On a recent trip to the Douro I discovered that crushing grapes by foot is still in full swing, however it’s not Port that’s being made but still wines and I thought they were delicious.


If you need some extra special pampering then wrap your toes in rose petals and have a glass of Douro wine.

My friend Stephanie and I recently had a conversation about the ultimate pedicure. We debated various potions and unguents then Stephanie suggested having each toe individually wrapped in a rose petal. I think that sounds perfect and the only way that this could be improved upon would be to drink an excellent glass of wine at the same time. 

One group of people whom I feel are deserving of such pampering (although I am first in the queue) are the grape crushers in the Douro Valley, Portugal. I recently visited the Douro and found out more about crushing grapes by foot than I ever expected to know short of jumping in the vat and paddling about myself.

The Douro is the only place where fruit is still crushed by the human foot (Unless there’s somewhere I haven’t heard of?). Grapes are put into huge concrete baths called lagars and then the crushers get in and set to work. It is easy to assume that immediately a bacchanalian free-for-all ensues.

‘Not so’, says João Nicolau de Almeida, lead winemaker for Ramos Pinto. ‘People have to follow the controller. For the first two hours it is like a military march, very slow, very strict, they have to make sure all the grapes are crushed. Then we all have a glass of wine, the music starts and people can dance and enjoy themselves. The guy playing the accordion has to understand how people need to move to make sure all the grapes are crushed and macerated. Sometimes people form a train, other times they have to go backwards or right into the corners. The different dances and movements ensure that there is the right amount of pressure and the right amount of movement. But all of this is empirical knowledge; it is not something that has been scientifically researched.

Quinta do Bomfin

Quinta de Bomfin - it was a rare treat to stay in such a beautiful Quinta.

In this age where most wineries look like computerised factories there is something folksy and quaint about foot crushing and dancing to accordions. However what surprised me most was not that this tradition continues but that it has been adapted for a relatively recent development: these dancing feet are not only making ports for which the Douro is renowned, but also still wines (i.e. around 13-14° alcohol). Most Quinta (that’s winery in Portuguese) have only started making non-fortified wines in the last decade so it is surprising that they have chosen to continue with this labour intensive method when the rest of the wine-making world advocates hands-off (never mind feet) techniques.

‘Foot crushing is a more gentle method and it is part of our Bacchus culture. It is unique to the Douro. We like it here,’ says João Nicolau de Almeida with a smile under him moustache.

Over the river is Quinta do Crasto a winery that dates back to 1615. They have also embraced still wine making and have five different bottlings.

‘Table wine is becoming more important each year,’ explains owner Miguel Roquette. He is kindly taking me for a bit of a wander around his vineyard, one day I’d like to come back here and hike the Douro properly, but for the moment I’m content with gazing at the stunning views of the terraced vineyards.

Some of these plots of vines are pre-phyloxera. Most are such a salmagundi of varieties that Roquette jokes they are like a ‘fruit salad’. I also heard wines made from this haphazard mix of grape varieties referred to as a ‘field blend’.

My two favourites wines were Vinha Maria Teresa 2007 and Vinha da Ponte 2007.  They are both field blends, hand picked, foot crushed and hand plunged. Vinha Maria Teresa is dark and tarry on the nose with very juicy, cherry and leather notes on the palate. The tannins are nice and soft but still quite obvious; this wine has bags of ageing potential.

The Quinta only made 3,000 bottles of Vinha da Ponte in 2007 so it is a real treat to get to taste it. This is softer than Maria Teresa with lots of raspberry and chocolate flavours. It is a very complex, sophisticated wine.

What I liked about both of these wines is they are not obvious flavours because the ‘field blend’ means that each wine has an individual and unique character. In a world where so many wines can be monosyllabic and ‘do what they say on the tin’ I think this is very refreshing.

Another ‘field blend’ favourite was the toothsome and spicy Quinta de Griche 2007 from Churchill Estates. I’d hoped to visit the Quinta but a dramatic thunder-storm over night meant the road was impassable. So I met up with owner Johnny Graham and winemaker Maria Emilie Campos in a fancy restaurant instead. (Tough!) As they’d also had their harvest party the night before which had included some serious dancing in the lagars they had clearly had a night to remember. If they were worse for wear then it wasn’t showing.

Maria Emilie suggested we ordered the salt cod and also surprisingly suggested red Quinta de Griche 2007 to go with it. They made a terrific partnership both as both were robust, full flavoured and generous.

However I think my most memorable wine from the trip was one made at Quinta de Bonfim called Duas Quintas, Special Reserva ’07.

‘I made this in a special way. It is crushed in the lagar, no filters are used and it is aged in a large barrel called a tonel’, explains João Nicolau de Almeida.

