One of the things that might attract the visitor’s attention most is that in Spain canned food has a consideration beyond subsistence food, military grub for dangerous missions or student flat food. It is a product of quality and luxury, whose price can sometimes reach striking figures. Enter a gourmet supermarket when you visit one of our provincial capitals and you will see what I mean. In Spain there is a long canning tradition. The variety is overwhelming: Santoña anchovies, foie gras, piquillo peppers, asparagus, bonito del norte, mussels and a long list of others.

The canning industry alone generates more than 250,000 tonnes of fish per year, some of which is exported – around 50%, and 80% of this is consumed in the European Union, where its quality is highly valued.  

But where does this tradition come from? In addition to being a country with a great deal of fishing and farming activity, it dates back to the 18th century, when death by scurvy on ships that spent a long time sailing on the high seas had become a real problem. It was Frenchman Nicolas Appert, who observed that foods boiled at more than 80ºC, and not exposed to air, lasted longer without spoiling.

The food then began to be packed in airless containers, which were later sterilized at temperatures to eliminate bacteria and other microorganisms. The result: a longer-lasting, tastier and more nutritious foodstuff.

It was not until the 19th century that the production of packaged food would take place industrially, first in glass jars and later in the popular tin containers.

The result not only prevented the spread of certain diseases, but also brought enormous health benefits. Protein, fatty acids of marine origin and polyunsaturates, omega-3…

For many people eating canned food is not at all glamorous, but canned food can reach levels of excellence as high as any other meal prepared for hours. But welcome to Spain! Here the preserves have rightly been given their place in the most demanding and exquisite pantries, so they deserve to be treated and combined with an appropriate wine, which enhances all their virtues.

Fish preserves combine perfectly with young wines: don’t be afraid, open a tin of sardines and enjoy it with a garnacha, a monastrell, a mencía or a rosé. On the other hand, if you prefer tuna or any of its relatives (bonito, melva…) choose a white wine with body, maybe some barrel.

Don’t forget to try our seafood preserves: the delicious clams, razors and cockles from northern Spain. If the seafood is packed in natural packaging, they will be perfect with the wines of the area: Rías Baixas or Ribeiro. If they are packed with sauces or fried, try a sherry.

Do you like anchovies? You can’t imagine the pleasure of savoring them accompanied by a Txakolí.

Have you ever been told that asparagus and artichokes are the great enemies of wine? Nothing could be further from the truth. A Sauvignon Blanc will put the sulfuric flavors and aromas of these vegetables in their place. In my case, I love artichokes and it’s always been a headache to find them a good companion. Here you have it: Amontillado wine.

And finally, I don’t want to say goodbye without mentioning the foies. Although I’m not a fan of them they marry spectacularly well with Pedro Ximenez.

Don’t hesitate. On your next visit to Spain let yourself be carried away by the fascinating world of canning. You will be pleasantly surprised, as well as discovering a new and wonderful souvenir to take home, for you and your friends.

 


On the Spanish Wine Experience we have already covered the two stars of Spanish red wines in Meet the Grape: Tempranillo and Garnacha. They are the Premiership of red grapes if you will. However, it is within Division One that you find more and more varied grape styles.

One of my favourite grapes, that so often goes under the radar and is often criminally underrepresented, still, in the bars, is a little spicy and minerally number from the northwest: Mencía.

When people think about Spanish wine, they often think of medium to full-bodied and berry fruit-forward reds á la Rioja and Ribera del Duero. However, hiding in that top part of Spain is a grape that creates a very different style of wine. Spain’s answer to Pinot Noir, Mencía is a grape that deserves to be a superstar.

So let’s meet the damn thing!

The Grape:

  • For a long time these medium-sized red wonders were thought to have been related to Cabernet Franc – but DNA profiling has proven this not to be true.
  • In fact it appears to be one of our native varieties, although possibly introduced by the Romans.
  • It is identical to Portugal’s grape Jaen.
  • It’s also locally known, as always it seems in this country, by other names: Loureiro Tinto, Negra, Negro, Tinto Mollar. But I’ve never seen these, so just stick with Mencía!
  • The grapes are high in sugar and have good acidity.
  • In Spain its home are the northwestern regions of Ribeira Sacra, Valdeorras and, maybe its pinnacle area, Bierzo. Though it can also be found in Tierra de León, Arribes and Monterrei denominaciones.
  • After the Phylloxera plague ravaged the country at the turn of the 18/19th century, masses of Mencía were replanted on the high-yielding fertile plains in that part of Spain. This resulted in famously diluted, pale and aromatic wines.
  • The grapes have recently been enjoying a huge revival Spain – look up wine heroes Alvaro Palacios and Telmo Rodriguez – with winemakers rediscovering old, low-yielding hillside plots of Mencía.
  • Generally the grape grows, and grows best, on schisty hillsides which, along with the low-yield, helps give intensity to the resulting wines.
  • Mencía is occasionally blended with other local varieties of the area: Sousón, Caíño Tinto, Brencellao, Merenzao.

