I drink too much. I know this. My poor long-suffering liver knows this. Even observers both close and distant have noticed this. It’s the curse of a) being obsessed with wine, b) working in the world of wine and c) living in a country where my obsession is both high quality, readily accessible and cheap. It doesn’t help that I produce drinking videos, write blogs about booze and, clearly, have a podcast/blog dedicated to wine. But I’m no alcoholic.

I have my own rules of drinking:

  1. I never drink at home alone – unless the situation is drastic and for whatever the reason I’m having the worst day imaginable.
  2. I won’t drink for drinking’s sake – there needs to be at least some semblance of a point (and that can be as light as a sunny afternoon on a terrace).
  3. I don’t drink until I’m blind drunk and I regret the rare time’s it has happened.
  4. I try not to mix. If I’m on wine, it’s wine. If gin and tonic, then gin it is.

This got me thinking about the differences between the drinking cultures of my two homes – UK, the home of the past and Spain, the home of the now. I loved my time in Russia, but to start talking about the drinking culture there, well, we’d be here all day. I thought it would be interesting to look at the general ways the two countries drink, gazing through my own very personal and fuzzy lens.

UK

This, logically, was my first exposure to drinking. I shall precede this by saying that I never got drunk until I was 18 years old and in the first year of university.

I was never interested in drinking alcohol – I may have had the odd Bacardi Breezer at my friend Ollie’s house as a teenager – but just looking at the culture around me, what it did to people, was enough to put me off.

In the UK people – and of course I am painting with wildly broad brushstrokes here – seemed to be drinking to escape, forget, release, unleash, as opposed to really enjoying themselves. Every Friday and Saturday night, and nothing has changed, from the largest cities to the smallest towns – in my case Thames town Maidenhead – people could be seen at 1am, blind drunk; shouting, vomiting, fighting, weeping, having their backs rubbed as they sat on the curb, talking to the owners of the kebab shop as they clumsily shovelled low-grade meat and chips into their mouths, hollering at girls, hollering back at the boys.

It seemed, it seems, that a weekend evening is a failure unless you finish wobbling around with your cerebral faculties relegated to being a confused, angry or emotional gloop sloshing around your head.

I drank at university of course, but within a year had found my limits and would rarely return to the point where I wasn’t at least mostly in control of my senses.

In the second year I started to get into Port and crappy off-dry rosés. Classic gateway wines.

In the third year – abroad in Spain and Russia – I had got into beer and spirits and no longer liked sweet drinks.

In the fourth year I found both tea, coffee and wine to my taste. It became more about going to the pubs with friends and drinking local Somerset ales and ciders and being in good company. Very seldom were the times we could be bothered to go to a club or disco: noise, drunk people and dancing. The opposite of a good time.

Regarding wine, often the problem with the UK is two-fold:

  1. The way we drink – getting blitzed at the weekend. The idea of having a relaxed glass of wine for lunch is almost unimaginable.
  2. The price – the simple fact is that a lot of alcohol, especially wine, is quite expensive. So Mon-Thurs you take your foot off the gas, and then slam it down hard at the weekend to reward yourself.

Remember I’m looking at this through my not-quite-thirty-years-old goggles. My parents, indeed a lot of middle-aged and up people, tend to be more Mediterranean in their consumption.

Spain

Now, in the same way that not everyone is always going out and getting wasted in the UK, not everyone in Spain is an angel that never gets drunk. My goodness they do. But the tone is different.

I initially thought I was in paradise when I arrived in Madrid, for the simple reason that I could get bottles of very drinkable wines for the price of a glass of it in the UK. Hell, I could buy a litre of wine, though less palatable, for a euro. What was this alcoholic wizardry? I was young, surrounded by expats – teachers – and we drank. We had house parties, went out on the weekends and that was that. Cheap booze.

