Saturday, 30 November 2013

Ribera del Duero

Ridera del Duero is a wine D.O. (denomination of origin) that is recent compared to Rioja, (perhaps 15 years old) and the wines thus classified come from a smaller area, around 11,000 hectares as opposed to Rioja's 55,000.   It lies to the south-west of La Rioja, and we visited it on the advice of our tour operator, who said that if we liked Rioja, we would like these wines too.  They were right.

We stayed in the Parador de Lerma, a converted palace, whose owner, a prominent Seigneur was apparently so corrupt that the government eventually decided that it could not avoid prosecuting him, and who escaped trial and probable hanging only by persuading the catholic church to make him a cardinal. Which probably accounts, in part, for the nice church, monastery and convent next door to it.  And which also just goes to prove that nothing changes.  The old building was taken over by the Spanish government and turned into a hotel, part of a state programme to preserve the nation's heritage.

Mr Arroyo, son of the founder, runs the winery of ValSotillo, a small producer, but he tells us that he supplies Marks and Spencer with his wines.  So if any UK-based reader is reading this and either has experience of this wine, or fancies trying it and reporting back, I'd be interested for an independent view on price and quality.

Our last winery visit was to El Lagar de Isilla, who started off as a restaurant, and then developed into winemaking, I guess as a sort of "upstream integration".  They run a hotel and fine restaurant at the winery, and we had a kind of traditional local suckling lamb roast that has its own D.O.  I think perhaps they raise the lambs too.

The winery itself is an example of a modern conversion that I thought was a bit overdone.   Based on a theme of bottles and glass, the decor featured various sections of bottles incorporated into doors and windows, nice enough, but somehow "forced" for me.  Wines were fine, though.

And that took us to the end of our wine tour. The company that organised things for us, Vintage Spain did a splendid job and the two guides they supplied were friendly and knowledgeable. I wouldn't hesitate to use them again in similar circumstances. We went on to Madrid the next day, but for now, here's a couple of holiday pics of the village of Pañaranda where we stopped off for a quick look.

Thursday, 28 November 2013

Laguardia, Day 2

It has to be said that late November is probably not the best time to be playing the tourist in Northern Spain. Although Laguardia rewards exploration, the rain and wind were a bit discouraging.  Nonetheless we got to see the charming dancing clock, and visit the tiny winemaking facilities of Carlos San Pedro Perez de Viñaspre in the town.

Laguardia is riddled with caves or cellars, that were originally used for defense and that are now mostly used for wine production.  Going into the warren of cellars was a bit like something out of Skyrim.  The Carlos San Pedro Perez de Viñaspre wines use the tunnels under the house for maturation, storage and some fermentation.  The small operation uses the oak barrels for longer than the big guys, testing the results from each barrel before blending them together for the final fermentation.

Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Laguardia, Day 1

For our visit to the Rioja region, we stayed in a hotel Hospederia de los Parajes in Laguardia, a little walled town perched high on an isolated hill.   Their cooking was superb; they are trying to promote gourmet touring in La Rioja, and if this place is anything to go by, they are on to a sure thing.

We visited four wineries during the stay, three on the first day, one on the second, varying in size from tiny to large.  The techniques used in the different wineries are similar, although the scale varies.  The grapes are mostly Tempranillo with some Grenache, and occasional other varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon.   Stems are usually removed from the grapes first, but not always.  The grapes are not crushed, but the fermentation takes places within the berries.  The new wine is then drawn off and then the grapes are pressed several times to extract the last of the juice.   Opinions vary as to the quality of wine that comes from the pressings, but everyone agrees that you shouldn't crush the pips.   Maturation is in oak barrels, the duration determining the classification of the wine, moving from Crianza (the shortest period) through Reserva to Gran reserva (the longest).

The Muga winery is a medium-sized (about 400,000 bottles/year) and is unusual in that they make their own oak barrels.  This gives them improved quality control, and allows them to experiment with different combinations of French and American oak.  I didn't know that the insides of the barrels are "toasted" to change the flavour imparted to the wine, with increased levels of toasting producing correspondingly intense or "darker" flavours.  Their cooper has been working there since his teenage apprenticeship, and will doubtless stay until he retires.

The smaller winery Miguel Marino is run by the man himself, and he showed us around personally.  He used to work for a big wine company and is now realising his dream of producing his own wines.  He comes across as someone who would happily live in a tent and eat beans on toast for a year if he had to, to ensure the financial success of his enterprise.  It looks like the wine-making is taking over his living accommodation.   The whole business is a learning process for him, and he told us with some delight of his brush with death as he was nearly overcome by carbon monoxide/dioxide fumes given off by the fermentation process, one early morning.

The third winery was the Campillo winery owned by the Faustino family.  Huge wine producers, the winery is an example of the big architectural projects undertaken in the area.   The interior seems designed specifically to impress, with subdued lighting and grand architectural touches.  They can afford all this because their wines are popular, which is at least in part because their wines are good.  So who can begrudge them?

Monday, 25 November 2013


We stopped off in Bilbao for a night; it made for a shorter drive and gave us an opportunity to visit the Guggenheim museum of modern art there.

