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Customer Trip to Spain October 2023

It had been a few years since I had the pleasure of escorting a group of VinConnect customers on a tour of one of Europe’s major wine regions.  The global pandemic interrupted our plans, and while I personally have been traveling and visiting our estates in various countries over the past few years, coordinating a customer group had been more difficult.  So it was a great pleasure that I got together with three of VinConnect’s strongest supporters together for a long-overdue visit to Spain and the major wine regions of Ribera del Duero and Rioja.


Members of this year’s trip arrived into Madrid from various U.S. locations within an hour of each other, only to find that one attendee had missed his connection due to a flight delay and wouldn’t be arriving for another several hours.  As a result of this change, we scrapped our original plans and decided to drive into Madrid and spend some time investigating the city.  I had heard great things about Madrid from some savvy globe-trotting friends, and was excited to take advantage of this impromptu opportunity to see it for myself.

We only had a few hours to hike around, but wow what a city!  It was eminently walkable, with interesting architecture, cool museums, and great urban neighborhoods.  Plus it had a bustling vibe but wasn’t overly crowded, and refreshingly not overrun with American tourists at every turn.

During our wandering we found a crowded old Pintxos bar for lunch, where we grabbed some much-needed beer and food after our travels.  We sampled several small plates, including some delicious octopus, and generally enjoyed being a part of a busy Sunday afternoon crowd.  Once refreshed we did more wandering around the city seeing several of the major tourist sites (all on foot!), and then eventually headed back to the airport to pick up our final colleague and drive to Ribera del Duero.  We finally arrived at the Fuente Acena Boutique Hotel, whose modern interior was a contrast to its location in an old mill dating to the 10th century.  Our initial dinner in the cozy hotel restaurant was fantastic with great food and well-chosen wines, and the trip had officially begun.



Emilio Moro (website) – Our first visit was a great kickoff, with a long, amazing tour of the entire Emilio Moro estate, followed by a broad tasting.  Then we retired to their upstairs, where we were treated to a wonderful lunch and several more wines, including the new vintages of their top bottlings Valderramiro and Sanchomartin that paired amazingly well with roasted baby goat. In all we were there for nearly 4 ½ hours, which was an amazing hospitality experience.

Incredible lunch at Emilio Moro

Dominio de Atauta (website) – With full bellies we then made the drive to the eastern part of Rioja, into a different and more spartan landscape.  Atauta lies in a valley, and is a quasi-cooperative that both owns their own vineyards and sources fruit from growers who farm to their specifications.  The valley has dozens of grower families, all of whom have built cellars into the ground for vinification that have been used over centuries.

Ancient underground cellars at Dominio de Atauta

After a tour of the vineyards to see firsthand the three different predominant soil types, it was back to the cellar for a tasting.  We were only able to taste their everyday wines (which we quite enjoyable), but it left us wanting to experience their more highly-acclaimed single vineyard bottlings.  Definitely something to seek out upon our return!

For dinner we went to a newly-opened luxury hotel/restaurant housed in a former 16th-century monastery, the Monasterio Valbuena.  What a beautiful building and impressive restoration!  Their acclaimed restaurant Converso was one of the only options available on a Monday evening; surprisingly, even then the room was only moderately busy.  The food was very good but not especially distinguished – I might consider giving it another try once they’ve gotten their groove.



Aalto (website) – On Halloween we began a busy day of tasting at Aalto, one of the more recognizable premium Ribera del Duero brands in the U.S.  Started by the former winemaker at Vega Sicilia, their very modern winery building was impressive in our tour with another group.  We then migrated to their tasting room with a beautiful view of the surrounding hillside and valley below to sample their three main wines.  While certainly well-made in a modern style, we agreed afterward that the wines seemed to be lacking some soul.

Tasting the range at Aalto

Bodegas Mauro (website) – Then it was off to Bodegas Mauro, another estate with ties to Vega Sicilia’s ex-winemaker. This estate lies at the western edge of the Ribera del Duero region, at a lower elevation where the weather is warmer and the vineyards experience more coastal influence. Not only did we taste the impressive Bodegas Mauro wines, we also got a chance to sample wines from related projects such as X in Y and A in B.  Well-made, impressive quality, and reasonable prices – these are wines to seek out.

Ancient underground cellars at Dominio de Atauta

On a tight schedule we made a quick stop for lunch at a roadhouse “bar’, where we grabbed sandwiches and refreshments before beginning the trek toward Rioja.

