Ribera del Chicago

Freed from the hassle of retrieving baggage, our Spanish vacation began at the airport. Jet lagged and hungry, tour guide Master Stamp led the group to the only food for miles, Chili's. After devouring what must have been twelve "Awesome Blossoms" (they were out of milk-fed baby lamb), we decided to wet our beaks. Most of the list brought to mind a smartly faced end-cap display, fluorescent lighting, and neo-futuristic airplane hanger architecture, but there was one treasure from Ribera del Duero cloistered away from the rest. We savored the entire stock, all six bottles.

Bright and potent, this wine was alive. You could smell the kill, still fresh on its breath. This was the Spain we had hoped to uncover. Swaddled with ripe red berries, dried rose petals, leather, and dill, we found our beds in the hazy happiness of the moment. The promise of tomorrow was impossible to ignore.

We woke early the next morning and boarded the tour bus north. Jesus Sastre seemed strangely at peace behind the wheel while we hurdled over back roads and choked down clouds of second hand smoke. Our first stop was a visit with Sorian farmers tending vines just as ancient and gnarled as they. While many in the area have moved towards trellising, there is a dwindling population committed to the hands-on approach “En Vaso” vines require. 

Matt encouraged us to take off our shoes as we explored the vineyard. The sand squished between our toes while red clay gave way to white limestone. Stately and shoeless, he patiently explained how special this tiny enclave was to the world. Nearly 800 hectares of vines remain on their own rootstock, untouched by the scourge of Phylloxera Vastatrix, and a solid third of these Ribera del Duero vines are over 50 years of age. For the time being, old world tradition trumps modern Spanish winemaking in this isolated pocket of Castilla y Leon.

After the walk, Jesus was eager to share the bottle of Ron Zacapa XO he had been hiding in the glove box. The farmers were only too happy to reciprocate. Antidoto’s 2010 offering was the second and third bottle to be passed around our merry circle at eleven in the morning. There wasn’t much spitting.

Sensing our reluctance to leave, or perhaps the glossy nature of our eyes, the field hands led us to a nearby farmhouse for lunch. At the time it seemed perfectly natural for Master Beteta to be inside grilling chorizo. With a steady hand, and welcoming eye, he paused long enough to distribute glasses of Atauta’s 2009 “Valdegatiles.” It was hard not to notice his immaculate suit seemingly untouched by spitting sausage. Full of cheer and good food, we re-boarded our tour bus and napped just long enough to make the journey to La Horra, Burgos.

The second stop was our driver’s home base, Vina Sastre. The tour was prepared upon a table as we walked in the front door. Eight gleaming bottles of Tempranillo, from Rosado to Vina Sastre’s own 2001 “Pago de Santa Cruz” awaited our careful perusal. Guided by the gentle hands of Masters Stamp and Beteta, we tasted the very lifeblood of the Duero River: Bodegas Penalba Lopez 2012 “Montecastrillo, Bodegas Hornillos Ballesteros 2011 “Mibal” Joven, Bodegas Perez Pascuas 2009 “Vina Pedrosa” Crianza, Monteabellon 2008 “24 Meses,” Aalto 2010, Pingus 2010 “PSI,” and Valduero 2001 Gran Reserva. We spent the night in La Horra wondering how life could be so kind.

The last morning of our trip we traveled to Valladolid. Matt entertained with his seemingly endless store of wine lore until we arrived at the ominous entrance to Vega Sicilia. Gray clouds gathered in the sky while the bus slowed on our approach to what appeared a modern fortress.

Machine gunners peered down barrels from atop twin towers flanking the main gate. A reverential quiet, born out of respect and fear, marked our final approach. A professional young woman awaiting our arrival dispelled the silence. She wore an inviting smile and spoke fluent English. She could sense our eagerness and was only too happy to show us around. Of the many highlights were the brand new 8,000L French oak vats that would serve to ensure a steady supply of “Unico” and the vineyards. Old vines dominate the Ribera del Duero, but Vega Sicilia prefers to grub them up after 65 years of service. Can you imagine that sort of patience in the U.S.?

Our grand finale waited in the compound’s mess hall. Tinto Pesquera 2008 Reserva and Vega Sicilia 2003 “Unico” could not have been more welcome. There was much rejoicing. As the glasses slowly drained, we looked up to find ourselves in the comfortable accommodations of Tenzing’s Chicago office. What a perfect use for fifty dollars.

Who else is excited to visit Italy on June 10th? I hope you all make it home safe in Houston. We miss you, Matt.