Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Back in Bordeaux ...

... and our Sauvignon Blanc, Sauvignon Gris and Semillon have all been harvested in the Entre Deux Mers. The first to come in was the Sauvignon Blanc and some really explosive asparagus and grassy flavours already obvious in the juice. James had cooled the juice down to 5 degrees and settled out the large sediment what they call ‘gros lies’ in French. This morning, we racked carefully the cold juice under a blanket of protective CO2 into the insulated stainless steel tanker headed for the Chai. Back in the Chai, cellar master Denis had prepared the vats and had them ice cold and full of more CO2.

It’s such a fantastic feeling to have the first juice entering the Chai – rather like the opening ceremony of the harvest – and everyone was eager to be the first to taste! Meanwhile James was back out to check the Semillon and Sauvignon Gris and whilst the sediment settles out, which will take 36 hours, I am going to make another dash down to the Midi to meet Maitena and select this years La Voute Chardonnay in Limoux.


Tuesday, 30 August 2011

It's fast and furious in the Midi ...

... and apparently in Bordeaux too!

We have been watching the Pinot Noir very closely over the weekend and noticed some slight ‘shanking’ in the vineyard. This is where the berry starts to lose berry weight and fall to the ground and at this exact moment it is perfect for harvesting. If not picked immediately the results could be disastrous with loss in juice volume, fruit flavour becoming over ripe and potential alcohol levels too high.

So with no time to waste, the harvesting machines were called on and we were soon in the vineyard harvesting the first block last night. This particular sloping vineyard and the vintage weather this year has led to the north, south, east and west ripening differently so the winemaking decisions must be adapted to each area harvested. I worked on the processing and presses with another New Zealander also called James thorough the night.

The colour from the west side of the vineyard was leaching colour from skins into juice so quickly that we made a quick decision to do some short skin maceration (the sign of perfect maturity) and pressed off for a Clairet-style cold ferment without the skins to get maximum red berry freshness and low tannin which will be a useful blending tool later on for palate suppleness.

Our James then called early morning from Bordeaux saying perfect maturity in the Sauvignon vineyards and forecasting rain in Entre Deux Mers! I left Maitena to survey the Pinot Noir and I was soon back on the road up to Bordeaux to give James a hand to bring the first juice of 2011 into the Chai before the rain.

Sorry no photo as blackberry was covered in grape juice!


Friday, 26 August 2011

And harvest madnes begins ...

Heard a few rumours about rain in the Midi and I had mixed conversations with local growers over the phone; most of them in over-exaggerating farmer mode! So only one thing to do: get down to the Midi, which is exactly where I have been for the last two days. And of course, it’s not as bad as they make out, just them being farmers!

I started early in Carcassonne at Domaine Lalande to check the Chardonnay. My mate and Lalande winemaker Richard 'Ozzy' Osbourne was there to greet me and raring to go for his now-20th vintage here!

The Cailloux Chardonnay vineyard is in great shape. No mould and small bunches made up of clean crisp berries. Needs another 7 days I reckon, but I'll keep a close eye on it.

Viognier for the VC also clean, but a little behind in maturity. So this year, patience and risk will be the name of the game here I think!

Next was a bit of a drive across the Languedoc to deepest Bezier wine country. I had to check firstly Roussane with the Baron de Bertier, then Vermentino with no other than Madame F herself!

All looking very good indeed as long as any rain stays away for the next week.

With the panic over, I went back to the winemakers’ 2011 Midi base – a gite in beautiful Peyriac Sur Mer – to freshen up before heading back into vineyards for the Pinot Noir harvest tonight! Back to Bordeaux early tomorrow as the Sauvignon Blanc comes in. And so the harvest madness starts!


Thursday, 18 August 2011

Spain and Portugal - part eight

Another beautiful morning in the Vinho Verde. And another dream breakfast under the lemon trees looking onto the vineyards. Was very relaxing but nothing could have prepared us for what was about to happen today …

Suddenly the silence was broken by cries from the house; it was Fernando! We soon met his ridge back dog as he hurtled towards us and then Fernando soon followed with his wife Isabel, Alvaro and his wife Sofia and another 10 or so relatives whose names I didn’t catch. Little did we know but this was to be the theme for the rest of the day! We started up in the house with of course some cold Vinho Verde until more relatives arrived and we headed down to the swimming pool for some yes, you guessed it, Vinho Verde!

