Wine and hot weather

Summer is here, not only on the calendar but on the thermometer. There’s a well-known saying here “en España hay nueve meses de invierno y tres meses de infierno” (in Spain there are nine months of winter and three months of hell). The problem is that rather than four well-defined seasons, we have a very short or non-existent spring and fall, going from winter to summer in a week, when the temperature shoots up from 10ºC (50ºF) to 35ºC (95ºF) and stays there.

Another popular expression is hasta el cuarenta de mayo, no te quites el sayo (literally until the 40th of May don’t take off your cloak). Starting the second week in June, the cloak stays in the closet until October when the temperature goes back down to single digits.

People interested in wine statistics have long remarked that Spain’s per capita consumption has always been lower than in France’s or Italy’s. This has nothing to do with our standard of living. The reason is that for three to five months of the year it’s just too frickin’ hot to enjoy a glass of wine. In a non-air conditioned bar, even a glass of chilled white or rosé gets warm in about two minutes.

Conditioned to never add ice to wine, Spaniards cop out by ordering chilled glasses of beer. No amount of persuasion about the health benefits of wine drinking are going to persuade thirsty people here to drink wine on a hot day. Let’s face it, in hot weather, wine just doesn’t quench your thirst.

In Rioja the problem is that the trade and consumers think that our wines should NEVER be served in anything other than a long stemmed wine glass with no additives except a little chilling in an ice bucket if it’s white or rosé. Given that wine consumption per capita is at an all-time low, and needs a push, I’m going to stick my neck out and say categorically that there are two possible solutions:

  • throw in the towel and drink beer from June to October

  • consider drinking wine in more creative ways.

The sherry industry, subjected to brutal downsizing for thirty years, has tried just about everything to interest consumers, with disappointing results, except for the rebujito, fino sherry and 7-Up on the rocks. Even though sherry brand owners argue that mixing sherry with a soft drink banalizes the fino category, sales are sales and promoting the drink promotes sherry. Somebody ought to bottle it.

Young people in Spain, with little knowledge and few preconceived notions about the ‘purity’ of wine consumption habits, offer a solution to the problem of drinking wine in hot weather.

The most popular wine-based drink today is undoubtedly the kalimotxo, red wine and coke in equal parts, usually served in a big plastic glass on the rocks at local town festivals in the summertime. Kalimotxo is perfect for parties: the coke takes some of the bitter taste away from the wine (tannins are a turnoff for novice wine drinkers), the wine gives you a pleasant buzz and the mixture keeps you cool and alert for all-night dancing in the street. I like to call it Iberian Red Bull. During the festival of San Fermín in Pamplona in early July, you can buy kalimotxo on tap.

Another popular drink is tinto de verano, red wine and sugary carbonated water (called gaseosa in Spanish), served on the rocks with slices of lemon and orange. You can even buy ready made tinto de verano in a bottle.

According to my son, another popular drink, apparently invented in the villages along the Ebro river in La Rioja and Navarra, is pitilingorri, originally rosé wine with an orange-flavored soft drink.

Spain’s best known wine-based drink, sangría, has fallen out of favor among young people here because the ingredients (cheap red wine, gin, some brandy, sugar, cinnamon and gaseosa) give you a massive hangover and probably a bad case of sunburn when you lie down on the beach to sleep it off. Surprisingly, however, when I went to a street tasting in central Florida last spring, there were no Spanish wines available but several brands of sangría were being flogged to unsuspecting consumers. The Wines from Spain promotion campaign would be unhappy to learn that.

I don’t think there’s absolutely any reason why you shouldn’t drink chilled red wine when it’s hot, but people need encouragement because of traditional beliefs about the ideal temperature of service. I remember an occasion several years ago when my wife and I went out to a restaurant to celebrate our anniversary, which is at the end of June. We decided to drink a bottle of young red Rioja. When the bottle was brought to the table it was too warm so I asked for an ice bucket to chill it down. We sat talking for about 10 minutes while the restaurant filled up around us. When we looked around, everyone had an ice bucket with a bottle of the same brand that we were drinking!

I think that rather than persuade Spaniards, especially young adults, to imitate the drinking habits of their parents, the wine trade should educate people from scratch, much like Americans of my generation did, by first offering them wine coolers such as kalimotxo and tinto de verano, moving later into dry white and then red. This might be a blow to the predominantly red wine producing regions of Rioja and Ribera del Duero but the key is to get them drinking wine by exposing it to them in a non-technical, casual way. It may take longer than the industry is willing to admit, but with young adult unemployment in Spain at almost 50%, this is probably the only wine they can afford.

I’m prone to complaining about the huge increase in consumption of lambrusco in Spain, but it’s cheap and cheerful, just what young people want these days.