Quickly, via experiences as varied as eating arroz con bogavante (lobster stewed in rice) served with a crisp Martín Codax albariño in Guadalajara, a visit to Viña Tondonia in La Rioja where I was lucky to befriend the family – and to this day still receive a Christmas card from them, and drinking cold porcelain cups of Ribeiro wine in A Coruña with plates of steaming mussels, I started to love wine the way the Spanish did.

It all came down to interest and food culture. This was a country where the people drank their wine when they ate – indeed the Ministry of Agriculture officially recognises wine as a ‘food stuff’ and not a ‘booze’.

This was a country where on a Friday night if someone said ‘fancy grabbing a drink’ it didn’t mean ‘fancy getting blind drunk and vomiting in a policeman’s hat?’ It meant let’s have a drink with a nibble to go with it.

This was a country where restaurants, bars, clubs, were all open later. A place were there was no stress and social pressure to pound drinks and get as much booze in you before the inevitable ‘Last orders!’ was yelled to the ding dong of the pub bell. Here you had another drink if you wanted one, not ordering one to boost your level of inebriation.

This was a country were people got drunk, but as a choice or a bi-product of a nice time with friends. It wasn’t the aim of the night. And in over 7 years of living here, none of my friends have ever said ‘let’s get wasted’ and genuinely meant it.

It is a happier, less stressful, cheaper, tastier, slower, more social, amiable, and gratifying way of drinking. And yes, occasionally to the point where the act of walking in a straight line seems the most monumental complicated thing. And that’s how I prefer it.

Salud!


If you come to Madrid, which of course, we hope you do. If you go into a modern or classic little Spanish tapas bar, which of course, we hope you do. And if you order a wine, which of course, you should, you’ll often have limited options. You ask for a vino tinto, and will almost always be given a Tempranillo from Rioja – although these days it is common to be offered a Ribera del Duero. Ask for a vino blanco, and you’ll be proffered a goblet of Verdejo from Rueda – though, again, sometimes Albariño from Rías Baixas makes an appearance.

Across most of Castille – both Castilla y León and La Mancha – and Madrid, Extremadura, and Andalucía the most common white wine is always Verdejo. Go most other places and that exotically named grape is still there, accompanied with her productive little region of Rueda. It’s the most well-known grape and region pairing that no-one has heard of!

So today it’s time to meet Verdejo: Spain’s quiet signature grape.

The Grape:

  • The juicy green gapes were brought to Spain probably sometime in the 11th century by the Mozarabs coming from the north of Africa.
  • The first vines were planted in the small but sensationally productive region of Rueda, 175km northwest of Madrid. There are fewer than 60 bodegas in the area, but the grape has become synonymous with the area. Pure terroir.
  • It seems to be the daughter of Savagnin and Castellana Blanca.
  • The name stems from the Spanish for green, verde. The viticultural version of ‘say what you see’ as they are famed for their green-blue bloom.
  • In 2010, Australia got a taste for the grape and started to plant it.
  • The grape is ideally suited to the poor soils and harsh environment present in Rueda; a region that can drop 25 degrees celsius at nighttime.
  • The climate of the meseta is also handy, because Verdejo has a high susceptibility to Powdery mildew fungal disease. The complete dryness doesn’t allow the humidity-loving growth of the fungus.
  • It’s only really in the last 40-odd years that Verdejo from Rueda has come into its own. For a long time it was used in Spain to produce a strong Sherry-like wine.
  • It wasn’t until 70s, with the Rioja giant Marqués de Riscal seeing its potential, that Verdejo began to be used to make fresh and crisp still wines.
  • It’s a fairly venerable Spanish denominación de origen, formed in 1980.
  • The grapes, like many in hot climates, are generally harvested at night. The cooler temperatures will protect the grapes and mean they won’t start to oxidise.
  • As per usual, Verdejo has myriad other names, though generally they are not common but they are wonderful to look at: boto de gall, botón de gallo blanco, cepa de madrigal, gouvelo, verdal del país, verdeja, verdeja blanca.

