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Wine in spain

Spain is an enigma. When you think of the largest vineyards in Europe you probably think of France. Spain,however, has 700,000 more acres of grapes than France. If you think about staples of the Mediterranean diet such as olive oil, most tend to think of Italy, yet Spain produces almost double the amount of olive oil than Italy. What about Spanish cuisine? Many Americans may think of tacos and chimichangas before they think of Tapas or Paella. This lack of recognition seems to run contrary to the fact that Spain is home to some of the most exciting and diverse cuisine in the world today. Why the mystery then?

It is important to realize that modern Spain is a comparatively recent incarnation. Instead of gradually developing like most of their European neighbors, Spain’s move toward modernization and globalization have been in a fast-paced game of catch-up during the last 30 years. This catch-up was necessary because of Spain’s isolation during the authoritarian rule of Generalissimo Franco from 1939 until 1975. By the time of his death, Franco had reduced Spain to an almost third-world country status.

This comparatively recent development, however, is not the whole story. Most obviously, if people have an unclear image of what Spain is to the world of wine and food, that is because there is no clear image to be had. Spain defies easy categorization. It is best viewed not as one country but, at a minimum, as an amalgam of at least 4 parts; The Center of Spain, the Atlantic coast (Galicia and Asturias), the Mediterranean Coast (Barcelona, Valencia) and the Pyrenees (Basque Country a.k.a. Pais Vasco). Each of these parts speaks of Spain’s ancient history as a cultural crossroads and it’s present day diversity. If you would like further travel information about spain please visit

Map of Spain:

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Center of Spain (Madrid & Sevilla)

The center of Spain (a.k.a. "The Heart of Spain") lies along the Central Plateau of the Iberian Peninsula. Its climate can be harsh and unforgiving. It is comprised of 5 general regions: Castile & León, Extremadura, Castile-La Mancha, Madrid and Andalusia.

The region of Castile & León is in the harsh and dry northwest corner of Spain, along their common border with Portugal. When you think of the traditional food of Castile & León, think meat. Lots of meat. Whether it is pork, sheep or wild game it is the base around which most dishes are built. Baby lamb, kid and sucking pig–deliciously roasted–are among their most popular dishes. Fish, in the form of trout and cod, come from local streams. You will find some non-meat ingredients on the menu such asFuentesaúco (chickpeas/garbanzo beans) and La Armuña (lentils), but don’t expect to see anything green or leafy. Specialties include olla podrida (an impressive combination of chick peas, beef, pigs feet, bacon, ham, chorizo, blood sausage and pork ribs) and carne a la castellana (Castilian-style sliced beef).

The Extremadura region lies just to the south of Castile & León and shares many of the characteristics in its land and cuisine. Calderetas (stews) and roasts also make up the base of their cooking a prime example of which is their cochifritos (lamb seasoned, garnished and casseroled in an earthenware dish). Their most famous food, however, is jamon iberico (Iberian ham) an unrivaled cured ham from the semi-wild Iberian pig. This pig is reared on acorns and chestnuts to attain a premium level of quality and flavor. After up to two years of aging the cured hind legs of these pigs, they are ready to be consumed in tascas (tapas bars) across Spain.

Located in the very center of Spain, the region of Castile-La Mancha is the legendary home of Don Quixote. The food Cervantes described in Don Quixote is simple Shepherd’s fare. From Cervantes we learn of pisto manchego (braised zucchini, green pepper and tomato medley), duelos y quebrantos (a traditional dish of a fried eggs, bacon and brains, thought to be good by Sancho Panza) and migas de pastor (a Shepherd dish made from stale bread and bacon). The most famous product from this region of castles and windmills has to its cheese. Castile-La Mancha is the home of the famous Spanish cheese Manchego. The history of cheese-making here goes back to the iron age, but it has only been in the last few decades that Manchego has truly gained the popularity and respect that it deserves.

As the capital of Spain, Madrid sits like an island as the cultural center of Spain. Within its ancient walls and along its winding streets lie influences from every region and culture from the rest of Spain. Where better to discuss three of the defining elements of Spanish culture and cuisine: Spanish nightlife, the tortilla and churros con chocolate. Spanish nightlife is not for the faint of heart. The night reveals the true Spain as millions of madrilenos (people of Madrid) fill the streets and plazas of Madrid with conversation as they consume tapas, sherry, wine and beer. During these long nights the madrilenos will consume vast quantities of Spain’s national dish, the tortilla. The Spanish tortilla bears no resemblance to the Mexican tortilla. It is a deceptively simple potato and egg omelet that acts as a universal measuring stick for the skill of any Spanish chef. It is essential Spanish cuisine. At it’s best it is a delicious fluffy, combination of the freshest eggs, thin-sliced potatoes and cooked onions. Perfect for either pre-party preparation or early morning recovery. Equally essential to the Spanish nightlife ischurros con chocolate, a long, thin deep-fried doughnut with a cup of thick dark chocolate that has helped many a weary reveler find the strength to get home after a long night.

