it coped with my very fatty main with ease.

These guys offer modern interpretations of traditional classics, so your oxtail has no bones and is wrapped in what looks to me to fried rice paper. Excellent quality ingredients are used here, including the great fresh produce of La Rioja. Today we had a carpaccio of bacalao, very thin slices salt cod over a base of aioli with oil, chilli flakes and chives, and some mixed vegetables with jamon and garlic to start with. For mains we had the excellent Rabo de Vaca and a dish of deboned pork knuckle and foie gras. The pork knuckle that had been slow cooked and shaped into a cube, with a big hunk of foie in between. Very decadent.

Pork knuckle and foie

Pork knuckle and foie

Then there is dessert. Ultra dense chocolate mousse with Maldon salt and olive oil…sounds weird, tastes like chocolate on steroids! The salt brings out the chocolate flavour and intensifies it. This is going on high rotation at home!

Another bonus is that they are open on Mondays (someone has to!), so they are closed Tuesdays instead. Also closed Sunday to Wednesday for dinner. Booking essential in peak seasons, highly recommended at other times. Ph: +34 945 62 12 07

Bierzo in a nutshell…(part 1)

Mans best Friend in Bierzo is not the dog...

Mans best Friend in Bierzo is not the dog...

It’s impossible to define a whole region after visiting for a couple of days and talking to a handful of winemakers, but here is a quick overview of what makes this a special place to make wine.

The valley has been cut out of the surrounding mountains by a couple of rivers and has formed a paradise for traditional agriculture. First there is the river flats for grazing animals, a little higher up for vegetables and apples, pears and plums. Go higher still and you’ll find chestnuts and cherries. But where are the vines? Look a little higher to the impossibly steep mountain sides and you’ll find small plots of very old vines clinging to the side of the hills. This is perfect country for traditional farming and community. The region is well known for it’s produce: potatoes, tomatoes, goat and lamb, cured meats (which are generally smoked here due to the humidity from the rivers), and all kinds of fruits and nuts.

Of course these days people do grow vines on the river flat, it is easier to make bulk wines here with machine harvesting, but it is on the mountain slopes where you’ll find the quality grapes. The mountains here are steep, some of them look almost vertical, yet there are vineyards here. How people work them is beyond me, but I do know that the help of a donkey is required. Like in Priorat, or the much closer Douro Valley, the mount sides consist of a base of slate shist with a variety of stuff over the top: clay and pebbles at the base near the river, a bit higher up it moves into limestone and quartz (I pilfered a couple of good size rocks, as only a wine geek would!) and towards the top you find slate coming to the surface. This is a generalisation, as the top of some hills have clay and no limestone etc, but it should give you an idea of the landscape.

Mencia is the grape of choice here,  it has evolved over time to become at home in Bierzo and has the ability to produce some stunning wines. It produces strong, robust reds that are deeply tannic, with slightly lower acidity than what is considered normal. Yet this doesn not seem to hinder the wines aging quite well. One of the great things about mencia is that it is very approachable when young, the 2009 vintage barrel samples I looked at were ready to go and thats only 4 months after harvest. Most wine tasted at this is very young and almost doesn’t taste like wine. There are plantings of Tempranillo, Cabernet and other red grapes in the areas, for my tastes these should be left well alone.

In terms of white wine, there is a small production of Godello which shows promise. There are lots of old Palomino vines mixed in with the mencia in some vineyards, this was used in the past to bulk up production, the end result being a table wine of lower concentration and alcohol with a wishy-washy taste. Quality producers are replacing these old palomino vines with mencia.

Frozen Shist

Frozen Shist

Of course the people and their influences form a big part in the region too, and this place has had its fair share over the years. First it was the Romans, who minded the hills and river valleys for gold. Then of course there is the Camino de Stantiago (or the way of St. James if you prefer the english version). People have been walking the camino for centuries, bringing many things with them, including vines. The old story is that monks brought vine cuttings with them from northern Europe to Bierzo and planted what has become Mencia, the king of grapes for the region. Now, many have though that mencia was originally Cabernet Franc from Bordeaux, and there are similarities between the two, however genetic testing has disproved this theory. Whatever it was, I’m very thankful that they did.

