Somontano – wine, nature and culture at the foot of the Spanish Pyrenees

December 8, 2009

Wine tourism in Spain is considered by many to be a trip to La Rioja, and whilst it cannot be denied that this mighty wine region has a lot to offer, many of the smaller wine regions in Spain present unique and special experiences off the beaten track. Kathy Abell has lived in Northern Spain with her family for five years and has a background in tourism. She teaches vocational English courses for people working in the wine industry and also translates wine related texts into English. From her website you can download a useful dictionary of English-Spanish wine terms. Kathy says, “Living on the doorstep of the spectacular wine region of Somontano is a privilege that I try not to take for granted, and has opened my eyes to what constitutes an attractive wine destination.” We’re delighted that Kathy has chosen to share some of her passion for the region here.

Somontano Vineyards at the foot of the Pyrenees ©CRDO Somontano

For those unfamiliar with the Spanish wine scene, the very name of Somontano (meaning ‘at the foot of the mountains’) may provide a clue to the location of this young Denominación de Origen (DO) referring to its enviable position in the foothills of the Pyrenees. Framed by majestic mountains and the mighty River Vero, the landscape is peppered with vineyards, olive groves and almond trees and winding roads pass small villages that offer visitors charm and tranquillity.

With 13 authorised grape varieties, Somontano produces wines that are distinctive and contemporary. The range boasts several signature wines and a few organic wines, and a couple of the wineries are committed to resurrecting the almost extinct indigenous varieties of Alcañon and Parraleta with the specific aim of producing unique wines that reflect the true terroir of the region. Fresh and fruity, both red and white wines have good acidity and are ideally suited to local cuisine that includes locally raised lamb, cured pork products, hand-made cheese and wonderfully fresh vegetables from the River Vero basin.

Wineries range from traditional, small, family-run bodegas to modern, avant-garde buildings that care as much about their image as they do about their wine. There are 33 wineries dotted across 4,700 hectares of pre-Pyrenean terrain and thanks to the pro-active nature of the DO council and the Ruta del Vino – a non-profit organisation charged with the promotion of the region – around half of these wineries welcome visitors.

The following are two of my favourite winery visits – in both cases English is spoken, visits must be pre-booked and there is a small charge for tasting.
This is one of my favourites as it certainly has the wow factor – an impressive, family-run winery boasting views of rolling vineyards and Pyrenean peaks. Visitors are warmly welcomed and given interesting information in the wine production areas and cellars before moving to the light and airy tasting area to sample a couple of Olvena’s exquisite wines. The red ‘Hache’ is a personal favourite and comes from a vineyard in the shape of an H, hence the name of the wine; ‘hache’ is how the letter H is pronounced in Spanish.

One of the biggest wineries in Somontano, yet a visit here feels special thanks to the warmth and friendliness of the staff. An added bonus is a visit to the Viñas del Vero boutique winery of Blecua, which is housed in a beautifully renovated 19th century house with an impressive wine cellar. Well made wines to suit all tastes – my personal favourite is the delightfully aromatic Gewürztraminer.

For a meal after your visit try the Casa Samper. This striking restaurant is housed in the refurbished wine cellars of a beautiful, old house tucked away in the tiny village of Salas Altas, yet easy to reach from the wineries mentioned. The modern decor provides a sharp contrast to the traditional architecture but the real attraction is the marvellous food and the genuine friendliness of the owners. A set menu costs just €12 with a la carte around €35 per person. There is an English menu available and English is spoken even though the website is only in Spanish.

The village of Alquézar ©Mick Rock/Cephas

Cosy rural accommodation with views of rolling vineyards and mountain peaks is a strong feature of the tourism offer and to enhance their wine experience, Somontano delivers with a range of cultural, natural and historical highlights. The magnificent scenery of the Sierra de Guara National Park with its dramatic gorges and diverse birdlife; visitor centres proudly exhibiting the culture and history of the region; UNESCO protected, pre-historic cave art and the impressive medieval village of Alquézar, perched precariously above the River Vero canyon, are just a few attractions that can easily be visited. The close proximity to the Pyrenees and the spectacular Ordesa and Monte Perdido National Park provide an added bonus.