More relatives arrived: cousins, sisters, aunts, uncles, nephews, nieces. I am sure I met about 16 brothers, but apparently he only has four. The party was in full swing and the Vinho Verde seemed to be evaporating ever so quickly. The pool was full of children and Alvaro and it was great to see the whole estate alive with the family. I shook hands with every man and kissed every woman and felt awful that I could not remember any names until Fernando said he didn’t even know who some of the people were! We were also delighted to meet Fernando’s mother and sister who luckily, as does nearly everyone, speak impeccable English.

Some lovely Portuguese meats and some sort of quiche helped with the Vinho Verde consumption until Alvaro (the only one in his swimming trunks might I add) bellowed “time to eat”! Everyone ignored him and after about 45 minutes of insistence from Alvaro, people slowly started to walk up towards the house.

We were accompanied by Fernando who in between jokes actually managed to tell us some history of the place! We passed the manor house and followed people literally through the old vineyard which has a tunnel-type training system called ‘pergola’ or locally known as ‘ramada’. The vines are trained high to avoid firstly frost in Spring and later in the season the leaf canopy shades the delicate white grapes which hang down underneath from the intense Summer sun.

We were one of the last to arrive up at the beautifully converted old barns far beyond the house to the sound of singing and laughter. We entered the first barn packed full of people and were seated at the head of the table with Baron Fernando!

The food smelt wonderful and the Soclar de Boucas Vinho Verde and Baronesa de Vilar 2008 red Douro wine were flowing freely. The food was a selection of traditional meat stews, small empanadas, homemade bread, and fresh salad. Once again so simple but absolutely divine!

Dessert was another matter altogether and as Alvaro’s giant birthday cake came in his eyes lit up, and he yelled (in English) “a booby cake!” His wife Sofia then told everyone that when she had first met Alvaro when he was studying to become a winemaker. He was driving around Porto with a hat on that read ‘booby inspector” on it and the whole room erupted in laughter!!

The party continued long into the night….

The next day we headed back towards France. We hadn’t really noticed how far we had actually come and now realised we were a good 11 hour drive from Bordeaux. We decided to make tracks and stop off half-way in the Spanish town of Burgos.

We arrived late but this is Spain. No problem whatsoever to get food … in fact I can highly recommend the Hotel AC Burgos in the centre near the cathedral and the Bar Trastienda for a bite to eat. We will come back to explore this place next time!

I would just like to say an enormous thank you to Carlos and Fernando for the incredible hospitality and arranging for us to have such a true experience of Portugal!

(Unfortunately) THE END


Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Spain and Portugal - part seven

After a great time in the lovely city of Porto we, headed about 60km north east, passing through the town of Braga before reaching the small village of Amares in the heart of Minho region … Vinho Verde wine country. We were fortunate to be given the keys by Fernando to his estate Solar Das Boucas just on the outskirts of the town.

Fernando is the eldest son of the famous Van Zeller family who until 1993 owned the great Quinta Do Noval port house. Fernando is now in charge of family wine affairs and has also inherited the title of Baron!

Eventually we found the estate and what a beautiful place! Here we met Sophia, who lives here and looks after the estate. She took us down the drive, passing the high trellised vines, before reaching the magnificent manor house where we then learnt that we would have the whole place to ourselves tonight! As soon as we entered the house and I saw the kitchen, I was itching to get back into town and get cooking for the first time this trip!

Upstairs the view out onto the luscious green rolling vineyards was amazing. We were soon down in the swimming pool next to the vines, shaded by a lemon tree covered with the most enormous lemons. And we had to have a taste of Fernando’s Vinho Verde!

Sitting amongst the vines on a hot day with a glass of cold, spritzy Vinho Verde is a must for any wine lover. The wines here are made from Alvarinho, Arinto, Avesso, Azal, Batoca, Loureiro, and Trajadura grapes and are light in alcohol normally between 9-11%vol. The wines are bottled and consumed young, before the freshness and natural spritz disappears. It immediately becomes evident why it is called ‘the green wine’ as the edges of the youthful wine are tinged green. Outside, in Fernando’s garden, the greenness seemed to be enhanced even more by the reflection of the vineyards. A perfectly refreshing drink!

We were starting to get hungry so we needed to head into the small town to get some supplies for tonight’s now-planned feast for two. In the town we managed to find a fishmongers and a grocery store where I bought some fresh black sea bream, small green pimentos, a cheese called Serra de Estrela and a first for me; a bottle of red Vhino Verde.

