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Vino country

In this former playground of Spanish royals, wine now reigns supreme. The region is home to medieval palaces and churches, and vintages that leave connoisseurs swooning.

August 26, 2007

IMMERSED IN HISTORY

There's a sense of serenity about these hotels, each of which nods to the past and each with an urban vibe that belies the pastoral nature of Ribera del Duero.

Hotel Fuente de la Aceña

The modern wing of hotel rooms along the riverfront is attached to a renovated centuries-old stone flour mill housing a chic restaurant (above) and bar. The rooms are simple with minimalist décor but open onto a wooden deck overlooking the river with a table and chairs shaded by tall leafy trees. Calle de Molino, Quintanilla de Onésimo; 011-34-983- 68-11-82; www.fuenteacena .com. Doubles begin at $120.

Convento Las Claras

The cloistered peacefulness of this one-time convent has been preserved, along with the period detail. An open-air courtyard is now a spacious two-story glassed atrium furnished with comfortable couches and chairs. Well-appointed guest rooms open off the atrium, each equipped with wireless Internet access. Our second-story window framed the castle on the hill. It has an outdoor pool large enough to swim laps, but its free-form shape is designed for lounging. Inside is a spa pool with jets and waterfalls. Facials and massages are available by appointment. 1 Plaza de los Comuneros, Peñafiel; 011-34-983-87- 81-68, www.hotelconvento lasclaras.com. Doubles begin about $130.

La Posada Ducal

Medieval Spain comes to the fore at this quaint country inn on the square, which features rooms looking out on the 16th century ducal palace and the 15th century church. 1 Plaza Mayor, Peñaranda de Duero; 011-34-947-55-23-47, www.laposadaducal.com. Doubles begin at $100.

THE LAY OF THE LAND

When you explore Ribera del Duero, you'll find wines that are distinct from one another based on where the grapes are grown in the valley. A look at the area and the best wineries to visit:

Wine and wineries

The western end of Ribera del Duero has a higher elevation than its eastern counterpart. It's hot during the summer growing season, but at night temperatures can drop 30 degrees. In the evening, it's sweater-weather year round, which helps the grapes retain their acidity, even as the hot sun brings out their full ripeness.

Because the vineyards in eastern Ribera del Duero sit at a lower elevation, the wines are fruitier and less astringent. Eighty percent of the region's grapes are grown in the warmer climes in the eastern part of the valley. But those grown between Peñafiel and Tudela de Duero have a finesse I prefer over the generosity of the eastern wines.

The only way to ensure that you taste the best of Ribera del Duero is to contact your favorite wineries before you arrive and ask for a private wine tasting and tour. That's the way to meet Alejandro Fernández, the owner of Pesquera, the winery that, in the '80s, sparked the initial excitement about the region. His original bodega is just outside Peñafiel, but his showplace winery is Condado de Haza in the town of Valera between La Horra and Roa. Both require appointments.

Here is contact information for some of the wineries I'd recommend seeing. When dialing from the U.S., use the international dialing code 011 and 34, the country code for Spain.

Pesquera, Pesquera de Duero; 983-87-00-37, www.grupo pesquera.com.

Bodegas Emilio Moro, Pesquera de Duero; 983-87-84-00, www.emiliomoro.com. This has a restaurant and tasting room at the winery and is more apt to accommodate drop-ins.

Vega Sicilia, Valbuena de Duero; 983-68-01-47. This wine estate dates back 150 years; it's a showplace and is sort of an homage to Bordeaux. It has incongruous, elaborate Japanese gardens.

Abadia Retuerta, Sardón de Duero; 983-68-03-17, www.abadia-retuerta.com. No mom and pop place this. This winery (pictured at top) is well done but designed for tourists; it's sort of Wine Disneyland, but the wines are good.

Arzuaga, Quintanilla de Onésimo; 983-68-70-04, www.hotelarzuaga.com. Not the greatest place to stay, actually, but its tasting room is worth visiting, and its wines are surprisingly good.

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