Monday, July 7, 2008

Spain Pt. IV - Leon and Pilgrimmagers, Mencia and Ribeira Sacra; Lost in Galicia

Pilgrimmagers. Say it, it's fun. It is one of the few instances where I prefer an english word to its Spanish counterpart, peregrinos. Leon is a major hub along the most popular route of the Camino de Santiago, or the pilgrimmage which tens of thousands make (mainly by foot) every year from the French side of the Pyrenees through Spain's northern interior and all the way to Santiago de Compostela. A lot of walking, to be sure. Most of the people I saw trudging along above the national road leading out of Leon, young and old, often times of Germanic descent, usually with a large pack and a walking stick, seemed to hold a steady, deliberate pace. They were getting there, but their gait and expressions spoke of significantly more work ahead.

I hope that these pilgrimmagers spent at least a day, and ideally a couple of days, to rest up, refuel and take in the beautiful city of Leon. There is the famous cathedral, whose walls are adorned by so many beautiful windows of stained glass that it's easy to forget the other beautiful facets of this gothic cathedral. I'm not an architecture buff, and extensive gothic cathedral visits in Spain have left me slightly jaded, but this one is a stunner. There is the Casa Botines, an early Gaudi apartment building. The old city, its plazas, narrow stone roads (far more enjoyably explored by foot, not by car) and bars are where the action lies. There were delicious potatoes. One night cubed, fried, and served with a creamy, garlicky aioli (free when ordering a drink!). The next morning, sliced thinly (slightly thicker than thick cut potato chips) and fried to perfection, served with a caña of beer (or even more typical, with a 'corta,' a short 6oz pour - don't knock it America, sometimes you're better off with a smaller amount of beer). The pimientos de padron here, my first experience with the famous eponymously named Galician peppers from the village of Padron, were the best I would have the entire trip. They lived up to the great Calvin Trillin's billing of providing serious heat, but only 1-2% of the time. My hot one, though, was plenty hot. It gave me hiccoughs; to combat them I drank some beer and nibbled on more tortilla as well as some jamon iberico. The photo of me wagging a finger is immediately after consuming a blazing hot pimiento.

I give the pilgrimmagers lots of respect, because getting an 8am start on Saturday morning was not easy, and I had the benefit of a car, fresh, dry clothes, clean shoes, a smart, pretty lady friend navigator, and a destination just a few hours away: the beautiful Ribera Sacra.

We passed through the incredibly green, slatey, steep countryside of Bierzo, through Valdeorras (land of Godello) to the even more incredibly green, steeper countryside of Ribeira Sacra. Here we stopped at Adegas Algueira for a quick tasting. They were nice to squeeze in this meeting, as they were preparing for an on-site wedding that night (they also run a restaurant next to the winery). All the wines, white and red, oaked and unoaked, are fermented with indigenous yeasts and made from fruit on their own 8 hectares of vineyards. The '06 Algueira Blanco is a crisp, delicious blend of Godello, albariño and treixadura. Nothing to cerebral, just a dry white wine with good fruit intensity nice mineral accents and a clean finish. Their '06 Blanco Roble, produced from the same blend of grapes, is fermented and aged in new french oak. While proprietor Fernando Gonzalez Riveiro says it needs a few years in bottle, I say once it's this oaky it will never be al estilo mio. Now to the main event here, the reds from Mencia. The '07 Ribeira Sacra was vibrant bitter cherry Mencia fruit, tasty. The '06 Algueira Roble is a gorgeous wine. Aged for 12 months in new French oak, but with a suppleness of body, liveliness of acidity and fruit intensity that were all in terrific balance. Spanish red wines grown in slate and aged in new oak don't always have to be 14.5%, oaky, new wave gold plated trophy wines. This was 12.5% and a real steal, part of the building body of evidence that Ribeira Sacra has a lot ahead for lovers of lively mid weight reds; even the staunchest of francophile wine geeks who try these wines would have to agree.

We thanked Ana and Fernando and headed west towards Rias Baixas. Unfortunately, an afternoon visit with Do Ferreiro was not meant to be. We ended up in Vigo, a beautiful city with San Francisco style hills, a gorgeous harbor, and what appeared to be lots of cool stuff going on, but alas it was very far away from where we needed to be. Do Ferreiro's hometown of Meaño was nowhere to be seen on the map, and attempts to get more specific directions over the phone yielded no results. I felt terrible to have missed the appointment, which coupled with the poor cell phone reception made me reluctant to call and explain that we were unable to make it. Oh well, when on the wine route these things sometimes happen; hopefully I will one day get to Do Ferreiro and when I do it will be with a good bottle of California wine in hand as a make good for my prior no-show.

As we headed back east towards Leon, I noticed that the sunset was coming to a lazy close at 10:15pm. It was a long day, with the usual frustrations of road trips in a foreign country. But we had also seen and accomplished much: we saw one of Spain's most beautiful vine growing areas, tasted terrific Ribeira Sacra, ate caldo gallego and tasty round Galican bread, observed the typical gardens with their large, collard like greens, potatoes and vines trellised high above the ground. We even witnessed a huge bike rally in Moaña. All on a surprisingly sunny, warm Galician day, the only full day of sunshine for the twelve days we would be in Spain.

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