How much wine does João Nicolau de Almeida expect me to drink?

How much wine does João Nicolau de Almeida expect me to drink? Oh alright then...

The wine is very dark and smoky on the nose with liquorice, spice and herb notes. It is very savoury and meaty with big tannins.

‘I was researching for a book I co-wrote called Porto Vintage[1] and I discovered how wine would have been made here 300 years ago. I followed their methods and made Duas Quintas. It is half way between a wine and a port,’ says João.

I’ve read quite a lot on the history of wine and always thought that it is impossible to know how wines would have really tasted, but Duas Quintas is probably as close a replication as it gets. (They drank some good stuff in the seventeenth century!) What it also proves is that the Douro has always evolved and that arguably the ports we know today are not the original wines, meaning that today’s adaptation i.e. table wines are simply the latest incarnation in an on-going development.

I really liked these contemporary Douro wines, I think they’ve got character and are well adapted to modern tastes and drinking habits. However the fact that they are still foot crushed proves that they are very much in-keeping with their region’s viticultural history. I think this demonstrates that winemakers here have a healthy respect for tradition all the while keeping an astute eye on what consumers want. I’m sure that Douro still wines will be around for a while and will probably adapt further. I intend to follow their progress with interest.

For the moment though I’m going to drink a glass of Quinta do Vesuvio 2007 from Symington Family Estates and pamper my feet by wrapping my toes in rose petals. Just a whim of mine.

[1] Porto Vintage Gaspar Martins Pereira and João Nicolau de Almeida, Instituto do Vinho de Porto, 2002.



After walking the Camino de Santiago I headed back to Rioja. I was ready for a good glass of wine.

I may have walked 850km across Spain got to Santiago de Compostelle  but I wasn’t done yet as when I passed through Rioja I hadn’t done any serious wine tasting there. As this woman does not live on bread alone, this was remiss of me. So I retraced my steps, (on a coach this time) back to Logroño, the regional capital of Rioja, so I could visit some wineries. 

When I’d been in Logroño three weeks earlier walking the camino, the whole town had been crawling with pilgrims and as there was no room in the hostel, I, and around 50 other people, ended up sleeping on the floor of a parish building. I was exhausted and was simply grateful for a roof over my head, in the morning I happily donated a few euros to the church fund. But this time it was different I was a guest of the Rioja Consejo and they were treating me to the 4 star Hotel Carlton. I had a room with a proper bed all to myself and, oh halleluiah, an en suite bathroom. This was a reversal of fortune. 

I was also aiming high with the wineries I visited. I’d had some pretty basic food and wine on the pilgrim trail; I needed some gastronomic pampering.



My first trip was to Faustino. Faustino Rioja can seem rather ubiquitous, in Britain Faustino VII is a safe bet if you have to run into the corner shop for emergency rations, but I was not in the mood for the common place so I was delighted when my host brought out a bottle of Faustino I, 1996, Gran Reserva for me to taste.

The company has gone to some lengths to make this wine look high brow: heavy bottle, frosted glass, wire mesh and a portrait of a wily looking Dutch burgher on the label which I discovered was painted by Rembrandt, no less.

The wine itself is everything you want from a top end Rioja: leather, tobacco and cherry aromas and a full flavoured palate with subtle tannins and a smooth long finish. Delicious.



At Salceda I met Nuria Lagunilla and we had a leisurely lunch looking out of the window at a view that made me wonder I didn’t just stay in Spain forever: the vineyards rolled away to the distant mountains and above us the sky was a perfect blue,what’s more the lunch was elegant and delicious. I’d had some pretty rough cooking on the camino so I really relished these dishes. They were made from the same ingredients: christoria or spicy sausage, tuna with tomato sauce and roast rack of lamb with peppers, but we were a world away from the 9€ menu peregrino.

The wine we shared was a Conde Salceda 2001. It has the soft garnet hues of a mature wine and was something of a treat for a grown-up chocoholic. It was very fresh, very elegant very gentle and very juicy. Perfect.

Bodega LAN.

Wood ageing in Rioja is a big part of the wine style, so much so that wines are classified by the amount of time they spend in barrel. Crianza: twelve months in oak and six months in bottle; Reserva: twelve months in oak and two years in bottle and Gran Reserva two years in oak and three years in bottle.

 Bodega Lan. jpegSmall wonder then that Bodega LAN takes wood very, very seriously and has built a huge barrel room which they describe as a ‘cathedral to wood’. As I’d seen quite a few cathedrals on my pilgrimage, culminating in the Barroque exuberance that is the Cathedral in Santiago de Compostela, I initially thought Lan’s description was self-aggrandising but when I walked into the huge, vaulted, sweet smelling chamber, stacked high with barrels, and felt the room’s quiet atmosphere, I decided it was appropriate.