The Somontano Festival in early August is enjoying increasing success and has seen stars such as Julio Iglesias and Joe Cocker perform in recent years as visitors enjoy fine wine and local tapas. But, whatever the season, Somontano is worth considering for a short break or as part of a longer holiday, to take in the beautiful scenery, warm welcome and relatively unknown wines.

Visit the Ruta del Vino Somontano website for more information about the area, including accommodation, winery visits and how to get there and the official DO website for more about the region’s wines.

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Getting up close and personal with Priorat

July 6, 2009

By Sue Style

Beady-eyed wine travellers can hardly have missed the meteoric rise of Priorat’s blockbusting, terroir-driven red wines, characterised by their intensity, complexity, longevity and eye-watering prices. But how many of you have travelled in the comarca or county of Priorat, about an hour southwest of Barcelona? It’s a stunning area, well worth a detour – well, make that a special trip.

Scala Dei at the foot of the Sierre de Montsant © Mick Rock/Cephas

Scala Dei at the foot of the Sierra de Montsant © Mick Rock/Cephas

Hilltop villages alternate with steeply stacked vineyards, terraced olive groves and medieval monasteries. All shelter beneath the majestic, jagged, dramatically stratified Sierra de Montsant, set in its own National Park. The terrain is fiercely challenging and dauntingly steep, vines grow in the distinctive, brownish-black llicorella shale that glints and shimmers in the merciless summer sun.

There are two appellations here, DOC Priorat and the larger DO Montsant, which almost entirely surrounds it. The Priorat appellation was created in 1954, but vines have grown here since the 12th century when Carthusian monks established their monastery Scala Dei – God’s staircase – at the foot of the Sierra de Montsant. In 2000 the region was promoted to DOC, one of only two DOCs in Spain (the other is Rioja), with around 1700 hectares of vineyards planted predominantly with old Garnacha and Cariñena (a.k.a. Grenache and Carignan) vines, plus some Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Merlot.

The Montsant appellation emerged from under the umbrella of DO Tarragona to establish itself in its own right only in 2001, with around 2000 hectares of vines. Garnacha and Cariñena predominate, with a little Tempranillo (known here as Ull de Llebre, ‘eye of the hare’); Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Merlot are also approved.

In response to all the excitement on the wine front, a new wave of wine-led tourism has spawned some great little country restaurants and rural B&Bs, many of them in historic houses which have been restored with Catalan flair and a nice respect for the fabric of these fine old buildings.

Perversely, Priorat (and to a lesser extent Montsant) can be a bit frustrating for the wine traveller. Many of Priorat’s wines (especially cult wines like L’Ermita, Clos Mogador, Clos Erasmus, Clos de l’Obac) are impossible to find, and the top wineries are open to visits by professionals only.

This is where the Fira del Vi, held in the regional capital of Falset, comes into its own. Held every year over the first weekend in May, it’s a showcase for both appellations, gathering under one roof a representative range of Priorat and Montsant growers and providing a unique opportunity to get up-close-and-personal with both the wines and their makers.

The Fira is a shop window only: you can’t buy here, only taste. Potential customers are directed either to the winery (some of which offer scheduled visits during the fair), or to one of the wine shops in town (try Vinateria Aguiló).

Apart from the fair itself, there are all kinds of wine-related fringe events in restaurants, shops and other venues in town and in the surrounding villages. Make a note in your diary for next year and build the fair into a week’s exploration of this superb, ruggedly beautiful area.

