To get a taste of Spanish wine culture, we visited Valdepeñas, a wine making Denominacion de Origen in the region of Castilla-La Mancha in south central Spain. La Mancha may be famous for being the setting of Miguel Cervantes’ classic novel Don Quixote, but it is also the largest wine producing area in Spain.
Our drive through the Spanish countryside was peaceful and scenic. Groves of olive trees stretched as far as the eye could see for most of the trip from Granada, eventually giving way to vineyards when we got closer to La Mancha.
Valdepeñas is also the name of the modest but charming city at the center of this wine-growing district, where life revolves around the wine industry. The local winemakers traditionally fermented wines in gigantic 1,600 liter earthenware jars, called tinajas. These tinajas are scattered throughout the city of Valdepeñas and line the street of the Avenida de Las Tinajas that leads into town.
Shortly after arriving in the city, we had lunch at La Antigua Bodega Los Llanos. This beautiful restaurant is part of a recently rehabilitated winery that was constructed in 1875. They serve traditional Manchego-Castilian cuisine and offer an extensive selection of wines from Valdepeñas for less than €2 per glass, making it a great place to sample through the local wines. We started with two glasses of white wine and were rewarded with a small plate of razor clams, our first indication that free tapas were still possible here. We ordered the Pates de Caza, a trio of pates of the house that included two large slices of foie gras.
We switched over to glasses of Tempranillo and Syrah from local winery Corcova to pair with our main dishes, which we were very excited about. When we had first walked through the restaurant, we saw what looked like a perfect plate of suckling pig, a dish that we can’t pass up. You couldn’t have dragged me out of the restaurant without having some of that pig, until we Google-translated the menu and saw that there was also leg of suckling lamb. This could be a new kind of deliciousness that I had not yet experienced.
Thank God there were two of us and we could have both. The pierna de cordero lechal (leg of suckling lamb) was a milder, more tender version of the older lamb we’re accustomed to, while the cochinillo (suckling pig) had a crispy skin on top of velvety slabs of pork. We were amazed when the bill arrived and the total cost of our meal was only 66 euros, including eight small glasses of wine, a €2 per person bread charge and 10% tax.
After lunch we toured the wine caves under Bodega Los Llanos, which recently opened to the public as part of the overall restoration of the complex. We saved just enough time for a quick siesta to recover from our heavy meal before getting ready for a winery tour and tasting later that afternoon.
We had a 5:00 pm reservation for a tour of Bodega Dionisos, a small winery located in town and a short walk from our hotel (see bottom of page for information on scheduling a winery visit). It was a Tuesday in April, so not surprising to find that we were the only guests. The owner, who spoke no English, greeted us in the courtyard. We explained that we spoke little Spanish and asked if he could please speak slowly.
He did a wonderful job of using slow, simple sentences and hand gestures to describe how four generations of his family have made wine by following the motion of the stars, lending Dionisos the name La Bodega De Las Estrellas (The Winery of the Stars). This traditional Valdepeñas winery uses the four elements of air, water, fire, and earth to produce organic wine via eco friendly practices. When he explains it in person, I swear it makes perfect sense.
As it was just the two of us, he dipped us a taste of wine still resting in the earthenware tanks. He walked us through caves dug into the rocks under the winery, which housed traditional tinajas next to modern stainless steel tanks. When he proudly pointed out mementos from past generations, we felt privileged to share in his family history.
After the tour, we moved into the tasting room where glasses and snacks were set out for us to taste some of their wines. We left Dionisos with a few extra bottles, feeling very proud of ourselves for surviving an hour of Spanish conversation and actually understanding what was going on.
We wish we’d had more time to explore the city of Valdepeñas. We had only one evening for wandering through the old town, window shopping and popping into a few bars. Hanging out with locals at a sports bar watching a Madrid vs Barcelona futbol game, drinking little beers and snacking on complimentary fried potatoes and bits of ham is one of our favorite memories from this trip. We’ll be adding Valdepeñas to our list of places to return.
If you want to visit a winery in Spain, it requires some advanced planning. Wine tasting here doesn’t come together as easily as it does in the U.S. You can usually only taste wine as part of a tour, and cannot show up without an appointment. If you try, as we did at one winery in town, you may be greeted by a less than friendly employee who is annoyed that you have called them away from their work.
For our visit to Dionisos, we started at the winery website to verify the days and hours that they offer tours. We sent a message requesting a reservation for a visit, using Google Translate to duplicate the text in Spanish within the same message. It took a few days to receive an email confirming our reservation. We had reserved the visita basica (basic tour), which is a 45 minute tour offered Monday through Friday at 12:00 and 5:00 pm for €6 each. They offer longer, more extensive tours on weekends.