However all of this emphasis on wood did make me nervous for the tasting, I’ve had Rioja’s in the past which taste like a hit over the head with a 2 by 4 but Bodegas Lan Gran Reserva 2003 was not what I feared. The wood flavours had become very, very integrated and but still brought some terrific spicy notes to the wine, along with the fruit flavours this was as satisfying as a hunk of Dundee cake.


Remirez de Ganuza

 samaniego-from-localBodega Remirez de Ganuza is in the village of Samaniego in Rioja Alavesa. Samaniego is just a small cluster of houses round an early Medieval church.  Somebody drives by on a tractor,  a black cat crosses my path.  This is not a place where you expect to find radical ideas but Remirez de Ganuza has reinvented winemaking to such an extent that they have patented some of their techniques.

 Points of difference start in the vineyard when bunches of Tempranillo grapes are picked, the ‘shoulders’ of the bunches are used for the top quality wines and the base are used for rest. But the clever engineering can be seen in the vats where instead of using a normal press a balloon is inserted into the tank which is filled with water, this slowly presses the wine so there is very little contact with oxygen.

 The fruits of this apogee of pressing can be tasted in Remirez de Ganuza, Trasnocho 2005. It has a meaty nose with lots of dark fruit flavours, smoke and liquorice notes. The palate has lots of dark flavours which are complimented by a fresh note. It is an intense experience.

However the wine I’d prefer to put on my dining table is the Fincas de Ganuza Reserve 2003. It is light and elegant with lots of fruit flavours and an integrated oak flavour which gives the wine an attractive savoury balance and is a pleasure to drink.


It’s a climb up a rough track into the Sierra de Cantabria mountains to get to Remelluri, but it is worth it as this has to be one of the most beautiful bodega in Rioja. It describes itself as being a ‘château’ winery meaning that all the vineyards are owned by the company and grouped around the winery. In the fourteenth century the estate was owned by the Monastery of Toloño, this building is long gone but a sanctuary high above on the Toloño summit still exists.


From the winery to the outlying vines it is a further climb, luckily MD Jose Maria Nieves Nuin can handle a Land Rover. Unusually for the region Remelluri has a selection of white grapes (Roussanne, Marsanne, Viognier, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Petit Courbu, Granache Blanc and Muscat des Petits Grains) which make a delicious white Rioja. The 2006  has a lovely glycerol texture like olive oil and, like a Golden Age still life in a well-chosen frame, the fruit flavours are off set by a background of wood.

But this is Rioja and red wines are king, and the crown of Remelluri is is La Granja Remelluri Gran Reserva 1999, which is only made in exceptional years. This is an old fashioned wine which has had some deliberate oxidative ageing that brings some eucalyptus and rosemary aromas to the nose and elegant tobacco and liquorice flavour to the palate.

Ramón Bilbao

This was my last stop before I left Spain. There were two wines that particularly caught my attention here the first being Ramón Bilbao Mirto 2005. Paula Zúñiga, marketing manager, described the wine as being the ‘Formula 1 of the range’. It is made from 70 year old vines, although it comes under the Rioja DOC umbrella it does not fit into a Reserva or Gran Reserva category, making it something of a modern maverick.

On the nose Mirto is fabulously intense, meaty and smoky with a back note of dark damson fruit. The palate is gentle with quite dusty tannins and chocolate, damson and spice notes. Modern and fruity this wine remains firmly Spanish.

 PIC_0351Appropriately one of my last wines in Spain was not from Rioja but from Galicia, where my pilgrimage ended. It is made by Mar de Frades, a sister company to Ramón Bilbao. There is a lovely story that alleges that Albariño is the same as Riesling and was brought to Galicia by monks travelling from the Rhine to Santiago de Compostela. Science has proved this not to be the case, (once again spoiling a good story!) but Mar de Frades, Albariño has a zingy, salty quality that reminds me of the sea at Finisterre. It is fitting that the last stop on my Rioja wine tour reminds me of my last stop on the Way of Saint James.

When I leave the hotel in Logroño some businessmen spot my backpack and scallop shell, the sign of the pilgrim, and shake my hand and wish me well. I know this is the last time that this will happen, I’m about to go back to being a normal citizen, I will no longer be a pilgrim, I have a pang of regret but the stay in Rioja has reminded me of the things that I’ve been missing: fine wine, good food and hot baths. I was ready to go home.

That is one of the oddest titles I have ever written – I couldn’t resist it.


Here’s what happened: during August I walked the Way of Saint James or the Camino de Santiago to Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, Northern Spain. The route follows the Milky Way and is one of Europe’s most ancient and significant pilgrimages. There are starting points all over Europe, but I set off from Saint Jean Pied de Port in the Pyrenees in France which meant in total I walked about 850km.