We thoroughly enjoyed the freshness of the meal and the zesty Vinho Verde white went very well with the pan fried bream and green pimentos. But the surprise of the evening was the fantastic red which tasted like a white and was a very good match with the sheep milk cheese.

We decided to get a good night’s sleep as tomorrow the Baron and the Van Zeller clan (apparently 40 of them) are arriving at the estate to celebrate Alvaro’s birthday!


Thursday, 11 August 2011

Spain and Portugal - part six

Once again we were sad to leave somewhere we really enjoyed but we had to get to Porto by 3pm to meet Carlos. The drive down was full of more breathtaking landscapes and vineyard-after-vineyard all the way to Porto.

All of a sudden we started to see the long list of famous names such as Taylors, Crofts, Cockburn’s, Ferreira, Offley, Robertson's, Ramos Pinto Churchill's, Niepoort, Graham's, Warre's, Dow's, and my favourite Sandeman on billboards high on the steeply sloped vineyards that seemed made for advertising. Port being heavily influenced by the British maybe they were!?

Sandeman being my favourite because of the remarkable and unmistakable silhouette of the Don dressed like the Spanish Caballeros de Jerez in a Portuguese student’s cape and wide-brimmed hat. The Don cuts a dark, dramatic figure with his glass of ruby coloured Porto … probably the first iconic logo for a wine.

Carlos is a great friend of ours and also has his own famous Port house, Andresen. It has been in his family a long, long time and he took over from his father as owner twenty years ago. Carlos is doing some fantastic work, making great ports with his winemaker Alvaro. Some of you may recognise his familiar face as he is often in the UK to present his own wines to customers. And some of you may only recognise his hand as it is always his stand that gets completely swamped at the end of the customer events and tastings where, even when four people deep, his hand somehow manages to pour Port into everyone’s glass!!

Carlos booked us into the little Hotel da Bolsa right in the heart of the old town. He then took us on a grand tour round the city, finally ending up in a bar on the beach for a beer! Porto is a great city bustling with energy and the English influenced architecture makes it kind of homely. And of course, Port is everywhere!

Carlos then took us deep into the town of Porto and its warren of streets where all the lodges are; lodge is the name for the barrel houses where the port is aged. When we arrived at Carlos’ lodge we entered through a small door in a side street and WOW it’s like the Tardis! Huge wooden vats, barrels of all sizes, bottling line and even a cooperage!

We endlessly wandered from one lodge to the next, each connected together by a small archway and each one holding more vats and barrels. One lodge with a 50,000-litre wooded vat they call the swimming pool!

Finally we reached what I thought the wonderful cooperage, full of worn old tools, tables, special seats, fire pits and a dirt floor. Carlos explained to me that it was still in full working use for the company! When he took over he wanted to put in plug sockets and power tools to modernise the cooperage. At hearing this idea, the Head Cooper of 40 years replied “ok, very well, but I won’t be here to use them!” After quickly making his mind up there are still no power tools or sockets, but the Head Cooper is still there! They still use the same 80-yr-old barrels, originally bought by his granddad which they constantly breakdown, sand down the inside, re-toast and re-assemble, ready to fill. I couldn’t resist having a go!

Walking round Port lodges does work up a bit of a thirst so we headed to the tasting room to meet winemaker Alvaro. I know Alvaro’s brother Fernando very well indeed (more on Fernando in part seven!!). Once in the tasting room the fun began as Carlos and Alvaro starting pouring ports blind to catch me out. They did so rather cleverly as every time I got it wrong!

Once the bottles were unveiled and I realised what I had been tasting I nearly fainted, we had 1900, 1910, 1963, 1968 and 1970 up to 2010, a re-taste was certainly needed! To rub salt in the wounds Alvaro who distracts you from concentrating on the tasting by constantly telling jokes.

Then gave me two ports and asked me to tell him what they were. I replied “very nice!” thinking it was rather funny, however Alvaro had the last laugh when he told me one was white port and the other red port! They were both from 1950 and the red had oxidised. All the colour pigments had dropped out leaving the wine tawny brown. The white had also oxidised and it too had become tawny brown! As Carlos says “all Ports become the same colour in the end!”

