If you’re a connoisseur of wine – or just simply a wino – chances are you’ve bored someone silly at a party with this factoid. The Tempranillo grape is a derivative of the Spanish word ‘temprano’ – meaning ‘early’. It’s a cheeky young thing, an early riser – coming to fruition a few weeks before the Cabernets and the Merlots. The Cistercian monks used to grow it in their allotments and knock it back like water, so it’s no wonder they were always seeing God.
In May, in the Abadia Retuerta vineyards near Valladolid, it’s too early even for the Tempranillo, which makes up for 70% of the crop. At the award-winning winery dug into the hill (which has produced Abadia Retuerta since 1996), the state-of-the-art machinery is still. September is harvest time, when this tranquil Castilian landscape – 700 hectares of sandy glades, arid clay, pines and vines by the River Duero – becomes a hotbed of serious grape picking and macerating.
Meanwhile, in the middle of the endless fledgling vines, lined up like so many stick figure soldiers, sits Le Domaine, the perfect place to watch the grapes grow. This elegant, fully serviced 22-room hotel was once a monastery, built in 1145, and has now been breathtakingly restored to the kind of understated luxury favoured by the super rich. It is architectural eye candy of the highest order, spanning gothic to baroque, with beautiful vaulted limestone spaces that give you the joyful shivers, and stunning courtyards dotted with ancient cypresses.
Le Domaine is big on austerity and simplicity – so much so that you get the feeling that the monks would have approved of this most sensitive of refurbishments. Quite what their 12th century minds would think of the mobile phone each guest is given to call their butler, God only knows, but they would have still recognised the layout. They certainly would have recognised Le Domaine’s permanent residents, the storks that make their home on top of the belltower. During the restoration the nest had to be thinned out – it had grown so much over the years that it weighed a whopping 50kg.
In keeping with the original purpose of the building, the bedrooms are in the part of the monastery where the monks slept. Equally, the Sala Capitular bar was the Chapter Room, where they gathered to sink wine and read extracts from the Bible, and the Refectorio was (you’ve guessed it) the canteen. Back in those days it was probably a bit of bread and fish and quiet contemplation. Now its perfect petit fours prepared by Swiss chef Urs Bieri, washed down with their famous Abadia Retuerta Seleccion Especial 2001, which scooped Best Wine in the World at the International Wine Challenge in London in 2005.
Chances are you won’t find God at Le Domaine, but you should at least find some inner calm. The rooms continue the carefully muted pale limestone and oak beamed look. It’s a fabulous monk’s cell, with a big ass Philippe Stark bathtub, a Loewe TV and… is that a Miro lithograph on the wall? Out of your window, if you’re very quiet, you can almost hear the ground breathing, and you will certainly get a feel for the grand history of the Castille y Leon. History is everywhere you look, in the limestone churches and those flat-topped hills that made the area such a hit with the Kings of Spain and anyone who appreciated a fabulous strategic viewpoint whilst swaggering around on a horse. In the 12th century it was all booze, religion and fighting the Moors- now all you can hear is the soft purr of the winery irrigation systems and the peaceful twittering of birds.
There is life outside Le Domaine, if you can tear yourself away from the yoga room and the soothing facials, or the moreish and Moorish tapas, or the brand new gym, or the idyllic bike rides through the estate via the contemporary sculpture garden. Turn right from the hotel and you’ll find yourself on the way to Valladolid, which was once the capital of Spain before the Royal family upped sticks and moved it to Madrid in 1561. There are 16th Century churches and museums galore, filled with the gilded treasures that used to grace the local monasteries. Christopher Columbus famously died in Valladolid, and Miguel de Cervantes laid his quill here long enough to write the Deceitful Marriage. As well as an impressive backstory, there is the pleasing buzz of modern life in this University town, full of cafes, squares and boutiques, playgrounds and a vast park.
Turn left outside Le Domaine, however, and you’ll be slap bang in the middle of the Ribera del Duero wine route. Here, every other building houses a bodega you’ve probably heard of – Moro, Pingus, Vega Sicilia – and others that seem to operate with nothing but a truck and a tractor. In nearby Peñafiel (which roughly translates as ‘Hill of the Faithful’) there’s a superlative wine museum housed in the medieval castle, which brings the technicalities of wine production to life without making you want to slope off to the bar. Once you’ve learned about vine grafting, macerating and nose, you can take a trip up to the roof and see the view. Shaped like an enormous boat, this macho 14th Century strategic outcrop makes Edinburgh Castle look like your Gran’s house.
Penafiel is a charming town, and as quintessentially Spanish as it gets. In August, if you are insane, you can run with the bulls to the amazing Plaza Coso, surrounded by ancient wooden shuttered balconies. Then, when you grow tired of being gored, you can eat a meal fit for a matador at Molino de Palacios. At weekends, families come all the way from Valladolid to this well-loved converted mill restaurant. It’s not your average Harvester Carvery, that’s for sure. The signature dish of the region is Lechazo Asado – milk-fed baby lamb, slaughtered at three months. Quit your vegetarian squealing – it’s a wonder. Cooked in a wood-fired clay oven in water and salt, it is the essence of simple, rustic Spanish food. I liked it so much, I’m thinking of rearing my own.
Back at Le Domaine, all is calm. The tranquillity never stops. Actually, there is a little too much of the hushed austerity, and although beautiful, you occasionally get the feeling you’re in museum rather than a hotel: albeit a museum staffed by well-dressed guards discreetly attending to your every need. And for all its ancient history, Le Domaine is definitely a work in progress. Opened in March 2012, it’s a young wine, slowly undergoing the maturing process. It rather glaringly lacks a pool, and there are plans to turn the stables into a spa and more rooms – but to achieve the same exacting standard as the rest of the hotel, that will take the best part of 2013. There are plans for a tapas restaurant, and also rumours that a new (possibly well-known) chef might be joining the ranks, but this, too, will take time to get right. Then, of course, there is the incongruity of all this classic luxury and the most convenient route from the UK: a Ryanair flight from Stansted to Valladolid.
But despite these growing pains, there are already so many treasures in this vast estate, and the lovingly restored building is a genuine pleasure to stay in. With such good quality wine running through its veins, and food that makes you want to break into an ecstatic Gregorian chant – Le Domaine is a delight. OK, so perhaps it’s still a little bit ‘temprano’, but its evolution will be very interesting indeed. And while you’re waiting, sit back in your bathtub, have a glass of Abadia Retuerta red and contemplate all that beauty, safe in the knowledge that your butler is only a phone call away. It’s what the monks would have wanted.