SAN SEBASTIÁN, Spain—Seasons spent away from home always come to an end, although months earlier when the journey begins, it seems like an endless horizon of time. Having done several such three-months-abroad stints, I know this to be true. Yet, every time, I’m taken by surprise.
Allow me to say that the bittersweet taste of departure is particularly hard this time. Why? Because San Sebastián is one of the most delicious—in every sense—places we have ever lived. The city is magnificent, chockablock with beautifully maintained ornate Belle Époque buildings, both public and residential. It’s like living in a wedding cake.
The center of San Sebastián is a stroller’s and window-shopper’s dream: Many of the streets are reserved only for pedestrians. Every evening, around 7 p.m., these pedestrian boulevards are thronged with people: parents and grandparents with babies in strollers; teenagers chatting with their friends (and, amazingly, not plugged in to isolating earbuds or headphones); and, not least, seemingly every one of San Sebastián’s abundant array of bars and cafés overflowing with socializing San Sebastiánites.
I’ve never seen a more social world than here in Spain, not even in Italy or France. Seemingly no one is alone here—or allowed to be. Spain has more bars per person than any other European Union nation—one for every 165 Spanish adults.
Spanish bars are more than the name suggests. Really, they are intense socializing locales, rather than just places to consume alcohol. Keep in mind that, according to the World Health Organization, Spain has the highest life-expectancy and some of the best health statistics in the EU (although smoking and obesity are eroding those numbers).
What might surprise you—it did me—is that the preferred drink is not wine but beer. Not only that, the Spanish really don’t drink very much alcohol of any kind, at least compared with some other Europeans today.
For example, 31 percent of Spanish adults report that they never drink alcohol, according to the big Spanish newspaper El País. The newspaper also notes that “Beer is Spaniards’ favorite tipple, which is drunk by 50 percent of the population; then spirits (28 percent), and wine (20 percent).”
Spain’s per-capita wine consumption is one of the lowest in western Europe at around 20 liters per capita. (Neighboring Portugal drinks twice as much wine.) This is the more striking yet when you consider that Spain is Europe’s third-largest wine producer, after Italy and France, which are, respectively, first and second.
Every Spanish wine producer I’ve talked with has commented on Spain’s relatively low (for Europe) wine consumption. Universally, these producers see exports as their only salvation, as wine prices in Spain, except for the most exclusive wines, are low.
So what did I drink? I’m glad you asked. Some readers surely imagine that wine writers are awash in high-end wines provided for free as samples by hungry-for-publicity producers. All I can say is that it isn’t true for this writer. I buy all of my own wines. What’s more, precisely because it’s my money, I seek inexpensive wines, preferably of high quality, at least for the prices asked.
And how is Spain for that sort of thing? In a word, it’s tremendous. Want to know precisely what I’ve been drinking these past few months?
Our house red is a terrific blend of Garnacha and Graciano from Rioja called Lacrimus Rex, from a producer named Rodríguez Sanzo. It’s a rich, round, gulpable red that costs about 6 bucks.
The house rosado, or rosé? As I’ve written many times over the years, the best grape variety for rosé is Garnacha (Grenache), as it’s so intensely fruity. Spain was at one point nearly drowning in Garnacha. The place to look for deals is the Navarra region.
Our house rosado is from a Navarra producer called Bodega Ujué. Their 100 percent Garnacha rosado sets us back … wait for it … $2.68 at the local supermarket. It’s really good, I tell you, as is the same producer’s red crianza, also from Navarra, at $3.30 a bottle.
For white, we have surfeited our guests with the local Txacoli, as it’s a highly enjoyable, low alcohol (11 percent), slightly spritzy, utterly local wine that you absolutely must try when you’re in San Seastián. Our go-to producers are Txomin Etxaniz (about whom I’ve previously written) and a neighboring winery, Ameztoi.
Farther afield, the white wine that has amazed our guests with its quality and savor is a Verdejo from the Rueda district called Viña Sanzo Verdejo Viñas Viejas, from the same producer (Rodríguez Sanzo) that supplies our house red. (They seem to have a knack.) The Verdejo grape can create dry white wines of striking originality. If you’ve never tried one, you really should. Price? $7.25.
More cutting-edge reds that still sell for what I, anyway, think are bargain prices are from two of Spain’s most forward-thinking small producers, both rabble-rousers from Rioja: Telmo Rodríguez and David Sampedro Gil. Both issue wines at seemingly every price category, from a mere few dollars to upwards of $100 or more.
Mr. Sampedro Gil has multiple labels. The lower-priced wines, called Bodegas Bhilar, are biodynamically grown Rioja wines of exceptional quality for the money. Devoid of apparent oak, they are not what you (or I) expect from “conventional” Rioja.
One we like very much is called Lágrimas de Graciano, an unusual 100 percent bottling of Rioja’s native Graciano grape variety ($7.20). The other is a more conventional blend of Tempranillo (85 percent), Garnacha (10 percent) and the white Viura (5 percent) called Bhilar, which is $10.40. Each is superb, memorable even.
The wines from Telmo Rodríguez are equally rewarding, yet very different. One is Mr. Rodriguez’s biggest-volume label (which means about 6,400 cases, as he’s a small producer) called LZ. It’s a delicious red Rioja sourced from multiple vineyards around the high-elevation village of Lanziego, hence the name LZ. Cost? $10.60.
Mr. Rodríguez’s other red that appears on our table is from the Alicante province in southeast Spain, a world away from Rioja in every sense. Made from the local Monastrell grape variety (better known by its French name, Mourvèdre), it’s called Al-muvedre. An intense, rich red of real savor, it’s hard to beat for enjoying with a grilled steak or a plate of beans. The price is really tasty—at least here in Spain—at just $6.20 a bottle.
Bottom line: I urge you to go to San Sebastián. The food is famously fabulous; the city is impeccably clean and uncommonly beautiful. And the Spanish wines are just what you might imagine them to be: varied, wonderful and as original as any on the planet. What’s not to like?