Farthest to the south lies Andalusia. This was the final stronghold of the Moors before being driven out of Spain. The Moors' legacy, and the legacy of many other cultures, remains in the very soul of Andalusia. From the Moors came many animals, fruits and vegetables, but none perhaps has been more important to the life and culture of Spain than the olive. Spaniards eat more olive oil per capita than almost any other country in the world (second only to Greece). In fact, about 1/3 of all of the exported olive oil in the world comes from Andalusia. Andalusia is also famous for being the home of Flamenco and is strongly influenced by many aspects of gypsy culture. Traditional cuisine here includes gazpacho(cold soup made with tomatoes, cucumber and green peppers) and rabo de toro a la andaluza (oxtail stew). Not to be forgotten from their Arabic legacy, there is also the region’s delicious confections and pastries. Many of these are prepared by cloistered nuns such as the legendary yemas produced by the nuns of San Leandro and the bollitos de Santa Ines produced by the nuns of Santa Ines.

Atlantic Coast (Galicia & Asturias)

There is an invisible line that separates the Atlantic Coast of Spain from the rest of the country. As you pass through it you leave behind bullfights, flamenco and the influence of the Moors. In its place are kilts, bagpipes and the modern Spanish legacy of its Celtic past. This is "Green Spain," a land of witches and druids. Here the primary language is Galego instead of Spanish and their love of hearty breads, soft cheeses and tart natural cider is unrivaled in the rest of Spain. This area is made up of the primary regions: Galicia, Asturias and Cantabria.

To the northwest lies Galicia. Galicia produces many hearty dishes that are well suited to its rugged landscape and cold, rainy weather. Unlike much of Spain, many Galician dishes incorporate a wide range of vegetables from small local farms. Galicia’s most famous dish is its pulpo gallego (boiled octopus seasoned with olive oil, paprika and salt). They are also known for their Empanadas (Meat and fish stuffed pies), pote (stew made with ham bones, haricot beans and, sometimes, turnip tops), thecaldeiradas (a fish stew served in two parts: first the broth and then the fish). Both scallops and veal from Galicia are considered the best in Spain.

Along the coast and directly to the east of Galicia lies Asturias. Astunias is famous for a few particular dishes and ingredients that set it apart from its neighbors of Galicia and Cantabria. Foremost of these is its legendary fabada (stew of haricot beans and pork) a dish so good that it is credited with saving the northern lands from Moorish conquest (by legend the Moors became so content and drowsy after eating that they were not able to fight). Asturias is also famous for its cheese (especially the strong blue cheese, queso Cabrales) and its apple cider.

The region of Cantabria lies directly to the east of Asturias. Cantabarian cuisine has influences from both the mountains and the ocean. The mountains are home to dairy cattle (for cream, butter, cheeses and yogurt) and a diversity of wild game, veal, and pork. These ingredients come together in such popular local dishes as Cocido Lebaniega (chickpeas with beef, boiled ham, blood sausage, bacon, bell peppers, and abundant amounts of cabbage). From the ocean comes many staples in the Cantabrian diet such as anchovies, squid and scallops. These ingredients form such dishes as Sardinas al Horno (breadcrumb encrusted sardines baked in lemon juice, white wine and olive oil).

Mediterranean Coast (Barcelona, Valencia)

The Mediterranean coast of Spain is considered Spain’s link to rest of Europe. A common local phrase in Barcelona is "the rest of Spain looks inward, we look outward." At the same time, the population of Mediterranean coast is also very protective of its traditional Catalan culture and catala language. This is one of the many contradictions apparent in the culture and cuisine of the Catalan people. It is one of the many interesting quirks that make the Mediterranean coast of Spain and exciting place for food and travel.

The two primary centers of the Mediterranean coast are Barcelona in the north and Valencia to the south. Together they form one of the most gastronomically distinctive and exciting regions of Spain. One trait that sets Catalan cuisine apart from other Spanish regional cuisine is its use of vegetables. It is a strange phenomenon in most of Spanish vegetables are either dismissed or viewed with suspicion. Cataluna cuisine is the one major exception to this rule. Between Barcelona and Valencia there are huge open fields of fresh vegetables, which are incorporated into local dishes. An excellent example of their use of vegetables is hervido valenciano (a stew of potatoes, onion, and green beans).

Together, the cuisine of Valencia and Barcelona are an excellent example of the Mediterranean diet. This diet is based on the "Holy Trinity" of wheat, the olive and the vine, with other important ingredients being: rice and legumes; garlic, greens and vegetables; fish, meat and eggs; and fruit. This cuisine has been shown to be beneficial for good health and longevity.