The Wines:

  • Verdejo as a wine, especially when showing its full expression in Rueda, is famed for its slightly green-tinted straw colour and aromatic and almost herbaceous aroma.
  • It’s not dissimilar to Sauvignon Blanc or a big Pinot Gris. Some laurel, bitter almonds, lemons and citrus are all found on the nose. The palate is smooth and quite full and has sharp acidity.
  • Be aware Verdejo can be rather unappealing if not served chilled enough, sometimes too alcoholic and petrolly. But when chilled correctly is an utter delight.
  • Verdejo can take to ageing quite well, turning almost nutty. That being said, it is not overly common; many producers believing that you lose the intrinsic qualities that Verdejo is good for.
  • The grape, due to the similarity of the vines and name, is sometimes confused with Verdelho. They are not the same. And that’s that.
  • Verdejo is often mixed with Sauvignon Blanc or Macabeo.
  • Due to the acidity of the wines, Verdejo is almost the perfect food pairing white wine.
    • It goes very well with seafood and shellfish.
    • Salty or matured food like strong cheeses pair brilliantly.
    • Verdejo also can go toe to toe with ‘exotic’ food like Thai or Chinese and even spicy food – though, as stated prior, make sure it’s well-chilled!
  • The wines, to be called Rueda Verdejo must be 85% Verdejo. Usually, to show it off fully, producers are more likely to produce 100% wines.
  • Despite finding its spiritual home in Rueda, the largest planting of the grape is actually in Extremadura followed by Castilla La Mancha.

So, even though the boozing populace of Madrid may either a) be bored of Verdejo these days or b) take it for granted, there is no doubting or ignoring the fact that this little green juice bomb has been carrying Spain’s greatest cities, its most famous socialites, its hardy workers and its tiniest villages, into various states of inebriation for centuries.

Verdejo (and Rueda) are owed a debt of soused thanks from a lot of Spain. When all else fails and the cabinets and shelves are running dry, there’s always Verdejo, smiling down at you and saying ‘Hola, pop me in the fridge a while and then drink me!’


A couple of years ago I walked an elongated version of the Camino de Santiago. 51 days and about 1200km. The most famous route is from France in the little village of St-Jean-Pied-de-Port to the ancient holy city of Santiago de Compostela. I published a book about it called, quite originally, El Camino, and then essentially put it neatly behind me into my past. Now I recall my journey and think to myself, as well as the Camino de Santiago, it could quite easily be named the Camino de Vino. For there was a lot of wine. The Spanish have been at it, wine-making that is, since the Phoenicians and Romans.

If we focus, for the sake of brevity and sanity, on the principal and most famous route, the camino francés, we are talking about a 780km walk from east to west along a millennia-old pilgrim track. Spain has 70 denominaciones de origen (D.O.), demarcated wine regions, so statistically it makes sense that one would pass through at least a few of them.

Coming down tired and sore from the Pyrenees on day one, you enter the old kingdom of Navarra, which, handily, happens to be a D.O. It is an odd region that is as varied as it is attractive. From Swiss-style green peaks dotted with chalet toy towns with Basque names like Linzoain, Zubiri, Aurtiz, to ancient medieval cities like Pamplona, Estella and Puente la Reina, Navarra has long been the pilgrim gateway to Spain.

And, after a long walk, you want a glass of wine or five. As a region for red wine it is quite far behind a lot of the other great regions, though they are tasty, they are also rather unpolished and often a little unexciting and simple. But they do the job. Navarra’s magic lies in its rosés and is arguably the best region in Spain for reliable versions of the dark pink Spanish chilled wine.

Around the village of Cirauqui, trellised wines snake up to its little mount and at the old former Benedictine monastery of Irache there is a pilgrim wine fountain dispensing free red to walkers. Take your plastic bottle and fill it up. The tap wasn’t working when I passed by the morning of my walk so I would have to imagine how it tasted.

A few days later and the pilgrim hauls his tired frame into the old quartermaster of the Spanish wine world: La Rioja. It was rare to have a view that didn’t include kilometres and kilometres of vineyards. Spring had left the surrounding fields velvety and green with long grasses. It was almost a Spanish Tuscany without the Cyprus trees.

