Wednesday, August 12, 2015

The Camino de Vino Across Southern France and Northern Spain on the Way of Saint James

Both pilgrimage and wine are about the journey and on the Camino de Santiago the two are often in one glass

Nothing connects me more deeply to wine than walking eight hours a day through vineyard after vineyard across southern France and northern Spain on the Camino de Santiago, that thousand year old pilgrimage route to Saint James the Greater’s supposed tomb in Santiago de Compostela. Life unfolds at the pace of photosynthesis and footfall. At night the two fuse over a glass from the land and with the locals I met that day. (I've been walking this road, on different routes, since 1995 and it keeps calling me back. My most recent trek was this spring. There is always more to learn!)

In Gascony, heavy clusters of golden Petit Manseng hanging on a fence high upon a hill overhead dazzled me as the sun backlit them in late morning light like luminous angels descending from heaven. At night, I found a bottle of Jurançon from the vineyard and shared it with fellow pilgrims: It tasted like the day, a liquid journal, right down to the sweep of wind through sorghum and sunflowers and the distant moo from the caramel-cream spotted cow.

In Navarra, I took in a local glass at the old wine monastery of Irache’s fountain with two spigots, one for water and one for wine, a tradition carried on by Bodegas Irache to honor pilgrims and recall Jesus’ first miracle. Like Jesus’ wine, theirs was pretty good.

In Leon, I joined the harvest and stomped Tempranillo with acquaintances in an old bathtub in their garage. We barreled and stored the future wine then uncorked prior years’ vintages and feasted all night on backyard grilled paprika chicken, potatoes, and salads plucked from the garden.

In Galicia, at Santiago at last, two brother chefs at Café Iacobus celebrated my finish with a gift, grilled sea scallops and a glass of small-production Albariño, both procured from the same coastal spot.

How can one separate the Camino from wine when this intimately bound together?

The Camino’s making was directly connected to winemaking. With their medieval building campaigns to support the pilgrimage, celibate foodie monks also revived the interrupted ancient wine craft brought to southern France and northern Spain by Phoenicians, Greeks, and Romans millennia before. On the church stones they engraved copious wine scenes, from wine miracles (water to wine, wine to blood) to the vine representing Jesus who sustains it all.

When around AD 1139 the monk Aimery Picaud wrote Europe’s first travel guide, The Pilgrims’ Guide to St James of Compostela, he praised the wines of Bordeaux, Estella in Navarra, and Carrion de los Condes in Castile. In Galicia, so close to Santiago, he bemoaned wine’s scarcity but in the same pen-stroke praised the cider.

If Picaud and the other monks had wine as much as salvation on their minds, I feel fine following in their footsteps. The Camino will work this magic anyhow, weaving the walker into the sacredness of the land and people, with wine as its conduit.

Some Camino wines with heavenly little plates:

Southwestern France
Jurançon sec and Abbaye de Belloc sheep’s milk cheese
Madiran and dry cured duck prosciutto with fresh figs

Basque Country
Irouléguy rosé with jambon de Bayonne and melon

Northern Spain
Crianza and sautéed wild mushrooms with garlic and thyme

Mencía and spicy lamb meatballs in tomato sauce

Rias Baixas
Albariño and grilled sea scallops and chives


  1. Delightful. A wonderful read that fills me with tastes, smells and visions of the Camino!