Although the La Mancha region is best known as the setting for Miguel Cervantes' classic, 'Don Quixote,' and the Broadway musical it inspired, 'Man of La Mancha,' the region is also Spain's largest wine producing area. Much of La Mancha's wine is industrially produced and used for blending. There is, however, a smaller wine growing area within La Mancha around the city of Valdepeņas that is known for several good quality wines that are among the best values in Spain.
The sun-baked soil of La Mancha is dry and hard, which is how Valdepeņas got its name. It derives from Val de Peņas, meaning 'Valley of Stones.' A visit to Valdepeņas offers a unique opportunity to see wine being fermented in the same way it was in Roman times, using tinajas, huge earthernware jars shaped like Roman amphoras. Although Valdepeņas is one of the few wine regions where tinajas continue to be widely used, even here the 4,200-gallon tinajas are being used less and less for winemaking, and more and more for decoration, as seen in the dozens of tinajas on the Avenida del Vino.
Wine tasting in Valdepeņas is typically only possible as part of bodega tours, which need to be arranged in advance either by phone or by showing up during business hours. We recommend a tour of Bodegas Felix Solis, one of the largest bodegas in Valdepeņas, and one of the few that does not require a great deal of advance notice. A tour of Bodegas Felix Solis encompasses both modern and ancient winemaking processes, with the use of stainless steel fermenting tanks and also tinajas.
Felix Solis is the maker of the respected Viņa Albali Reserva and Gran Reserva oak-aged red wines, made from the flavorful Cencibel grape (known as Tempranillo in the Rioja region). We tasted several of these wines, which compare very favorably to good red Riojas at about half the cost. Felix Solis also produces several light, dry white wines made from the Airen grape that are also great values. The wines can be purchased in the sales office at the entrance to the bodega.
BODEGAS FELIX SOLIS, S.A., Ctra. N-IV Madrid-Cadiz, Km. 199
Hours for visits and sales office: Mon.-Fri. 8 a.m. - 2 p.m., 4 p.m. - 8 p.m., Sat. 8 a.m. - 2 p.m
For a really upclose look at tinajas, stop for a visit at the Cooperativa La Invencible, the largest and oldest cooperative bodega in Valdepeņas. I stopped by during the mid-day meal/siesta break but was fortunate to meet a friendly worker, who took me inside a non-descript building that revealed 166 of the massive tinajas filled with red wine. The intense aroma of the wine filled the cool, dark interior of the building. He led me up a ladder to a second level at the top of the tinajas, lifted off a wood cover and offered me a glass to take a taste. It was a truly memorable wine tasting experience, and I'll never forget the 1995 vintage of La Invencible.
COOPERATIVA LA INVENCIBLE, Torrecilla 102
Visits possible Monday - Friday during working hours.
Janet Mendel, an American journalist based in southern Spain whose travel and food articles have appeared in newspapers and magazines in Europe and the U.S., wrote an article about Valdepeņas for the Fall 2002 issue of "Wines From Spain News," which you can read by clicking on this link.
La Mancha's flat plains are dotted with windmills, and in the center of Valdepeņas is the Museo de Molinos, a museum housed in a windmill featuring exhibits on the history of the region. To follow in the footsteps of Don Quixote, head north to the town of Puerto Lapice, where the Venta del Quixote recreates the inn where Don Quixote was knighted. Venta del Quixote's restaurant is also a good spot to stop for a drink or lunch. From Puerto Lapice, it is a short trip north up the main N4 autovia to Consuegra. As you approach Consuegra from the east, you are greeted with an impressive panorama on the hills above the town: a 12th century castle and 10 windmills stretched out in a line along the hilltop. You can drive up to the windmills, and the view from there is also breathtaking. The windmills overlook the town of Consuegra, which is a leading producer of the saffron that makes paella so tasty.
VENTA DEL QUIXOTE, PUERTO LAPICE
A major reason we enjoyed the La Mancha region so much was our stay at the Parador de Almagro (see below), located in the town of Almagro about 20 minutes west of Valdepeņas. The highlight was dinner in the Parador's excellent restaurant, where we enjoyed a selection of La Manchan appetizers, including tart Manchego cheese, and a main course of succulent roast cordero (lamb), all accompanied by a hearty red Valdepeņas wine. The restaurant has both indoor and outdoor seating, and we enjoyed dining in the outdoor courtyard.
The Parador de Almagro is one of the government-run chain of hotels throughout Spain that are predominantly situated in renovated historic buildings. This parador was built on the site of a 16th century convent, and incorporates part of the original convent in a marvelous recreation of the architecture of that period. The parador is located a short walk from the center of the town square, where an annual theatre festival is held every summer (Spanish language). The rooms are decorated in a spartan style, as befits a former convent, but otherwise the accomodations are designed to pamper. The parador is filled with sitting rooms, many with fireplaces, and outdoors is a large pool surrounded by lemon trees. With its excellent restaurant on premises, this is definitely the place to come to if you're looking to unwind.
RONDA SAN FRANCISCO 31, ALMAGRO