Wonderful wine and culinary delights are practically a given on a Spanish wine trip, but it was the stunning landscape, charming cities, and unique experiences in Castilla y León that captivated me the most.
I have been fortunate to visit Spain on many occasions, and not just to the Spanish Costas. I spent time travelling through the Basque Country, took food tours in San Sebastian, wine trips to Rioja, and enjoyed numerous city breaks too. I even took Spanish lessons at one point in my 20’s because I enjoyed conversing with the locals when I visited. The reason I am telling you this, is because I thought I knew Spain pretty well…
However, as I crouched down in a 1200 year old wine cellar in the medieval town of Fermoselle, I realised that I had only scratched the surface. I recalled my traditional Spanish breakfast that morning of Pan con Tomate (baked bread with tomato and olive oil) and felt almost embarrassed I had never tried this either.
I was brought on a 3-day Spanish wine trip through Castilla y León ( Castile and Leon)- Spain’s largest region, with the Spanish Tourist Office, and was blown away by its beauty, history and gastronomy.
Not only is Castilla y León Spain’s largest region, but it has more UNESCO World Heritage Sites than any other region in the world. It also happens to be one of the largest regions in Europe, yet remarkably the least populated.
Ironically we didn’t visit the UNESCO World Heritage cities of Ávila, Segovia or Salamanca, but instead were taken to lesser known towns and villages to explore the Spanish wine routes of Toro and Arribes del Duero. However, we still managed to see some extraordinary scenery and historical sites at the same time.
Our first stop was the city of Toro, which is about a two-hour drive from Madrid – see more on how to get there below. We visited the Toro Wine Museum – which was a great introduction to the city that claims to have introduced wine to the New World in 1492.
It is said that Christopher Columbus took Toro wine on long sea voyages due to the robust nature of the wine, and when the phylloxera plague hit Europe’s vineyards in the 19th century, many of Toro’s vines survived. The result is that Toro has some of the oldest vines in Europe, or to use a quote from our guide – “Wine is in its DNA”. The region even exported Spanish wine to France during this period – I’m sure the French like to keep that part of history quiet 😉.
The Toro Wine Museum is a must visit in Toro. As well as learning about the history of Toro wines, you also get the opportunity to visit the wine cellars and see the equipment used to make wine hundreds of years ago.
Toro has mostly full bodied red wines made from the Tinta da Toro grape, or Tempranillo as it is more widely known – 90% off all wine produced in Toro is red. Needless to say a visit to Pagos del Rey Wine Museum also includes wine tasting, and the price is superb value – just €8, which includes a guided tour with wine and tapas tasting.
We also had the pleasure of visiting Bodegas Farina – one of the oldest family wineries in Toro, and one of the most important in Spain. They have an annual competition to design the label for their Primero wine, and the entrants are displayed in the winery. The winner gets to showcase his art and his name on 250,000 bottles of Spanish wine around the world.
The minute I entered the cellar I was hit by the powerful aroma of wine fermenting. It reminded me of the strong smell of beer in a country pub at home. This was equally as strong, but in a good way – I thought it must be the holy grail for wine lovers.
We tasted so many great wines, and each one was better than the last – I was even persuaded to purchase a few bottles to bring home. I usually opt for a Crianza when I am choosing a Spanish wine at home, and was fascinated to know that a Crianza in Toro has to be matured in barrels for 1 year, however, in Rioja or other parts of Spain, it is only 6 months.
Similarly with Reserva and Gran Reserva wines – it varies from region to region in Spain, and there is no overall standard throughout the world. I also learned a very important travel tip there too – a wine bottle weighs 1.25 kg. How did I not know this before – a vital travel tip, if like me you are always balancing your baggage allowance!
Bodegas Farina offer a variety of Spanish wine tours, with prices from €8 including tasting of two wines, or €16 for a tasting of five wines, both accompanied by a tapas of delicious Zamorano cheese.
Of course no Spanish wine trip would be complete without cheese. I am a massive cheese lover and was delighted to get the opportunity to visit Chillón Cheese Museum. It was my first time to visit a cheese museum and found it very interesting to learn about the origins of cheese making from 4th generation cheese makers.
Our guide, Roberto recounted stories from his great grandfather with tremendous pride, and we learned of the evolution of cheese making from its companies inception in 1890.
Did you know that cheese and wine was housed together in underground cellars years ago? In fact, the labels used to say ‘keep in cellar’ rather than ‘keep refrigerated’. You don’t need me to tell you how well cheese and wine go together, but until then I assumed it was all down to taste. I have been told that foods that sit on opposite ends of the spectrum of taste, like cheese and wine, are a good match, but perhaps there is more to it than that…
I would recommend a visit here, if for no other reason than to taste its delicious sheep cheese! Our tasting plate consisted of various cheese strengths, but my favourite was the cheese preserved in olive oil – something I simply had to purchase to bring home.
The onsite shop has a wide selection of cheeses, lomo, chorizo and delicious spreads, all vacuum packed and easily transportable. I bought Lomo (dry cured pork) and cheese spreads too – see how I am already struggling with my luggage allowance, and its only my first day!
