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!


Generally when people’s minds drift towards the world of wine and those history-covered countries that form Europe’s fiery underskirt, the Mediterranean, they may well chance upon Spain. If that happens they, they being my favourite kind of people – wine-drinkers – will probably think of something potent and red.

Despite having 70 wine regions and despite making every kind of wine imaginable (red, white, rosé, fortified, aromatised, sparkling, box, sweet, orange…the list goes on), your average Joe will probably instantly think of red, maybe Rioja; rarely white.

This is a shame because there are around 15 native varieties; and we plant everything from Chardonnay to Riesling.

Today we are going to meet the cream of the crop: Albariño.

The Grape:

  • The grape grows in fat bunches of little, perfectly spherical green-orange orbs with thick protective skins. This could be Spain’s answer to Pinot Gris/Grigio.
  • Saying the grape is small is an understatement. It’s the smallest white wine grape in the world.
  • The grapes are sweet and high in glycerol making wines that are big on alcohol and acidity.
  • The grape is grown almost exclusively in Spain and Portugal, though there are grapes planted in both the US and even the UK (check out the Chapel Down winery in Kent).
  • 90% of the wine in the region of Rías Baixas – in the northwest Spanish community of Galicia – is Albariño.
  • It is thought that Albariño was brought to Iberia by Cluny monks in the 12th century. The name, Alba-Riño means ‘white wine of the Rhine’. Locally, it was thought to be a clone of Riesling, but it has also been thought to be a relative of Petit Manseng, a French grape.
  • Goes by the name Alvarinho (or Cainho Branco) in Portugal, where it is a major component of the country’s delightfully crisp and slightly effervescent Vinho Verde.
  • The grapes are grown in an unusual way: on high trellises, called parrales, so they don’t touch the ground but also get maximum sun exposure. Also, because Galicia is wet and soggy, this protects the grapes from rot and fungal infections.
  • All harvesting is done by hand.
  • Historically it was blended was other local Galician grapes such as Loureiro, Godello, Caiño, Arinto or Treixadura; but modern winemakers are realising its talent for single varietal wines.
  • Australia had, somewhat comically, been accidentally selling incorrect Albariño wines for about a decade; thinking they were helping to inject money into the Albariño market. They had been selling the French Savagnin instead!
  • In Spain it can also be found growing in Ribeiro and Valdeorras; but here it is often blended.

The Wine:

  • Albariño is famous for making very aromatic, crisp, fruity and acidic wines. They are legendary for the lemony, lime freshness as well as a punch of peaches , grapefruits, and melons plus a touch of minerality.
  • They can be light and imperceptibly sparkling, full-bodied and mouth coating and also, thanks to that acidity, aged on lees or in oak. Very versatile.
  • There is no wine in Spain that pairs better with seafood that a big, chilled glass of Albariño. The old maxim of local wines with local food works here. Atlantic seafood – prawns, octopus, clams, squid, lobster – pairs perfectly with these wines.
  • Albariño is mostly grown in the Rías Baixas DO – a windswept world of vast Scandiwegian estuaries, rumbling hills, and eucalyptus forests. The DO, though fairly small, is split up into five subzones:
    • Val do Salnés: low and wavy hills by the coast. Rocky and alluvial soils.
    • O Rosal: the banks of the Miño river. Alluvial soils.
    • Condado do Tea: the stepper sides of the Miño river valley. Alluvial soils.
    • Soutomaior: south of Pontevedra. Light, sandy and granite-covered soils.
    • Ribera de Ulla: near Santiago de Compostela. Alluvial soils.
  • Many producers carry out a slow, pre-fermentation maceration to extract complexity, colour and aromas from the grapes.
  • Full or partial malolactic fermentation is becoming more and more common. (Malolactic fermentation: where acidic malic acid is converted to creamier lactic acid.) This results in a smoother and silkier wine.
  • When ordering wine in Spain, one usually orders by the region: Rioja, Ribera del Duero, Priorat, etc. However, due to Albariño basically being from one region, the Spanish basically just order it by the grape. Albariño rolls off the drunken tongue more easily than Rías Baixas.

Spain has many other native white wines on offer; and if you are in the capital ordering a ‘vino blanco’ you will most likely be offered a crisp, dry tropical scented wine from the region of Rueda. So, if you are looking for a glass of Albariño, it pays to ask for it by name to see if they have it.

Part of the romance of Albariño, apart from the fact it is utterly and supremely lively and delicious, is the fact that it has a ‘home’; hiding out in the folklore-filled fjords and peaks of Celtic Galicia. A wet and windy place that offers, for our money, perhaps Spain’s most reliably brilliant white wine experience.