Please do come to one of the Laithwaites events, mini festivals or shop tastings to taste these truly superb Port wines from Andresen. I seriously recommend ordering them directly from us, you will not be disappointed. Online, we currently stock their Ruby NV, their LBV 2005 and their uniquely delicious 10-year-old White Port: definitely worth a sip. Call 0845 194 7711 for our entire range.

In the evening we met up with Fernando, Mariana, Carlos and Alvaro at the fantastic Cafeina restaurant wine bar off Avenida Brasil, behind the beach at Foz in Porto.


Tuesday, 9 August 2011

Spain and Portugal - part five

We woke early in Frexio to a beautiful morning. The temperature was already in the low 20’s: perfect for a trip to the International Douro Nature Park. Manuel kindly took us for a morning tour starting by showing us the incredible views over the Spanish border.

Swirling up in the skies, gliding on the thermals, were huge griffon vultures! There is a protected colony of these birds and since the nature reserve has existed they have started to thrive once more. It’s well worth the visit up to this high point and a great picnic spot.

Manuel then took us to a secret spot that he used to go to as a child. It’s a lovely place: still visible and intact is an original Roman road.

We made the full circle back to Frexio via Maunuels family estate Quinta Saintiago located in the heart of the nature reserve. Here we visited the very vineyard that my 77’ he gave me came from!

Back in town Manuel took us to his where he has a few more barrels. I just loved the simplicity of the barrel stores dotted around the village disguised as old garages. I especially loved the A4 paper sign for the main office!

Reluctantly, we had to leave, heading directly west along the Douro to our next stop Pinhao. The drive along the winding road that hugs the Douro River all the way to Porto is just absolutely stunning. The terraces of vineyards that occupy the whole of the steep river banks seem to never end!

That night we were staying at the superb Vintage House Hotel in the centre of Pinhao. After a beautiful but winding three-hour drive, we were very glad of relaxing by the pool with a glass of chilled white port. The hotel is amazing in every way, with a good pool, restaurant, lounge and all the spacious bedrooms have a private balcony facing out towards the river. Once again, all at a very reasonable price indeed.

Before dinner we went to see Jorge Serdio Borges, one of the top young winemakers in the country. He’s the winemaker for Manuel in Frexio and owner of the hugely reputed Pintas wine estate. We went to meet him at Quinta Passadouro – where Jorge is also the winemaker – for a look around and an extensive tasting of his wines. The estate is mind-blowing and the pre-tasting tour of the vineyards took us up to 350m with even higher vineyards towering above us some up to 800m!

Back in the tasting lab, we got stuck into tasting his wines. They were all excellent and I liked very much the 2009 Pintas, 2008 Pintas Character, 2009 Pintas Vintage Port, 2008 Passa, 2008 Passadouro, 2005 Passadouro LBV and a memorable white the 2010 Guru made from Viosinho, Rabigato, Codega do Larinho and Gouveio grapes.

The hotel restaurant was excellent and I also can recommend the D.O.C. restaurant in Folgosa do Douro, about 10 minutes’ drive from Pinhao. Earlier in the evening on the way back down to Pinhao I had spotted the famous Quinta Do Noval, so as a treat after dinner I had a glass of the 1995 vintage chosen from the large list of Ports!


Monday, 8 August 2011

Spain and Portugal - part four

We left Penafiel with lasting memories early in the morning for the drive to Portugal. We were not taking the usual route into northern Portugal via the motorway but turning south west at Valladolid down to Salamanca and then directly west to the Portuguese border. The reason being was that I wanted to visit an old friend in the remote village of Freixo de Espada à Cinta Manuel Gomes Mota owner of Quinta de Maritávora.

The drive west was extraordinary as we passed Salamanca we turned on to the CL517 the straightest 80km long road I had seen anywhere, rather Australian in fact. Although flat, the scenery was beautiful, passing cattle fields and olive groves.

The road remains straight and flat until you see the unmistakable Portuguese border when it suddenly becomes apparent why the border exists and why the Spanish never invaded.

As my Portuguese friend Fernando says “the Spanish are lazy and when they saw the mountains and extreme terrain they said let them keep that bit!” The flat land of the western province Castilla Y Leon ends sharply and you descend into a huge trough before crossing the border at Barca de Alva and its enormous dam capturing the power of the Douro River.

The scenery is breathtaking and on crossing the Douro, vineyards can be seen immediately planted in terraces that flow with the contours of the steep river valley side.

