Just a three and a half hour drive from Madrid, Bierzo is becoming one of the most promising wine regions in Spain. The quality of its wine has dramatically improved over the past 20 years and the bodegas are now producing very exciting wines. Surrounded by beautiful green mountains, natural landscapes and historical sites, the area has a lot to offer to tourists. There is no reason for envy of the more famous Spanish wine regions like Rioja, Priorat or Ribera del Duero. Situated in the Northwest part of the country, in the Province of León, the region is capable of producing incredibly fresh and powerful wines, made from Mencía, an indigenous grape. One of the regions in Spain with the biggest concentration of old vines, Bierzo is influenced by two weather climates, Atlantic and continental, which make its wines so special. Wine production dates back 2000 years to vines originally planted by the Romans, who conquered the province so they could exploit its numerous gold mines.
What to do?
When you visit, touring wineries is, of course, a must! A relatively young wine production zone created in 1989, the D.O. (denominación de origen) Bierzo is a relatively small region. Wine tourism is booming there, but it is still not as developed as La Rioja or Ribera del Duero. More and more wineries are opening to the public and most of them will gladly welcome you if you announce your visit in advance. There is a strong solidarity between the local bodegas and you can see that everyone is working together with the same objective of improving the quality of the wines and enhancing the fame of the region.
A couple of months ago, I had the chance to visit Bierzo during harvest time. On this occasion, I met with the emblematic Raul Pérez, one the most prestigious winemakers in Spain and Veronica Ortega, one of the rising stars in the region. Both were very welcoming and eager to share their passion while talking about their wines. A lot of wineries of the D.O. are producing wonderful wines and, from what I have personally tasted, Descendientes de J. Palacios, Dominio de Tares, Castroventosa, Peique, Pittacum, Casar de Burbia, Mengoba and Merayo, amongst others, are worth a visit.
If the wine is only one of the reasons for your trip to Bierzo, the region has many other assets to showcase to visitors! The UNESCO World Heritage Site of Las Médulas, just a few miles away of the wine region, is not to be missed! This fabulous landscape of reddish mountains shaped by the Romans was the largest open-air mine of the whole Roman Empire. Many tons of gold were excavated from the mountains and some of it was used to issue the very first golden coins of the Empire. Allow several hours to really enjoy the site: hiking the numerous paths through splendid centuries-old chestnut trees, exploring the spectacular caves and mining galleries as well as embracing the magnificent view of the canyons, tunnels and reddish peaks from the Mirador de Orellán.
Bierzo is also a region on the Pilgrim’s Road to Santiago de Compostela, better known as Camino de Santiago. This pilgrimage route has been popular over many centuries and continues to attract many tourists with its picturesque villages (such as Villafranca del Bierzo), convents and other religious attractions. The road passes through Ponferrada, Bierzo’s capital and main city, famous for its medieval castle, a polygonal fortress built by the Knights Templar in the late 12th century.
Lovers of rural tourism will find a number of outdoor activities in the beautiful Los Ancares Leoneses UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. Located in the Northwest of the province of León close to Galicia, this hidden gem of green mountains and valleys, also on the Pilgrim’s Road, offers multiple hiking opportunities. You will be able to observe many Iberian endemic plant species as well as a unique fauna, such as birds of prey and brown bears.
Planning Your Trip
The cities of Ponferrada, Cacabelos or Villafranca de Bierzo are good starting points to tour the wineries of the region. The D.O. Bierzo officially counts 73 wineries. To choose the right bodega(s) to visit, I recommend you to have a look to the Consejo Regulador de la D.O. Bierzo’s website, which gathers information on all the wineries of the area: http://www.crdobierzo.es
Another great resource to plan your trip is Bierzo Enoturismo’s website where you can find plenty of information about accommodations, restaurants, wineries, shopping and other tourist attractions: http://www.bierzoenoturismo.com/. Bierzo official tourism office website also has useful information, but in Spanish only: http://turismodelbierzo.es/
When to Visit?
You can visit Bierzo all year long, but be aware that winter can get surprisingly cold and humid and that you can expect some snow as well. Spring and especially summer are the best time of the year. One important thing to consider is your primary focus is visiting wineries, try to avoid harvest time (September to October), a critical and very busy period for the winegrowers.
How to get there?
Bierzo is a three and one half hour drive from Madrid. The closest airport is in the city of León with direct flights from/to Madrid and Barcelona. Trains from Madrid, Barcelona, the Basque Country and the main cities of Galicia are also serving Ponferrada.
Where to stay?
In my opinion, the tiny and beautiful village of Villafranca del Bierzo is the best option for a stay in Bierzo:
- Las Doñas del Portazgo, charming posada with comfortable and cozy rooms
- Micro Hostal La Puerta del Perdon, located in front of Villafranca’s castle, with 7 charming tiny rooms. The hostal also serves good food
- Parador de Villafranca del Bierzo, modern hotel, but in the countryside. Great indoor and outdoor pools
Other accommodation options:
- La Moncloa de San Lázaro in Cacabelos (also a restaurant specializing in regional cuisine)
- AC Hotel by Marriott in downtown Ponferrada
- El Jardin de Vikera in San Andrés de Montejos, a 10-minute drive north of Ponferrada. Beautiful rooms and lovely outside pool terrace.
Where to eat?
You won’t find Michelin-starred restaurants in Bierzo, but plenty of good small restaurants reflecting a traditional and genuine cuisine:
- Ágora, (international cuisine and vegan options): Avenida de las Huertas del Sacramento, 1, 24400 Ponferrada, León
- Casa Gelo, (culinary specialty: eel): Calle la Mata, 14, 24565 Carracedelo, León
- Gundin, (tapas): Calle de Isidro Rueda, 5, 24402 Ponferrada, León
- La Perla, (fish and seafood): Calle de Ave María, 25, 24402 Ponferrada, León
- Meson Don Nacho, (grilled meat), Calle Tróqueles s.n., Villafranca del Bierzo, León
- Pescadores (seafood): Calle Real, s/n, 24567 Sobrado, León