Spain offers a big advantage for wine lovers, compared to the rest of the world: you can taste some high-quality products at reasonable prices (between €18 and €22). Moreover, the country has a deep-rooted tapas tradition and wine by the glass is the best pairing choice in tapas bars to enjoy an exciting culinary experience without running out of money. Prices are really attractive, from 2.50€ to 4.50€ for a good glass of Spanish wine.
My first experience with Spanish wine was a glass of Rioja I ordered when I first visited Spain as a tourist. I knew almost nothing about wine, even less about the Spanish ones. I had a look at the wine list, sure that I could pick up something good easily, but the terms in the list were so different from what I was used to, that I decided to find a secure shelter in the waiter. “We have Rioja and Ribera del Duero for reds and Albariño and Rueda for whites. What would you prefer?” I rapidly went for a Rioja without any details neither on the producer nor on quality. The inescapable hang-over of the day after was the natural result of my choice.
Other Spanish wine neophytes might experience a similar situation. So, what are the tips for ordering wine in a Spanish restaurant?
Firstly, we need to distinguish between places without a wine list and those having it. In the former, the waiter usually shows a poor knowledge of wine. When asked: “What Rioja do you have?” he will simply answer: “Rioja!” There isn’t so much to expect from these places, so the best advice is to run away before being disappointed. In the latter, the design and contents of the wine list are useful indicators of the role played by the sommelier and the attention given to the wine. Some lists can be short and simple, but accurate; others can be a real encyclopedia, generating confusion or, worse, drowsiness in customers. Quantity is not always a synonym for quality: some wines may be past their best and, if only big brands are available, many lesser-known but interesting wines are left out.
A well-designed list —anywhere in the world— should reflect the sommelier’s attention to detail and the consistency of the wine selection with the cuisine. It should give a customer the basics to be able to order a wine or, at least, to understand what he/she is reading. Alongside the usually found brand, region and price, an indication of vintage, grape varieties and a short description of the wine would be desirable. A classification by style and the inclusion of new wines or natural/bio wines can be a factor of distinctiveness.
Customers should also be acquainted with the Spanish wine ageing classification. A Joven is usually a wine unaged or aged in oak for a short period of time, although the word Roble is also used for wines which have been aged for a few months; Crianza is aged for at least 24 months of which generally 12 months are spent in oak (reds) and 6 for whites/rosés; Reserva is aged for a minimum of 3 years, of which 1 is in oak; Gran Reserva is aged 3 years in oak and 2 years in bottle. Ageing is not automatically a guarantee of quality, as it happens with the national geographical indication system.
Five levels exist: Vino de la Tierra, made in a specific region with very few legal restrictions on grapes and wine-making; Vino de Calidad con Indicación Geográfica, a step up in quality from the previous category; DO (Denominación de Origen), whose higher quality is regulated by strict rules on grapes and winemaking; DOCa (Denominación de Origen Calificada), the highest level of quality and terroir expression awarded only to Rioja and Priorat; and Vino de Pago, applied to single-estates of supposedly very good quality The classification is meant to mirror different degrees of quality, although you may find some really good products outside DOs.
In any situation, you should always rely on sommeliers. A good professional should ask you for personal preferences and suggest the product that best suits your taste and pocket. A good way of testing his/her professional skill is to indicate a top price you are willing to pay for a bottle or to ask for a wine by the glass for each meal course. He/she won’t deceive your expectations and your bill will be under control. The ability to explain the wine is essential: a good sommelier will do it in a professional, but comprehensible way, avoiding unnecessary technical terms used to show off his/her knowledge. An impeccable wine service, in fact, is recognisable also from the kindness and patience in answering costumer’s doubts without creating embarrassment.
One of the most evident indicators of quality is the size of the glasses on the table: if water glasses are larger than wine cups or the same narrow shape for both, ask for a replacement. Moreover, Spanish red wines are better appreciated if poured slightly cool as their high alcohol levels and full body can sometimes mask the aromatic bouquet at room temperature. In this case, ask for an ice bucket. And be sure that the bottle is opened in front of you to avoid bad surprises.
Now that I live in Spain, I have to admit that one of the country’s strengths is the richness and variety of grapes able to express the regional identity. “Foreigners tend to choose international varieties such as Chardonnay because they are afraid of the unknown. But this also means losing the opportunity to discover the authenticity of a country”, reckons Spanish sommelier Luis García de La Navarra from Vinoteca García de la Navarra. The rich and complex white Godello, the mineral red Mencía or the powerful and fruity red Bobal are just some of the most interesting Spanish wine expressions and, if you are a Pinot Noir fan, definitely go for the Catalan Trepat. Be curious and trust a sommelier’s professional guidance: unexpected treasures are likely to be discovered.