Felix Callejo (website) – Along the way we stopped at Felix Callejo, an estate in the northern part of the appellation. 100 years old and family-owned, the wines have only infrequently come to the U.S. market.  Again we were able to do a tour of vineyards owned by the estate, both adjacent to the winery itself as well as in other locations within a 10-minute radius.  Here we got a great education about the white variety Albillo Mayor, which has been rediscovered and is making a resurgence in the region.  They also produce a rose that is a 50/50 blend of Tempranillo and Albillo Mayor, which I found fascinating (if unusual) while my colleagues were not impressed.

Tasting with Cristina Callejo

Afterward we made the remaining drive on to Haro, the village that claims to be the center of the Rioja appellation.  With a comfortable apartment in the center of the village, we were able to do some easy exploration around town before our dinner at Nublo, a Michelin-starred spot in the center of the pedestrian area.  Deciding to partake in the 11-course tasting menu, we enjoyed an absolutely fantastic meal; the impressive technique, delicious flavors, solid service and reasonable price made for a fantastic evening that I will definitely experience again on my next visit to the region.



When booking this trip I hadn’t been aware that All Saints Day would be a national holiday in Spain.  That of course meant that all the wineries were closed, so we would end up with a brief pause in our agenda.  Undeterred, we decided to take advantage of the opportunity to make the 75-minute drive up to Bilbao and visit the renowned Guggenheim Museum designed by legendary architect Frank Gehry.  Focused on modern art and featuring a special exhibit on Picasso, we had a fantastic time immersing ourselves in the full collection.  Particularly intriguing were the huge steel sculptures by Frank Stella, which were an interesting sensory experience to wander around and through.

Frank Stella installation at the Guggenheim Bilbao

After the museum we decided to cancel our reservation at the attached Michelin-starred restaurant and try to find a more informal venue where we could experience the local Basque flavor.  Some quick Googling led us across the river in the direction of Old Town Bilbao, and to a cozy spot focused on seafood and rice dishes (despite the resemblance it was NOT paella, we were scolded).  But it WAS delicious, and washed down with a local, basic white wine it was just about as perfectly satisfying and authentic as one could want. 

Following some wandering and shopping in downtown Bilbao (a city I could definitely see spending some more time in), it was back to our apartment in Haro to get ready for another impressive dinner.  This time we selected the restaurant Allegar in the Hotel Santa Maria Briones in the neighboring medieval village of the same name, whose delicious food, impressive wine list and captivating setting made for another memorable evening.



ARTADI (website) – I always love visiting ARTADI — their modern tasting room and great hospitality always make for a great visit.  On this visit we were lucky enough to get a tour of the winery’s singular, iconic vineyard called El Pison.  What a magical place!  Walking the tiny plot of incredibly old vines, it is easy to see how it produces such an exceptional wine.  Back at the winery we had the pleasure of tasting the full line up, from their entry-level bottles to several top single vineyard selections.  The wines impressed by being just so delicious and drinkable, and the consistency of style and expressiveness across the entire range is impressive.

Touring ARTADI’s El Pison vineyard

Bodega 202 (website) – This was my first-ever visit to this new VinConnect partner.  Bodegas 202 is a new project started by an American family about ten years ago, and is a true Garagiste operation located in an industrial park (for now).  Grapes are sourced from several vineyards in the area acquired by the winery over the years, and are processed and vinified in this central location. Made with pride, these are beautifully traditional expressions of Tempranillo, and only released with age (2016 is the current vintage in the market) they immediately show impressive elegance and drinkability at reasonable prices.  It’s clear why their initial vintages have received such strong reviews right out of the gate.

Barrels in the cellar at Bodega 202

Bodegas Valdemar (website) – Large estate, with operations in Washington state as well. Impressive operation, large in scope but intimate in vibe. We spent some time wandering the cellars, and were greeted with a surprise tasting of some 2015s while discussing the impressive history of the estate.  Then it was back to the tour, before ending up back in the tasting room for the formal festivities.  Here we tasted current releases and then some older Gran Riservas, to get a sense for the aging potential and evolution curve of these special wines.  Great wines, tremendous hospitality, wonderful experience overall.