We wouldn’t have dreamed of ordering anything except the local wine in these towns – Navarrete, Nájera, Santo Domingo de la Calzada; all small church-filled places. But the crown was given to Logroño and its obscene number of bars. Tapas bar after tapas bar offering a full list of local producers and their wines; usually none more than a couple of euros a glass, and served with the famed speciality nibbles: potatoes cooked with peppers and chorizo, stuffed mushrooms, fried pig snouts, little sandwiches.

We rubbed our heads and in the morning blinked clear the hangovers as we approached the much-scorned yet bleak beauty and expanses of the meseta. The 200km long flat-as-a-pancake plateau. The topography had simmered down to nearly zero. There were a few soft rises and dips but not a vineyard in sight. We were walking west and shadowing another behemoth region: Ribera del Duero, which lay 85km to the south.

As compensation for this we continued to do what we did every day: get up early, walk between 20-40km, arrive at our destination, and open and drink an unhealthy amount of local wine. Fortunately, as we drifted from Burgos to Frómista, to Carrión de los Condes, to Castrojeriz, to Sahagún, this local wine happened to be those dark liquorice-filled yet smooth beasts of Ribera.

After the monument-filled and genteel old city of León, it was high time we walked through a D.O. again. This time was Bierzo, the floral wonderland of the far west part of Castilla y León. The land grow bouncy and hilly again, and then the mountains brought a new architecture; stone houses with distinctive grey slate roofs.

The vineyards of Bierzo showed off their drama as they slid over warm green slopes in the foreground as snow-tipped peaks danced in the back. Little ladies in round hats were pruning the vines around the postcard-perfect villages of Molinaseca, Villafranca del Bierzo, Valtuille de Arriba. In Bierzo, for red wines, the Mencía grape was king. It is a grape I have described before as the Pinot Noir of Spain. Elegant, floral and lighter than the bolstered Tempranillos, hot Garnachas and inky Monastrells of the rest of Spain. Here, with the moderate climate, retaining heat in summer but overall more mild in all seasons, red fruits, violets and a pleasing minerality fill these suave wines. Many fuzzy mornings were had.

Finally the world was drowned in green as I entered the mystical Celtic lands of Galicia. Here the temperatures drop and the humidity and rainfall increase. There are reds, good reds, to be had in this region, but the superstars are the whites.

At Portomarín we brushed the top of D.O. Ribeira Sacra, a fecund valley sliced in two by the Sil river; famous for its grand canyon. Here again Mencía was the dominant red. They had a different aspect to the darker wines of Bierzo, lacking the heavier fruit punch. They were dangerously drinkable, light and fruity but still had that classic minerality, poetically linked to the steep slate hillsides on which the Mencía grape grows.

And so to Santiago de Compostela I arrived. I had been lashed with rain and had sweated through shirts, been pummelled with hail storms and blown about by gales, often on the same day, but after 47 days I had finally arrived at that moss-covered religious relic where St James lay, dead as dust in his box.

However there was one more region to drink. Split into five sub-zones, D.O. Rías Baixas spreads itself out along the lower western fjord-like estuaries of Galicia. They share the space with cute Scandiweigian villages, broad sandy bays, eucalyptus forests and fishermen. They also make Spain’s best white wines using the Albariño grape.

The day after I arrived I headed north up to the shipwreck-riddled Costa da Morte, coast of death, on the vineyard-less Rías Altas, but for now, in Santiago, I could at least feel fairly close to some vineyards. There is a sub-zone – Ribera del Ulla – that creeps in land and leaves the fjords, and sits just 10km or so south of the city. So we drank our fill.

Albariño in its Galician homeland is a joy to drink; bracing acidity and fresh lemony flavours and melons and apricots too sometimes. They can be creamy if left on the lees or almost effervescently mimicking the Vinho Verdes of Portugal. And, when paired with seafood – the region’s speciality – it makes the drinker emit sounds that are best left to the privacy of one’s home.