Potatoes Riojan style

potatoesLast Saturday was my birthday so my wife decided that we were going to have a party at our summer house near Santander. Since most of our neighbors are from Bilbao, and consequently, Rioja lovers, we took  a healthy supply of wine (three cases of 12 for a party of 16) and prepared ourselves for a day of fun.  The party started at 1 PM and lasted until midnight.  I understand that several videos and pictures were taken of the event (I don’t remember) but haven’t seen them to be able to decide if they’re You Tube-worthy or not. You, the faithful readers of Inside Rioja, will have a ringside seat!

A marathon like this begs for careful preparation, so we decided to feed the crowd with a staple of Riojan cuisine, potatoes with spicy sausage, called ‘patatas a la riojana’ everywhere in Spain except in Rioja itself, where we call them ‘patatas con chorizo’.

This is the perfect party meal for several reasons:  it’s loaded with carbs to provide energy to keep dancing for hours, it fills your stomach to delay the absorption of the wine into the bloodstream and it’s damn tasty.

This type of food (called ‘spoon food’ – ‘cocina de cuchara’ in Spanish – has always been popular in Spain.  Imagine what life was like in the country 100 years ago.  You awoke before dawn, had a full meal including a bottle of wine, followed by chores until about 10 AM when you had a big mid-morning snack (see a previous post about ‘almuerzo’) with another bottle of wine, more chores, followed by lunch and more wine, more chores, dinner and more wine and to bed when the sun went down.  Sociologists reckon that the average Spanish farmer drank three bottles of wine and a copious amount of food every day to provide enough calories to manage the hard work.

Energy food like potatoes with spicy sausage, lentils and chickpeas, made like stews and eaten with a tablespoon, were served almost every day.

This tradition remains today, as people are going back to the culinary habits of their grandparents because of these dishes’ simplicity and downright good taste.  As a matter of fact, Rioja’s best-known restaurant, Echaurren in Ezcaray ( is actually two restaurants side-by-side:  mother Marisa Sanchez’ traditional dining room where generations of diners have enjoyed her traditional northern Spanish cuisine and son Francis Paniego’s avant-garde dining room, where many of his mother’s dishes are turned inside out (notably his rendition of potatoes with spicy sausage, served as a multilayered purée in a conical martini glass).

More about this amazing restaurant in a future post.

Hungry yet?  Here’s a recipe for potatoes with spicy sausage.  Please bear in mind that all measurements are approximate and can be corrected.

Ingredients for 6:

  • 1,5 kilos (about 3,5 lb. of potatoes (not the kind used for frying – note from my wife)
  • 2 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil
  • 3 cloves of garlic
  • 2 teaspoons of spicy red paprika
  • 6 pieces of chorizo, each about 1 inch long
  • an onion
  • 1 bay leaf

Peel the potatoes and soak them in cold water.

Peel and fry the cloves of garlic in a small frying pan in the olive oil.  As soon as the garlic takes on a golden color, sprinkle in the paprika. Then pour this mixture into a pot, adding about 36 ounces of water (the contents of two empty bottles of wine, for the mathematically challenged).  Add the peeled onion, the bay leaf and the chorizo, which shouldn’t be too dry.

When this comes to a boil, lower the temperature, cover the pot and cook slowly for an hour.

Preparation of the potatoes (VERY important):  They should not be sliced, but rather ‘broken’ (‘cachado’ in Riojan) by inserting a knife about 3/4 through and twisting the knife so a piece of potato breaks off.  This, I’m told, keeps the starch inside the potato rather than letting it leach out when the potato is sliced. Break the potatoes into pieces about 1 1/2 inches in diameter (a’ hunk’)

Add the potatoes to the pot and, if there’s not enough water to cover everything, add more until it does.  Add a little salt (careful!  the chorizo is salty).

Cook in the covered pot for about 45 minutes or until the potatoes are soft but a little firm. 

If you want a thicker stew, mash one of the potatoes with a fork and stir into the rest.

Serve in soup bowls with some spicy green peppers (‘guindillas’) on the side.  Some people here will hold a ‘guindilla’ in one hand and take a bite from time to time while others will chop  theirs up and mix it into the stew.  I prefer the latter.

My wife, who refused to help me with the recipe because like all experienced chefs, never measures anything, preferring to fly by the seat of her pants, mentioned that she slowly fries the onion and garlic, puts them into a blender and then adds the mix to the stew, as she thinks that non-Spaniards won’t like to eat a piece of onion and much less, a piece of garlic.

To be a real Riojan, enjoy a healthy portion of this stew with a few glasses of red Rioja, turn on the TV and watch the football game. You’ll probably fall asleep, though!