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!


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!