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FOOD & DRINK

Ten facts you probably didn’t know about Spanish wine

It was the Romans' favourite drink, a muse to Picasso and fell victim to the fascist regime of dicator Francisco Franco. Wine blogger Timmer Brown lifts the lid on everything you (probably) didn't know about Spanish vino.

Ten facts you probably didn't know about Spanish wine
Spain is the biggest exporter of wine in the world. Photo: LexnGer/Flickr

1) Spanish wine was the Romans’ favourite tipple 

Wine has been produced in Spain since the first century AD. The Roman historian Pliny the elder raved about wines made from the area known today as Alella, which is 20 minutes from Barcelona. Another Roman, Ovid, noted the most popular wine in Rome (from Spain of course) known as Saguntum, was only good for getting your mistress drunk. The Catalan regional government found remnants of an ancient Roman wine press in Teia, near Alella, and have developed an interactive museum tour to see just how wine was made during this time.


The town of Alella, where wine production began in Roman times. Photo: Timmer Brown

2) A record breaking exporter 

Spain is the top exporter of wine in the world.  In 2021, Spain exported 222 million litres with the majority of it going to France. Not only is Spain a top exporter, but in 2021 it became the second largest producer of wine, behind Italy and now ahead of France. While everyone thinks of Rioja when they think of Spanish wine, the top area for volume is actually Castille-La Mancha near the capital of Madrid.
 
 
3. Different classifications 
 
Spain has 78 sub-regions of wine across 17 provinces of the country, including the Balearic Islands and the Canary Islands. They are classified as Denominación de Origen (DO) and Denominación de Origen Calificada (DOC). Both denote wineries meet stringent requirements to produce wine, with the DOC designation being the highest quality. Currently only two regions have met DOC requirement in Spain, Rioja and Priorat. In Catalonia, it is referred to as DOQ Priorat due to the Catalan language spelling and pronunciation.
 

Priorat is one of two Spanish regions to have attained a DOC classification. Photo: Timmer Brown
 
4. There are over 400 grape varieties in Spain!
 
Yes, 400! However, the bulk of the production comes from Tempranillo, Garnacha, Monastrell, Albariño, Palomino, Airen, Macabeo, Parellada, and Xarel-lo. The most widely planted is Airen, a white wine grape which is valued for a variety of reasons including its hardiness. Second is Tempranillo, the popular grape of Rioja, followed closely by Garnacha which is planted throughout Spain but mostly known internationally due to the Catalan region of Priorat.
 

5. Cava isn’t just from Catalonia

Everyone knows that Cava is the Spanish equivalent of sparkling wine, which utilizes a similar method of production as Champagne. Although 95 percent of Cava production comes from Catalonia where it originated in the late 19th century at Codorniu Winery in Sant Sadurni d’Anoia it can also be produced in Aragon, Castile and Leon, Valencia, Extremadura, Navarra, Basque Country and Rioja. It is regulated by DO Cava, which determines the rules and regulations of the production of Cava.


The cava cave at the Raventos i Blanc winery in Sant Sadurni d’Anoia. The owners are direct descendants of the originator of cava. Photo: Timmer Brown. 

6.Spanish wine was Picasso’s muse. 

Pablo Picasso’s inspiration for the cubism movement came from his time in DO Terra Alta town of Horta de Sant Joan, a two and a half hour drive south of Barcelona and near the Catalan border town of Tortosa. Picasso spent time there while he was splitting his time between Barcelona and Paris beginning in 1901. In fact, in many of Picasso’s paintings you can see the elements of the people from the towns, and also the vineyards where he sometimes slept in at night under the stars. Wine is also directly in many of his works, including Bottle and Wine Glass on a Table from 1912.
 
 
7. La Rioja has been making wines for nearly a thousand years 
 
The first mention of the name Rioja in official documents as a wine producing region dates back to 1092, while during the same time, King Garcia Sanchez I donated lands  to the monastery of San Millan de la Cogolla, which included the vineyards. Monks and monasteries played an important role in wine production all across Spain after lands were reconquered from the Moors starting at that time, and leading up to 1834 when legislations saw monastery lands confiscated for the benefit of the common citizens of Spain.
 