I finished the Camino de Santiago with firmed buttocks and calf muscles, the same belly, and, probably a liver that had packed up and died in the corner of the room. St. James might be shocked if he ever came back one day to realise that his Camino de Santiago is really the Camino de Vino.


Over here in Spain we have a lot of different grapes, both red and white, that we plant throughout our more than one million hectares of vineyards. That being said, if you ask anyone about Spanish wine they’ll probably say ‘Um…Rioja? Red wine?…Tempranillo?’ And they would be right on all three counts. Spain is mostly famous for those three things. Its reds are more famous and better-regarded in the market than its whites and Rioja is the most venerable and venerated region in the country. However, its time to zoom in on something else.

Today we meet Tempranillo: Spain’s superstar grape.

The Grape:

  • A classic Spanish thick-skinned beastie. This is the country’s answer to Cabernet Sauvignon, though according to wine kingpin Telmo Rodriguez it has the characteristic of Pinot Noir to show off terroir down to the village.
  • There is more than 30,000 hectares of it grown in Spain; and over 60% of that is in Rioja.
  • The name Tempranillo comes from the word temprano, ‘early’, because of the grape’s propensity to ripen early.
  • It’s been here in Spain for quite a long time indeed. It has been grown here since the Phoenicians arrived in 1100BC.
  • Its fairly short growing cycle means it can thrive in fairly harsh climates such as Rioja Baja, Ribera del Duero and Toro.
  • In Rioja it is often blended with Garnacha, Mazuelo, Graciano and Viura.
  • Just to be confusing, Tempranillo goes by many other names; so look out for:
    • Tinta de Toro
    • Tinto del País
    • Tinto Fino
    • Cencibel
    • Ull de Liebre
  • There are 500 variations in total. So that’s a lot of names and personalities.
  • Also grown in smaller quantities in Portugal (known as Roriz), USA, Argentina, South Africa, France and Australia.

The Wines:

Of course this is going to depend a lot on the region where it is grown, both in Spain and around the world. Everything from climate to soil; from regional grape variations to the quality and talent of the winemakers themselves. Here’s a quick breakdown of three distinct styles.

  • Rioja:
    • The climate is generally more moderate in the principal regions of Rioja Alta and Alavesa.
    • The resulting wines are the classic all rounders. Mr. Medium. Medium-body, medium-acidic, medium-tannin. Elegance and sometimes quite dainty flavours and aromas shimmer out from good Riojas.
    • The cooler temperatures bring out gentle touches of strawberry and other red fruits.
    • Famously spicy and leathery, smoothened with sweet spices and vanilla, when aged. Rioja just loves to age their wines!
  • Ribera del Duero:
    • A warmer climate with both brutal winters and summers. Swinging from -18C to 40C.
    • Also looking at medium-acidity and tannin, though a little more full-bodied than the Riojas.
    • The wines are darker here; inkier with plummy and blackberry fruits abounding. These are bigger and more masculine wines that yearn for cooked meats, yet still retain their suave style.
    • Also loves a bit of ageing in barrels à la Rioja.
  • Toro:
    • A very hot and stark region, whose climatological violence is represented in its wines.
    • The wines historically, and we are talking medieval fame here, were heavyweights. Without care and intense management the alcohol will shoot up to 16% and beyond when you’re not looking. The bull has been tamed in recent decades and an elegance is creeping in.
    • The heat punch is presented in both big booze, big body and big dark fruits like blackberries and sloes and rusticity.
    • Known for being the kind of wine that slaps you in the face and reminds you it means business, Toro wines are often blasted with American oak to soften them.
    • These hefty, jammy wines also follow the Rioja system of ageing and do take to it well.

All this being said, Spain as a country is so diverse geographically, climatically, and topographically, that trying to pen down one style of Tempranillo is almost impossible. It can be grown in both moderate temperature areas and screaming hot ones; from low gentle valleys to the highest mesetas a kilometre in the air. This noble grape’s genius has been its ability and willingness to let the country throw it about this way and that; to test its limits with some of the harshest winters and highest temperatures on the continent.

