IberiaNature A guide to the natural history and food of Spain

Alcohol in Catalonia and Spain

Expert guided food tours in Barcelona by Nick Lloyd of Iberianature.

Wine (see below) is drunk with meals but rarely otherwise. Spanish jerez / sherry is unrivalled before a meal

Brandy and liqueurs are enjoyed after a big meal. Although not allowed according to the European Union, most Spanish brandies are still referred to as coñac . Some ( Carlos I, Duque de Alba ) are very good, but the best French cognacs and armagnacs are superior. The same is true of Portuguese port in relation to its main Spanish equivalent, Virgen de Malaga .

Other spirits are consumed late at night at parties or dance venues, usually in the form of una cubalibre [free Cuba!], originally referring to rum with Coca Cola but nowadays extended to any similar combination, such as my favourite, gin and tonic (also called un gintonic ). There are strong links between Catalunya and Cuba , and a good local brand of rum is Ron Pujol . An interesting highly perfumed gin from Minorca is called Mahon . The Spanish brand most like Cork is Larios , while Giro is undrinkable. The most popular whiskies are 4 Roses and JB, neither of which I like. Argentinian people in Barcelona seem to like Fernet Branca with Coke, and Chileans consume a lot of Pisco . If you want a cocktail, you will usually have to go to an up-market bar or a specialist cocteleria . Tragically, Pimms is unknown in Spain .


Expert guided food tours in Barcelona by Nick Lloyd of Iberianature.

Wine is cultivated in most parts of the Iberian peninsula , but the diversity of terrain and climate causes considerable variation from place to place. The 50 or so regions officially recognized as producing fine wines are entitled to the label D.O. [ Denominación de Origen , comparable to the French Appellatión Controlée ]. The order of quality / ageing from low to high is Vino de mesa / table wine, Vino joven / young wine, Crianza, Reserva and Gran Reserva. This system became quite corrupt and unreliable under Franco, which is why the communist ex-mayor, Sancho Panza, in Graham Greene's Monsignor Quixote expressed distrust of any bottle of wine carrying a label. However, rigorous controls have been brought in over the last 25 years.

The lesser qualifications are not to be sneezed at, and even a humble vino de mesa / table wine can be very quaffable. I am an inverted wine snob, and n my experience, the best wine to drink in any village is the local produce, drunk the way the locals take it. Quite often, this involved drinking chilled red wine (very sensibly in summer) and / or mixing wine with gaseosa / sweetened fizzy water.

The most famous wine region in Spain is La Rioja in the north, stretching beyond the eponymous modern Autonomous Community into Navarra and the Basque Country. It became new frontier for Bordeaux winemakers when phyloxera devastated vineyards in France in the 19 th century, and is notable for the ageing process in oak barrels which makes the wines unique. The best known labels are Marqués de Riscal, Marques de Murrieta, Marqués de Cáceres and Martinez Bujanda.

Navarra, once an important medieval kingdom that played a major role in the histories of both Spain and France , has long been regarded as an excellent source of rosado / rosé wines, but is now also developing an exciting reputation for experimentation with French red varietals. Top producers are Chivite, Ochoa and Guelbenzu.

El País Vasco / Euskadi / the Basque Country itself produces slightly sparkling Txakoli and the oddly named red clarete, which rather confusingly has nothing to do with Bordeaux . This is usually served in rather intriguing glasses that look like tumblers but are in fact made almost entirely of thick glass, with only a shallow scoop to contain about a mouthful of wine!

In between the Atlantic coast and the Mediterranean are the Pyrenees Mountains . There are a few wine producing areas in this beautiful region, most famously Somontano and Costers del Segre. The bodegas / wineries in the area, including Enate, Castell del Remei, Bodegas Pirineos and Viñas del Vero, are world class and making some of the best wines from the country.

Cantabria and Asturias, which occupy much of Spain 's northern coastline, are better known for cider than wine.

Galicia, in the north west of the peninsula, produces some excellent light reds and whites, but is most noted for its vino turbio , shaken before serving to produce a cloudy unsettled effect which contrasts interestingly with its sharp flavour. Another Gallego wine is fortified sweet vino tostado / toasted wine, the best known of which is called Meus Amores [My Loves].

El Bierzo is a region between Galicia and Castile , where

Neighbouring Portugal is famous for its Oporto / Port, both white and red, and the very young vinho verde / green wine, but Portuguese wines are not widely consumed in Spain .