In a new country one is sensitised to the new, to different ways of doing.  There was a first for me in the hotel: a sink designed not to have a plug.  So I shaved in running water, which worked well enough but seemed wasteful.   And the traffic light-controlled pedestrian crossings feature not only a red stationary man telling you not to cross, but the green one is cutely animated.  My mind idly drifted to considering that if it were realistic, he should start to run in the final seconds, and with a bit of luck, trip up at the end.  Delight!  7 seconds to go and he speeded up. Didn't fall over though.

The Guggenheim museum really is a stupendous building, it has to be visited for that alone.

The two exhibits that left the strongest impression were the smiling ladies of Alex Katz, and the steel shapes by Richard Serra.  Walking into the steel curves gave me a peculiar sensation of claustrophobia, as the curves close in above or beside, then open out again.  Although the work fits well into its place in the museum, I came away with the impression that it really needs to be outside in the open.

Alex Katz' ladies I could have spent much more time with.  The smiling head-and-shoulders, effected in bold colours against a dark background invite a consideration of what the artist has conveyed of the sitters' personalities, and what he has hidden, and how.

We are asked not to photograph the exhibits, nor touch them, fair enough.  But it then lends to little problems, at least for philistines like me: "Is that a bench we can sit on, or is it art?"  Or "Is that projector endlessly shuffling through its carousel of slides but projecting nothing on the wall broken, or is it art?"


It must be 30 years ago that we first tasted Rioja wine, on a windsurfing holiday on Lanzarote.  We made a note of the brands, Faustino IV and Faustino I, and discovered that we could find them in England at reasonable prices, so they became our favourite tipple.

 We had been wanting to visit the area where they are produced, and now that the Rioja wine-producing area is within a day's drive of our home, we have finally gotten around to visiting it.  We also stopped off in Bilbao on the way down to visit the Guggenheim museum, and went on to Madrid after, so that Anita could visit a miniatures show being held there.

I was surprised to find that a bottle of Faustino I would now cost me nearly 25 euros in a paper shop in Bilbao.   You don't find Spanish wines in French shops, so I have been out of touch with the prices, but in France, where 3-5 euros gets you a good everyday wine, and 5-10 gets you a wine to serve with dinner and friends, this seemed a bit steep to me.  Perhaps they have become fashionable.

It is seven years since we went to Bordeaux to explore, and I came away with the impression that the area is not rich.  I didn't get that impression with Rioja.   The towns look spruced up, and there are impressive architectural projects by the big wine-producers; wineries that you can visit, tour and have lunch in.  As our guide told us, wine tourism didn't exist in Rioja 15 years ago, but now it is a big business.  They are also expanding into gourmet restaurants, serving the best Spanish cuisine to go with their wines.  They are catching on.

La Rioja is a Region in Spain, deriving its name from a river, the Rio Oja.  The Rioja wine-producing area straddles this and the Basque country.  Distinctions are carefully drawn.   The wine itself is a D.O., that is Denomination de Origin, a trade mark if you like, that guarantees the provenance of the wine, and the minimum times the wine has to mature to be classed as Crianza, Reserva or Gran Reserva.

November isn't the best time to visit; the weather was either rainy or cold, and windy, but this year, the vines, that had matured later than usual, still had their leaves and were painting the countryside in rust, gold and ochre.

Tuesday, 5 November 2013

Huge cock

We saw this enormous male chicken on a walk during our holiday in the Auvergne last year.  I'm a bit bored, and just feel like having a laugh at all the Google hits that land on this page.

Sunday, 3 November 2013

Kitchen revamp - 6

The plasterboard ceiling is the next thing to go up.   Firstly, a series of parallel rails is installed, that the plasterboard will be screwed to.   The guy had a nifty little device, the orange framework thing on the right-hand side of the picture, to hold the plasterboard horizontally in place while he put the screws in.   I thought it would be an expensive bit of kit, but you can get them for less than 200 euros.  If I had known about them, I'd have had a go at putting it up myself.

With the ceiling up, I can mark up and drill the holes.   It took quite a while to get these right, and you can see one of my crossed-out mistakes in the picture.   But in the end I think they're OK.

Since it was the weekend, and the tile cement would be dry by the time the guy came on Monday to finish the ceiling, I thought I'd put down the first row of floor tiles.  Woooah!  Not level.  That's going to have to be fixed.

They fixed it with a layer of self-levelling mortar, something I didn't know about until now.  It's quite liquid and flows to a near-level surface without much intervention needed.  Takes a couple of days to set, though, so it was the last thing to be done after the ceiling was finished.

Friday, 1 November 2013

Kitchen revamp - 5

Once the concrete has hardened and we can walk on it, I can think about the positioning of the lights.  I'll be using standard 50 Watt spots, mounted in the plasterboard ceiling, and the cabling has to be in place before the plasterboard goes up.  Julian, my brother-in-law, has put up spots in their kitchen and I asked his advice on spacing, etc.

There are two beams in the kitchen, and in the gaps they create I've planned for three rows of spots, with 3-2-3 lights to the rows, to get an even light distribution.  I found it remarkably difficult to get everything in the right place.  Lines that were supposed to be straight were not, and I was up and down the ladder like a yo-yo correcting this or that error.   In the end I think I got it OK.  The wires are laid out where they are supposed to be, and the spot positions are marked with string hanging down.

And since it's a good idea with electrical things, to check it as you go along, I suspended a bulb from time to time to check that all was well.

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