This area where the Douro actually creates the border for 90km before turning sharply west towards its final destination in Porto is known as the International Douro a nature reserve. We wound slowly up the other side of the river until finally arriving in the town of Freixo de Espada à Cinta and I later learned the delightful story behind its name. Legend has it that the name originated from a nobleman who found himself in this territory after a battle with Arabs on the border of the Douro River. Tired, he rested in the shadow of a large ash tree, around which he wrapped his belt so that his precious broadsword hung vertical and off the rough ground. Whilst sleeping, the rest of his army arrived and couldn’t see the nobleman and so named the village Freixo de Espada à Cinta which literally means sword on the belt of an ash!

Once in the village we gave Manuel a call, hoping not to disturb from his siesta and he kindly said he would be with us in 30 minutes. It was now very hot and 30ºC+ so we decided to wander a little bit to find a cold beer. Libby and I entered a tiny bar which was very dark and full of old men paying cards. The bar went silent and everyone stared at us. Not sure what the most shocking: a woman in the bar, or a man with long hair. Either way this place was certainly not used to visitors! We enjoyed the refreshing beer and suddenly the remoteness of the place was evident as a couple of old men passed by on donkeys!

We were soon in the safe hands of Manuel and headed out to his estate Quinta de Maritavora just outside the village. Manuel is from a very important Port-producing family and it was Jose Junqueiro (father of very famous poet Guerra Junqueiro who was Manuel’s great uncle) that founded Quinta de Maritavora in the mid 19th Century.
Maritavora estate is amazing however and vineyards are grown high in the hills around the tiny vinification building which hasn’t changed since, Manuel says “no need to paint it or put up the sign because there aren’t any tourists!”

Manual’s large family acquired and still own many Port estates here in Frexio. They used to sell all their Port wine (for well over a hundred years) to the famous Port house Cockburns owned by the Symington family. The wine was sold in bulk (unbottled) and was taken in barrels down river to age in the large lodges in Porto. It would be later bottled either in Porto or, back in the day, it would more commonly be bottled in England! The family did bottle a tiny amount of Port wine every year but for the family consumption only and any year in which a child was born the newborn was given 900 bottles of their incredible estate Quinta de Santiago. They have bottles dating back to the 1850’s and I was extremely privileged to be given a bottle of the 1977 vintage, my birth year!

The interesting thing is that since Manuel has taken over the estate from his mother he has also started to produce fascinating dry red and white table wines as well as Porto and more-importantly, bottle it himself. The reason it is so fascinating is because of the grape varietals used which have attracted interest from university of Porto. His oldest white-grape vineyard consists of a mix of 10-12 different varietals and at least 5 unknown anywhere in the world let alone Portugal! The variety they have identified and is unique to one row in one tiny single vineyard is the Uva Salsa of which the leaves resemble rocket. Manuel promised I could taste the wine made from it later!

Another first for me was that all the trellising posts were made of huge two meter shards of Schist (black slate) taken from the very ground the vineyard was planted in!

Also dotted all over the place are little pigeon towers where still now people keep pigeons but not to eat, they used the nitrogen rich droppings as natural fertilisers for the harsh slate soil!

The winery is very simple and has a barrel store, couple of stainless steel vats for the whites and – what I had been hoping to see – three traditional lagars! Lagars are the traditional fermentation troughs still widely used today and are simply concrete baths that hold about 10 ton of grapes which are traditionally tread in order to crush the fruit sufficiently to release all the tannins and fats held in the skins as early as possible in the winemaking process.

The team is traditionally men due to the sheer strength required to move for four hours at a time through the grapes. The reason this method is used here in the Douro is because it is home to the thick skinned grape varieties Touriga Nacional and Touriga France and the lighter Touriga Roriz. The fermentation and post macerations are all made in the lagars and emptied at the end directly to barrels. I tasted some absolutely wonderful 2010 whites and reds from barrels with a pure Touriga Franca standing out on the day.

We came out of the cool cellar to blistering heat and Manuel picked a green unripe pumpkin to take for dinner (a speciality here). Manuel lives (as does his mother) in the capital Lisbon and travel out together to Frexio when they can and very kindly invited us to stay the night at their house and dine with them.

The barbeque was soon up and running and we were introduced to Manuel’s mother, Maria Isabel; an extraordinary lady who not only ran the family Port houses after her husband but also found the time to write a fantastic cookbook with all the local recipes taking four years to compile.