Of course then there is the Spanish Civil War and Franco’s reign over the country from 1936 to 1975. The story is similar to that of many other regions that were abandoned for wine production during the Franco era: grape prices where set on weight regardless of quality, the amount of labour required to cultivate the vines in Bierzo is very high and yields were low, so many families abandoned their vineyards and went to the bigger cities to look for work in industry or offices. Those that stayed were generally older, this can still be seen now, there are very few young people walking in the streets of Villafranca del Bierzo. The younger generations came back in the summer for holidays, but that was about it.

In the late 90s younger people started looking at all these old vines (and importantly EU funds for reclaiming old varieties and vineyards) and production of quality wine was again on the agenda. Given a couple of hectares of vineyards, plus the fruit trees that are intermingled with the vines, a family is again able to sustain itself from the land. The old vineyards are being rejuvenated with quality as the driver, rather than quanity.

The region has a blossoming wine industry now and interest is high. Many in the Spanish (and global) wine press have announced El Bierzo the ‘new Priorat’. This linkage is helped by the fact that Ricardo Palacios, nephew of Alvaro Palacios, has started up a major concern here in partnership with his uncle. Generally speaking, many of the local wines are produced by Co-Ops while there is a growing interest from large wine companies.

More on the wines of Bierzo in my next post….

3 Days in Bierzo

img_0864-edit1I’ve been off-line for the past couple of days, which has been kinda nice. There has been plenty to write about and take photos of tho. When I was planning this trip, I was having a chat to Dougie from The Spanish Acquisition about his last trip to Spain, his highlight was a day or so in Bierzo. I had planned to go to Rueda and Toro on the way to Ribera del Duero, but Dougie was raving about this little town called Villafranca del Bierzo, ‘It’s a must do’ he said. Sign me up, I thought. And he was right, it is now another in the long list of my favourite places in Spain.

The day started off slightly off track when we got to the hire car joint, they didn’t have the car we requested, but in the end we scored an upgrade to a 3-series BMW (thanks to the very nice staff Sixt at Madrid Airport!). With that all sorted we started out on a quick 400km drive up the Autopisa to Villafranca del Bierzo with a quick stop in Medina del Campo and Rueda for tapas and a quick poke around. The prices for tapas are a bit of a shock after Paris. 2 jamon croquetas, a wedge of tortilla and two glasses of a very tasty crianza from Ribera del Duero comes to the grand total of 5.40 Euros.

The thing about driving on big highways like the A6, complete with its massive bridges over the deep, thrusting river valleys of northern Castilla y Leon, is that I never know what to expect when you take that off ramp. It’s always a bit of a surprise, in this case a very good one. I started to notice small plots of stubby old vines in little backyard veggie garden sized plots in random places on the side of the hills. Must be getting close. Over the old stone bridge, now we are in the right place. Villafranca has that great contrast that you find all over Spain: our hotel is a lovingly restored old house, complete with elevator and modern convinces. The roof of the place next door has fallen in, grass and moss thriving on the old stone walls. The town is a jumble of falling down old buildings, grand cathedrals, large houses either well kept or restored to the former glory plus the Camino hostels, obligatory for this part of Spain. All of this set around the joining of two fast flowing rivers and the very necessary three bridges.

Just two winery visits here, at opposite ends of the spectrum: Martin Codax, who are essentially a very large co-op of growers, and Decendentes de D.J. Palacios, at the forefront of quality, top end wine from the region. More on these two soon, but in summary this region has fantastic potential that is already being tapped by some producers. However, it is a complex setting where a careful balance between modernising wine production for profit and the tradtional farming practices need to find a happy mid-point.

So now we are on in our home away from home in Abalos in La Rioja, with just a thought that we should have stayed a little longer and explored a lot more in El Bierzo. Oh well, there is always next time for Bierzo and Rioja is a wonderful place just to be.

PS The internet here is a bit slow, more photos soon.