Members of the Sánchez family in their vineyard on La Palma, Canary Islands. Photo: AFP
 
8. The Franco years were dark days for Spanish wine 
 
The Franco dictatorship was a dark time for wine production, as wine was not allowed to be exported. Franco was a teetotaller, believing wine should only be used for church sacraments and not much else. Still, when it was discovered that US President Eisenhower was a fan of sparkling wines, Franco commissioned Perelada to produce a special cava for his visit to Spain in December of 1959. Some of the original bottles from the commission are on display at the winery. Salvador Dali was also a fan of Perelada cava, offering it to his guests who came to visit.
 
A photo from the Perelada winery museum showing Salvador Dali enjoying a glass of Perelada near his seaside home in Cadaqués. Photo: Timmer Brown. 
 
9. Spain is the number one worldwide producer of organic wine. 
 
Twenty-seven percent of organic wine production happens in Spain, with over 80.000 hectares of land is specifically registered and documented as organic. Even one of Spain’s largest wine producers, Torres, has one third of their vineyards as organic. This has been a meteoric rise, as organic wineries were rare in Spain up until the 1990s. However, due to traditional winemaking techniques, many winemakers throughout Spain have refused to use chemicals or pesticides in wine production from the 1950s up to the present time. The earliest documentation of an organic winery is from the 1970s at the Penedes vineyard of Albet i Noya.
 
10. Sherry is uniquely Spanish
 
Sherry is originally from the Jerez region of southern Spain. In fact, other areas around the world aren’t allowed to call themselves just Sherry as the region has a trademark on the brand, similar to the French region of Champagne. Sherry production dates back to the 8th century, and speculation says it’s been around for much longer. It was first exported in the 12th century and became extremely popular in England, and other areas began to adopt the methods to make their own variation of Sherry. In the 16th century Sherry was regarded as the finest wine available in Europe. 
 
 
 
Timmer moved to the Barcelona region four years ago after traveling the world for 15 years, working in marketing and public relations. He founded catalunyawine.com in 2014 to promote the wine region of Catalonia to the English speaking public. Now he travels to the vineyards of the region interviewing winemakers and exploring the history of the wine region. You can follow the journey on Twitter and Instagram @catalunyawine and also on the website.

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FOOD & DRINK

Where can you get free tapas in Spain?

Not everywhere will offer you free tapas in Spain, but there are some cities where the tradition lives on. Read on to find out where they are, how you can get a free 'tapa' and the slight differences between each place.

Where can you get free tapas in Spain?

Tapas are an important part of Spanish culture, not only because of the gastronomical aspect but because of the social aspect of sharing dishes too. 

The word ‘tapa’ – meaning ‘lid’ – is thought to derive from a 13th-century law passed by a Castilian king requiring taverns to serve food with alcohol, perhaps in a bid to avoid inebriation of the serfs.

A ‘tapa’ was a small plate of ham or olives used as a lid to keep insects and dust away from a drink and usually came free. 

The tradition of free tapas has died out across much of Spain, but there are still some cities where it is alive and well. Most of these cities can be found in three regions – the eastern part of Andalusia, Castilla y León and Galicia. 

READ ALSO: Fourteen classic Spanish dishes to celebrate World Tapas Day

Granada

Granada is the undisputed king of free tapas in Spain, famed for its offerings which can be anything from a piece of Spanish tortilla to almost a whole meal, such as a mini burger and fries or small fried fish. It works like this – each time you buy a drink, you will be given a free tapas dish. If you order consecutive drinks in the same bar, each of the tapa dishes you get will be different. Free tapa will come with everything from beer and wine to soft drinks and sparkling water, but not with coffee or tea. Keep in mind that the price of drinks in Granada is slightly higher than in some Spanish cities, which helps to cover the cost of the food.