The Wines:

  • If the wines used to be limp and uninspiring, they are now quite the opposite. They are wonderfully complex.
  • This complexity is especially pronounced on the nose thanks to Mencía’s high levels of terpenoids.
  • Dark fruits, flowery notes like violets, earth, minerals and black pepper abound.
  • The wines generally have a rather deep colour with lovely violet hues towards the rim.
  • They usually are medium bodied with a fairly decent yet supple acidity which makes good Mencía wines both refreshing and suave.
  • That acidity also makes Mencía wines great for food pairing: grilled and smoked meats (especially with peppery sauces), roasts, stews, strong cheeses like Manchego, cooked mushroom and tomato dishes.
  • The wines take well to a touch of chill, so are great for summer if you just leave the bottle in the fridge for 10 minutes before serving.
  • Mencía takes ageing well also, as it can be a little tannic. Ageing adds vanilla, nutmeg and other sweet spices.

If Tempranillo and Garnacha are the Premiership League of Spanish red wine grapes and spicy Mencía was always stuck in Division One, then I think its about time this brilliant grape – a personal favourite – was promoted!


Now it’s all well and good banging on about this wine or that wine, and of course you can buy them in the shops, but there’s nothing quite like seeing the land where the grapes grow and, if possible, visiting wineries.

All these mini itinerary trips require hiring a car and please, if you do them, try, where possible, to have a designated driver. The SWE team doesn’t want a lawsuit against them for promoting the acquiring of DUIs.

Have a look at these 6 regional Spanish road trips, set your own timetables to fit in with the ideas, and enjoy d(r)iving in the heart of the wine-lands!

1. Navarra/Rioja – two/three days

Start of the route: Estella

End of the route: Logroño

Recommended steps:

  1. After enjoying the historic centre of pretty Estella head out southwest along the NA-1110 and visit the Santa María de Irache monastery, its bodega and the free Tempranillo wine tap there pouring out DO Navarra red.
  2. Follow the NA-1110 past vineyards and the remote villages of the Camino de Santiago such as Los Arcos, Torres del Río and Viana to arrive at Logroño.
  3. In Logroño, capital of DO La Rioja, go out for tapas in the famous bar-filled streets around Calle Laurel and Calle San Agustín.
  4. Take the N-232a to the gorgeous hilltop town of Laguardia. Eat in one of the old taverns: pochas (bean stew), steak and potatoes with red peppers.
  5. Afterwards take a trip to maybe visit the Ysios winery, designed by Santiago Calatrava, or head just south a little on the A-3210 to the village of Elciego to visit the famed Marqués de Riscal winery designed by the Guggenheim’s Frank Gehry.
  6. Drive into the wine lands again through villages like San Vicente de Sonsierra and Briones and make your way to the capital of the La Rioja wine region: Haro.
  7. A visit to one of the great bodegas is a must (CUNE, Muga etc). My favourite is Bodegas López de Heredia Viña Tondonia with its ancient and dusty subterranean wine cellars and antiquated methods of production. For a more upmarket lunch head to historic Hotel los Agustinos.

2. Manchuela/Utiel-Requena – one/two days

Start of the route: Alcalá del Júcar

End of the route: Requena

Recommended Steps:

  1. Enjoy the delirious beauty of Alcalá del Júcar: take a drink at the Cuevas de Masago cave bar and have lunch/dinner and wine at El Moli restaurant.
  2. Head west along the Júcar river on the B-5 to the Jorquera viewpoint on the AB-880.
  3. Head north in the direction of Fuentealbilla and visit the winery Finca El Molar: a biodynamic place run by a young and friendly lady called Rus.
  4. Take the CM-3207 road east driving through the wine-lands of DO Manchuela.
  5. Stop just before the fairytale village of Cofrentes on the CV-439 for one of the most startling views in the whole area.
  6. Head north along the N-330 and the high undulating vine-covered fields of DO Utiel-Requena.
  7. Visit the old centre of Requena, like an Andalusian white town lost in the Valencia region.
  8. Enjoy a cheap tasting at the wine shop on Plaza del Salvador and then have a nice traditional meal at the friendly Mesón de la Villa.

