After living in Barcelona for four months, my daughter Paige was anxious to show me “her Spain.” My first night there, when I asked where we should go for dinner, she quickly said, “Fer el vermut.” Now my Spanish is pretty good, but she had me stumped. Was fer el vermut the name of a restaurant, I asked her, or a taverna? She gave me a little superior smile. (Isn’t it great when kids know more than their parents?) “No, Dad,” she said. “It’s Catalan for let’s go out for tapas.”
Actually, the more precise translation is “go for vermouth,” but my daughter had the meaning correct. In Spain, when you feel like going out for small plates of mariscos, like pulpo a feira (octopus), or chunky slices of spicy chorizo cooked in red wine, you suggest getting un vermut, regardless of what you actually plan to drink once you get there. These days, the drink of choice with tapitas is wine, as was evident when we walked in the door of TapaC24, one of the stylish nouveau tapas bars in Barcelona.
That’s what makes them so food-friendly,” says Javier Aladro. “Wines with high alcohol dull the palate.”
Sure, you could get a glass of vermouth, if you wanted, said our waitress, but not many people do. Then she handed us an extensive wine-by-the-glass menu featuring albariño, a fresh, crisp white wine from the verdant Rías Baixas region in Spain’s northwest corner, and tempranillo, the classic Spanish red wine from Ribera del Duero, north of Madrid. There were also several excellent cavas on the list, like the local Segura Viudas, as well as garnacha, a rosé better known to us as grenache, the most important grape in famed Priorat along the Mediterranean coast.
We ordered a few small plates and a sampling of the wines, trading tastes and sips back and forth. Everyone around us seemed to be doing the same and more than once we got advice on what to try next. As chef Carles Abellan said, “Tapas make people become brothers in spirit.”
This quick introduction to tapas and wine all fit in nicely with the other reason for my visit, an exploration of some of Spain’s new wine stars, beginning the next day with a visit to Javier Aladro, the young winemaker at Valdubón cellar in the Ribera del Duero region. First of all, I have to say that the Spanish find this whole idea of celebrity winemakers to be slightly ridiculous. Like most of his compatriots, Aladro prefers to call himself an oenologist rather than winemaker. “I’m basically a chemist,” he said, showing me around this modern winery located in the center of Spain’s great wine region.
Afterward, we sampled his two offerings of tempranillo, cosecha and crianza (the difference being that a Spanish crianza is aged a minimum of two years, with six months in barrel, while a cosecha is a younger, fruitier wine, this one aged four months in barrel). Both of the wines have moderate alcohol levels—12 to 13 percent. “That’s what makes them so food-friendly,” said Aladro as we snacked on small green olives and thin slices of Manchego cheese. “Wines with high alcohol dull the palate.”
There are more than a dozen red grape varieties grown in Spain but the reigning king is the indigenous tempranillo. Ribera del Duero’s harsh climate (there can be as much as a 40-degree swing in temperatures between the day and night in the fall) makes a wine that is light but full of fruit and perfect for grilled foods like spicy sausages or skewers of marinated beef or pork.
The next day I traveled farther north, to the region of Rías Baixas, situated in rain-swept Galicia, known as “Green Spain” because of its cool, damp climate, perfect for growing albariño, the best example of Spanish white wine.
The winemaker at Vionta, Benito Castel, had invited me to join him for a late afternoon meal at his favorite restaurant, Posta do Sol, in the small town of Cambados. While the restaurant owner, a man in his seventies, served us platters of locally caught crab, and small plates of garlicky shrimp and boquerones (white anchovies on a bed of julienned piquillo peppers), Benito poured me a glass of his Vionta albariño, a soft white wine layered with citrus flavors—grapefruit and lemon—and a bit of white pepper. “In Spain, you always have albariño with seafood,” said the winemaker, noting that it’s also one of the few white wines that goes with egg dishes, like omelets. “The acid cuts the fat,” he said.
Ten years ago, said Castel, there were fewer than 100 wineries in the Rías Baixas, a region that gets almost 60 inches of rain a year. “Now there are over 280, with about 30 exporting to the U.S.”
Because of the heavy rainfall and the fog, which rolls in off the ocean in May and June, the 30-year-old vines at Vionta are grown on granite pergolas some 5 feet tall. The winery is certified organic—called organico in Spain—and the grasses and weeds beneath the vine canopies are left to grow both to conserve the soil, because of the heavy runoff, and to act as fertilizer when tilled back into the land.
Later that day we walked the hilly property where on the edge of the vineyard is an old stone mansion, like a small castle, from the end of the 19th century. The castle was being renovated into a tasting room and the winery itself had recently been modernized. “It’s an exciting time to be an oenologist in Spain,” said Castel, noting the changes.
Even more exciting, I thought, to be a wine and tapas taster.
—David Lansing writes about wine, spirits and travel for The Los Angeles Times, National Geographic Traveler and other magazines.
A SPANISH SAMPLER
Fra Guerau, Montsant ($12). Well-balanced blend whose bright fruit and crisp acidity goes well with plates of olives or a selection of cheeses.
Valdubón Cosecha, Ribera del Duero ($14). A great wine to serve with grilled foods, made solely from tempranillo with plenty of plummy fruit.
Morlanda Criança, Priorat ($48). A blend of garnacha, cariñena and cabernet sauvignon dominated by black cherry with hints of raisins and dates.
Segura Viudas Creu de Lavit, Penedès ($15). Made exclusively from Xarel-lo, a white grape used to make cava. With a nose full of citrus, this is the perfect aperitif wine.
Vionta Albariño, Rías Baixas ($18). A touch of green apple and dried herbs; perfect with seafood or grilled vegetables.
Segura Viudas Reserva Heredad, Cava ($20). Medium-bodied sparkler with faint notes of apple and peach; ideal match for most tapas.