08 Mar Underground Adventures in Rioja Wine Country
We stood at the center of the beehive-shaped swell of Laguardia, a wall-enclosed medieval hilltop town in Spain. Starburst rows of grapevines in autumn radiated all around us, their flaming red, orange, and yellow leaves a dramatic contrast to the moonscape of the gray Cantabrian Mountains that rose just beyond.
I had decided to take a pause from walking the Camino de Santiago, a millennia-old pilgrimage route across northern Spain that passed only fifteen kilometers south of here. The Camino included numerous holy detours of wine and sacred sites: Many medieval pilgrims embarked on these mini-pilgrimages, enjoying delectable food and vintages, accumulating good karma, and in no hurry to return home. In Rioja, I decided to join their example. My husband Miles, who had joined me for this stretch, was happy to oblige.
Laguardia is the capital of the Rioja Álava wine region, and the history of its wine exists not only in its chalky soils, but also in the fragile latticework of caverns below: Just under the central medieval street is a 500-year old network of tunnels harboring 230 wine cellars, or bodegas. Our first ambition in Laguardia was to visit these caverns on a wine tour.
The tunnels were first carved under people’s homes for defensive purposes. They were places to retreat to when the town came under attack from either neighboring or foreign forces. But during the past two hundred years, retreat was less necessary than finding ideal places to make wine. And, as it turns out, the caverns harbor the ideal conditions for wine making: 55-degree Fahrenheit temperatures and the perfect moisture and darkness for ferment and maturity.
These days the caverns are too delicate for any form of strong vibration: No motorized vehicles, hand-drawn carts, or even donkeys are allowed. This means vintners must carry grapes in and wine out on their backs. It was a small wonder then, to learn that only two bodegas still make wine in the caverns. (All the others do so in modern structures out in the surrounding plains.) One of the two was Bodegas Carlos San Pedro. It just so happened that Carlos — the current winemaker in a family that I imagine includes a long line of ancestral Carloses — was available to give us a subterranean tour and tasting.
“Bodegas Carlos has been making wine for more than five hundred years,” Carlos explained as he led the way into the underworld eight meters beneath his storefront.
We followed his bright red jacket into the dark. Like the vines, we found ourselves rooted in the very limestone earth that formed both the tunnels and composed the soil that defines the wine here — grapevines thrive in the calcium carbonate, clay, and silt. This region makes Rioja’s fullest and firmest wines, meaning strong and sturdy liquids that boldly balance minerals, fruit, and oak. They were wines to drink with rosemary and garlic roasted lamb shanks, or with artichokes sautéed with dry-cured Iberian ham and a side of fire-roasted red peppers.
Carlos took us to an arched cul-de-sac. A pyramid of wine barrels was stacked against the back wall and a wooden table stood in the center, already set with glasses. Carlos first opened a bottle of Crianza — the Spanish term for red wine that is still young — which was two years old, and aged an additional year in an oak barrel. It was easy to drink, with flavors of blackberries, mushrooms, chalky minerals and a bit of oak resin. Carlos then gave us a taste of his Reserva, a three-year-old red wine with two years of aging in oak. He was taking us along a spectrum, away from the dominant flavors of the fruit, and letting the minerals and wood take over. By the end, I could taste the mountains.
Sufficiently filled with wine, we returned to the sunny autumnal warmth above. It was just past noon, and being Spain, lunch was still two hours away. A few meters from Carlos’ Bodega, we ducked into the church of Santa María de los Reyes, famous for its preserved polychrome-painted, stone-carved western gate. The original painted pigment, which dates to the 12th to 15th centuries, appears the way most stone churches across Europe once appeared to their medieval visitors, depicting scenes rich with saturated cobalt, mustard, red, and orange. Here also were some rare images: One was of a pregnant Mary, her bulging belly so prominent overhead that you could feel her effort to walk. Another showed Jesus holding Mary in his left arm as her soul ascended and arrived in heaven, reversing the usual depiction of him in her arms.
We decided then to explore the other caverns we’d heard about from the enthusiastic tourist office attendant: megalithic mortuary dolmens. From 7,000 to 4,000 years ago, early farmers constructed more than 85 dolmens around Laguardia, laying large stone slabs to form rectangular and triangular tombs for the dead as well as seasonal ritual sites for the living.
We departed the fortified walls of Laguardia’s hilltop settlement and walked onto white dusty footpaths with the mountains to our left and the endless vines disappearing into the horizon to our right.
After three kilometers, dust already covered our hiking books and pant hems, and the nearest and most dramatic dolmen alluded us. Beyond the world of signs and trail markers, nothing made sense. That was when we saw a man in his sixties fast approaching, kicking up a dust cloud on the limestone dirt road as he sped-walked. As he neared, I hailed him.
“Excuse me, Señor, we’re looking for the Dolmen de Alta de la Huesera.”
“Ah, que sí,” he said, smiling and pointing to a rise behind us. “The dolmen will be on your right, but until then, everything looks like rocks, scrub, and vines.” He chuckled.
The dolmen sat high in the vast vineyard, its gray-white stone structure a miniature of the mountains around it. It was a harmonious triangular form, opening from stones laid against each other in teepee form. I could smell the same limestone, blackberries, and mushrooms I had tasted in Carlos’ wines. I felt the subterranean connection under my feet, from this cavern to his, and in between, those coveted vines. This pause from the Camino took me deeper into the earth through which it passed than I could have predicted.
We lingered, then retraced our steps back to town. As we passed through the wall’s main entrance, we saw a tile plaque mounted on the wall:
Paz a los que llegan,
Salud a los que habitan,
Felicidad a los que marchan.
Peace to those who arrive,
Health to those who reside,
Happiness to those who depart.
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