The Christmas Lottery

Rioja, like the rest of Spain, is a gambler’s paradise.  There are slot machines in almost every bar, which are filled with people after lunch playing cards and betting on drinks or coffee, almost every city has a casino and the country has a mind-boggling array of lotteries.  We have the blind association lottery (ONCE), the Bonoloto, the lotería primitiva, the Euromillones, the Thursday lottery and the most loved of all, the lotería nacional, or national lottery.

The highlight of the lottery season is the Christmas drawing, held on December 22. Ticket sales start several months in advance.  You can either buy a 20 euro ticket at a lottery shop, bar or café or a participación or partial ticket.  Sometimes a bar will give these partial tickets away to their customers, although it’s considered bad luck not to pay for it. 

On December 22, the drawing is televised and followed either on the radio or TV by the whole country.  Unlike the weekly drawings, where each digit of the five-digit number is drawn individually, in the Christmas lottery, there are 85,000 or so little balls with numbers in one huge drum, with the prizes in a second drum.  Each number and prize are sung out by groups of two students from St. Ildefonso’s school in El Escorial and when a big prize is announced ( , a commentator tells the country where the number has been sold.  A camera crew then reports from those lottery shops, showing hundreds of screaming, happy people waving their winning tickets while drinking cava.

There are five big prizes, with the big one (el gordo) worth 300.000 euros for each 20-euro ticket.

This year, each Spaniard spent on average, 68 euros on Christmas lottery tickets, with La Rioja leading with 101 euros per person, 16% more than in 2009. This to me is an indication of the high standard of living we have here, but also a sign of how desperate some people are to win some money!

There is a lot of superstition about numbers and where you buy your ticket.  This year, one of the most popular number s was 11610, coinciding with the start date (June 11, 2010) of the World Soccer Championship, which was won by Spain. Another popular number this year ended in 33, the number of miners rescued in Chile.  My mother-in-law always bought a number ending in 13 and her brother’s bar always ordered 00001.

The most popular lottery shops in Spain are La Bruixa d’Or in Sort (which means ‘luck’ in Catalán) and Doña Manolita in Madrid.

This year my wife and I didn’t spend anywhere near the national average.  She bought a ticket from her company (ending in zero, returning her money) while I bought one fourth of a ticket with some friends (which didn’t win anything).

It’s always great to watch all those happy people celebrating having won a big prize, especially this year, with Spain suffering more than most countries the effects of the economic crisis.

You might be wondering what my wife is going to do with the 20 euros returned to her.  She’s going to reinvest them in a ticket for the lotería del niño (the Epiphany lottery), whose drawing is on January 5!


When I was a kid my parents would send me to stay with my grandmother from time to time.  She was from the Eastern Shore of Chesapeake Bay and her manners and accent seemed exotic to someone born and raised in the Midwest like me.

Grandmama, as we used to call her, used to serve a dessert she called ambrosia.  The first time I heard the name I asked her what it meant.  “The food of the gods”, she said.

Last Sunday I opened a bottle of Marqués de Riscal reserva 2002 and the word that came to mind was “ambrosia”. It was one of those rare occasions when you taste a wine that was absolutely at its peak.  I was a little apprehensive when opening the bottle because 2002 wasn’t a Rioja vintage that stood out in my mind for its quality.  Boy, was I wrong!  It was pure silk.

Medium ruby with a slight brick tinge on the edge of the glass.  Strawberry jam and spices on the nose.  Great depth, perfect balance and smoothness, with no rough edges.

We enjoyed it with a Sunday dinner of roast pork shoulder smothered in gravy with vegetables and diced fried potatoes. We sipped it all afternoon while decorating the Christmas tree.

I’m excited about opening a few more bottles of this 2002 over the holidays.  Somehow it got lost in my cellar and I have five bottles left!

Bodegas Lan D-12 First Edition 2007

Bodegas Lan is one of my favorite Rioja wineries, so I was naturally curious the other day when I saw a bottle of ‘LAN D-12’ in a tapas bar in Logroño.

I ordered a glass and liked it, but wanted to find out more about the product. After all, ‘D-12’ reminded me more of airplanes (B-52 and F-111) and models of Citroën (DS, C-5) than a wine brand. What were these guys up to?