 Why? Why did I do such a thing? There were two reasons, firstly the physical challenge. I’ve done a lot of long distance walking but never for more than two weeks. These 850km took me 30 days and there were times when I struggled, particularly in the blazing heat of the Meseta, but by the end I was fitter and healthier than I have ever been and I was easily walking 40km most days. My weight loss was pleasing.

 The second reason was because The Way of Saint James is a spiritual journey. Now I’m of the old-school opinion that believes that discussing sex,

roncevauxsignreligion or politics in public is usually inappropriate but it’s hard not to mention the R word when you are on a pilgrimage.

Before I left I had a number of preconceptions about spirituality and pilgrimage, the first to be blown away was that I would spend hours sitting cross-legged on the side of a mountain communing with nature. I should have known better. I have an English degree. The awe of nature and the sublime is a Romantic idea, Pilgrimage pre-dates that, it is a Medieval concept. Remember Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and that plethora of people? Pilgrimage is as much about community as it is about the individual. Each person who is walking the ‘camino’ is doing it because they want to experience something more profound than just a holiday.  Together we formed a loose-knit community. That mass of people, each persons’ highs and lows, became almost as important as my own individual journey (not quite though – I retained some of my selfish/self-preservation streak I wouldn’t have got through it if I hadn’t!). 

 My second understanding about pilgrimage was that what you do physically is mirrored by what happens to you mentally and spiritually. You carry few possessions, anything that is too heavy can’t be kept. You pare things down to what is really important, slowly this happens to you internally too and the clutter of the everyday falls away. The French Medievals called it thérapie de l’espace, which is a bit like saying ‘blue sky thinking’, the big ideas come when you have clarity of mind. Now I am back in London I am bemused by all the fuss about nothing. Why?


The third stage of my camino was perhaps the hardest. I had to let go of home and live in the moment. I didn’t want to do this, I have family and friends whom I love very much. I didn’t want to leave them behind. But events conspired that I had to. Other pilgrim’s had problems with their feet, (I learnt to say blisters in four different languages) or their knees and there was something called tendonitus which sounded very grim, although I’m not sure exactly what it was, as for me I had problems with communication.

 I had wanted to maintain Chocolate Chilli Cupcakes, my beloved blog, while I was away. However uploading in an internet café whilst shovelling euros into the slot proved impossible. (I’d even had a lunatic idea that I would Twitter my pilgrimage as I walked – thank God I never pursued that one.) I found that my regular e-mail address was inaccessible and then, one blazing hot day just outside Burgos, I lost my mobile phone. That shook me badly. I was out of touch.


It took me a while to realise that I needed to do this. That I needed to disengage from London and that I would feel the intensity of the pilgrimage experience all the more if I wasn’t getting texts from friends letting me know the latest news. I had to let go of my friends and family and they had to let go of me. It made me more open to new people, it pushed me to overcome language difficulties and to talk to people whom I might have shied away from if I could simply have ‘phoned a friend. It made me live in the moment more.

 In total I was away for forty days (appropriately Biblical I thought) and when I came back I was refreshed and pleased to see people, particularly my loved ones. I appreciated their familiar faces and their foibles all the more because I had been so far away.


These three factors: being part of a community, a physical stripping down mirroring a mental/spiritual cleansing and disengagement from the norm are all a part of the spiritual journey but they are not the goal in itself.

 I heard it said that if you had any religious doubts or are just vaguely agnostic then walking the Camino de Santiago will sort your conviction out one way or another. In fact I met a man who was questioning his Catholicism and by the time he reached Santiago de Compostela (one of the greatest Catholic Cathedrals in Europe) he decided that he definitely wasn’t a Catholic.


I had a number of religious questions that I was wrestling with before I left and I did resolve them as I walked but now my dislike of discussing sex, religion and politics is kicking in again and I’ve decided that my thoughts on religion are between me and my God and are nobody else’s business, so I’m not going to write about them on this blog.


There are two greetings used by pilgrims, the first is ‘Buen Camino’ which literally means ‘Good Way’. At it’s simplest it is like wishing someone a ‘Bon Voyage’ but it is also an acknowledgement that a person is not just on an external journey but is looking for some kind of internal growth. The second greeting is ‘Ultreia’ which is Galician for ‘walk further’ or ‘reach higher’ and is often accompanied by a hand raised with the for-finger pointing towards the sky. It is an encouragement to strive forward, to have conviction, to take a risk, and that means both physically and spiritually. Now I am back in London I am trying to keep that Camino spirit alive within me. I walk as much as I can and I try not to let the clutter of the every day drain my good mood. It’s hard though and sometimes I think that perhaps I could just slip away…


To find out more about the Way of Saint James visit: