SAN SEBASTIÁN, Spain—It can sometimes seem to those of us who pay attention to the life of the table that Spain is forever arriving—yet never quite pulling into the station.
Certainly, the world’s food lovers have long known that some of Europe’s finest ingredients, such as its freshest fish and most flavorful hams, come from Spain.
And can anyone, including the Italians and the French, doubt that Spain’s most adventurous chefs set the standard and the pace for Europe? Thanks to the likes of Spain’s most famous and experimental chef, Ferran Adrià, and his many acolytes, the Spanish reinvented and reinvigorated haute cuisine. Only Japan can be said to even remotely rival Spain in influence and inspiration among ambitious chefs.
But what about Spanish wines? Here Spain has yet to make as dramatic an impact. Recognition has been slowly coming for the past two decades. But somehow, for reasons that I wouldn’t pretend to state with any assurance, Spanish wines have yet to capture the world’s attention as much as they might—or as much as they deserve. This is why I have just moved to Spain—for three months anyway.
Longtime readers might recall that I, and my wife, Karen, did one of our three-month stays in Porto several years ago. It was that time spent living in Portugal that made me aware of its neighbor.
The Portuguese living in the northern part of that country feel a close connection to and affinity for the Spanish region of Galicia, which lies just across Portugal’s northern border. So during our time in Porto, we would occasionally drift north, slipping into Spain.
Sure, it was similar to Portugal, but different, too. Not only was the food better, but there was also a powerful sense of dynamism among its winegrowers. Spain’s best wine producers have been aggressively pursuing greater refinement for the past two decades; previously moribund wine districts have been vitalized. Having a large local audience and considerable wealth makes an enormous difference. (Think California.)
But part of the difference was also a matter of culture. Simply put, the Spanish chefs who rocked Europe’s culinary world had counterparts among Spanish wine producers. Both drew from the same cultural and economic wellsprings. (Thirty years ago we saw the same food-and-wine phenomenon emerge and converge in Italy.)
So now I’ve come to live in San Sebastián (on my own dime, as was also the case in Porto) to better grasp the wine ambitions of at least northern Spain, which means the wine likes of Rioja, Ribera del Duero, Bierzo, Ribeira Sacra, Rías Baixas, Navarra and the Basque country. Of course, in three months I’ll only be able to skim the surface. But it’s a start.
And because I’ll be living in San Sebastián, there’s the not insignificant matter of food. Famously, San Sebastián is one of the food (and foodie) capitals of the world, justly renowned for its pintxos (aka tapas) bars, which are like no others anywhere else. And I’ve never seen fresher fish than what’s on daily offer in San Sebastián— not in Venice (where we once lived) or Paris (ditto) or pretty much anywhere else I’ve lived or visited. Not least, it’s a gorgeous city, like nothing so much as a miniature Paris.
Not least, many of Spain’s most innovative chefs also work in or near San Sebastián. It is endlessly proclaimed, correctly I believe, that San Sebastián and its nearby villages collectively have garnered more Michelin stars per capita than anywhere else in the world. More significant yet is the extraordinary standard of what might be called the “daily” restaurant fare, where the food is also an art even if it’s not quite framed as such, as is done in more expensive, prestigious places.
So that’s the story. I am here above all because I am convinced that Spanish wines offer a thrill like no other. And that’s reason enough, don’t you think?