In the hands of great winemakers Tempranillo can take many forms, but it is and will always be the joyous ruby grandmaster of Spain and is unlikely to be toppled any time soon.


The act of pairing hopefully good food with hopefully good wine is one of the most important facets of the drink. In smarter restaurants sommeliers are there to aid the client in choosing the correct wine to go with whatever dish is ordered. At home you must rely on old adages and rules.

Red wine goes with red meats and heavier food.

White wine goes with white meats, fish and greenery.

Rosé wine is ignored.

Sparkling wine is for celebrations, right?

Sweet wines are for desserts.

Etc.

Now, these old tricks are based in logic, but of course, as with everything in life, nothing is that simple. Here at SWE, and indeed here in Spain, the most important thing is that you are drinking a wine you like and are having a good time. It’s no use drinking a bottle of red wine with your steak and chips if it cost you 1.50€ and is disgusting just because it’s red. Similarly the detail to which you could dive head first into the act of food/wine harmonies is as great as the range of food and wines themselves. Having a fairly spicy Indian curry? Have an off dry or semi-sweet chilled German Riesling. Having a sweet and spicy BBQ? Try a big Malbec.

Generally speaking there are tastebud sensations at work that will affect the perception of flavour of both the food and the wine when they hit your tongue.

ACIDIC FOOD: Best to pair with high acidity wines. E.g. Lemony grilled fish and shrimp with Albariño.

  • When food is acid, the perception of body, sweetness and fruitiness goes UP; but the perception of acidity goes DOWN.

BITTER FOOD: Best to pair with low or non-tannic wines, perhaps with salinity or a touch of sweetness. E.g. Almonds and olives with sweet, red vermouth.

  • When food if bitter, the bitterness in the wine goes UP.

SPICY FOOD: Tricky, but cold off-sweet or sweet wines will work here. If in doubt, have a beer. E.g. Indian curry with German Riesling.

  • When food is spicy, the perception of bitterness, acidity and alcohol burn goes UP; and the perception of body, richness, sweetness and fruitiness goes DOWN.

SWEET FOOD: Best to pair with sweet wines as it’ll make dry wines taste bitter. E.g. Sauternes with dessert. Anomaly? Port and strong blue cheese.

  • When food is sweet, the perception of bitterness, acidity and alcohol burn goes UP; but the perception of body, sweetness and fruitiness goes DOWN.

RICH FOOD: Fatty, heavy, salty and rich food are best paired with high-tannin or acidic wines. E.g. Steak and chips with Rioja.

  • When food is salty, the perception of body in the wine goes UP; but the perception of bitterness and acidity in the wine goes DOWN.

Generally speaking, the more complicated, aged, sweet, or structured the wine is, the more complicated it will be to pair. Younger, unoaked wines are always less stressful.

The other, less sciency way of looking at it is to think about generally what kinds of food generally pair well with wine types. Here is the SWE shortlist on what to pair your wine with. General consumers only. Don’t get angry at us sommeliers.

Reds

Red meat, cured meat, white meat, cheeses, spices

Though lighter, slightly chilled reds, like young Pinot Noir, Beaujolais, Garnacha, could pair with heavier fish.

Rosé

Cured meat, white meat, shellfish, fish, cheese, vegetables, spices

Rosé, though much lambasted incorrectly, is one of the great pairing wines when dry.

Whites

Cured meat, white meat, shellfish, fish, cheese, vegetables

Sparkling

Cured meat, white meat, shellfish, fish, cheeses, vegetables, spices, dessert

Another of the world’s great pairing wines. Young Champagnes and Cavas go with almost everything.

So, as you can see, there’s a lot of nuances and variations. But if there was one golden rule, just one, to help you navigate the world of food and wine pairing? Match like for like. Sweet with sweet; heavy with heavy; light with light; acidic with acidic etc.