The meal was just great. So simple, steak, large thick slices of potato and the delicious green pumpkin puree. Manuel also opened bottles of the Maritavora estate from last year, delicious. The meal finished with a 1964 port from the family estate being opened and I was told by Manuel “in Portugal the Port is so precious that the owner will only serve to the person right of them and then it's serve yourself!” A truly fantastic evening!


Thursday, 4 August 2011

Spain and Portugal - part three

After an unusual previous day, nothing could prepare us for possibly the best day ever! From Curiel we drove back into the centre of Penafiel where we booked into the absolutely superb four-star Las Claras hotel situated in the heart of the town. The hotel was buzzing with people, lovely staff, great rooms, beautifully decorated, the biggest pool I had seen in a hotel, a fantastic spa and apparently superb restaurant, all for a very reasonable price indeed.

I had heard about ‘Lechazo’ – a speciality dish of the region – for a long time but had never tasted it. Lechazo is slow cooked lamb made from “cordero lechal" – lamb reared solely on its mother’s milk. So with some advice from my Spanish friend Jose, I was apparently to book the restaurant and the lamb dish at midday to eat the same evening, so I did and was told to come to the restaurant and the dish will be ready for you at 9pm.

Penafiel is a great little place but you have to explore and it DOES have a real and very old castle above the town. We wandered into town and found some great non-tourist tapas bars, lovely churches, clock towers, antiques shops and a great medieval bull ring in Coso Square, locally known as ‘el corro de los toros’ (and to save you looking all over town you’ll find the Tourism Office here too).

There are many wine shops and vinotecas which are very hospitable and my recommendation is the El Placio del Vino where you can also taste wines. I discovered a lovely style of Verdejo here, a white wine, slightly sparkling with 7% alcohol and bottled with a beer cap.

We were slightly unlucky with winery visits as it was Saturday in the month of July and everybody I was recommended was either hosting or attending a wedding! However I did manage to get a visit to the family run estate Bodegas Emilio Moro in Pesquera de Duero close to Penafiel A very interesting Bodega and very good range of wines all made only from the local Tinto Fino grape, well worth a visit.

We arrived back to the hotel in good time and enjoyed the magnificent pool and the extremely good wine bar and its courtyard until dinner time.

We arrived at the restaurant at 9pm as told, only to be told no lamb! Panic, devastation, sadness and anger was what I felt for about 30 seconds until realising that they meant the lamb actually wasn’t ready yet and to return in an hour! Phew! Time easily passed in the hotel’s great lounges and gardens and we were once more back at the restaurant where we were told our lamb was ‘perfecto’ and finally ready to be served, excitedly we hurried to our table.

The next 10 minutes was one of my greatest foodie experiences, out came two people carrying a enormous leg of lamb heading straight for our table. As they entered the restaurant from the kitchen the most incredible mouthwatering aromas engulfed the room. And as they passed the tables of the now-full restaurant, people stopped eating and watched and drooled with envy at OUR lamb!! The waitress carved it up at the table and the crackling fell away from the succulent meat which was served, as advised, with a simple salad ‘ensalada’.

The wine list was superb and with the lamb aromas sending me into a mad frenzy, I nearly ordered a Vega Secilia!! After gaining my senses and resisting (thanks to Libby) I chose a stunning and well priced Abadia Reteurta reserva 2008. The company, the wine, the meat and the restaurant was easily one of the best meals and experiences I have ever had. And it just shows simplicity is the best; salad, lamb, red wine (no starters or deserts)!

Portugal here we come!


Wednesday, 3 August 2011

Spain and Portugal - part two

The Ribera Del Duero

A nice sunny drive down from Mundaka took us on firstly the E80 out of the Basque county of Vasco/Euskadi to Burgos in the huge region of Castilla Y Leon. Continuing south on the E5 we finally turned west on the N122 towards Penafiel and our stop for tonight; Curiel Del Duero. All in all, about an easy 2½-hour drive.

Turning into the Ribera Del Duero wine country is fascinating and we soon saw the Duero River which would from now on be our guide all the way to Porto. Although the Castile plain is rocky and fairly flat I though the pastille colours were beautiful and very different from what I had seen before.

Driving towards Penafiel, I had noticed we had been steadily climbing higher and were now actually quite high at 850m above sea level. The silty and clayey sand, with layers of limestone marl and chalk, helps to produces the lovely browns, reds and yellow colours unique to the Ribera Del Duero. It is also the perfect home for the predominant grape Tempranillo, known locally as Tinto Fino or Tinto Del Pais.