Siruanella Hotel and Restaurant © Sue Style

La Siuranella Hotel © Sue Style


  • Mas Figueres, Carretera T-300, Km. 2, Marçà
    Tel: +34 977 178 011
  • Cal Porrera, Escoles 4, Porrera
    Tel: +34 977 82 83 10
  • Cal Llop, De Dalt 21, Gratallops
    Tel: +34 977 83 95 02
  • La Siuranella, Rentadors, Siurana
    Tel: +34 977 82 11 44


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Twitter Quiz No. 12 – Ysios in Rioja

April 22, 2009

The most famous wine region in Spain – Rioja – has become recognized in recent years not just for the quality of its wines, but for the number of architecturally spectacular wineries in the region – almost certainly more of note than in other wine regions of Europe. The region is dominated by fairly large wineries, typically more New World size, rather than the boutique, family-owned wineries characteristic of most French and Italian wine regions, so these larger companies are more able to fund these fantastical structures by famous architects.

Ysios winery in Rioja

Ysios winery and vineyards in Rioja with the Cantabrian mountains behind.

The best-known architect-designed project in Rioja is Marqués de Riscal’s new winery building and hotel, designed by Frank Gehry, who also designed Bilbao’s Guggenheim museum just a couple of hours up the road. But, before that was opened, an extraordinary building could not fail to catch your eye driving through the vineyards of Rioja, the winery of Ysios, near Laguardia and owned by the giant Domecq wine group.

Tom Perry, an American resident of Rioja, who writes our two detailed micro-region travel guides to the Rioja wine region explains about Ysios:

The inspiration for the name of this winery was Isis, the Egyptian goddess of magic, and it is truly magical when you see the place for the first time, with its undulating aluminium roof against the stark backdrop of the Cantabrian mountain range. When you approach the winery, the roof reflected in a pool looks like a row of casks. Inside, architect Santiago Calatrava has created a simple yet functional design to make winemaking as easy as possible, with the movement of wine directly from one end of the winery to the other.

Congratulations to Katie of Chicago who magically came up with the right answer and wins a PDF guide of her choice.

Do follow me on Twitter for random notes about wines I’ve tasted, places I’ve been and updates to the Wine Travel Guides website. You might also want to check out our Facebook page – especially if you haven’ t yet participated in our poll as to which country we should focus on for our next guides. Please do make a comment on this blog or join in the conversation on Twitter or on Facebook  to discuss anything about travel in wine regions. A bonus: all Facebook fans and Twitter followers are eligible for discounts on subscriptions to the guides. We’ll do another twitter quiz soon.

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A Fantastical Night in Zamora

March 30, 2009

I should have realised that we would be in for an amazing evening when I saw the sign on the van parked outside the hotel: “Eat in a monastery, sleep in a convent”.
Hotel Convento I

Hotel Convento I, Coreses, Zamora

As on so many wine press trips we were behind schedule when we arrived at the Hotel Convento I in Coreses, Zamora, in the Castilla y Leon province of northern Spain. The hotel had the appearance of a robust institution – we checked in, took luggage to our rooms, and could not fail to notice that the decor inside was completely different to the exterior.

Entrance lobby

Entrance lobby to the hotel

In the flamboyant lobby we were met by Beatriz and Sandrine, of Viñas Zamoranas, a bodega which is owned by Augustin Lorenzo who also owns this hotel as well as a grand restaurant in Valladolid and a local discotheque. We were shown the way to the winery behind the hotel, the path illuminated by a parked car’s headlights, passing the Doric columns of a brand new winery under construction.

Normally a winery is spick and span with stainless tanks, oak barrels and presses all waiting for the next vintage to start, and this was no exception. But when we went into the building we certainly weren’t expecting the sight that greeted us.


Pisces adorning the ceiling of Viñas Zamoranas

When we looked up, the ceiling was dark blue and painted with scantily clad women posing as signs of the Zodiac! Apparently this used to be a discotheque – when I used to dance the night away I don’t think I ever glanced up at such a grand ceiling.

Having marvelled at this very unusual winery we returned to the hotel for a tasting of their wines prior to a guided tour of the hotel. Constructed in 1943 it housed a German catholic school until it closed in 2000 when Augustin Lorenzo saw its potential and bought it.  A very religious man he is also an avid art collector, which shows throughout the hotel.

