By Paula Sugarman
In our travels, each journey yields a particular adventure that becomes the high point of our trip. Our visit to Spain last summer was no exception. My friend Ann took us to her family bodega near Burgos in the Ribera del Duero wine region. It was a delightful experience that can’t be found in any travel book.
We began the day in Burgos at the home of Tasito, Ann’s cousin by marriage. Tasito’s friend Emilio took us on a tour of the town and its impressive gothic style Catedral de Burgos whose construction began in 1221. It is famous for its vast size and unique architecture. Emilio is so passionate about this place that he can draw any part of it from memory.
From the Cathedral, we drove through rolling farmland that was once covered with vineyards until Franco decreed they be torn out. They were replaced with crops that could feed the starving population after the Spanish Civil War. We turned onto a country lane that revealed hills peppered with picturesque little buildings. It turns out they were bodegas…possibly the world’s tiniest wineries.
After lying vacant for decades, it became popular to own these bodegas and use them as tiny “hunting lodges”. In reality, we’re not sure how much hunting got done. Could be that the biggest catch might have been Tempranillo. Up the road a little way was Tasito’s bodega, which he has owned since the 70’s and has been making wine there ever since. Tasito and Ann love bringing friends to the bodega and sharing the culinary delights of Burgos, an undiscovered foodie destination. They have developed a ritual induction for first time visitors:
Step One – The Tour
Stepping into the bodega is like entering another century. No one is quite sure how old it might be…600, maybe 800 years? The structure is rock and mortar carved into the side of a hill. It’s the kind of place that provides inspiration for California wineries to spend mega bucks in emulation. But here we have the real deal… the cool and dank little room where grape crushing and winemaking actually took place a hundred or so years ago.
A massive tree trunk hinged on one wall spans the length of the building, providing the leverage to crush the grapes. This particular bodega, as small as it is, was one of only four, amongst the dozens in the area, large enough to have its own press. Crush was a community activity where all of the bodegas shared the four presses.
Tasito has been careful to maintain the bodega’s rustic charm. There’s a collection of winemaking gear from earlier times, leather bags for transporting the wine, bellows and bota bags. Through an arch and a dozen rough-hewn steps down, there is an underground cellar to store wine and other equipment. There are old baskets used to gather grapes and two small stainless steel tanks for Tasito’s Tempranillo.
Step Two – Don The Aprons
Back up to the main chamber, we are handed aprons to put over our clothes. We weren’t sure why we needed them, but when in Rome…well, it’s the same in Spain.
Step Three – Bring Out The Porrón
A porrón is a pitcher that is used to share wine. Porrónes are famous throughout Spain, probably designed to take the place of wineskins. They were originally made from ceramic, but now are fashioned from hand-blown lead-free glass. Tasito picks up the porrón and pours a thin stream of wine directly into his mouth without ever touching his lips. Ingenious, skillful! He doesn’t have an apron, but it becomes clear why the rest of us need one. It takes some time to master the technique. We pass the porrón around and giggle as we try to keep our aprons pristine, soon realizing the effort is futile. The tempranillo is cool and fruity, a combination of cherries and leather with a mild, smooth finish.
Step Four – Tower of Traditional Tapas
Tasito has been busy for a couple of days getting ready for us. Given the tower of tapas, he may have enlisted the help of his countrymen to prepare the feast. The people of Burgos are very proud of their culinary traditions. Ann brings out a delicious Spanish Tortilla, a thick omelet of potatoes and onions cooked to perfection, the best we’ve tasted in Spain. Then there are Olives, Queso de Burgos, Spanish Chorizo and Morcilla; home made blood sausage that’s a star product of Burgos. It’s made out of pork meat and blood, onions, rice, salt and cumin. Its flavor is robust and reminds me of another old world sausage, kishka, which my father used to make, origins from Eastern Europe.
Step Five – More Wine
The tempranillo brings out the best in the food. By now we’re becoming more adept with the porrón. An open fire that Tasito insists must only be made with grapevines, crackles on the stone hearth in the corner. He proudly presents a basin of grilled crawdads, a Spanish delicacy that has been marinating overnight in a peppery sauce. Ann and her daughter Paloma teach us how to eat the crawdads. David, with his Japanese heritage, seems to have an unfair advantage. His pile of crawdad shells is the biggest.
Step Six – More Food…They Are Merciless!
And now for Tasito’s specialty, lamb chops grilled over the bed of grapevine coals. Burgos is famous for its milk-fed lamb. In fact, Ann’s husband Juan Carlos, born in Burgos, is known for saying that he will not eat any lamb unless it has heard the bells of the Catedral de Burgos. We have a contest to see who can make their lamb bones the cleanest. In this category, our pile is bigger than David’s. Yum!
Step Seven- Walk
Filled to the gills with the best that Burgos has to offer…I just have to get moving. As a painter, I have been dying to explore the landscape since the moment we turned onto this tiny road. The sun is warm and low and these charming little bodegas look like they have been scattered on the landscape like a roll of dice. There is absolutely no logic or concern for the terrain. Now that we’ve been inside Tasito’s bodega, I can imagine what the others must be like. They each have their own personality, and I wonder how far does one cave run under another bodega. How did they know when to stop digging? Here are some photos to give a bit of a sample of what its like. I can’t wait to return.
Sometimes a wine tour is all about the wine. Other times it’s about the place and the experience you share with friends. These are the best kind. Ann and Tasito’s hospitality and their passion for this very special place is infectious. They shared their culture and an experience that we could not have found in any other way. It will always be treasured as the highlight of our trip to Spain.
Paula Sugarman is owner and creative director of Sugarman Design Group, a California graphic design studio specializing in brand identity, wine label design and food package design.