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With more acreage under vine than any other country on the planet, Spain produces excellent wine, sherry and vermouth. It’s also a peninsula, which means the weather varies greatly between regions resulting in a plethora of styles from fresh, salty aperitivos to sweetly sticky digestivos.
Spain is the third largest wine-producing nation in the world (after Italy and France) but production happily tends to steer towards artisanal methods. Adrian Castro, bar manager at Spanish importer Brindisa explains, “Smaller productions are run by grower winemakers rather than massive operations where grapes are bought from surrounding plots.” Wines are ‘terroir driven’, meaning they’re made with less oak, allowing the characteristics of the grapes and soil to shine through. “The direction in Spain is pretty much towards organic and bio dynamic principles too,” says Castro, with “intervention in the vineyard and cellar kept to a minimum.”
Thanks to regional climate variation, white wines range from light and fresh through to weighty and aromatic. In the bars of San Sebastian, for example, Txakoli dominates. An easy-drinking, low alcohol wine with a slight spritz, it pairs perfectly with light bar snacks, known as pintxos. Albariño is another salty coastal wine (this time from the North West) which matches well with seafood; a crisp glass or three with a plate of mussels steamed with garlic and parsley is pure heaven. Weightier whites include white Rioja, which generally strike a balance between fresh and full bodied – richer examples are best paired with jamon and whole roast fish. Verdejo – another major player – tends to be aromatic with notes of oily citrus and herbs, making an interesting alternative to Sauvignon Blanc.
When it comes to reds, Tempranillo dominates (it’s the most planted grape in Spain). Grown in the regions of Rioja and Ribera del Duero it may be a blend aged in French or American oak (Rioja) or a 100% Tempranillo tasting of baked earth and sun ripened fruit (Ribera del Duero). For more muscular wines, look to Priorat. Juicy blends of Garnacha and Cariñena with Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah make for wines which are excellent but pricey. For more affordable options, try those from Montsant, which have similar weight and intensity but a lower price tag. All work well with red meats and rich, tomato-based sauces.
Long gone are the days when Champagne was considered the only sparkling worth the money. Produced mainly in Catalonia in the North East of Spain, Cava is predominantly made from a blend of three grapes – Macabeo, Parellada, and Xarello, undergoing secondary fermentation in the bottle. It must then be aged for at least nine months, with Reserve Cava aged for 15 and Gran Reserve at least 30. Flavours tend to be those of Mediterranean fruit and citrus, with toasty notes coming through with age. Cava really comes into its own as an aperitif paired with salty snacks such as crisps, nuts, olives and charcuterie but is also great with seafood thanks to its zesty citrus characteristics. While the majority of Cava comes from three companies: Freixenet, Codorníu, and García Carrión, a new splinter group of high-end producers called Corpinnat caused a stir when they parted from the Cava DO to form their own EU-recognised body. Their first wines were released in spring this year to very positive reviews.
Sherry comes from Spain’s oldest wine producing region – Andalucia – and has the advantage of coming in a wide range of styles at reasonable prices. It’s a lightly fortified white wine, with styles ranging from light and dry to sticky and sweet. At the lighter end of the scale you’ll find Fino and Manzanilla, both aged under a layer of living yeast called Flor and perfect for drinking early in the evening with salty nibbles, or at lunch time – preferably with the sun on your back. The heavier, sweeter styles are exposed to oxidative ageing, for example Amontillado and Palo Cortado, both richer, nuttier styles which work with meatier tapas dishes. Oloroso, full of tobacco and leather, works with pigeon, duck or mature cheeses, and for desserts, it has to be Pedro Ximenez – perfect poured over vanilla ice cream for an elegant and no-effort finish. Those looking for something cool and of the moment should seek out Equipo Navahos, says Donald Edwards, head sommelier at London’s La Trompette restaurant: “They started out as a private buying club for a group of friends and expanded to become the company that has redefined what sherry can be, with each different bottling a unique expression of one style.”
We tend to associate vermouth with Italy (where it originated) but the Spanish have been making it for more than a century and “are some of its most enthusiastic drinkers” according to drinks expert and author of Aperitif: A Spirited Guide to the Drinks, History and Culture of the Aperitif, Kate Hawkings. Vermuterias – all-day cafés and vermouth bars – are now the rage all over Spain, with many of them making their own house vermouths. ‘La hora del vermut’ or ‘the vermouth hour’ now applies pretty much 24/7 in Barcelona according to Hawkings: “It is now quite common for bars in Barcelona and beyond to make their own vermuts and serve them on tap, with the usual Spanish generosity when it comes to pouring. Usually served neat over ice in a tumbler with a slice of orange and/or an olive… Look out for El Bandarra, Vermut de Lana or anything by Casa Mariol.”
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