Cheeseburger

Cheeseburgers are probably the first things that come to my mind when I think about American food. They are not my favourite, but I must confess I’ve succumbed to temptation on more than one occasion. It’s that perfect blend of meat and cheese that makes them irresistible. As much as people now want to complicate them, their preparation is very simple. It is a classic that can not be missed at any summer barbecue. In fact the numbers speak for themselves: 13 billion units were served in 2009 in the United States. Moreover, it is only the first step towards a world of infinite combinations with tomato, bacon, onion, pickles, lettuce, ketchup, mayonnaise, mustard… And so, to infinity and beyond.

My proposal is to combine this king of the kitchen with the king of wines in Spain. I would go with a red Rioja. Besides being an easy wine to find, I think the classiness of the wine contrasts with the irreverence of the cheeseburger.

Mac and Cheese

If you want to see an Italian writhe and squirm like a slug on a handful of salt just give him this recipe. It is a recipe that could not be further away from conservatism of the famous and sacred Italian pasta. But between you and me, who can resist the delicious combination of pasta and cheesy cream?

And what better to combine with the sweet flavour of this dish than a dry wine like Manzanilla. It’s one of those combinations that is, by its contrasts, really interesting, but tends to balance out both flavours. Sherry wines are recommended for combining with rice, seafood, white fish, soft cheeses and even ham, and now, why not, Mac and cheese.

Chicken casserole

This is probably one of my favorite dishes in American cuisine. I discovered it whilst diving mouth first into the world of Amish food. A lot of their recipes are based on these casseroles, all of them delicious, but especially this one with chicken. I’ve seen several variations on it that include peas, carrots and even corn. One of my dreams is to one day open a restaurant in Madrid where only Amish food is served.

In either case, my proposal is to pair this dish with an elegant wine from Rías Baixas; it would be the perfect companion. These wines are very versatile, they have a very balanced acidity and allow you to combine them with multiple dishes. The fruity hints of the wine will blend perfectly with the delicate flavours of the chicken casserole.

Hot dogs

Along with the burger, hot dogs are, by popular acclamation, one of the greatest dishes of American gastronomy. Popular all over the world, it is a very easy meal to eat while walking down the street, which explains why one of its most popular points of sale are those street kiosks. But let us bring the hot dog to a higher context, imagine that we are at home enjoying a movie or an interesting football game: it’s time to have a delicious hot dog.

Besides bread and sausage, the variety of seasonings and toppings that can be added is vast: ketchup, mayonnaise, mustard, pickles, fried onions, cheese… Everything seems to work well with that simple recipe of bread and sausage.

And if hot dogs are another star of American cuisine, I will propose to match them with one of the other kings of Spanish wines that I think works perfectly: Ribera del Duero. Two strong and different personalities that work perfectly together in your mouth.

Fried chicken

One of the most interesting contrasts that can be sampled in the world of Spanish wines is the one between bubbling cavas and especially greasy meals. It’s not surprising that one of the foods that better combines with this sparkling drink is the Iberian (Ibérico) ham. This is the reason why I have dared to pair fried chicken with this bubbly wine. Bring a bottle of Cava with you to your next picnic. The harmony is perfect between the fat-fried white meat of chicken and the acidity of the Cava. It does nothing but extol its flavours in perfect harmony.

Ribs

It’s time to get your hands dirty. And there is no better way than to eat delicious ribs painted with that sticky and scrumptious barbecue sauce, cooked as slowly as possible. In contrast with the rushed and fast-food image of burgers and hot dogs, it’s not easy to find an American recipe that requires so much time and pampering as the famous pork ribs.

The combination of seasoning and mustard and barbecue sauce requires a wine with character, so I opted for a wine from Toro, a big and elegant wine, linked to the soil and traditions, to empower the timeless flavour of the ribs. Try this combination: it has a powerful mouthfeel and is simply delicious.

Meat Loaf

Finally, to close our round of pairings, I propose the classic dish of meatloaf. I love recipes whose base is ground meat. A similar dish to this, more European, is the famous shepherd’s pie. Occasionally, I cook it with Luke, guided by his wise and very British advice. Undoubtedly, however, American meatloaf has much more temperament, and the result is, perhaps, far more powerful.

Therefore I propose a wine that balances the powerful taste of the meatloaf, let’s try it with a red wine from Priorat. Sun-dried red and black plums, black cherry, and cassis will pair perfectly with those countless flavours exploding in your mouth.


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.


