Victor Redonda Sierra, founder of wine group Haciendas de España, plans to transform Spanish wine tourism. JOHN STIMPFIG visits two of his winery hotels housed in beautiful haciendas

If pressed to describe Victor Redondo Sierra, the irrepressible founder of Spanish group Haciendas de España, I’d say that he reminds me of Al Pacino in the early Godfather films. But as we’re talking wine and not movies, perhaps a more accurate reference point might be a young Bob Mondavi, maybe 30 or 40 years ago.

Mondavi’s subsequent achievements saw him become a sort of wine ambassador for California. But it’s not just ‘the vision thing’ that links these two men. It’s also the means, method and ability to turn their visions of wine, food and culture into bricks and mortar reality. Mondavi, of course, has succeeded spectacularly over a lifetime in California with his holistic attitude to wine and tourism. My gut feeling is that Redondo could well go on to do something similar in his native Spain.

The track record of this banker turned vintner is already impressive. Since engineering the buyout of Rioja producer Berberana in the 1990s, Redondo has expanded the company’s premium wine portfolio across several of Spain’s classic regions through Haciendas de España. Under this umbrella, a clutch of wineries, each producing their own wines, are now also moving into the hospitality business.

So it was that I found myself travelling to Redondo’s latest wine and tourism venture in the wildly spectacular countryside of the Arribes del Duero. There, right on Castilla y León’s Portuguese border, he has completed building a magnificent new winery.

Without doubt, the Hacienda Unamuno Winery (named after one of Salamanca’s great philosophers and poets) has plenty going for it. Firstly, the Durius brand that it produces is selling extremely well in the UK. Secondly, with its tower and cloisters surrounded by vines, it’s an outstanding piece of architecture. And thirdly, it’s a fantastic visitor attraction both for wine lovers and tourists.

But against all that is the obvious downside that it is situated in one of the most isolated, under-populated regions in all of Europe. So how on earth is Redondo expecting people to make the trip to this remote vinous outpost, however beautiful it may be?

The question was answered an hour after we left Hacienda Unamuno and drove into the spectacular courtyard of the Hacienda Zorita. Here, Redondo has lovingly transformed and modernised a former Dominican monastery, which dates back to 1345, into a sophisticated, luxury hotel, restaurant and yet another wine attraction.

His idea was simple: ‘Zorita struck me as the ideal place to welcome visitors

to the Duero,’ Redondo explains. ‘You can go everywhere from here. Within an hour or so you can reach Hacienda Unamuno and Portugal as well as driving to Toro, Rueda and the Ribera del Duero.’

Hacienda Zorita undoubtedly stands out as a class act, both inside and out. For example, sitting astride the Tormes River, the setting of the former monastery is spellbindingly beautiful. While inside, you’ll find 22 bedrooms ranging from singles to split-level suites. Each has been intelligently and harmoniously designed using natural stone and wooden beams to recreate a rare combination of monkish sanctuary and modern luxury.

But Redondo wanted to avoid Zorita being just another international hotel with all the usual trimmings. It’s a reason why he has also eschewed Relais et Châteaux membership. ‘We don’t want people to come to just another five-star hotel. We want people to come to a traditional hacienda. This is a part of old Spain that we are bringing back to life.’

This vision for recreating the past – after completion of the restaurant, chapel (with art and wine gallery) and ground floor family rooms – is outlined by Redondo: ‘Beyond the river, we want to have some animals and cultivate the fields,’ he says. ‘We’re going to breed horses and open up the fields. Then we intend to plant wheat and corn. In the hacienda, we will bake our own bread and pastries every morning, like the monks used to. We’re trying to recreate everything that happened here centuries ago for our guests. And of course, we’re going to replant a small vineyard.’

I was wondering when he would get back to the wine theme. Not least because next to the hotel is a vast wine cellar with some 1,800 oak barrels, which acts as the visual centrepiece of a guided wine tour for hotel guests and visitors alike.

THE GRAND TOUR

According to Redondo, the complete tour will last two to three hours. Much of it will be taken up by an educational exhibition of traditional winemaking equipment, some of which dates back 100 years. ‘I think the exhibition is very important because it helps people understand the logic of how wine is made as well as appreciating its craftsmanship and history,’ says Redondo.

After the exhibition comes a video about the River Duero, Hacienda Unamuno and the region’s rich historical past. Then follows a tutored tasting of Redondo’s Hacienda wines from across Spain. ‘You can make a choice of up to 20 different wines. The idea is to feed people’s curiosity in a way that is helpful. We don’t want it to be intimidating.’

According to Redondo, the tour for non-residents will cost just t6 – good value for three hours’ entertainment and tasting. But will the package be enough of a draw to pull in the punters and make some money?

‘The last thing that worries me about this place is making money,’ says Redondo. Nevertheless, he’s confident that it will provide a return. ‘My belief is that when something is good, it speaks for itself.’

Redondo has certainly done his homework researching the project and has been involved in every detail of the design and construction at Haciendas Zorita and Unamuno. He’s also travelled extensively to see the way other regions and countries look after wine tourists.

‘The best place to visit wineries is Napa. But so much of it is artificial,’ he observes. ‘Whereas the best place for wine culture – where you really feel it – is Tuscany. Unfortunately, a lot of that wine culture isn’t accessible to ordinary people. What I want to do here is combine the best of both these worlds.’

Hacienda Zorita’s location is vital too. Although its situation appears remote, it is just two hours’ drive from Madrid and only an hour from Valladolid where Ryanair has begun flying at knockdown prices. But most important of all, it lies just 12km from one of Europe’s most beautiful cities – Salamanca, nominated European City of Culture in 2002.

Of course, now that Zorita is complete (it opened its doors to the public in January) one wonders what the restless Redondo will do next. ‘First we have to build our new winery at Hacienda Abascal in the Ribera del Duero. We’re also looking to link up with Quinta Sao Cibrao in Portugal so our Durius project extends right along the river covering two countries and three different wine regions. It’s very exciting because no one has done this before,’ he enthuses.

He’s also aiming to replicate his wine hotel and hospitality concept to the rest of his Haciendas de España properties in Rioja, Andalucia and Penedès. In fact, he’s already found the venue for the next wine hotel in Rioja. ‘It’s a beautiful place. You’ll have to visit it when it’s finished,’ he promises. After taking in Hacienda Zorita, I think I probably will.

Written by John Stimpfig