Descriptions of soil and terroir at Bodegas Valdemar

For dinner we decided to head to the city of Logroño, renowned for its district dedicated to the art form that is Pintxos, so that we could experience this unique cuisine in its native environment.  There are three to four blocks of narrow alleys almost exclusively dedicated to Pintxos places, each with its one or two specialties for which it is known.  At each stop we would have a bite or two, washed down with a small beer or half-glass of wine.  Fois Gras on brioche was the consensus favorite – I could have eaten a dozen. Raciones of Octopus were probably second, and we ate mushrooms, peppers, sausage, calamari and a handful of various other things.  After two hours of crowds and consumption, it was time to call it an evening, but this was so much fun that I consider it a must-do for anyone visiting Rioja.



CVNE (website) – Our last day of tastings began with a comprehensive tour and tasting at CVNE.  Located in Haro near the old train depot (next to other famous wineries such as Lopez de Heredia, Muga, etc.) CVNE has a deceptively large operation that actually houses two different operating wineries (making for an extra-long tour).  One is CVNE, the other is Contino.  In addition to tasting wine from those estates, we also tasted Imperial and X.  We had the great pleasure of being guided through the tasting by X, CVNE’s winemaker who has been with the estate more than 30 years.  She provided excellent background and detail not only on the differences in wines and winemaking between the estates, but also on the individual wines.  It was a fantastic education, and my notes on the 20+ wines we tasted will be invaluable going forward in understanding and appreciating the exceptional wines from CVNE’s estates.

Innovative cellar ceiling designed by Gustav Eiffel at CVNE

Gomez Cruzado (website) – Our final tasting of the trip was at Gomez Cruzado, booked only after having consumed a bottle of white Rioja early on our trip and being super impressed with it.  The is an old estate also located in the historic train station district in Haro, but has been revitalized by a group of young entrepreneurs who took over in the past decade to resurrect the estate’s reputation.  They have revisited everything, from the vineyards, grape growing, vinification, branding, etc., and have done a fantastic job of bringing the brand back to prominence.  The wines here were impressively well-made and reasonably priced, and these are definitely wines to keep an eye out for.

Then we were off for the long drive to Barcelona.  An old friend recommended dinner at Ca l’Isidre, an old-school white tablecloth experience with a deep, traditional wine list. They feature contemporary Catalan cuisine served in a sedate environment, but the food was delicious and the service excellent.  We even had some fun when the proprietor blind-tasted us on a dessert wine, which one of our group was able to precisely identify as a 1927 Alvear Pedro Ximenez.  Our host was gobsmacked, and so impressed that comped one of our bottles of wine out of profound respect.

Afterward we headed out to one of my favorite wine bars in the world, La Vinya del Senor in the El Born neighborhood of Barcelona. They have an incredible wine list of great selections from around the world, with plenty of older vintages and collectible bottles to tickle the fancy of any wine lover. After much discussion we settled on a bottle of 2010 J.J. Confuron 1er Cru red burgundy, and sat in the church plaza watching the night owls wander by until closing around 1am. 

Studying the huge list at La Vinya del Senyor



We started the morning wandering the city, and after regrouping headed out together to find lunch.  We ended up at a modern-looking wine bar Monvinic, whose charcuterie and cheese plates seemed enticing.  It wasn’t until we more closely inspected the huge glass cases, however, that we found an amazing selection of wines (both current releases and older vintages, organized in no particular fashion and with no list or index) as well as my absolute favorite cheese, the Vacherin Mont d’Or, available only in late fall and early winter.  We immediately dove into a very rare Lopez de Heredia rose and a 1985 Bodegas Valdemar Gran Riserva, along with a full wheel of Vacherin Mont d’Or to go along with the charcuterie.  

After a phenomenal couple of hours, I think we all needed a nap before heading out to our last meal together, dinner at the famed Gresca.  Contemporary vibe, bustling scene, incredible wine list, tremendous food – it hits all the right notes for my favorite way to dine, and was a fitting end to a wonderful week.

All in all it was a wonderful trip, full of old friends, new discoveries, delicious food, amazing wines, and good times all around.  Once again I am reminded of the great pleasures of traveling and experiencing the wines and people in their native environments — nothing gives me greater joy.  I can’t wait for the next one!


Interested in a trip like this?

Once or twice a year, a few of VinConnect's top customers join us on for an insider trip visiting the estates of VinConnect partners and friends. Let us know if you would like more information about joining us for a future trip.

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