Granada: Home to the Alhambra, the Sierra Nevada, and Stage 15 of #Vuelta2017

I’m really excited for Sunday’s stage: we’re heading to Granada, one of my favorite Spanish cities! If you’ve been there, I don’t have to explain at all because this magical municipality has already won you over with her charms. Nestled in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountain range, Granada is a bustling university town full of shops, bars, and restaurants. Despite its being chock-full of tourists day in and day out, you never really get a sense that the town is crowded. And the views – oh my! On a clear day you can see all the way to the Mediterranean, which is just an hour away by car. In my opinion, this makes it a perfect base from which to explore all around southern Spain.

Alhambra Outside
Alhambra Courtyard

One of the main attractions in Granada, of course, is the Alhambra Palace. Originally constructed by the Moors and used as the residence of Emir Mohammed ben Al Ahmar, and later that of Yusuf I, Sultan of Granada, the Alhambra was claimed by the Christians during the Reconquista in 1492. It then became the royal court of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella.

Alhambra View
Inside the Alhambra looking out.

Don’t miss a chance to tour the Alhambra and the nearby Generalife. As someone who’s toured many historic sites and monuments, I will say I’ve never been more taken aback at the beauty of a place than I was here. If you haven’t yet visited, pick up a copy of Washington Irving’s book Tales of the Alhambra. It takes you back to a time when the palace had fallen into disrepair, largely forgotten by the governments who usually protect and preserve such spaces. He writes about random encounters with travelers who would camp out in the crumbling Alhambra for a night or two before moving on. Some of them were pilgrims on their way to pray; others were smugglers (or worse) who had bounties on their heads. Irving tells a compelling tale and, in the process, gives us a vivid picture of the landscape.

Alhambra Inside
Alhambra interior: my pic doesn’t do the carvings justice. So much beauty!

Vino de la Tierra Norte de Granada

While not a Denominacion de Origen, the Vino de La Tierra classification does recognize a geographic distinction in the wines produced in the region, although production standards and regulations are less strict. This leaves local winemakers free to experiment with grape varieties not officially approved by the Consejo Regulador – not unlike the Super Tuscan producers in Italy.

The region is large, stretching north and east from Granada to Jaén and Albacete; to Murcia in the east; and Almería in the south. All manner of grapes are grown and often a producer will have plantings of both autochthonous and international varieties. Despite its southerly latitude, Norte de Granada is capable of making quality wines that maintain their acidity and freshness. Most of the vines are planted between 1,000 and 1,200 meters, where temperatures are cooler and there is a large diurnal shift (about 15 degrees Celsius from day to night.) The growing season is long, allowing the grapes time to ripen slowly.

The Wines of Bodegas Vilaplana

Lluis Vilaplana grew up in the Pyrénées Mountains, with nary a vineyard nearby. But he was always fascinated with wine, and spent time visiting fabled places like Priorat and Penedès. His father-in-law was a wine maker in Caniles, just outside of Granada, and he took every opportunity to learn at his side. That spurred him to enroll at the INCAVI, the institute of wine studies in Catalonia.

Veraison at Bodegas Vilaplana
Veraison at Bodegas Vilaplana (

In 1995, he made his first foray into viticulture, with experimental plantings of Tempranillo, Cabernet Sauvignon, Macabeo, and Chardonnay. Over the next ten years he and his father-in-law evaluated each harvest, making wine and analyzing its quality. By 2006 they had decided that Tempranillo and Macabeo should comprise the bulk of the vineyard, with a bit of Jaén and Muscat à Petits Grains. While the vines came into their own, Lluis built his winery, one that would have low impact on the environment and on the grapes as they were being processed.

Bodegas Vilaplana
Bodegas Vilaplana

Today Bodegas Vilaplana encompasses five hectares planted alongside the Sierra de Baza Natural Park, a sanctuary for local flora and fauna. Its showpiece is Mount Santa Barbara, jutting into the sky at almost 7,500 feet. Three hectares of Tempranillo lie at 1,000 meters, adjacent to the park on stony top soils covering calcareous clay soils. The white grapes are grown on the other side of the park at slightly lower elevations, on the sandy, loose soil preferred by Macabeo.

Current offerings by Bodegas Vilaplan include just three wines, but they are a true representation of the Norte de Granada region:

Paraje del Mincal is 100% Tempranillo and fermented in stainless steel. The finished wine spends 12 months in French oak barrels before bottling.

Diez Días de Marzo Rosado is also 100% Tempranillo and fermented in stainless steel. The juice sits on the grape skins for 24 hours before fermentation to extract more color and flavor components.

Diez Días de Marzo Blanco is an aromatic white blend of Macabeo, Jaén, and Muscat à Petits Grains.

Bodegas Vilaplana 12 Dias de Marzo Blanco
Diez Días de Marzo Blanco from Bodegas Vilaplana

What about the Race?

It’s all for the climbers in this stage! But the general classification could see a shake-up if any of the top contenders have a bad day. There should be some head-to-head battles as the peloton pushes up the Sierra Nevada and, regardless of what happens at the end, we’ll have a front-row seat. And don’t worry – you’ll be forgiven if your eyes stray from the race to the stunning natural beauty surrounding it.

Vuelta 2017 Stage 15 Profile
Plenty of pain for the peloton on Stage 15.

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