The Castle and the Wineskin

Jonathan Harris | February 2016

Perched atop a hill overlooking the Henares River is the beautiful town of Sigüenza. Its winding medieval streets meander up to a stunning castle overlooking the valley. Celto-iberians, Romans, Moors and Christian nobles conquered and rebuilt the city over the last two millennia. What better place to visit the craftsmen who make bota wineskins, a tradition that spans the entire history of this ancient city?

Last fall my brother and I were greeted warmly by Jesús Blasco, his brother Carlos and his son Ignacio at their small workshop. We were a little late – we got turned around as we drove through streets more suited for a medieval horseman than a car! Jesús explained that his business was over 100 years old, and had been passed down for five generations. In fact, his family had made wineskins since the mid-1800s.

In the workshop, Jesús had prepared his workbench with the tools of his trade – piles of goatskins from the local countryside, pitch from juniper and pine trees, sturdy scissors and a curious wooden staff. He told us that from ancient times, before glass bottles or barrels became ubiquitous, the bota was the primary way to transport wine across Spain. He even showed us an antique bota made from an entire goatskin that could hold many gallons of wine. In previous centuries, these would be strapped to the back of a burro and delivered to taverns and homes around the region.

Only the finest flawless goatskins are used for making botas. Each one is tanned with natural tannins, including the shredded bark of pine and oak trees, and cleaned to a pristine, food-safe state. Jesús expertly traced the two halves of a teardrop shaped wineskin on the soft leather, then cut out the pieces by hand. The sides were sewn together and he picked up the mysterious wooden staff, worn smooth by decades of use. After blowing up the bota, Jesús grasped the staff and swiftly turned the bota inside out using the blunt top. With a whisper of a smile and a glint in his eye he demonstrated his mastery of a skill that is the heritage of his family.

Now the bota was ready for the last few steps. The hair of the goat was now on the interior of the wineskin and he took us to a back room where a vat of hot liquid pine pitch was sitting ready. He opened a tap and filled the bota with the pitch, which adheres to the hair and makes the wineskin waterproof. After a few seconds he poured the pitch out. 

On the other side of the workshop Jesús retrieved a spout from a basket and with a flourish tied it to the end of the wineskin. His hands were a blur, and I am sure what took him a few seconds would have taken me much, much longer – and I am not sure I would trust the results!

Jesús displayed his skills with a quiet confidence and clearly wanted to show us the skills passed on from his ancestors. But I think he was equally proud that his son is carrying on the tradition. In fact, Ignacio has added a few modern flourishes to keep the business thriving into the 21st century. At his suggestion the family purchased a laser machine to brand each bota with customized logos. This allows them to mark these ancient wineskins with the names of restaurants, resorts and businesses. We saw one marked with the world famous red logo of Coca-Cola for a recent Madrid event!

Other adaptations include the use of durable latex liners for some of the botas, which can hold any type of beverage and take much less care to maintain. Ignacio also showed us a beautiful bota made from finest steer leather and capped with a rustic wooden spout. Jesús muttered that it wasn’t very traditional to use anything other than goatskin, but I think he secretly appreciated the new ideas his son has introduced.

That afternoon we wandered the streets with Jesús and his sons, stopping by a local bar for a glass of wine and a couple of tapas - garlic toast covered with delicious anchovies plus crunchy fried pork skins sprinkled with smoky pimentón. We chatted about our families and Spanish politics, then bid “¡Buen Provecho!” to the other patrons as we left.

We walked up to the impressive cathedral and on to the imposing stone castle at the top of the hill. They pointed out pockmarks in the cathedral towers that dated back to the Spanish civil war. Franco’s troops had occupied the castle and fired down on the Republicans who used the cathedral as a fortress. (The stunning castle has been rebuilt and converted to a beautiful Parador hotel – I highly recommend visiting and spending a night there. It is only an hour from Madrid.)

It struck me how much this small city had been formed and changed by centuries of conflict and domination by different cultures. The Romans leveled the original Celtic fortress that overlooked the valley nearly two thousand years ago. Visigoths supplanted them only to be pushed out by the Moorish invasion, then the Christian Reconquista. The fact that the bell tower of the cathedral had been shelled with mortars within living memory speaks to the precarious existence of the inhabitants of Sigüenza throughout the centuries.

And yet the local inhabitants, battered by waves of conflict, quietly carried on throughout the centuries, planting, harvesting, and crafting the tools and necessities of daily life. To share time with the Blasco family was truly an honor, a chance to witness an ancient craft that has not changed significantly since Roman times.

I will always remember the look of joy and pride in the face of Jesús as he demonstrated the simple, time-honored skills of his trade for us. His son Ignacio stood by his side, and I could tell that he also shared in the enthusiasm and pride of his father in a job well done and an ancient tradition that will carry on to another generation.