In good Catholic fashion, wine is the lifeblood of Spain. It’s the standard accompaniment to most meals, but also features very prominently in bars, where a glass of cheap tinto or blanco can cost as little as €0.70, although it’s more normally €1. A bottle of house wine in a restaurant is often no more than €4 or €5. Tinto is red (although if you just order vino it’s assumed that’s what you want); blanco is white, and rosé is either clarete or rosado. A well-regulated system of denominaciones de origen (DO), similar to the French appelation controlée has lifted the reputation of Spanish wines high above the party plonk status they once enjoyed. Much of Spain’s wine is produced in the north, and recent years have seen regions such as the Ribera del Duero, Rueda, Navarra, Toro, Bierzo, and Rías Baixas achieve worldwide recognition. But the daddy, of course, is still Rioja.
The overall standard of Riojas has improved markedly since the granting of the higher DOC status in 1991, with some fairly stringent testing in place. Red predominates; these are mostly medium-bodied bottles from the Tempranillo grape (with three other permitted red grapes often used to add depth or character). Whites from Viura and Malvasia are also produced: the majority of these are young, fresh and dry, unlike the traditional powerful oaky Rioja whites now on the decline. Rosés are also produced. The quality of individual Riojas varies widely according to both producer and the amount of time the wines have been aged in oak barrels and in the bottle. The words crianza, reserva and gran reserva refer to the length of the ageing process , while the vintage date is also given. Rioja producers store their wines at the bodega until deemed ready for drinking, so it’s common to see wines dating back a decade or more on shelves and wine lists.
A growing number of people feel, however, that Spain’s best reds come from further west, in the Ribera del Duero region east of Valladolid. The king’s favourite tipple, Vega Sicilia, has long been Spain’s most prestigious wine, but other producers from the area have also gained stellar reviews. The region has been dubbed ‘the Spanish Burgundy’; the description isn’t wholly fanciful, as the better wines have the rich nose and dark delicacy vaguely reminiscent of the French region.
Visiting the area in the baking summer heat, it’s hard to believe that nearby Rueda can produce quality whites, but it certainly does. Most come from the Verdejo grape and have an attractive, dry, lemony taste; Sauvignon Blanc has also been planted with some success.
Galicia produces some excellent whites too; the coastal Albariño vineyards produce a sought-after dry wine with a very distinctive bouquet. Ribeiro is another good Galician white, and the reds from there are also tasty, having some similarity to those produced in nearby northern Portugal.
Among other regions, Navarra, long known only for rosé, is producing some quality red wines unfettered by the stricter rules governing production in Rioja, while Bierzo, in western León province, also produces interesting wines from the red Prieto Picudo and Mencía grapes. Other DO wines in Northern Spain include Somontano, a red and white appelation from Aragón and Toro, whose baking climate makes for full-bodied reds.
An unusual wine worth trying is txakolí, with a small production on the Basque coast. The most common is a young, refreshing, acidic white which has a green tinge and slight sparkle, often accentuated by pouring from a height. The best examples, from around Getaria, go well with seafood. The wine is made from under-ripe grapes of the Ondarrubi Zuria variety; there’s a less common red species and some rosé.
One of the joys of Spain, though, is the rest of the wine. Order a menú del día at a cheap restaurant and you’ll be unceremoniously served a cheap bottle of local red (sometimes without even asking for it). Wine snobbery can leave by the back door at this point: it may be cold, but you’ll find it refreshing; it may be acidic, but once the olive-oil laden food arrives, you’ll be glad of it. It’s not there to be judged, it’s a staple like bread and, like bread, it’s sometimes excellent, it’s sometimes bad, but mostly it fulfils its purpose perfectly. Wine is not a luxury item in Spain, so people add water to it if they feel like it, or lemonade (gaseosa), or cola (to make the party drink called calimocho).
In most bars, you can order Rioja, Ribera, Rueda, or other regions by the glass (usually €1.20-2.20). If you ask for crianza or reserva, you’ll usually get a Rioja. A tinto or blanco will get you the house wine (although many bartenders in tourist areas assume that visitors don’t want it, and will try and serve you a more expensive kind). As a general rule, only bars serving food serve wine; most pubs and discotecas won’t have it.
Spanish beer is mostly lager, usually reasonably strong, fairly gassy, cold and good. On the tapas trail, many people order cortos (zuritos in the Basque lands), usually about 100 ml. A caña is a larger draught beer, usually about 200 ml. Order a cerveza and you’ll get a bottled beer. Many people order their beer con gas, topped up with mineral water, sometimes called a clara, although this normally means it’s topped with lemonade. A jarra is a shared jug. In some pubs, particularly those specializing in different beers, you can order pints (pintas).
Cider (sidra) is an institution in Asturias, and to a lesser extent in Euskadi. The cider is flat, sour and yeasty; the appley taste will be a surprise after most commercial versions of the drink. Asturias’ sidrerías offer some of Spain’s most enjoyable bar life, and the cider poured from above head height by uniformed waiters to give it some bounce. In Euskadi in springtime, people decamp to cider-houses in the hills to eat massive meals and serve themselves bottomless glasses of the stuff direct from the vat.
Spirits are cheap in Spain. Vermouth (vermut) is a popular pre-dinner aperitif, as is patxarán . Many bars make their own vermouth by adding various herbs and fruits and letting it sit in barrels; this can be excellent, particularly if its from a solera. This is a system where liquid is drawn from the oldest of a series of barrels, which is then topped up with the next oldest, resulting in a very mellow characterful drink. After dinner or lunch it’s time for a copa: people relax over a whisky or a brandy, or hit the mixed drinks (cubatas): gin tonic is obvious, as is vodka con cola. Spirits are free-poured and large; don’t be surprised at a 100 ml measure. A mixed drink costs €3.50-6. Whisky is popular, and most bars have a good range. Spanish brandy is good, although its oaky vanilla flavours don’t appeal to everyone. There are numerous varieties of rum and flavoured liqueurs. When ordering a spirit, you’ll be expected to choose which brand you want; the local varieties (eg Larios gin, DYC whisky) are marginally cheaper than their imported brethren but lower in quality. Chupitos are shots; restaurants will often throw in a free one at the end of a meal, or give you a bottle of orujo (grape spirit) to pep up your black coffee.
Juice is normally bottled and expensive; mosto (grape juice; really pre-fermented wine) is a cheaper and popular soft drink in bars. There’s the usual range of fizzy drinks (gaseosas) available. Horchata is a summer drink, a sort of milkshake made from tiger nuts. Water (agua) comes con (with) or sin (without) gas. The tap water is totally safe to drink, but it’s not always the nicest; many Spaniards drink bottled water at home.
Coffee (café) is usually excellent and strong. Solo is black, mostly served espresso style. Order americano if you want a long black, cortado if you want a dash of milk, or con leche for about half milk. A carajillo is a coffee with brandy, while queimado – a Galician drink of ritual significance – is a mixture of coffee and orujo (grape spirit), made in a huge vessel. Tea (té) is served without milk unless you ask; herbal teas (infusiones) are common. Chocolate is a reasonably popular drink at breakfast time or in the afternoon (merienda), served with churros, fried doughsticks that seduce about a quarter of visitors and repel the rest.