3. Ribeira Sacra – one day

Start of the route: Os Peares

End of the route: Monforte de Lemos

Recommended steps:

  1. Head to the village Os Peares and turn onto the dramatic Sil Canyon road, LU-P-4103.
  2. Rejoin at the OU-0508 and continue on to the postcard-perfect viewpoint: Mirador de Vilouxe.
  3. Take the LU-903, which heads through the verdant green depths of the DO Ribeira Sacra wine-lands. Keep your eyes peeled for the Monasterio de San Paio de Abeleda near the village of O Couto and grab a glass or a bottle of local Mencía red wine at the Adega Ponte de Boga or one of the many other bodegas that little the area.
  4. Cross the canyon at its bottom and come up the other side past high-flung Doade and the famously steep vine-covered valley walls.
  5. End your day at Monforte Lemos, a calm town famed for its giant 18th century seminary, and enjoy a well-earned meal.

4. Jerez – one day

Start of the route: Jerez

End of the route: Jerez

Recommended steps:

  1. Start off your trip by looking around the dreamy old town in Jerez and stopping in at old bars like Tabanco San Pablo, for a local tipple.
  2. Head to the town’s oldest sherry winery – Fundador, started in 1730 – and go for a tour and tasting around its fascinating complex.
  3. Head west along the pretty A-480 road. On either side, for as far as the eye can make out, you can notice the distinct dry, almost, white albariza soils: a mixture of chalk, sand and clay. Vineyards surround you as you drive to Sanlúcar de Barrameda.
  4. Enjoy the views across the sands and lazy Guadalquivir estuary to the UNESCO-protected Doñana national park on the other side of the water. Enjoy cheap drinks and some fresh fish and flamenquín at Don Viento.
  5. Stroll up to the centre of the old town, perhaps ‘forcing’ yourself to have another sherry at the adorable Plaza de Cabildo.
  6. Have a final mosey through more of those typically white and endearingly scruffy white streets – occasionally shocked with colour – to Taberna der Guerrita for a tapa and yet more sherry.
  7. Choose your designated driver and head back to Jerez past the final wine-town of El Puerto de Santa María before taking the CA-201 and visiting the beautiful Carthusian charterhouse, Cartuja de Santa María de la Defensión.

5. Cariñena/Campo de Borja – one day

Start of the route: Zaragoza

End of the route: Borja

Recommended steps:

  1. Head south from Zaragoza on the A-222 towards the eerie and Civil War-ruined ghost town of Belchite.
  2. Head west along the A-220 keeping your eyes peeled just after leaving Belchite for the odd-looking Santuario de Nuestra Señora de Pueyo up on its private hill.
  3. Drive through the rumbling plains and vineyards of DO Cariñena and make for the attractive town of Borja; home of Bodegas Borsao, which Robert Parker said in 2016 was ‘My favourite value winery not only in Spain, but in the world…’
  4. Have food at La Bóveda del Mercado and make sure to accompany it with red wine: the speciality being made from the Garnacha grape. You are now in DO Campo de Borja, the ‘Empire of Garnacha’.
  5. Follow the small road north, that rises out of the town past beautiful vineyards, to the Santuario de Misericordia. Here you can see the amusing repainting of Ecce Homo when local octogenarian Cecilia Giménez tried, and spectacularly failed, to restore the fresco.
  6. Return towards the N-122 and take the road west, coming off at the Z-372. You’re now heading into the lush and mountainous beauty of the Moncayo Natural Park.
  7. Visit the imposing and ancient-looking Monasterio de Veruela and its well-set up wine museum. Also, of course, grab a drink there!

6. Bierzo – one day

Start of the route: Ponferrada

End of the route: Villafranca del Bierzo

Recommended steps:

  1. First head east along the LE-142 and check out some of the outrageously cute slate-tiled mountain villages typical of the area: Molinaseca, El Acebo de San Miguel, Foncebadón and, slightly further off, Rabanal del Camino.
  2. Check out the Templar Castle in Ponferrada and grab tapas in the old town at El Bodegón: famed for their spicy mussels, fried calamari and patatas bravas.
  3. Head west along the LE-713 to the wine town of Cacabelos and then try to grab a tour of the Godelia winery. You’ll start to notice that you are following pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago.
  4. Past dinky Pieros, take the offshoot road CV-126-32 to the ramshackle and diminutive wine-village Valtuille de Arriba. This whole area is surrounded by smooth multicoloured hills dotted as far as the eye can see with Mencía grapevines; Spain’s answer to Pinot Noir.
  5. Follow the country roads west – best to use a GPS here – to one of Spain’s most attractive small towns: Villafranca del Bierzo. Eat at the Casa de Comidas La Pedrera, with its pretty decor and garden.

There are myriad routes through cute villages and outstanding countryside in all 70 of the country’s denominaciones. So, when you’ve finished these 6, hire a car and make your own adventure!

Salud y buen camino!


Luke and Roque take a voyage into the unknown this week. They head to the region of Asturias and try a fascinating wine from DO Cangas of the Monasterio de Corias winery. Expect the usual stupidity and banter as they head deep into untested wine waters.

Check out our new episode!


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.