The fierce continental climate and high altitude causes huge differences between day and night temperatures in the summer and a typical day can be 35°C during the day and fall to a quite chilly but welcomed 12°C! This allows the Tempranillo grape to ripen perfectly and produce some of the most famous and sought-after wines not only in Spain but the world.

Our holidays are always about trying new things and discovering new places but inevitably there are a couple of unexpected surprises … and little did we know it but we were just about to get one! The GPS took us about 3km past Penafiel and the villages slowly started to thin out. Then the odd sporadic run-down farmhouse popped up and we carried further on until there was now no sign of life at all. Libby then shouted “there it is up in the distance!” As we continued our approach we could begin to make out, perched very high on a random tower of rock, what seemed to be a huge castle … the surprise hotel Libby had booked. On we went towards the castle, never seeming to get any closer (a bit like the Monty Python scene in the Holy Grail)!

Finally we arrived at the base of the castle, its walls looked down on us from what seemed about half a mile up! With not a single sign, visible road or indication of how to actually get up to the castle we headed into the village of Curiel: bad move. The roads were so narrow that if you stopped the car you wouldn’t have even been able to get out to ask any directions – you’d struggle to ask out of a window. But with not a soul in the village that problem was avoided!

We drove up, down, round and round for about half an hour eventually driving back out the way we came and turning down a dirt track (because it was the only road we hadn’t tried!) and of course this WAS the road up to the quite magnificent Residencia Real Castillo de Curiel. On now, actually nearing the castle itself on the winding road, we noticed it seemed to have been built very recently and was not the old medieval castle Libby was quite expecting!

At last we arrived at the front door and the parking lot for three cars, luckily there weren’t any cars. We entered the grand (new) door and were greeted by a large empty armoured knight suit and a lift door. Up in the lift we went, finding reception and the young chap manning it. We were given our keys to our room which was grandly named Alfonso XI and a leaflet explaining all about Alfosno XI which on reading we learned our room was named not after a heroic king but a ferocious, merciless, murderer; an irrational leader obsessed with killing and sentencing people to death without trial. He was a wife beater, had serial affairs that bore 10 children and he eventually died during the black plague! Lovely.

Anyway, the hotel was very nice and clean inside, with plenty of cheap replica medieval furniture and statues. The room was big and very grand, again decorated in a medieval theme. The views however were stunning and looked right out on to the plains of the Ribera Del Duero and circling the castle were giant magnificent short toed eagles.

It was fairly hot and the drive had finished rather annoyingly so Libby was especially eager to find the big rooftop swimming pool she had seen on the website, we made it up to the top of the castle, and there was a swimming pool, or more like a bath! Evidently they hired a very talented photographer for the web site shots … fooled us!

After exploring the very large hotel it dawned on us that we were the only guests in the hotel. We whiled away the afternoon up on the terrace reading and taking in the views until the long awaited aperitif time finally arrived. We went down to reception to asked the young chap if we could eat at the restaurant he had told us about in the hotel and if we could have an aperitif on the ramparts overlooking the village.

“All fine” he said “I will inform the restaurant for dinner at 9pm, go out this door to the tables and someone will bring you a cold Cava”. Out on the ramparts looking down on the village was lovely but being the only people in the castle made me feel rather like a terrible king in Medieval times, looking down on the peasants below, at which I suddenly felt a bit uncomfortable!

Cava and olives were brought out to the terrace by the waiter who looked remarkably like the receptionist chap but in a barman’s outfit. Cava was lovely as were the olives. Once finished, we headed to the restaurant, still not a soul around (staff or other diners) then out popped the waiter who looked remarkably like the barman but in a waiter’s uniform.

I think I could now see what was happening and was now hoping he could match his predictable next chef’s outfit with some decent cooking! Waldorf Salad scenes from a certain Fawlty Towers episode when Basil lied to guests and did all the jobs in the hotel started to appear in my head, but to be fair the one-man band actually cooked a simple, but rather delicious meal of lamb cutlets accompanied with a good Ribera red wine. I am also sure he didn’t stay in the hotel that night and needless to say we decided to leave the rather weird hotel early the next morning!

So, if you like to spend time driving around looking for a way into a castle; you don’t mind staying in a room named after a murderer; you like small cold baths on the roof and being alone in a castle in the middle of nowhere with a uniform-changing staff member, then it will be perfect for you.