If you don’t like wine at all stop reading now. Or at least sort your mouth and then come back. If you do like it, are a bit of a wino or live in or are travelling around Spain, then this article is for you.

In 2014, wine guru and boozy bigwig Robert Parker – he of America’s famed Parker Points system for classifying wines for the consumer – said that Spain was the country with the best quality-price ratio for wines. At SWE we couldn’t agree more and with 70 official Denominaciones de Origen (demarcated wine regions – DO) there are a lot of places to try and drink dry.

As well as a number of grapes grown, both local and international, the sheer variety of terroir – land types – in Spain is what makes it such a fascinating country to ruin your liver in. From high and dry mesetas and valleys to deserts and maritime plains, and from moderate mountain enclaves to fecund vales and glades, Spain really has it all. So, without further ado, here are 7 different regions and recommended grapes for you to seek out and pour into your beckoning glass. And there’s not a Rioja or Cava in sight!

Rías Baixas (Albariño)

If Norway went off and had a wild sweaty romance with Ireland the resulting child would look a lot like Galicia. Marooned off in the far northwest corner of Spain, Galicia is where the country’s best food, wettest weather, and sometimes most poetic countryside comes from. It’s a land of fjord-like estuaries (rías) and eucalyptus forests, of canyons and hills and more green than you can shake a Dulux colour card at. Gastronomy wise it boasts the best combination in the country: seafood and white wine.
The Rías Baixas (the lower fjords) are where the busy bunches of blushed green grapes can be found growing; most famously around the charming waterside town of Cambados. The wines are very aromatic, like a Viognier or Gewürztraminer, and fill the nose with peaches, green apples and apricots; sometimes with the slightest touch of saltiness. In the mouth the wines are pleasingly dry, but with a hint of fruit, and with the variety’s famed refreshing acidity that pairs so well with plates heaped up with grilled shellfish or boiled octopus.
Albariño wines (one of the few Spanish wines ordered by grape and not region often) are now quite well exported so get drinking!

Jumilla (Monastrell)

Where the northwest of Spain is fecund and rain-spattered, the deep southeast couldn’t be more different. It is essentially a fairly poor semi-arid desert zone with only about 300mm of rain a year (Galicia approaches 2000mm in some areas). You might rightly think why on earth would you make wine here?
To make good wine, the grapes have to suffer. You don’t want to pander to the them and be all nice, but neither do you want them to die.
Too much water? They bloat up, get diluted flavours, and sometimes burst.
Not enough sunlight? They don’t ripen.
Too little water? They dry out.
They love sun though. So with a hot and dry climate you can get a lot of ripe flavours from your grapes as long as you control irrigation and nutrients so your agricultural sadism doesn’t actually slaughter your crop.
In Murcia and the DO of Jumilla there is really one king of the grapes: Monastrell. The heat and the intensity of the landscape is reflected in the wines. Intense and jammy, these hardy grapes produce wines that are inky dark and bursting with dried red and black fruits like blackberry preserves and chocolatey plums. They are pretty enormous in the glass but have a restrained elegance that the next region often doesn’t have. Drink…drink now!

Toro (Tempranillo – Tinta de Toro)

Tempranillo is very much the overlord of Spanish wine and is the superstar grape that put Spain on the wine map. In its most recognised form it takes a leaf out of the Cab Sav/Sangiovese handbook by providing medium to full-bodied reds. Though due to the thinner skins you get less overt tannic heft. Rioja, the most famous region, gives leathery red fruits while Ribera del Duero gives silkier black fruits.
In and around the town of Toro you find a livelier expression of the Tempranillo grape called Tinta de Toro. The name of the town, Bull, should make sense once you wrap your yearning chops around one of the these wines. They often lack a touch of elegance but hell they make up for it in power and force. The cheaper brands can err on the side of austereness but a good Toro is a big, broody, boozy beast that makes you smile and think ‘yep, this certainly is a red wine’. Strawberries and coulis can be found on the nose but then so can bosky fruits that you’d pluck from hedges in autumn. This is one bull you want to get in a ring with!

