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!


The relationship of people and wine is clearly different depending on the geographic region. In Spain, as in other Mediterranean countries, wine is a beverage very close to the lives of people, day by day, something that has its origin in Western civilizations. The image of a bottle of wine on the table at lunch or dinner time has been normal since we were children and, perhaps, precisely for that reason wine is considered in southern Europe more as a food than an alcoholic beverage.

I remember my grandparents providing their kitchen with wine in the same way they did with bread, vegetables or meat. I remember my grandfather appearing right before dinnertime with those big bottles of wine purchased in bulk: he bought them directly from the winery in litres. He arrived there with those bottles filled with wine, a low but acceptable quality one, to accompany their lunch and dinner.

On the table it was served in a porrón, a jug, a very curious glass container, no more than eight inches high, with a remarkable bulging belly, a long spout pointed end where the wine came out and a neck which my grandfather held in order to pour the liquid directly into his mouth. The beauty of the porrón is that it can be shared among several people without the need for glasses. The invention of porrón is Spanish, so do not run to buy it at Ikea because you will not find it in their kitchen items section. My grandparents shared this strange contraption during their meals and I even tried to use it. It was not easy to figure out where the jet of wine would finish, and on more than one occasion I ended up with a face full of the precious liquid.

My grandfather also used to store his wine in a bota, a teardrop-shaped container made of goatskin. It was always hanging on the kitchen door, and it always accompanied him during his hunting days, slung on his shoulder, as if it were a water canteen. On cold mornings my grandfather went to the mountain in search of rabbits or partridges and it was a good way to get him warm. I squeezed the tummy of the bota to see if it was full or not. He used to keep it always full, said the wine was cured in it and that it was a way to keep the leather moistened. He drank from it in the same way he used the porrón. He held it up and squeezed the wine jet into his mouth.

But it wasn’t only the porrón or bota that were used in Spanish houses. If something can surprise foreigners it is that it is not usual in our towns to drink wine in glasses (goblets), but rather in low or flat glasses. Across the country they get different names as chatos or txikitos in the Basque Country. Don’t be shy, if you are traveling around Spanish towns and enter a bar, ask for a glass of wine, they will serve you a small glass of house wine, surely. You will be also impressed by the price. A while ago, Luke and I traveled to a small town near Madrid, Morata de Tajuña, during its festivals, looking for some famous chocolate palmeritas which we had heard about. At lunch we ordered some chatos that cost us 50 cents each. We stared each other contentedly. Those chatos were a yes-to-life.

In Spain it is usual to make a stop at mid-morning in bars or taverns to consume a small amount of wine and put something in the stomach to kill the bug that stings around noon and which has to be calmed down if you want to hold out until 2 or 3pm; that is when you have lunch in Spain. It seems curious that the aperitif time in Spain is at high noon and not in the afternoon, as the Italians do. But please, pull yourselves together: just get in, ask for a tortilla tapa or whatever comes from the kitchen bar and a glass of wine. Enough. We will continue our activity after that. A glass of wine will not get you drunk. You will be able to continue your activity without problem.

If you stop to eat the famous Menú del día, the daily menu, consisting in two dishes, dessert and a drink, you will notice that a glass of wine is included in the price, that can cost from 9 to 15 euros. In some places they will even leave a bottle of wine on the table. Yes, the waiter will leave it there and you can serve as many drinks as you want. For real. You will not be charged for the whole bottle. We are not used in Spain to serve in fraschette as they do in Italy, in quarters or half a littre. Or bottles or glasses or in clay jars, also very popular.

You’d be surprised by amount of wine we consume in this country and yet maintain a very restrained rate of alcoholism. Wine is consumed in Spain with a naturalness that makes it look like an alcoholic beverage. But it isn’t, really. In fact it’s not surprising that many nightclubs do not even have wine on their drinks menu, and of course, you will never find it in discos. Wine, like I said before, is more related to the table and food, as if it is considered part of nutrition, rather than a product related to fun and leisure.

It is so related to our culture that we call Spanish Wine, Vino español, not only to our wine but also to the act of drinking as a social act, for example after an event, an exhibition or any celebration where you want to make a toast. It’s what is called in other countries a ‘cocktail’.

As you can see, what we can learn from the way the Spanish people drink wine is that normalization of wine at home leads to a more responsible use of it.

In theory 😉

 


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.