Toro’s wine tourism is growing at a fast rate, with wine museums and a variety of tastings available. However, don’t miss the opportunity to explore its gorgeous city. I loved walking through its cobbled stone streets, and admiring it medieval castle and thronged cafés.
The Collegiate Church of Santa María is a must see in the city of Toro. Dating back to the 12th century, it has some of the oldest painted sculptures in Europe. If you have no interest in history or art, you can’t help but be impressed by its attractive Romanesque and Gothic styles. You can also see magnificent views of the Duero River beside the cathedral.
I can also recommend a visit to Bodega Historica, a traditional underground wine cellar in the centre of Toro, to see the origins of Toro wine.
Where to eat in Toro
If you can manage to restrain yourself from eating copious amounts of cheese, there are some superb restaurants in Toro that shouldn’t be missed. We enjoyed a tasty meal in Divina Proporcion, a winery that was buzzing with locals, and offered a set 6-course lunch menu for just €20 midweek, or €25 at weekends.
I loved the Zamora rice (like paella without fish), Patatas a la importancia (important potatoes – traditional Spanish potatoes). Needless to say the Spanish wine was delicious, but the food portions were huge!
The culture in Spain is to have the main meal in the middle of the day, therefore lunch menus can be very extensive. It is definitely a place to go if you are hungry, and to admire its gorgeous vineyards – you can also walk through them for the ultimate photo op.
My favourite meal in Toro was in Latarce. It’s modern design was quite a surprise in the middle of Toro, and its stylish interior was equally matched with delicious food. There are no English menus, and the staff only spoke Spanish, but remember Google Translate is your friend. The quail salad, oxtail ravioli, roast suckling pig and roast lamb were all delicious, everything we ate here was top class.
Where to stay in Toro
Just when I thought our trip couldn’t get any better, our home for the night was a a 19th century castle with incredible views of Vega del Duero. Surrounded by vineyards and hiking trails, you can’t help but fall in love with Castillo de Monte la Reina.
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With only 8 bedrooms, this 19th century neo-Gothic palace is furnished in contemporary style and would be an ideal location for an intimate wedding or family gathering. With rooms from just €130 per night, it is superb value too.
Spanish Wine Route – Arribes del Duero
It was time to leave Toro behind and travel to an even more unspoilt region of Castilla y León – Arribes del Duero. We were based in the medieval town of Fermoselle, otherwise known as the town with 1000 wine cellars. Its hill-top location offers panoramic views over the Arribes del Duero landscape and it felt almost like the Wild West of Spain.
Although beautifully situated with a quaint old town, it was its six-storey houses with preserved underground wine cellars that really impressed me. I found it fascinating how well preserved some of these 1200 year old wine cellars were. As well as modern wineries, we were able to enjoy wine tastings inside some of these old cellars – a unique experience for sure.
After visiting the large modern wineries in Toro, it was wonderful to visit some smaller wineries in Fermoselle. One of our most memorable experiences was at El Hato y el Garabato, a small family winery with 8 hectares of old vines (between 80 and 120 years old).
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Jose and Liliana allow visits to their small family winery, which is part of their old restored farmhouse. I pressed grapes for the first time, and was able to hear the sugar fermenting! I loved listening to the stories of how they got started, their struggles and their successes. We also enjoyed some wine tasting in their home, and at the vineyard at sunset, it doesn’t get much better than that.
Thyge Benned Jensen was another interesting character – a Danish economist who in 2016 quit his day job, left the rat race behind, and set up his own vineyard here in Fermoselle. His relaxed, no frills approach to his Spanish wine tasting experiences was unusual but refreshing, and a nice change from what we had previously experienced.
Unique experiences in Fermoselle
For a small town in the north west of Spain, Fermoselle sure punches above its weight. I could not help but ponder on the latest travel trends, and how modern travellers want more authentic experiences. Fermoselle has them in abundance. You don’t have to ask if something is organic here, it’s almost a given.
We had planned to make marmalade with Teresa Cotorruela, a local producer of organic jams, chutneys and preserves. However, time was against us and we had to opt for a tasting instead. Teresa makes unusual sweet and savoury flavours – if it grows in the area, Teresa cooks with it!
My favourites were sweet onion marmalade, and the plum and honey jam. Her workshops are an ideal way to try new combinations, and the finished products are great souvenirs to bring home.
Another highlight of our visit was a pottery making class with Numa Ceramica. After leaving Madrid and moving to this remote part of Spain, Numa takes inspiration from the surrounding landscape to make pieces full of textures, shapes and colours from the the earth.
Numa showed us how to use tree bark, plants and shells to create extraordinary pieces. When it was our turn to be creative, I mentioned that I would like to use something to remind me of the cheese and wine in the area. It wasn’t long before Numa’s husband returned with a vine! I was able to create a cheese plate, which is a wonderful memento from our trip.