Montsant (Garnacha)

Only a couple of hours inland from Barcelona lies the wonderful DO of Montsant. A world of Colorado-style cliffs and emerald peaks and bumps that encircles the more famous, prestigious (and expensive) DO Priorat. A Garnacha (or Grenache) from Montsant will make you smile and look around quickly for a steak and a drinking partner.
Garnacha when in its more famed home of Campo de Borja or Calatayud often produces pleasingly light, fruity, full-bodied reds like Californian Pinot Noirs with a bit more peppery oomph.
From the hidden world of Montsant the grape seems to change, and unshackle itself from its lightweight overcoat. Perhaps it’s the whiff of regional independence in the air, but these Catalan Garnachas, take on a power and sensuality not so often associated with it. Plummy and smooth, with some ripe red fruits over the top, these wines are some of the harder ones here to find but we urge you to try your best.

Bierzo (Mencía)

You can keep your overpriced Burgundy Reds and elbow-budge the, in fairness really damn tasty, Pinot Noirs out of the way as Spain’s hotter and more passionate cousin is in town. If Pinot is Audrey Hepburn, then Mencía is Penélope Cruz. The ‘Spanish Enchantress’; able to straddle both elegance and fiery sexiness depending on the moment.
We find these grapes in a couple of regions in Spain (Ribeira Sacra is also a knockout) and Portugal, but those from the flowery Garden of Eden area of the Bierzo in northwest Castilla y León, are easier to find. This a region of bracing mountains and semi-mythical towns whose combination of altitude, plains, and temperature variations helps make truly delightful and dangerously drinkable wines.
The aromas and the palate are awash with flowery strawberries, sour cherry, pomegranates and some sweet spices all undercut with a mineral flintiness. Very good to just drink by itself – although we don’t really know which wine isn’t – it also goes great with hearty meats and strong cheeses.

Costers del Segre (Macabeo, parellada, xarel-lo)

Now this region is a little more of a challenge to find, even for those living in Spain, but it is so worth it. The Costers del Segre DO is a weird fragmented scattering of subzones and villages – each with their own characteristics – that spread out from the banks of the Segre river near the old city of Lleida in inland Catalonia.
For us the beauty of this region is its use of local grapes – read ‘unusual grapes with funny names’ – to make some astonishing white wines. Spain’s most famous bubbly wine is Cava; a wine made in the same traditional method as Champagne but sold for a fraction of the price. The traditional blend of grapes for this sparkling booze is Macabeo, Parellada and Xarel-lo.
What you can find hiding away in those distant river valley plains a couple of hours from Barcelona, are still white wines made from the same combination.
Limes and tropical fruits like passionfruit and grapefruits often slide creamily over the palate. They have a lovely mellow acidity to them and are the perfect accompaniment to plates of oven-baked fish, gooey tortillas or grilled vegetables.

Tierra de Castilla (Prieto Picudo)

This will test even the best booze-hounds among you. Tierra de Castilla is not a DO, it’s a VdlT (Vino de la Tierra); similar to Vin de Pays in France. This means that the wineries here work and make wines outside the strict and controlled limitations set by the DO: or it could mean they’re crap and not good enough to enter the DO.
The optimist in me likes this. I imagine renegade winemakers sticking it to the man and just making the wine they want to make, and selling it when they think it’s ready. VdlT wines can sometimes be more fun, tastier and kookier than their DO cousins. But then…sometimes…they can taste like garbage. It’s a very alcoholic and affordable game of boozy Russian roulette.
My favourite, if you can find it, is the Prieto Picudo grape (officially not allowed to be sold as a varietal wine in a DO). This grape packs a lovely punch of hot black cherries, smoky dark chocolate and peppery dustbowl blackberries that all clip together with a tangy acidity. Bloody tasty and usually great value, this is rebel wine.

Valdeorras (Godello)

The unsung hero of Spanish whites. Verdejo is the most drunk grape variety – especially from the region of Rueda; Albariño is undoubtedly the preening Lord of the land for those in the know; and Rioja, the old quartermaster of Spanish wine, produces premium Viura whites that topple both price lists and ‘best wine ever’ charts. But it’s the Godello at home in Valdeorras, that really brings a well-priced smile to our lips.
Valdeorras is apt as a name for this region: the Valley of Gold. It was here that two millennia ago the Romans carved out an otherworldly landscape of quarries and mines to hunt for shimmering nuggets. Now, in lieu of precious metals, the only gold coming out of this fertile and bumpy landscape is in liquid form.
It seems that Chardonnay met Albariño in a bar sometime in the 70s, got overly-affectionate, and nine months later produced Godello. A wonderfully aromatic grape that glitters with lemons, green apples and some exuberant pineapples in both the nose and in the mouth. The wines have texture and body and are somewhat mouth-watering. You need this wine in your life and you need it now.