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.