Tasting the spirit of Spain

Tania Banerjee | Updated on March 13, 2020

Sip and tell: A tour of the Bodegas Zarraguilla winery is followed by a meal at its rustic restaurant   -  IMAGES: TANIA BANERJEE

A traveller goes ‘underground’ to witness the science of winemaking

I walk under the swathes of yellow foliage pricking the clouds that hang low. The rustling of dry leaves underfoot pierces the stillness of the morning air. Embraced by the Sierra de Guadarrama mountains, the garden of the royal palace in La Granja de San Ildefonso town is spread across 146 hectares. Built by King Felipe V in the 18th century, the royal garden is the pride of the town. A visit to the garden precedes a tour of the Royal Glass Factory of La Granja. It lasts three hours and all that walking leaves me famished. After lunch in another 18th-century palace, built by King Carlos III for his children and now turned into the restaurant Parador de La Granja — I set off to trail the origin of the wine I had just consumed.

It could have been a set from Game of Thrones — a wooden inn with a beamed roof, naked walls exposing the bricks, a timber staircase stacked with ceramic and metal urns. Rust-laden hunting tools hang from the pillars. The anomalous semi-skeletal remains of a motorcycle stand in front of the firebrick-and-clay oven. To beat the chill, I touch the arch of the oven with my palm. A gush of warmth rushes through the skin — it has been working for three hours straight. Beyond the windows, the countryside runs in successive leaps and dips, cradling 35,000 Tempranillo grape plants.

Crush effect: The family-run vineyard has 35,000 grape plants of the Tempranillo variety


In Sacramenia, a municipality in the province of Segovia, 173 km from Madrid, the vineyard of Bodegas Zarraguilla produces 80,000 kg of grapes annually. While a fraction of it is sold in the open market, most of the fruit goes into the making of the “Protected Geographical Indication” wine. I am here to increase my poor knowledge of the fermented drink by exploring Zarraguilla’s cellar.

In Spain, family businesses tend to be the most successful. Founded in 1906, Zarraguilla is now run by three brothers and a sister. They get help from their children as well, but no outsider has been recruited as employee. In its restaurant, Zarraguilla serves baked milky lamb (a lamb fed only on mother’s milk), a speciality of the region, and arranges wine-tasting sessions.

The courtyard of Zarraguilla is filled with machinery. Grapes from the vineyard are unloaded in a separator machine, which isolates the fruit from the stalk and leaves. Using a pump, the fruits are then sucked through a pipe into a 25,000-litre metal barrel, where the first fermentation happens. To prevent over-fermenting, water is sometimes added from outside to control the temperature inside the barrel. After 15 days, the fermented liquid goes through a pressing machine to extract the juice sans the pulp, only to be fermented again. Oxygen is removed from the doubly fermented liquid before the wines are sent for ageing.

In the cellar, a woodsy odour clings to the air. American oak and French oak barrels are neatly stacked against the walls. Within the bowels of these barrels sleeps the wine, absorbing the flavour of wood bit by bit in its slumber. In 6-7 years, when the kegs exhaust themselves, they are sold to bars as décor items. The sleeping wines are not to be disturbed, except by the designated oenologist, who visits the cellar from time to time to check on them. One and a half years of sleep later, the wines go on to become Reserva — the highest quality ones. Those aged for 6-8 months become Crianza.

Imove into yet another room where there is no barrel, only racks piled with corked bottles. Under the halo of a meek light that dangles from the centre of the room, the bottles shine. Here, wines are aged in bottles. Joven, the youngest variant, is aged for six months. Crianza and Reserva are aged for at least six and 18 months respectively after growing old in barrels. Different wines are produced by altering the permutation and combination of the sleeping age in barrels and bottles.

Sunset has torched the sky when I retreat into Zarraguilla’s dining room. Looking forward to relaxing, I take a sip of vino tinto (red wine). As the wine goes down my throat, I immediately sense the warmth, as if I had gulped a part of the setting sun. The label on the bottle reads “16% alcohol content”. Following local tradition, I pair the Crianza with strong churro cheese.

“Salud,” cheer the guests at a table near me, clinking their glasses. Long live the tradition of wine drinking, a beverage at the core of all celebrations, helping friends and families bond since 6000 BC.

Tania Banerjee is a freelance writer based in Mumbai

Travel log


Getting there

Segovia, a historic city 10 km from La Granja de San Ildefonso and 80 km from Sacramenia, is well connected with Madrid by bus and train. It is best to drive the distance or hire a car with chauffeur from Segovia.


Hotel Palacio San Facundo in Segovia is housed in a 15th-century building. Tariff is ₹5,000-8,000 a night.

BLink Tip

Do not miss the 2,000-year-old aqueduct built by the Romans in Segovia.

Published on March 12, 2020

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