Calle Navas, Calle Virgen del Rosario and the area around the Cathedral offer some of the best tapas in the city. Remember that if you’re a vegetarian or vegan, ask for una tapa vegetariana o tapa vegana. While most bars in the city should have a suitable alternative, some of the more rough and ready ones might not, or you may just get something simple like bread and cheese. One of Granada’s best-loved vegetarian tapas dishes is berenjena con miel (deep fried aubergine drizzled with treacle). 

READ ALSO: What to order at a restaurant in each region of Spain

Almería

Just southeast of Granada on the coast, Almería is another of Spain’s great free-tapas cities. The tradition is a little different here than in other Spanish cities because you get to choose your tapa instead of just getting a surprise. Many of the tapas menus here are vast and you’ll be spoilt for choice. It could be anything from a goat’s cheese and caramelised onion montadito (small sandwich) to paté on toast. Almeríans love their toast, so don’t be surprised if you find many different variations of topped toasts on the menu.

You’ll also have to speak up here, waiters will often come over to ask for your drink order, but not come back and ask for your tapa order. It’s best to tell your waiter what you want when your drinks arrive.

You may be able to get a free pulpo (octopus) tapa in Galicia. Photo: MIGUEL RIOPA / AFP

Jaén

The city and province of the same name to the north of Granada is also known for its tapa gratis when ordering a drink. Like in Granada, here you’ll be given the tapa of the house and generally won’t be given a choice in what you get. The prices of beers here are not as high as in Almería, but tapas portions are generally pretty generous, meaning you can easily have enough for dinner by going to just a few places.

Dishes here may include a plate of migas (fried breadcrumbs or flour with pieces of meat and fried peppers) or morcilla (blood sausage or black pudding). You can try asking for a vegetarian or vegan tapa here too, but the bars may not be as accommodating as the ones in Granada and may not have so many options, although they will try with what they have. 

León

It’s not just the eastern provinces of Andalusia where you can get free tapas. One of the best foodie cities in northern Spain that has carried on this tradition is León. Some of the most typical tapas dishes you may be served here include patatas leonesas (León-style potatoes), or morcilla de León (blood sausage or black pudding from León).

During the pandemic, a few bars in León started charging around €0.30 to €0.50 for tapas, but you’ll be happy to know that the majority of them still offer it for free. Bars will generally charge less for the wine, beers and other drinks here than in Granada too. The best places to go are around the famed Barrio del Húmedo or the Barrio Romántico. There are even some bars that will offer free tapas with your coffee order for breakfast here, which is unheard of elsewhere. 

Ávila

In almost every bar in Ávila you will be served a free tapa along with your drink. You’re unlikely to be served a simple piece of bread with a topping, here the dishes are almost like mini meals. Much of the cuisine here is based on meat, so you might expect a small plate of stewed wild boar or kidney with potatoes.

You will also find that they’re pretty big compared to free tapas in some other cities and filling too, but along with that, you will be paying slightly above average for your drink. The best street to head to for free tapas here is Calle San Segundo.

Alcalá de Henares

There may only be some bars left in Madrid that will offer you a free tapa with your drink, but head just east to the student town of Alcalá de Henares and you’ll find that they’re given out freely. Lots of places here will let you choose what you want too. You’ll pay above average for a caña here, around 3, but for that you’ll get a fairly decent tapa which could include patatas bravas, burgers or scrambled eggs with potatoes.

READ ALSO: Top ten Madrid bars serving free tapas, one for each barrio

Santiago de Compostela

When you’ve finally completed the Camino, what could be better than sitting down to a nice cold beer and plate of free tapas? The majority of bars here offer simple tapa such as a piece of bread with some type of meat on top, such as jamón or sausage or a small slice of tortilla de patatas (Spanish omelette).

Lugo
Another Galician place, known for offering free tapas is the walled city of Lugo. Here you’ll be given a free snack with your glass of Albariño wine or beer. Lugo’s tapas scene works differently from elsewhere too, here a waiter will come around with a tray of various types of dishes and you’ll select the one you like the look of best. These may include anything from pulpo (octopus) to empanadas (Galician-style pies), tortilla rellena (filled omelette) or anchoas (anchovies).

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