It is important to note that some of these experiences do not have English speaking hosts. I suggest checking with the Arribes Wine Route about individual experiences.
Where to stay in Fermoselle
We stayed in two different hotels on Fermoselle. The first night we stayed just minutes from the town centre at the 4-star Posada Doña Urraca. This boutique-style Inn has just 19 rooms, and each are beautifully furnished in their own unique style. It offers superb value for money, with rooms from just €60 per night including breakfast.
I loved the gorgeous views of Fermoselle from its rooftop terrace, its delicious food, and the super service we received. The dinner menu is extensive too – I can highly recommend the Tomato and Goats Cheese Salad and Charcuterie Plate, the fillet steaks were delicious too.
On our last night we stayed in the 5-star Hacienda Zorita Natural Reserve, which is located 5 km from the town of Fermoselle, and just 8km from the Portuguese border. This stunning hotel and villas probably deserves a blog post of its own.
The tree-lined avenue leading up to the hotel is impressive in its own right, but once you step inside and see the ornate gardens and stylish interiors, you know you are somewhere special.
This 10-roomed 18th century luxury hotel is divided into two large villas, with five rooms in each. The Winemakers House has slightly larger rooms, but my personal preference is the Hunting Lodge, as all rooms offer stunning views over the vineyard. There is a large communal sitting room and dining area here too, making it an ideal location for an intimate wedding or special occasion.
The main tower also has communal areas including a wine tasting room, dining room, living room, and room with pool table on the top floor – offering incredible views over the vineyard. We enjoyed an intimate lunch here, paired with magnificent Spanish wine. We didn’t get a chance to visit its winery but with 70 hectares of vines, it must be one of the largest in the area.
It is possible to book a room, to rent out each villa separately, or even rent out all 10 rooms. Prices start at €150 per room per night B&B, or €750 per villa per night. It is important to note that there are two hotels with the same name, one in Salamanca and this one in Fermoselle – make sure you select the correct one if researching independently.
Where to eat in Fermoselle
We enjoyed a traditional meal in the Posada Doña Urraca, but also loved the international menu and outdoor garden in La Enoteca del Marques. This is located in the centre of Fermoselle, and has a large BBQ area in the garden offering a wide selection of meats, including home-made burgers. They have delicious cocktails too – try their Magic Gin that changes colour when you add the tonic. I didn’t ask how…
Other things to do in Arribes del Duero
While the region may be synonymous with Spanish wine, Arribes del Duero boasts one of the most dramatic landscapes in Spain. Las Arribes del Duero Nature Reserve comprises of a 100km canyon formed by the Duero River, with deep gorges and ravines as far as the eye can see.
A stop at Almendra Dam, one of the largest Dams in Europe offers the perfect opportunity for bird watching. In fact this is one of the best areas for bird watching, with vultures and eagles loving the micro climate here.
Another stunning lookout point is Mirador de las Barrancas in Fariza. There is a car park here and after a short 15 minute walk you will be rewarded by magnificent views of the River Duero and surrounding Canyon. You can see where the natural border is formed between Spain and Portugal, with the river flowing between the two.
After seeing the Duero river from the viewing point, we decided to do the next best thing – see it from the water. One of the top things to do Arribes del Duero is to take a cruise on the Duero River.
We drove to the Portuguese border and took a cruise through the incredible natural gorge. The spectacular vertical cliffs reach heights of 250 meters, with 50 meters below the surface. It is officially an environmental cruise, with technicians of the Biological Station explaining the unique flora and fauna of the area, as well as showing live experiments on board.
However, with no English translation, we had to settle for admiring the views and eagles nests instead. Price is €18 for 1 hour cruise or €22 for 2 hours.
How to get to Castilla y León
Aer Lingus, Ryanair and Iberia Express fly daily to Madrid.
Drive time from Madrid to Toro is 2 hours 15 minutes. However, you can get a high speed train to Zamora ( 1 hour 13 minutes ) and then take a transfer / taxi to Toro – 35 minutes.
Drive time from Madrid to Fermoselle is 3 hours 30 minutes. However, you can get a high speed train to Zamora ( 1 hour 13 minutes ) and then take a transfer / bus / taxi to Fermoselle – 55 minutes.
There are also an airport in nearby Salamanca, and with drive time to Toro 1 hour, or Fermoselle 1 hour 20 minutes.
Regardless of how you are getting there, I suggest you contact the Arribes Wine Route about individual experiences, or Rosa Ana, a local travel agent with GlobalSpainTravels, who can organise bespoke itineraries with English speaking guides. However, if you prefer to go it alone, I suggest downloading Google Translate on to your phone before you go.
‘Age is only important if you are a cheese or wine’ – this is a quote by the late Terry Wogan, and is one I like to remember when travelling. The next time you are thinking of a holiday in Spain, why not skip the Costas? Try the traditional Spanish breakfast, order roast suckling pig, crush grapes, make pottery, and stay in unique luxury hotels. Castilla y León has them in abundance.
I hope this blog on Castile and Leon will help you plan a Spanish wine trip there soon 🍷