Grandes Pagos de Espana is a prestige association of single estate Spanish wineries. A broad church indeed as I discovered at a recent public tasting at Manchester’s hub of all things Iberian, the Instituto Cervantes. The seven bottles we sampled ranged from a new wave richer-style Txakoli white from the Basque Country to a minimal intervention Mencia-led old vines field blend from Leon. I particularly liked the 100 per cent Garnacha Secastilla from the Somontano region.
Unsurprisingly though it was a trio of reds from a different but very familar grape that finished proceedings, culminating in the Pago Negralada from Abadia Retuerta.
Wines from this estate are regularly supplied to winemaking schools as benchmark examples of Tempranillo, Spain’s most widely planted premium varietal. That information came from Miguel Gavita, who had guided through the Pagos tasting. No false modesty here – Miguel works for Abadia – but he can be forgiven. I know first hand, in situ, how good their wines can be. Perhaps the wonderful setting influenced my judgement when I stayed there one glorious late spring. It’s all coming back.
My planned visit to this luxury hotel with its own winery two hours north of Madrid had been nipped in the bud when a journalists’ press trip was cancelled. Then I ran into the Abadia head honcho at a Relais & Chateaux bash in Cheshire and he said: go on, we’ll host you solo. Le Domaine lodging project was still a work in progress when I arrived
Heavenly Retreat Among Spain’s Great Vineyards
Storks and cranes, the skyline of an abbey fortress surrounded by vineyard. The storks are nesting busily in the 12th century belltower; the cranes, the giant mechanical sort, are at rest. This is a Spanish bank holiday and work will resume tomorrow on turning former monks’ dwellings and stables into eight new guest rooms and the Sanctuario spa/pool complex. To complete the transformation into one of Spain’s finest hotels.
Welcome to Abadia Retuerta, westernmost of the wineries producing some of Spain’s greatest reds along the River Duero’s Golden Mile. Le Domaine, is the place to stay around here with just 22 rooms and a cuisine curated by one of the country’s Michelin-starred greats.
I’ve only just arrived and barely settled in my room, pausing open to fling open the shuttered windows for an eyeful of vines before I am out among them for a pre-prandial stroll. The view back is equally enchanting – pale, honeyed stone cunningly renovated, harmonising Romanesque and Baroque.
Such evenings of mellow sun and blue skies have been rare this spring. At 800m above sea-level here they expect nights to be cold, but it has been uncommonly wet, too, bad for the grapes planted across 700 hectares upon which Abadia’s fortunes are built.
In 2005 their flagship wine, the Seleccion Especial conquered all at the International Wine Challenge, capping a remarkable fast track rise for an operation only begun in 1995 on land previously part of the legendary Vega Sicilia estate.
The winning wine was from the 2001 vintage. I never expected to be served a bottle from that year with my dinner in the Refectorio, but there it was, still vigorous yet elegant, the quintessence of Tempranillo (with the support of some Cabernet Sauvignon).
The Refectorio was where the monks ate (and occasionally kept their livestock). Now these soaring white stone vaults are home to Le Domaine’s fine dining restaurant. For the holy men’s simple gruel, root veg and pond fish substitute sauteed cuttlefish with a reduction of its own juice, cod cheeks whitened with gelatine with a honey emulsion, market fish with seasonal ragout and its toasted bone juice, then crispy baby lamb with quinoa.
(Abadia owners Swiss pharmaceutical giant Novartis originally enlisted Andoni Luis Aduriz of Michelin-starred Mugaritz to launch the kitchen operation. It retains a star to this day plus one of those sustainability-savvy green stars. Similarly, the winery was designed by Bordeaux legend Pascal Delbeck, the man who revived Chateau Ausone.)
The estate is actually just outside the borders of the official Ribera del Duero wine denominacion, meaning the wines bear the name of the nearest town, Sardon del Duero.
This actually gives the winery more flexibility in the vines it plants and a portal for innovation. Alongside, Abadia Retuerta really feels like the cradle of winemaking in the region.
The Santa Maria de Retuerta abbey was originally founded in 1145, by Doña Mayor, wealthy daughter of Count Ansúrez, Lord of Valladolid – one of many fortified religious houses built during the Christian “Re- conquest” of Castile from the Moors. The Ansurez family left “terras et vineas” (land and vines) to the French-based order of St Norbert, which was the beginning of the estate’s long history of producing wine.
The abbey, though, after splendid additional building work during the Baroque era, fell into a steep decline until the current sensitive renovation that marries light-filled chic interiors (lots of marble, linen and luxury fittings) in the bedrooms in the Baroque half with the miraculously preserved original church and sacristy.
Off the utterly calm cloisters you’ll find an even calmer yoga room, hi-tech meeting rooms and the Vinoteca casual dining space new and old stone all seamlessly joined… while high above the resident stork family keep a beady eye on guests.
Most of these come with wine in mind, sampling first at the Abadia Retuerta’s own tasting room in the winery and then visiting rival establishments along the route to “wine capital” Penafiel. Le Domaine offers a unique personal butler service that can sort out all arrangements for you. Hot air balloon trip, helicopter tour or, closer to the soil a horseback ride? Just ask.
My butler Juan ferried me east to Penafiel to see the remarkable, elongated white castle on the hill and the Richard Rogers-designed Protos winery. It’s a workaday place, as wine towns often are, but with lots of attractive tapas haunts and an astonishing enclosed medieval square called the Plaza del Coso. Folk hire the balconies of its private houses when bullfights are held there. On our visit the shutters were closed, a couple of cats snoozed and it shimmered in the sun like the epitome of Old Castile.
Delightful, too, my last walk before departure at Le Domaine – along a raised path between the Duero Canal and the river proper. The birdlife is abundant and the spring flowers are glorious. The estate pays the same meticulous attention to stewarding the environment as it does to producing proper wine and pampering luxury guests.
Mummy stork suddenly takes wing and flaps across the vineyards under a cloudless sky. A final glass of Seleccion Especial awaits me in my cool room. I think I’ve gone to heaven.
Abadia Retuerta, Carretera Nacional, 47340 Sardon de Duero, Spain.