As we visited the various rooms and facilities, at every twist and turn the grandiose designs took our breath away: the Egyptian pub, the banqueting cellar, the spa, bars and dining rooms, many of which are used for wedding ceremonies.

Painted ceiling

Painted ceiling in the banqueting cellar

As well as art on the walls, religious and antique artefacts placed hither and thither, all the ceilings in the public areas are painted in glorious colour. As there were so many surfaces to cover, specialists in different parts of the anatomy moved around as a team: one painting ears, the next eyes, ears, hands and so on. It took nowhere as long as Michelangelo did decorating the Sistine Chapel…

The bedrooms are spacious with comfortable beds and decent en suite facilities. The ‘normal’ rooms aren’t too exotic; the flamboyance is reserved for the suites, which are very grand. And, hurrah, there was no charge for efficient Wi-Fi.

Coffee bar

Coffee bar with ancient episcopal espresso machine

The handsome coffee bar, complete with an ancient espresso machine used in the Bishop’s Palace in Valladolid, was the breakfast  room.

The overall impression of this hotel is of a fantastic, personal statement by a very single minded man who is proud of sharing his enjoyment of beautiful things. It’s an extraordinary overnight stay for a wine lover exploring the up-and-coming Castilla y Leon region of Spain.

But, I think there shoud be another sign on their van: “Make wine in a discotheque”…

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Two Travel Guides to the Rioja Wine Region Go Live

February 14, 2009
View to the vineyards outside Dinastia Vivanco

View to the vineyards outside Dinastia Vivanco

Rioja is one of those wines many people seem to have a soft spot in their hearts for, knowing it as a warming, soft oaky red wine, ideal to drink in winter a cosy wine bar with a plate of stew. But there’s much more to La Rioja in Spain than that and Tom Perry, an American who has lived in the region for 25 years, is just the person to show you what makes this region special. When he was head of the Rioja Wine Exporters Association, a post he left last year, I was part of a group of UK wine educators visiting Rioja for a few days and he created an insightful and educational programme for us.

Frank Gehry model for the Marqués de Riscal hotel

Frank Gehry model for the new hotel at Marqués de Riscal

On our visit to Rioja, just over four years ago, the fascinating Dinastiá Vivanco wine museum had only just opened, and the new Frank Gehry-designed hotel at the old Marqués de Riscal winery was simply an architect’s model. Much is happening in the region as it realizes the potential of wine tourism.

I was delighted when Tom agreed to write the two wine travel guides to Rioja and he’s done a great job in his recommendations, focusing on wineries that welcome visitors, the most central and interesting places to stay for a wine tour in the region, and restaurants and shops with a real local wine focus. Here’s an excerpt from the ‘Around Haro’ guide about taking a ‘tapas crawl’:

La Herradura is the area of Haro where the town’s tapas bars are located in the old town around Calle Santo Tomás. The street is called ‘la senda de los elefantes’, or the elephants’ path, because the Spanish word for an elephant’s trunks is trompa, which also means ‘tipsy’. Tapas-hopping is a way of life in northern Spain, when friends meet to go from bar to bar ordering a glass of wine or beer along with a bit of food. Each person in the party is supposed to pay for a round. With large groups, everyone puts a few Euros into the kitty and the fun lasts until the money runs out! Recommended places to visit are Mesón los Berones, Bremen and Bar Los Caños, on a small square off Calle Santo Tomás. There are also several bars on the Plaza de la Paz, notably the Café Suizo.

Our two Rioja guides bring to 50 the number of travel guides to wine regions, all of which go through a regular updating process. These 50 guides each cover a bite-sized chunk of larger wine regions. When looked at in PDF form, the 50 guides cover more than 600 pages and have around 1250 recommendations of wine producers to visit, places to stay, eat and shop, and attractions, all selected by writers with insider knowledge about their regions. Do take a look at the website and if you are planning a private wine tour this year, subscribe – the guides will save you a lot of research time and will be a great companion on your wine travels.

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