Local ingredients separate the traditional dishes of Barcelona and Valencia. In Barcelona the cuisine is influenced by "the magic triangle" of the empordais (the northern coastal area around the Costa Brava). This dramatic area of northern Spain is where the Pyrenees Mountains meet the sea and the food from here is a combination of ingredients from the salt water and the mountains. This rich and eclectic diversity of components has yielded such dishes as the famous/infamous langosta con pollo (lobster with chicken) or its cousin pollastre amb gambes (Chicken in Brandy Sauce with Shrimp). Other popular dishes are associated with Catalan cuisine such as zarzuela (spicy mixed seafood stew) andbutifarra con setas (baked sausage and mushrooms).

Valencian cuisine distinguishes itself from the north by a focus on its fertile coastal plain. It is from this plain that Valencia gets a wide range of fresh seasonal vegetables, the most important of which is rice. Rice is to Valencia what pasta is to Italy. It is not a food product as much as a defining element of their culture. This is paella country. In Valencia there are as many variations of paella as there are chefs. Some restaurants in the area will have dozens of paellas on their menus in addition to over 100 other rice-based dishes. The "original" paella, paella a la valenciana was made with snails, vegetables and rabbit. The paella that most of the world knows is most often made with mussels, clams, and other seafood in addition to chicken. Regardless of the specific ingredients, Valencians have used paella to take cooking rice to the level of an art form.

Pyrenees (Basque Country a.k.a. Pais Vasco)

The Basque people are separated from the rest of Spain by their culture and a language so distinct that it has no connection to any other language spoken in the world today. They are a fiercely proud people who value their heritage and have a powerful love for life. This passion expresses itself in many forms, but is most apparent in their love of food, drink and community.

Basque country in the undisputed center of Spanish gastronomy. Even in a country such as Spain with a strong culinary background, the lust and passion for food exhibited by the Basque people is unrivaled. From the most modest cabin to the doors of Arzak in San Sebastian (Arguably Spain’s best restaurant) food is not simply sustenance, it is a religion and a way of life.

Basque cuisine has three primary elements; it is always fresh, always simple and always eaten as a group. One can only imagine the apocalypse that would be necessary to force a Basque to eat alone. Basque cuisine can draw on influences from many other regions throughout the world, but in the end it is always uniquely Basque and uniquely delicious.

Seafood is a particular specialty of Basque cuisine. The Basque are legendary for seamanship and the dishes that they cook reflect their experiences at sea. Foremost among these is bacalao (salted cod fish) that for the last 500 years has become a staple of the Basque people. Heavily salted, this dried fish became popular initially because it could be easily transported and stored for long periods of time. Over many centuries, however, bacalao has become synonymous with Basque cuisine. Reconstituted for 24-36 hours before use, bacalao is used for everything from soups and salads to filled pastry shells and casseroles. Other dishes include shangurro (stuffed crab), marmitako (Bonito and tomato soup),ensalada koshkera (fish and lobster salad) and angulas a la bilbaina (baby eels in garlic sauce).


Nothing is more representative of Spain than tapas. In the most limited senses tapas refers to the small dishes of food that the Spanish snack on while sipping their sherry, wine or beer. As food, tapas are very similar to American appetizers, Cantoneese dim sum and Italian antipasti. Standard tapas includeaceitunas (cured olives, sometimes stuffed), boletos (wild mushrooms fried in olive oil with garlic), pulpa a feira (boiled octopus seasoned with sea salt, olive oil and paprika), almejas a la marinera (clams cooked in wine and onion stock), and jamon serrano (incredible air dried mountain ham).

In the life of the Spanish, however, tapas are more than just appetizers. Tapas are a way of life. They are the daily representation of a culture that puts a great value on personal contact and social connections. Tapas are enjoyed at any time of day and are always enjoyed with friends and family. They are almost always eaten with wine, sherry or occasionally beer. They are not rushed or eaten quickly because the point is not to stuff yourself or get drunk, but to share the time with the people around you.

The speculated origins of Tapas are almost as varied as the dishes themselves. There are at least five widely voiced opinions on the origins for this ubiquitous Spanish cuisine. Many of these speculated origins probably have some kernel of truth to them, but the real truth has probably been lost in time.

THEORY 1.The word tapa, which means ''lid,'' is believed to have come from the days when portions of food were heated on the lid of coal- or wood-burning stoves.

THEORY 2. The health of Castilian King Alfonso X was the originator of tapas. During the 13th century when he ruled Sevilla, Corrdoba and Jaen, he was advised by his doctors to reduce the amount of calories that he ate. In response, his personal chefs developed a wide range of small tasty morsels that were so delicious that their fame spread all over Spain.

