Escape to the mountains of the Serranía de Ronda for a long, luxurious weekend of wine tasting
The late evening sun was streaming through the small window, carved out of the ancient, metre thick stone wall. The warm light cast shadows across the sixteenth century frescoes on the walls of this tiny chapel, close to the mountain town of Ronda.
The sound of a cork being gently eased out a bottle broke the silence, and then the rich, ruby and violet wine was poured into glasses.
Yet this is not an ordinary chapel; and this is not Sacramental wine.
Ronda, the picture perfect Andalusian cliff top town, at the heart of the dramatic Serranía de Ronda mountain range, has always been a favourite amongst visitors. Its famous river gorge, boasting vertiginous balconies hanging over the 120 metre cliffs looking out to the verdant, fertile pastures below, is certainly unique.
The original walled Arab medina, with its fascinating mix of Moorish palaces and centuries old Spanish patio houses, is joined to the no less historic centre of Ronda by the extraordinary eighteenth century ‘Puente Nuevo’ bridge that spans the gorge of the river Guadalevín. The town is home to Spain’s oldest bullfighting ring and is chockfull of quintessential Andalusian charm.
Yet, in the last few years this rural citadel has started to gain even more international acclaim; this time for its wines. Wine tourism is now one of its greatest draws, as visitors look to define long weekends spent in Ronda’s boutique hotels with gastronomy and fine wine. (To read more about Ronda Wineries, take a look at my Luxury Travel Pursuits post here).
For a luxury retreat, the classic choice is ‘Hotel La Fuente de la Higuera’, close to the town. This country house escape has been created by Pom and Tina Piek who have succeeded in creating a unique, luxurious property that is also welcoming and comfortable. Their international team are smiling and friendly, making one feel at home immediately. The phrase ‘simple luxury and luxurious simplicity’ perfectly sums up this elegant hotel.
The knowledgeable team will arrange private wine trips and tastings, including 4×4 tours, and even a balloon flight over the town.
Each of Ronda’s bodegas has its own distinct identity; from the ‘Bodgeas La Sangre de Ronda’ in the town centre, complete with museum and wine tasting workshops; to ‘Bodega F. Schatz’, founded by the Tyrolean Friedrich Schatz, who is credited with starting the wine renaissance in Ronda back in 1982.
But it is a peaceful, ancient monastery close to Ronda that is probably the most stunning winery of them all. Here as the suns was going down, Flavio Salesi hosted our informal wine tasting in this 16th century former Trinitarian monastery, surrounded by fragrant gardens that still display their Moorish influences with fountains, pools and terraces.
Being Spain though, the often pretentious and nonsensical wine descriptions like ‘sweaty saddle’ are thankfully absent here; things are much more natural and down to earth. The wines are described in terms we can all relate to and in a style that is fascinating for both true wine aficionados and novices alike.
Architects by profession, Flavio and his business partner Francisco Retamero, have lovingly restored the monastery and it is now home to their architectural studio as well as their boutique winery, ‘La Bodega Descalzos Viejos’. It is named after the old barefoot monks who were said to be the last to abandon the estate and move into the centre of Ronda. The venue is unique, the atmosphere superb and the wines are delicious – it’s a seductive combination.
French oak barrels line the former monastery walls and the stunning chapel nave with its priceless frescoes is now the winery’s fermenting room.
Flavio speaks with passion, knowledge and precision as he describes the wines. As architects, they have created their wines with exceptional attention to detail, like a fine, bespoke property. Equal attention to detail has been paid to the presentation of the exquisite bottles as to the explosive flavours within.
Their lengthy training in the art and science of wine marking seems to have paid off, as Flavio Salesi’s and Francisco Retamero’s modest estate produces critically acclaimed wines, and what’s more a visit to La Bodega Descalzos Viejos also makes for a wonderful wine tasting tour!
First tasted was the DV 2009, made with Ganache, Syrah and Merlot; then the DV Conarte 2007, predominantly Petit Verdot, with a little Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Merlot. The show-stopper though, was the DV 2006 – presented in its striking black labelled bottle, this Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah wine is a masterpiece. It has the distinctive complex structure and intense colour of a Ronda red wine, with robust and big flavours.
Ronda’s superb collection of boutique hotels has learnt to fine-tune their offering to incorporate this growing demand in wine tourism, or ‘enoturismo’.
The creative, Michelin trained chefs at Hotel La Fuente de la Higuera for example create daily menus that are designed to be the perfect complement to a wide range of fine wines. The hotel’s organic gardens provide fresh Mediterranean herbs and vegetables to complement the predominantly organic produce sourced locally for each dish.
After dinner, one can relax with a digestive from the exceptionally well-stocked honour bar; there’s even a large American style fridge stocked with gourmet ice creams and other treats for those wishing to indulge a midnight craving!
One isn’t only spoilt with the fine wine, gourmet food and naughty treats; the spacious south facing suites at La Fuente de la Higuera, impeccably styled and decorated by Tina, are also the perfect retreat. Ronda is truly an all-year-round destination, especially for those lucky enough to live in Andalucía; and like so many places in Andalucía, it is often best experienced off season. So thankfully the hotel suites also have log fires for the cooler low season evenings and air conditioning for the summer nights.
The hotel’s calming gardens include an inviting pool, as well as private terraces and patios where one can sit and read or just relax and do absolutely nothing.
Immaculate white bathrooms boast powerful showers and many have distinctive French style bateau copper baths for the ultimate unwind. Top shelf fine Egyptian linens and over-sized four posters make staying in bed all day a tempting option; although with captivating views of the Serranía de Ronda at every turn, it’s impossible not to want to go out and explore Ronda and its rolling countryside.
Back to the future
The Romans founded Ronda and they certainly knew a thing or two about oenology, but the area lost its wine heritage in the late nineteenth century when the infamous Phylloxera virus destroyed the vines in the Serranía de Ronda. Yet over the last few decades this stunning corner of Andalucía has attracted some very determined and creative people that have restored the art, science and passion of wine making to the area.
Now there are almost two dozen boutique wineries around the town, making intense and complex reds (and a few refreshing whites) from the vines grown in this very distinctive, mountain landscape, with hot sunny days and cool nights that create unique flavours.
These relatively new wineries are putting Ronda well and truly on the map as one of the most interesting wine areas in Europe – many experts believe there is exceptional potential for the future.
Whilst in Ronda, it’s also a must to stock up on some other gastronomic treats; look out for roast chestnuts dipped in chocolate; succulent sun dried raisins, mountain honey, and rich intensely flavoured goats’ cheese.
With such great food and fine wine, Ronda is a thoroughly intoxicating weekend destination.
(To read more about Ronda wineries, see my Luxury Travel Pursuits post here).