A brief and intensive trip to Spain last week, principally to follow one of the harvests through Rioja and check the newly released vintages. Having left a rather drizzle licked Luton at some ungodly hour in the morning, it was a welcome surprise some two hours later, when our plane landed in Madrid and the cabin doors opened to a 28 degree homecoming. Like you, I have waited for the Norfolk summer to arrive, like you I had forgotten what uncomfortably hot even meant. Here in the mid morning sun, that yearned for hit of twenty hairdryers in one’s face re-appeared, and the Spanish winemakers I was due to meet welcomed it too.

Spain usually harvests several weeks behind their vinous neighbours in France. The potential for drought is evidenced  everywhere below the Bay of Biscay, as a result so many old vines are much wider apart to share the precious water. Equally, few vines are grown on the valley floor as dramatic temperature falls occur on a nightly basis.

Many vineyards are above 2000 feet here which is the key to producing grapes with the necessary acidity as well as good colour – the growing season is longer than in France so a temperate, Autumn is a blessing.

Our drive from the cosmopolitan centre of Madrid to out first destination in Rioja some 3 hours away quickly revealed the Medieval landscapes I have come to love. Armed with my CD of Sketches of Spain by Miles Davis and with memories of Don Quixote returning, we passed through valleys and mountain ranges with scorched earth and precious little habitation as far as a telescoped eye could see. As we entered the Riojan valleys, vineyards began to appear with all the anticipated surprise of a birthday morning.

Our first winery (Bodegas) had prepared a flight of wines in their elegant tasting room. The aroma of wines abound in such places as does the overriding bouquet of new oak barrels. The walls are plastered with photos of family members and newly granted prizes offering a background of homely commercial success. The route through the wines was familiar, a refreshing white Rioja made from the widely planted Viura grape, one or two Rosados (as Rosé is known here) from the ubiquitous Garnacha vine, and then to a plethora of glorious reds. The first known as Joven, (young wine) did it’s job but it was as unexciting as the days of Beaujolais nouveau, Ribena with a hangover in my opinion, inexpensive wines built principally for the local café market. The first of the export style of wines was titled after Spain’s prodigious grape variety – Tempranillo which is grown widely in Spain. The same variety featured in their first release of Ecologico, a nod to the new demand for organic wine which is building a certain popularity across Europe. But it was the Crianza that awakened the taste buds that day. Crianza a term for an aged wine, which has to have spent some time in oak barriques. Barrels are numerous here, mostly from the colonies of the Americas forcibly overrun by the Conquistadors some 500 years ago, although a move to the gentler, sweeter effects of French oak are now commonplace. The Reservas and Gran Reservas were stunning, both have had to have spent three and five years respectively in oak and bottle, and are released only on specific years thereafter. The tone of these wines are no longer harsh or severe. Markets beyond their homeland are now understood by more forward thinking Spanish winemakers and their production illustrates the enormous technological advancements that have occurred recently.

As the mellowing effects of the tasting set in and the tiresome nature of the flight receded, an explosion of noisy excitement occurred outside. The first lorry, full of sweet Tempranillo grapes, had pulled into the yard. We were ushered outside, glass in hand to toast the first arrival of the 2008 harvest. Burly grown men turned into schoolboys, and exquisitely dressed Spaniards rushed around shouting as the lorry reversed to disgorge its contents into the receiving tanks. This drama is quite infectious and it never ceases to amaze me how we are all caught up in this annual circus. To be watching the new in, as we downed the old, was a privilege and only goes to re-enforce the heady, seasonal yet risky nature that is still winemaking in rural communities here.

With conviviality now on full throttle the cooling air-conditioning in the local restaurant was welcome. After a Tapas style lunch of Morcilla (my favourite black pudding, with cereal and rice in the mix) followed by the local roasted sweet red pepper and salted cod, the very same Viura we had tasted earlier became nectar now partnered with food. After re-tasting another half dozen Rioja’s a final digestif called Pacheran, made locally from Billberries, we drove away replete. Although this activity would have floored an average Mediterranean used to rest and siesta, we now set off for a further 100 kilometres to an even more famous region – Ribero del Duero. More next week.