Camino de Santiago: a quick guide to a wine lover's pilgrimage

Photo via Getty Images/AlbertoLoyo

Camino de Santiago: a quick guide to a wine lover's pilgrimage

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Camino de Santiago: a quick guide to a wine lover's pilgrimage

Every year, hundreds of thousands of pilgrims arrive annually in Compostela de Santiago, the rewarding end of the Camino de Santiago, or Way of St. James. For those who walk the the Camino Francés or French Way – the pilgrimage’s most popular route – reaching the 11th century cathedral and shrine of Saint James is the culmination of nearly 500 miles of roads and trails.

While tending their flock, 9th century shepherds in Galicia, Spain made the unexpected discovery of the tomb of Saint James, and ever since, the walk has attracted pilgrims. According to legend, two disciples had brought the relics of Saint James to the field in a boat led by angels to this land where Saint James himself had once walked.

What was once a religious pilgrimage now attracts travelers from all over the world for its stunning scenery, historical and cultural significance and – not least of all – its rich and diverse bounty of culinary and oenological delights.

From the launching point in southwest France, the Camino Francés route threads through several regions of Spain, and some of the world’s most exciting centers of wine and gastronomy. Here’s a quick guide to what you should eat and drink in each region of the route.

French Basque Country | Saint Jean-Pied-de-Port

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Trekkers on the Camino Francés depart from Saint Jean-Pied-de-Port, located in French Basque Country. This village is situated in Sud-Ouest, the French wine region named for its home in southwest France. This corner includes the gem AOP irouléguy, an unspoilt and sometimes rustic treat. Deep reds packed with old-vine tannat and cabernet franc are the cornerstone of the region. Misty Pyrenees foothills shelter a small set of vineyards cultivated by a handful of producers and a co-op. The region is also a trove of Basque specialities including ossau-iraty cheese, jambon de Bayonne, chorizo, Espelette peppers, grilled meats, foie gras and fresh seafood.

Navarra Region | Pamplona

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About 40 miles from Saint Jean-Pied-de-Port, travelers find respite in the riches of Pamplona. This is Hemingway country, and the food, wine and cultural scene reflect the sort of abundance his life is known for. Pamplona is located in the Navarra wine region, one of Spain’s oldest Denominaciones de Origen (DO), established in 1939 and encompassing five distinct areas: Tierra Estella, Valdizarbe, Baja Montana, Ribera Alta and Ribera Baja. Because the region enjoys swaths of Atlantic, continental and Mediterranean climates and assorted soil composition, Navarra is fascinatingly varied. Historically populated with garnacha vineyards, wine growers here more recently included French varietals that exhibit pleasing terroir-driven scope.

País Vasco | Bilbao

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The pilgrimage can be also approached from Bilbao on the Camino del Norte, the Northern Camino de Santiago. A bit less than 100 miles northwest of Pamplona on the Bay of Biscay, Bilbao is the urban face of Spanish Basque Country, a region that sveltely balances neolithic farming roots with modern industry and hospitality. Interesting wines from the local subregions of Txakoli – Getaria Txakoli, Bizkaia (Vizcaya) Txakoli and Alava Txakoli – are light and may be slightly effervescent. They can be elegant or rustic and are always made from indigenous grapes. Txakoli wines are ideal pairings for pintxos (Basque Country’s take on tapas) and will often be seen in the hand of a bartender, poured dramatically from an above-head height. Low in alcohol and refreshingly acidic, these wines would be a welcome sip for a thirsty traveler.

La Rioja, Spanish Wine Country: La Guardia

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Approximately 70 miles to the south of Bilbao – and back on the Camino Francés – many travelers stop in La Guardia, which is fixed in the well-known Spanish wine region of La Rioja. Rioja wines are based on a gorgeous manifestation of tempranillo, often blended with garnacha, graciano and mazuelo varieties. Built on tannic structure, rioja wines also present satisfying fruit and can be aged in oak barrels and in the bottle. Look to the label to understand which category each bottle inhabits, revealing the age and typicity scaling up from simply rioja to crianza to reserva and, at the pinnacle, gran reserva. Rioja wine is natural with the exquisite food of the region: jamon serrano, olives, manchego cheese, chorizo, piquillo peppers and so much more. This is a region culturally attached to food and wine – come hungry.

Castilla y León and Ribera del Duero | Burgos

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Travel deeply into the heart of Spanish culture to Burgos, approximately 66 miles along the Camino de Santiago from La Guardia. Saturated in history emboldened by ancient fortresses, aqueducts, castles and churches, this area is filled with Roman and early Spanish culture. The Duero River (known famously as Douro in Portugal) flows through this area, significant as a shipping mainstay. Ribera del Duero vineyards are situated along a stretch of this river, flush with tinto fino tempranillo vines, many of which are 25 years old or more. Set aside time to absorb the generous hospitality and book visits in advance at one of the approximately 270 wineries in Ribera de Duero. Grilled meats and a diverse selection of sausages are culinary mainstays in Castilla y León, and these mesh deliciously with the local wines, which are food-friendly young, or more complex and thoughtful when aged. If it’s white wine you seek, nearby Rueda produces promising verdejo, which is crisp, aromatic and delightfully acidic. A sunset over ancient ruins is a bucket list moment in Castilla y León – how lovely to enjoy with a glass of wine.

Bierzo | Villafranca del Bierzo

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If you’ve made it to Villafranca del Bierzo, you’ve traveled nearly 177 miles since you left Burgos. Wine has been cultivated in Bierzo since Roman times, and some producers here claim their generational lineage directly links them to the earliest wine growers. Wines are crafted from several indigenous varieties, primarily mencía for reds and godello for whites. Mencía offers structured dark fruit and matches with the robust flavors of grilled meats and roasted peppers. Botillo del Bierzo is part of area’s gastronomic identity – encased in natural skins, this smoked and cured portion is filled with pork rib, tail, spine, shoulder, cheek and tongue. If that seems a bit out of your comfort zone, godello-based white wines are aromatic and lush with a sniff of minerality. These call for a lighter meal such as grilled vegetables, fish or poultry. Geographical designations and local know-how are important here, ensuring visitors will taste and experience Bierzo authentically.

Rías Baixas | Santiago de Compostela

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The last 110 miles or so brings promise – the end is near! Pilgrims leap to the sky or fall to their knees in exhaustion, relief, gratitude and glory at the Santiago de Compostela cathedral. Galicia is Green Spain, rich with abundant nature that begs to be experienced on foot. Here is the Rías Baixas wine region, situated around several tributaries leading into Spain from the Atlantic Ocean. The northernmost sub-region nearest to Santiago de Compostela is Ribeira do Ulla where most of the wine comes from the crown prince variety, albariño. While 12 total grapes are permitted here, albariño dominates. Careful hand harvest and use of native yeasts are common practices – quality control is essential to earn the Rías Baixas label. And talk about a refreshing end to a month-long trek: bone-dry, acidic, fresh, elegant and aromatic are hallmark characteristics. Salud!

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