The central area of Spain is a massive flat plain, where the earth is quite dry, and the climate features freezing winters and punishing summers. Fortunately, there are many microclimates, and the Duero River is the lifeblood of the region, enabling quality wine to be produced. "Denominaciones de Origen" wines include Ribera del Duero (well known for rich reds, and classy wines like Vega Sicilia, La Pesquera and Emilio Moro), Rueda (a fabulous source of delicious white wines made with the local Verdejo grape and frequently blended with Sauvignon Blanc) Toro ("the new Ribera del Duero", offering good value reds), La Mancha (historically a bulk wine area, but receiving millions of Euros in investment, with a fantastic new bodega / winery called "Finca Antigua" owned by the Martinez Bujanda group) and Valdepeñas (again, traditionally known for its rather cheap red wines, but recently in receipt of much investment and quality improvements, with a great new winery called "Vega Ibor").

Murcia , in the south of Spain , produces one of my personal favourite types of vino tinto, called Jumilla.


The huge Autonomous Community of Andalucía is known for its fortified Jerez / sherry wines. The main wine areas are Jerez (based around the town of Jerez de la Frontera, on the southern Portuguese border, with styles ranging from dry Manzanilla to sweet Amontillados), Montilla-Moriles (next to the Moorish town of Cordoba, making sherry-style wines, aged in Ali Baba clay amphorae called tinajas) and Malaga (sweet wines, waning in demand). Most of the wineries in the Jerez region were founded in the 19 th century, by English and Irish merchants. Many of the cellars are absolutely beautiful, with decorative vaults.

The islands of Spain include the Balearics in the Mediterranean , and the Canary Islands in the Atlantic , off the coast of Africa . The Balearic islands of Mallorca , Menorca , Ibiza and Formentera, have a lot in common with Catalunya. Recently, many new wine grape varietals have been discovered in Mallorca , where a lot of research is being carried out. The DO is Binissalem, with mainly red wines being made. The best local grape is called Manto Negro, often blended with Cabernet Sauvignon and Tempranillo. Finca Son Bordils is highly recommended for its elegant wines. The most famous wine from the Canary Islands is a light, dry white wine called El Grifo, made from the Malvasia grape in Lanzarote,.

There are eight major wine-producing regions in Catalunya: Allela and Empordà in the north-east, Costers de Segre in the north-west; and Penedès, Tarragona , Priorat, Terra Alta and Conca de Barberá to the south of Barcelona . These regions are administered by the Catalan Institute of Wine. The quality of Catalan wines has improved dramatically since 1975, as a result of carefully studied changes in technique, technology and selection.


Expert guided food tours in Barcelona by Nick Lloyd of Iberianature.

Cava , , is sparkling wine produced by the méthode champenoise , mostly in the Pénedes region. Although made by the French process and frequently if illegally referred to as champán , cava differs from Champagne in that it is the product of not one but several different grape varieties, grown in a sunnier and warmer climate. The French have pointed this out forcefully in the European Court . The difference in price between Champagne and cava reflects the cost of the grapes and is not a gauge of the difference of quality. In my opinion, good cava is just as good as most champagne, but cheaper. Strangely, the French didn't draw much attention to this aspect. Cava is named after the cellars in which the wine is made. The headquarters of the cava industry is Sant Sadurí d'Anoia, half an hour south of Barcelona, home to Freixenet and Cordoníu (which alone produces 60 million bottles a year), as well as dozens of smaller producers. Most open their cavas to visitors,

The most significant Spanish wine grape is Tempranillo , so called because it ripens mas temprano / earlier than any other grape. It is also called " Ull de Llebre " [hare's eye] in Catalunya; " Cencibel " in La Mancha and Valdepeñas (south of Madrid); " Tinta de País " or " Tinto Fino " in Ribera del Duero; " Tinta de Toro " in Toro; and completely lacking in imagination, " Tinto de Madrid ". Tempranillo is used in quality winemaking outside Spain , in Portugal (where it is known as " Tinta Roriz " in the Douro , and is a principal component of Port, and as " Aragonêz " in the Alentejo region east of Lisbon ) and extensively in Argentina and Mexico . Finally, just to add more confusion, Tempranillo is grown in California by wineries for grape juice, and is called Valdepeñas .

Other grapes used in making Spanish wines are

  • Albariño - white
  • Carineña - red
  • Garnacha - red used in rosé; known as Grenache in France and America
  • Graciano - red; known as Courouillade in France ; Xres in California
  • Malvasia -red
  • Mazuelo - white used in cava; known as Carignan in France
  • Parellada - white used in cava
  • Pedro Ximenez (PX) - used only for sweet sherries
  • Viura - white used in cava; known as Maccabeu in France

A grape which seems to be cultivated exclusively in Catalunya to make white wine is called Xarel.lo . A television journalist who misunderstood the Catalan orthography once famously referred to Xarel ten

There have been several reasons for the general improvement of Spanish wines over the last 25 years. In addition to the resuscitation of old autochthonous vines, noble vines from abroad have been adapted to local climate and soils. As a result, Cabarnet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Gewürtztraminer, and Reisling are widely cultivated. Whereas in snobby regions of France the best wines traditionally come from certain aristocratic estates, here the blending is regarded as the most important aspect