The back label told me that it was created as a “winemakers’ reserve”.  Traditionally, Lan’s winemakers would leave the best wines from a vintage in tank (depósito in Spanish, hence D) 12. It was unfiltered.  The back label warned me that there might be some sediment at the bottom of the bottle.

‘That’s interesting’, I thought, ‘but how had the winery positioned this brand?’  So I turned to Amaya Cebrián, Lan’s communication director.

Amaya explained that the winery had identified a niche for a modern Rioja for discerning consumers looking for something special, but not necessarily a reserva, when moving beyond the crianza level.

I liked that idea because I feel that in an overcrowded marketplace, wine brands need to create and communicate a USP or unique selling proposition. D-12 had it.

It seemed to perfectly complement the rest of the range:  the attractively priced crianza, reserva and gran reserva on one hand and the higher priced single vineyard range of Edición Limitada, Viña Lanciano and Culmen.

My wife, son and I shared a bottle at our summer house during the long Constitution Day puente last week.  We all liked it a lot with the spicy seafood pasta that our son made.

My tasting notes:

Black cherry, almost purple.  Intense fresh red and black berry fruit on top of a layer of new oak.  Fruit, ripe tannins and good acidity on the palate.  I thought that the wine would drink better in a few months when the tannins, fruit and acidity knit together a little more.   But it’s very tasty right now.

Discovering the Riojas and Cavas from Mount Yerga in Rioja Baja


After several months’ absence, I was finally able to attend the Rioja tasting organized by our local newspaper LA RIOJA.  The November tasting featured Amador Escudero and the wines of Bodegas Escudero and Bodegas Valsacro.

It was a great review of wines and the potential of cavas from Rioja Baja.

The Escudero family has 128 hectares of vineyards in Rioja Baja, on or near Mount Yerga, one of the highest sites in Rioja. Yerga was once largely ignored by wineries because grapes produced there ripened late.  This prompted growers to plant on the fertile alluvial plain near the Ebro river.  Today things have changed, with criticism heaped on the high-yielding vineyards near the river while Yerga is one of the most sought-after sites.

Escudero has been producing cava in Rioja for over 50 years, and as cava producers, are allowed to plant varietals allowed by the Cava appellation. 

As we arrived, we were served a Benito Escudero rosé cava made with pinot noir.  Beautiful cherry bouquet and very refreshing.

The first Rioja was Bécquer red 2008.  The brand was created to honor Spain’s romantic poet Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer, who wrote  his Miserere on the slopes of Mount Yerga.  70% tempranillo, 30% garnacha.

Intense ruby.  Red fruit, spicy, a touch of oak.  Balanced acidity with a long finish.  I thought that the wine’s power overshadowed its elegance.

Vidau 2005.  70% tempranillo.  Aged in French and Rumanian oak.

‘Vidau’ is how Escudero calls a field blend, where the different varieties in a single vineyard determine the blend of grapes in the wine.

Intense black cherry.  Very ripe red fruit and new oak.  High acidity.  In my opinion it needs more time in the bottle.

Valsacro Dioro 2004.  40% tempranillo, 40% garnacha, 20% others. Aged in French and Rumanian oak.

Intense black cherry with brick.  Very ripe dark fruit, spicy, well-balanced with ripe tannins.  In my opinion, the best wine in the tasting.

Arvum 2005. (‘Arvum’ means ‘field’ in Latin.

Intense brick.  Red fruit, candy and butterscotch.  High acidity, tannic, not mouth-filling.  I thought the aroma was better than the mouthfeel.

My overall impression of these wines was that they were well-made but expressed more depth on the nose than on the palate, dominated by high acidity. In Rioja, high acidity is highly prized because it gives potential for ageing. In Rioja, winemakers call this quality ‘frescura’ or freshness.

 I missed, however, more complexity to go along with this acidity.

We then tasted two cavas.  The first was Dioro Baco extra brut, made exclusively with chardonnay from vineyards on Mt. Yerga.  Amador said that the base wine remained for six years on its lees.  Straw-gold.  Nutmeg, banana and a slight whiff of burnt sugar.  I liked it a lot.  

Dioro Baco semi-dry ‘dessert’ cava.  I thought it was well-balanced, not cloying, with a graham cracker bouquet.  Frankly I prefer brut cavas but this one was pretty good.

I left the tasting satisfied but curious to taste more wines made from grapes grown on the high altitude vineyards of Mount Yerga.