Rioja and coke? It’s no joke!

I’ve always said that if there’s not a scandal in the Rioja wine business, the Riojans will create one. The most recent uproar was set off by a deal signed by the local bar and restaurant association, the Logroño City Hall and Coca-Cola to sponsor a contest in local bars to determine who could make the best calimocho, a drink combining wine and coke.

The contest’s tag line “The best calimocho is made with the best Rioja” drew immediate criticism from the Rioja Regulatory Council and the Rioja Wine Brotherhood. The Council, while stating that it agreed with the general idea of promotion to attract young consumers to wine, thought that Rioja wines shouldn’t be associated with “this kind of consumption”. The brotherhood was more explicit in its criticism. Its grand master remarked that he had never mixed wine with any other beverage and reminded readers that members of the brotherhood are obliged to take an oath of allegiance that includes not watering down Rioja or other ‘sacrilegious’ practices such as mixing it with fizzy drinks. I guess I’ll never be a member of the brotherhood unless I cross my fingers while taking the oath!

The other side of the argument was taken up by Miguel Ángel de Gregorio, one of Rioja’s most prestigious winemakers, who defended the consumer’s right to drink Rioja any way they please.


Notice the bottle:  a 1983 Rioja reserva from Bodegas Campo Viejo (Photo credit:  Wikipedia)

When I asked my friends about it, not one of them objected to the idea of Rioja and coke. One of them reminded me that ‘calimocho’ (or kalimotxo) is a Basque name but on this side of the Ebro river it has always been called ‘Rioja Libre’. A group of winery owners that I ran into one morning while they were buying tickets to a local professional soccer game told me that they all drank it. One of them mentioned that a chilled ‘cosechero’ (carbonic maceration red) and coke was the perfect combination.

As for the international acceptance of Rioja and coke an article in the New York Times in 2013 ( recommends a recipe for calimocho:  mixing cola with wine, “preferably Spanish”.

But for me, the proof of the pudding was finding calimocho on a restaurant menu as a ‘signature cocktail’ in Jacksonville, Florida several years ago.


Anyone who has visited (and partied) in Spain during the summer, where daytime temperatures routinely reach 100ºF (37,7ºC) knows that red wine-based beverages – sangria, ‘tinto de verano’, ‘zurracapote’ and of course, calimocho are the perfect way to enjoy wine all year round.

Do I drink it? All the time!








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.