THEORY 3. Temperance could also be the true origins of Tapas. Centuries ago, in a reaction against a perceived increase in public drunkenness, a decree from the Spanish government forced bars to serve food with their wines. The custom became so popular that it became ingrained in Spanish culture.

THEORY 4. Another possibility is food hygiene. It is said that inn keepers and bartenders in the south of Spain used to have such a problem with flies getting in peoples sherry that they were forced to cover their patrons glasses with a small plate. Small snacks such as olives were soon added to these plates followed by slightly larger and more elaborate dishes. The word tapa, after all, comes from the wordtapar, which means "To Cover".

THEORY 5. The most likely origin of the tapas tradition is the 900 years of Moorish occupation and influence on the Iberian Peninsula. In the eastern Mediterranean and North Africa, there is an ancient tradition of enjoying a wide range of finger foods in a social setting with a beverage. These finger foods are called mezze in North Africa, meze in Greek, and mazas in the Middle East. Mezze, like tapas, can include everything from simple olives to grilled seafood. Also like tapas, the focus of mezze is more on the social bonding that they instigate than the food itself. It is almost a certainty that the Moors shared and spread this tradition during the years of their rule.


Although Spain is no larger than say, Texas, its climate and terrain vary all over the map. Wedged between France and Portugal--with the Atlantic on its north and west edge and the Mediterranean along the east and south--Spain has everything from mountains to near-deserts to sunny coastal plains. This creates a multitude of microclimates to grow a diverse variety of grapes, from delicate sparklers to seriously gutsy reds to that quintessential Spanish specialty, sherry.

In the Northeast, just inland from Barcelona in the foothills of the Pyrenees, the Penedes region of Catalonia (Catalunya to the locals) produces Spain's best-known sparkling wine. Known as cava and made in the classic methode champenoise, it features native grapes such as parellada, macabeo and xarel-lo. Recently, some cava producers have begun adding or substituting classic Champagne varietals such as chardonnay and pinot noir, especially in their high-end blends. Even so, it's hard to pay more than $12.00 for cava —and most of them run well under $10.00.

Reds make up the major output of the Rioja region in north-central Spain and account for Rioja's world-class reputation. Mostly based on the grape tempranillo (thought by some to be a clone of pinot noir) and garnacha (Spanish name for grenache), and aged in quality oak, they're Spain's best-known reds. Softer and fruitier than the cabernets and merlots of Bordeaux (which lies just over the Pyrenees to the north), red Rioja is often lightened up, as they do in Italy's Chianti region, with whites such as viura. In fact, the vineyards often have a mix of reds and whites planted side by side. There's also a small but growing amount of white wine in Rioja: some crisp, light and traditional; some rich and creamy from barrel fermentation.

Just northeast of Rioja, the ancient kingdom of Navarra. Known as "Spain's California," Navarra grows a great deal of the country's fruits and vegetables in addition to a wide range of wine grapes. Though it's best known (partly thanks to Ernest Hemingway) for its fruity, easy-drinking rosés, Navarra also turns out some high-quality white wines (mostly viura and chardonnay, which are sometimes blended) and age-worthy reds (tempranillo, garnacha, cabernet and merlot, as pure varietals and in various combinations).

Farther to the east of Navarra and an hours drive due north from Madrid lies the region of Ribera del Duero. For many years Ribera del Duero was know almost exclusively for one winery Vega Sicilia, which produced one of the world’s most sought-after red wines. Today, the region as a whole is gaining an impressive reputation internationally as other local wineries have started to produce more consistent and higher quality wines. The primary variety here is a clone of Tempranillo called Tinto Fino that has been specially selected for centuries to grow in one of the world’s shortest growing seasons. Every year farmers in Ribera del Duero gamble with the chilling mountain frost to get the minimum 100 days of growing time necessary to grow quality Tinto Fino. When their gamble pays off their wines are among Spain’s best.

Along the lower West Coast in the province of Andalucia, just above Spain's southernmost tip, lies the town of Jerez de la Frontera. Here, and in the surrounding region, the chalky soil, sizzling heat and unique winemaking methods turn the palomino grape into the sun-baked, golden elixir called sherry. Sherry can range from pale, delicate and bone dry to thick, sweet and toffee-colored—and it's great with everything from a simple appetizer of olives and bread to a slab of fruit-and-nut tart. Sherry tastes unlike any other wine for two main reasons. First, a crust of flor yeast can form on its surface, flavoring it as it matures. Second, it ages in a multilevel solera system of giant racks, in which the wine moves from barrel to barrel, top to bottom, blending younger lots into older ones and delivering the finished product from the lowest tier.

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