Wednesday, 1 August 2007
Leon Underground: Bilbo lives here.
OK, yesterday I went a little crazy with the Moratinos bodega biz. Today we went for the Mother of All Bodegas: Valdebimbre.
We discovered the place by accident last year, traveling from one 'hospitalero' gig to another. It's about 20 miles south of Leon, the nearest big city -- maybe 45 minutes from The Peaceable Kingdom. It is the true Bodega Land/Hobbiton of Castilla-Leon. It's amazing in a subterranean way.
Valdebimbre is a little town of about 800 people, I guess, and every man, woman, and child must have his own fully outfitted hole in the ground. Almost the entire place is a bodega of some kind. The terrain all around is covered in vineyards, and the town is dedicated to viniculture: gathering, pressing, fermenting, bottling, and marketing wine. That's why all the bodegas.
It's suited for the job. The ground is sandy clay, much given to both grapes and excavation. And the town -- and several dozen more all around it -- is built on a valley. The hillsides facing in are completely tunneled-under with bodegas, some of them of warehouse proportions. Entire streets are faced with little doorways, but no houses behind. The upper-level topography is all peaks and chimneys and ventilators, and you have to be extra careful where you walk. What looks like solid ground may just be somebody's corrugated-iron roof, grown-over with brush and litter.
We went to one bodega that housed a fully commercial wine-making operation and bought some bottles of last year's vintage blanco. Twelve Euros. Then we went across the little valley, where the townspeople are busy setting up the place for next weekend's Fiesta del Vino, roping off parking spots and setting up big tables under the trees. I recognized the wide grassy lawn along the river. We passed through there on a Sunday morning last summer, presumably the morning after the fiesta. The lawn was littered with the bodies of people overcome with the spirits of the night before. It looked rather like a battlefield, really, but everyone still had all their arms and legs. I knew I had to come back! (I love this country. Can you tell?)
We hiked around town a little, tasted some more home-made vino, then found La Cueva Minambres, one of the three open-for-lunch bodega-restaurants in town. The entryway looked like a lot of others in Valdebimbre, maybe just a little tarted-up. Inside was an amazingly deep and wide and high-up cave, with a really large and carnivorous restaurant installed within. We had a salad and an enormous mixed grill of beef, lamb, goat, and pork, and a bottle of the house red (which is truly 'of the house' 'round here) for just over 50 Euro. Paddy looks rather glum in the photo, but we didn't hate ourselves for long -- there are always cholesterol drugs. Una will be chewing the bones for a week.
Other bodegas in town sell their wine, or show visitors around the wine-making apparatus, or serve snacks and bar food. Others are summer hideaways for the families that own them, providing a sort of RV-park community ambience for the rough-and-ready. (The people we spoke to were friendly, but no one we saw resembled a hobbit. No elves. Not even a dwarf.) Valdebimbre is far from the only bodega-rich environment in the wide-open spaces south of Leon. The region is famous, regionally, for bodegas, but no one outside seems to know anything of them.
Whenever we go on one of these Expeditions I always look up the place in advance in our Rough Guide and Fodors and Turismo de Castilla-Leon guidebooks, just so we don't miss anything. This place, this wine region, these bodega-lands? A huge swath of blank space. Nada. The guidebooks have missed it entirely.
Tourists would LOVE this stuff, and there's nary a mention of it anywhere I checked. Amazing. And those of us who own more humble bodegas can glean all kinds of fix-up ideas just from walking down Calle de las Cuevas. In the future, visitors to the Peaceable Kingdom may be hauled out to the wilds of Leon to see this wonderful warren before the busloads of Belgians descend. Be warned.
Anyway, well pleased with it all, we headed back home. Esperanza was due for a 5 p.m. "Agony Hour" of Spanish-English interaction. We just made it.