It’s Easter Sunday 2018, four years since I learned everything I ever care to learn about Compeed®, cat-holes and threading blisters and proudly completed my first pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostella. This long walk covers 800kms from Saint Jean Pied de Port in the foothills of the French Pyrenees to Santiago de Compostella in north west Spain and, upon completion, lays pardon for all past sins with a plenary indulgence direct from the Catholic church. It’s the Camino de Santiago wines though that perhaps make the walk that much easier!
Better yet, the walk takes you through some of the world’s finest wine regions including internationally recognised appellations like Rioja DOCa, to those growing in reputation, like Bierzo DO, allowing you to commit the sin of gluttony safe in the knowledge that, upon arrival at the Cathedral of St James, you’ll be readily forgiven. Should you walk the way in a holy year, the next being 2021, you’ll be forgiven all past and future sins, I’ve already started packing.
A pilgrimage to Santiago affords the weary pilgrim the chance to gingerly hobble through some of Spain’s finest gastronomic cities whose residents delight in their local wines, accompanying them with mouth-watering regional tapas and pinchos (Pamplona, above). As a pilgrim, you’re entitled to pilgrim menus, where local restaurants happily feed tired and hungry pilgrims three course meals with wine for a meagre 10€. That’s the same price as I paid for a plastic cup of Chenin Blanc at the National Theatre last week!
The wine will, of course, be the locally produced tipple so expect Rioja in Logroño, a red from Navarre in Pamplona, a Ribera del Duero in Burgos, a Tierra de Léon in Léon and, of course, a refreshing glass of Albariño upon reaching the iconic Praza do Obradoiro and the Cathedral of St James in Santiago de Compostella. Whilst the walking is tough both mentally and physically, its the wine and food, enjoyed with other pilgrims who were perfect strangers a week before, whilst discussing the day’s trials that make the Camino de Santiago an unforgettable experience. Am I making a pilgrimage sound more appealing than whinging TV vicar, Kate Botley, did last week?
I’m writing this post, four years after my first camino, as I’ve recently been mentally transported back to the way and its wines thanks to the telebox. In the lead up to Easter the BBC aired Pilgrimage: The Road to Santiago, where reality TV met religion in a three-part cringe-fest that over-promised and under-delivered showing nothing of the transformational power of the camino it was aiming to explore. Unfortunately the producers missed the one key ingredient to showcase the camino’s amazing ability to transform lives, they didn’t realise that, in order to experience this transformation, the celebrity B-listers actually had to *gasp* walk the camino. The seven celebs never walked more than a 15 kilometer day and walked only 160kms in total, for most of us commuting Londoners, after a day at work, a bimble around the supermarket and a trip to the gym that kind of mileage is done in a day to not a single note from heaven struck!
The programme did however recount the growing recent popularity of the walk and highlighted the bottle-neck that pilgrims experience and the ensuing fight for beds from Sarria to Santiago (the last 100kms entitles you to the completion certificate). As recently as 1990, fewer than 5,000 people completed the camino, fast forward to 2017, and over 300,000 people finished the walk to receive their compostella as recorded by the pilgrims office in Santiago. The modern pilgrim walks for a multitude of reasons, religious, spiritual or even just for health, but one thing all pilgrims share is the road itself, the food, the camino de santiago wines and the people to be found upon it.
The road is much changed over its 1000 year history, yet even the earliest recollections praise the wines of Rioja and Navarre and still today these are considered some of Spain’s finest wines. The world’s first travel writer, French academic scholar, Aymeric Picaud, who penned the Codex Calixtinus, may have been impressed with the wine, but of Spanish food he wrote “In Spain and Galicia, don’t eat the fish called a ‘barbus’, or the one the Poitevins call an ‘alosa’ and the Italians ‘clipia’, or any eel, or tench, because without doubt you will immediately die or fall very sick. If by luck anyone eats and doesn’t get sick, they’re healthier than most or have stayed longer in the country. For all fish, beef and pork in Spain and Galicia make foreigners ill.” As I’d been living in Barcelona for a year before I started my own pilgrimage this must be why I’m alive to tell the tale.
The burgeoning numbers walking the camino has led to a surge in popularity for its regional wines as pilgrims look for labels they enjoyed during their pilgrimage on their return home to the UK or the USA or wherever these 300,000 souls call home. In some cases, those labels are not only local DOs like Bierzo or Navarre, but actually wines named “Camino” or “Pilgrim” or “Ultreia” (the latin marching song that pilgrims sung back in the day of Aymeric Picaud and his Codex Calixtinus and continue to sing today). Savvy winemakers and restaurateurs do good business promoting wines that resonate with the life-changing experience of the camino. This is not to do those wines a disservice as Ultreia, Raul Perez’s outstanding range from Bierzo, is not only one of the best camino de santiago wines, it’s one of the best wines in all of Spain, scoring 96 points from Robert Parker critic, Luis Gutiérrez.
So, which wines should you look out for if tempted to walk The Way or indeed, fancy trying some of the wines from Northern Spain from the comfort of your sofa whilst watching Martin Sheen walk The Way? I’ve walked the Camino de Santiago five times, four of those experiences on the French Way, and as a wine lover and geeky nerd/nerdy geek, I’ve been taking notes along the way and have whittled down my notes to just one exemplary wine per region.
Best Camino de Santiago wines
Artadi – Santa Cruz de Artazu– 2012 (from Navarre)
This french oak aged grenache sits a deep ruby red to the rim. The nose possesses notes of earth and ripe dark, dried fruits including plums and fig – dusty. The palate shows ripe fruit and tart acid with notes of chocolate, reminiscent of a CndP, the firm, grippy tannins and that streak of acidity mean this wine will age through another ten years. 90 Points/£28/14% abv – Buy
Marqués de Murrieta – Dalmau– 2012 (from La Rioja)
Single vineyard, low yielding vines, this wine is thick with dark fruit and spicy new oak and tell tale pencil shaving notes. Tannic today but still drinking well and will round off into an exemplary Rioja, I’d recommend leaving this for another couple of years. 92 Points/£60/14.5% abv – Buy
Vega Sicilia – Valbuena 5º – 2012 (from Castille y Leon)
100% tempranillo from the hot 2012 vintage this wine is classic Vega Sicilia. Super dark colour and a pronounced nose of cedar, ripe blackberries and vanilla. The tannins are very dry and like the Dalmau, this wine needs a couple of years to mature but even today, the wine possesses a richness of dark fruit that makes it simply delicious. 95 Points/£90/14% abv – Buy
Pazo Senorans – The Society’s Exhibition Albariño – 2016 (from Galicia)
Beautiful nose of blossom, apricot and pear and even a hint of sultana perhaps thanks to the hot growing season in 2016. The acidity though is still razor sharp and the wine is fresh and possesses all the qualities you look for in a Rias Biaxas Albarino – great with scallops – and you can save the shell for your next camino. 90 Points/£14.50/13.5% abv – Buy
The last wine is from The Wine Society but Pazo Senorans Albarino is widely available throughout Spain.
Question: What are your favourite Camino de Santiago wines and how did you find them?