We waited almost too long to plan our trip to San Sebastian. Consequently, we paid a little too much for our train tickets and hotel. And we got only one positive response to our requests for private winery tours. But we got lucky – more in a moment.
The train ride from Madrid to San Sebastian is 7½ hours. That meant two days of travel for one full day in San Sebastian. But we were determined, and we’re past overnight trains. So we loaded up on e-books and snacks and settled in.
A snag when we deboarded in San Sebastian: we couldn’t exit the platform. The stiles were set up to take the small metro-sized tickets in order to exit, and we had regular RENFE tickets. The crowd grew. The worker overseeing the exit process just shrugged his shoulders. We waited. The crowd grew. People with bags clutching tickets and online printouts. Finally, they just released the stile and everyone flooded through and out. If it was meant to be a security feature, it failed miserably.
We had arranged with GoBasque for a private winery tour. It was the big expenditure of Roommate’s trip, and it was well worth it. When Nina and Ander picked us up, the other two tourists were sisters from Connecticut. Much to everyone’s delight, we were all of like mind about tastings and tourings.
Nina and Ander had done their homework, and Ander grew up in Basque country. The drive was punctuated by information about Basque history, culture, and language.
Our first stop was CVNE, a traditional winery in the Barrio de la Estacion in Haro, Rioja Alta. The first sight: workers sorting grapes just in from the harvest.
We learned new (to me) facts about Rioja wine and wine-making in general:
· French oak is 800-1200 Euros per barrel
· American oak is 400-600 Euros per barrel
· The barrels have to be cleaned every 4 months, and they can only clean 50 a day.
· During fermentation, the barrels lose about 7% of the wine.
· After the wine has fermented, they blend the American and French barrels to get the desired taste.
· Plastic corks are okay for young wines, but for not for others.
Fun facts about CVNE winery:
· The cellar was designed by Eiffel. Yes, that Eiffel.
· The winery had the first electricity in Spain – the third in all of Europe, behind only London and Paris.
· A new cellar will double their production capacity, from 25,000 barrels to 50,000 barrels.
· Their Monople was the first trademarked white wine in Spain.
Rules for producing Rioja wine are specific:
· Excessive cleaning (see above – cleaning barrels every 4 months)
· Barrels hold 220 liters
· Time in barrel
· Time in bottle
From there, we walked through the Barrio de la Estacion to Bodegas Muga. They had the most clever marketing thing I’ve seen yet in a winery: a coaster for each wine with a photo of the label and information about the wine in Spanish and in English. Each tasting was set on the appropriate coaster. Sure makes it easy to keep up with the wines you like!
Then back into the van to the modern winery: Bodegas Baigorri in Samaniego in the Altavista region. The winery is built into the hillside, with only the top floor visible upon arrival. This is floor 0, all glass with a welcome area and stunning views of the vineyards and countryside all around. The winery itself is in the 7 floors beneath the welcome area.
Here, too, it was sorting time from the harvest. Trailers of grapes were everywhere.
Fun facts about Baigorri:
· They’re considered a medium producer, with 500,000 bottles per year.
· All of their grapes are grown within 15 km of the winery
· They have 125 hectares of vineyards, 25 owned and 100 managed by the winery.
· The winery was established in 2002.
And more details about wine production:
· The French came to Spain because of vine disease in their vineyards. The introduced techniques beyond foot stomping.
· Tempranillo grapes are able to withstand temperature extremes.
· Temperature has to reach 28 degrees for the sugar in grapes to be transformed into alcohol.
· During the first fermentation, liquid and skins need to mixed for 18 days.
· The second fermentation takes one month. The solid is separated from the liquid, and the malic acid needs to be transformed into lactic acid.
· Young wines then go straight to bottles; the others then go into oak.
Their wines specifically:
· In addition to French and American oak, they use 5% Russian oak. French oak is older than American oak and adds a strong and spicy element to the wine.
· Rose is 50% tempranillo and 50% granache.
· White wine is crianza and is fermented only in French barrels, which are replaced every year.
· The Grand Reserve spends 2 years in oak and 3 years in bottle before market.
· The B70 comes from vines at least 70 years old. There is not as much yield, but the flavor is better. They only produce 1100 bottles of the B70 each year. This wine ages in small oak tanks, not stainless tanks.
Our tour finished with a tasting lunch, complete with fabulous views out the floor-to-ceiling windows.
But Nina and Ander weren’t finished with us yet. We took a detour to the tiny town of Laguardia, where we roamed for an hour or so before returning to our hotels in San Sebastian. The town is definitely worth another trip.
The two evenings we spent in San Sebastian, we just roamed and enjoyed looking at the old and new art and watching the locals gather at the many tapas bars.
San Sebastian – and the wine area around it – definitely deserve more time!