Despite being a highly-educated woman, Don Day’s Wife sometimes has a somewhat limited vocabulary. Take that most Canadian of words, canoe.
“Canoe? The only word I need to know that involves the possibility of people tipping is restaurant.”
Then there are those hiking and camping words, the second of which she swears was the most influential factor on the demise of her first marriage.
“I’m fine with hiking”, she once said to me. ‘I will hike from the front desk to the elevator and I will also hike from the elevator to our room.”
“And if you want to pay for an extra piece of luggage, bring that duffle bag thing. I’ll book a suite so there’s room for you to put up your pup tent. And you can be on the floor in your sleeping bag while I’m in the king under the down duvet. But Colemans out at midnight.”
And then I heard about El Nidal. And I wanted to go. Desperately. But how could I talk my lover of the great indoors, Don Day’s Wife, into it?
“I want to whisk you away to this romantic escape for a couple of days,” I said. “It’s near a place called La Sierra de Lobos.”
“Lobos? Before they’ve been tailored into a cozy jacket? Sierra? Isn’t there a reason that mountain almost rhymes with cabin?”, Don Day’s Wife replied.
“Actually there’s a winery and the full name of the place is El Nidal Aposentos Contemporáneos”, I told her and, from her tip-of-the-head look, I contemplated she was imagining an architectural jewel designed by Frank Gehry. It was enough info to have her maybe 40% out of the door.
“It’s owned by that very handsome guy who used to run the Hotel Réal de Minas in San Miguel”, I added, hoping to add another 11% to my argument.
“I’ll see if my sneakers are still in the back of the closet”, she replied.
So why did I want to go to El Nidal? Well, you see, the winery there is Octagono Vino Ancestral and, at Octagono, they make orange wine and I had never been to a winery that makes orange wine. In fact, I had never even tasted orange wine and, though it wasn’t at the top of my bucket list, it wasn’t at the bottom either.
I emailed our friends, Stan and Peggy Jones, to see if they wanted to join us (imagining a conversation such as, “there must be flush toilets or you know she wouldn’t go”) and they were in.
I emailed Marcelo Castro Vera (that handsome guy from Réal de Minas) to make a reservation.
Next thing you knew, we were loading a couple of Don Day’s Wife’s goosedown pillows in the trunk of the car.
El Nidal is located in Vergel de la Sierra which is somewhere but I’m not exactly sure where (but your GPS should) between the cities of Leon and San Felipe. It’s about two hours almost directly west of San Miguel de Allende in those smoky blue mountains that look so good silhouetted at sunset. The roads are in decent shape all the way and, the closer you get, the better the view, especially when you start the climb into the hills.
The accommodations at El Nidal are simple but charming. There are eight units that started life as shipping containers but now have very comfortable beds, bar fridges, reliable internet, lots of hot water and, yes, flush toilets.
And the orange wine? Well it’s just a small part of a total food and wine experience at El Nidal.
In a little over 24 hours, we ate chicken wings, menudo, a five-hour smoked pork belly, pot beans, bacalao, eggplant and baba ghanouj, red cabbage, local escamoles (aka ant larvae), tomatillo salad, chilaquiles, mille-feuille, and flambéed plantains.
All of it produced with a wood fire. We drank mint mojitos, three kinds of beer, mezcal, sparkling water, traditional red wine, grappa and orange wine. All of it produced at El Nidal.
Since his almost full-time move to the country (“we still like to get back to San Miguel every ten days or so”) handsome Marcelo has become ruggedly handsome Marcelo with hair now tied in a tail and a scruff of a beard on his chin. I knew Marcelo, not just from his days at Hotel Réal de Minas but as the guy that took over the biggest social event there ever was in San Miguel de Allende, the annual Chile Cook-Off. When I first met him, he was the most enthusiastic person I had ever met about the merits of Mexican wine and I give him credit for swaying me over towards tasting some of my first locally-produced bottles.
“I used to have over 1,000 different labels,” Marcelo told me, “But I’m now down to about 600…due mostly to…well…drinking them.”
That collection may be a little more stable now that Marcelo is producing his own wine.
Is orange the new pink?
“My first wines (we tasted a nice Malbec) were fermented in the conventional way but I was intrigued by orange wine. It’s still an experiment. I’m still learning”, said Marcelo, “But I’m happy with where it’s going.”
It was less than ten years ago when, personally, I first heard the words “orange wine” and, yes, I thought there was a citrus fruit involved in the production.
Marcelo told us “It actually goes back thousands of years to Georgia” (that’s the country, not the place Hoagy Carmichael had on his mind).
“The wines were fermented in large clay jugs called quevri (spelling courtesy of Marcelo) which were buried in the ground.”
El Nidal is repeating the process in an eight-sided building that was already on the grounds and gives the winery its name, Octagono.
In a similar fashion to the way red wines are made, the white wines are fermented and aged with the skins of the grapes included. The beeswax lined amphorae (the name of the clay vessels) are then buried in sand and gravel with their tops just above ground level.
Octagono used Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon, two of my favorite white grapes for their first two orange wines and, though I wouldn’t exactly call their colors orange, they were more of a golden color than many white wines.
Contact with the skins not only deepens the color, it deepens the aroma and taste. The best thing I can liken them to are the tannins in red wines. As far as specifics, my palate isn’t the best at detecting all those little nuances that the guys in Wine Spectator can but I think I could taste apricots, pears, almonds, perhaps pine, even some citrus peel.
And is orange going to replace rosé? Is it the fourth wine? I would need to try a lot more (excuses, excuses) before I would ever say that. But it was a way to get Don Day’s Wife camping. And with all of the fine food and drink at El Nidal, that experience comes very highly recommended.
El Nidal and Octagonal Vina Ancestral are located in Vergel de la Sierra, Guanajuato, Mexico. For reservations, telephone 477 170 9097 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.