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It was a hot September evening in Valladolid. I was seated outside a café on the Plaza Mayor, sipping on a glass of verdejo from the nearby Rueda alongside several plates of tapas, surrounded by crowds of people doing the same. In Spain, this time of year feels more like late summer than early autumn, and drinking a crisp white wine was a far more pleasant option than yet another glass of the big, bold Spanish reds I had tasted all day.

I remember the wine being tropical, vibrant, and totally gulpable. It wasn’t the most intellectual or complex wine I had ever tasted. It didn’t change my life forever. But that was more than okay. Sometimes you don’t need a wine that does either of those things. My chilled verdejo was exactly what I needed at the moment, and it was downright cheap — only two euros for a glass. As soon as I finished my first glass, I ordered another.

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If I say “wine” and “cocktail,” most Americans will jump immediately to one thing: Sangria. In fact, they might even exclaim something like this: “Woohooo, sangria!” No discussion of wine cocktails can truly begin until we discuss sangria. So I may as well start with a full confession: I do not like sangria.

In fact, I do not like it so much that I actually may have put together an ebook on wine cocktails simply in order to convince people to leave their lame old sangria behind. But soon enough, I realized this was silly on my part. I mean, who am I to tell you not to drink sangria? If you happen to like soggy fruit soaked in cheap wine, by all means, enjoy yourself.

My problem with sangria is two-fold. First, it’s almost always made incorrectly. For the record, sangria is not simply chopped fruit dumped into wine. No, true sangria should always have a significant portion of brandy and also possibly a small amount of liqueur. Ask what they put in your sangria at your local happy hour and most likely it will make you sad.

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Beware: Using your favorite wine in cocktails is a surefire way to scandalize the “serious” wine snobs in your life. Which, of course, is always fun. Mix up your wine routine with more than 40 new recipes from top mixologists in Planet of the Grapes Volume 3: Wine Cocktails, available now on Amazon. In this excerpt, author Jason Wilson explores the ever-underappreciated sherry.

Everybody’s talking about sherry these days. At least everyone snugly inside the bubble where sommeliers, bartenders, wine educators, and drinks writers reside. It’s the same place where grower Champagne, mezcal, and white whiskey are really popular, and ambergris (otherwise known as whale excretion) is used in cocktails. The other 99 percent of the world usually doesn’t get the memo. Which is sometimes just as well.

In the case of sherry, however, this lack of awareness beyond the bubble is truly a shame. Sherry is one of the most versatile, and best value, wines in the world. You can almost always find high quality for under $20, and often for under $15. Taken by itself, sherry has always been the perfect wine to pair with many difficult-to-pair foods such as olives, artichokes, nuts, asparagus, cured meats, sushi, as well as wine-unfriendly Chinese food.

Behind the bar, sherry has been a staple since cocktails first appeared in the 19th century. The sherry cobbler (sherry, fruit, and ice) was the Appletini of its day, and early 20th century classics like the Duke of Marlborough, the Bamboo, the Adonis, and the East Indian — all of which are varying combinations of sherry, vermouth, and bitters — wonderfully showcase the wine.

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There are many garish bottles on liquor store shelves, but none do more peacocking than Spanish brandies.

You’ve surely noticed the bottles I’m talking about — even if, like most Americans, you’ve never bought one. Most Spanish brandies wear crimson or canary yellow or glittery gold upon their labels. One dons a pretty ribbon, while a rival sports an intricate faux-gilded pattern. Some are affixed with regal wax seals, while others announce their presence in fancy Renaissance faire-style fonts. Then there are the courtly names themselves: Carlos I; Cardenal Mendoza; Gran Duque d’Alba.

Since I, perhaps sadly, am not a courtier of Philip IV in a ruffled collar, for years I pretty much ignored the advances of these brandy grandees. MORE

Bargain Bottles

Monastrell As Well

An under-the-radar Spanish grape to add to your bargain-hunting list


TM_WT_MONASTR_AP_001Tempranillo, garnacha and albariño. You’ve heard these bargain buzzwords whispered before. They’re the Spanish wines already synonymous with good value. But as their popularity continues to rise, they’re slowly disappearing from the bargain category. And finding an enjoyable one priced under $10 has become nearly impossible.

Luckily, there are still a few corners of Spain where you can easily discover pockets of great deals — like the places that grow monastrell. Although not exactly a household name like tempranilllo or garnacha, monastrell is quickly redefining what value means in Spain. Forget the Spanish wines you already know — it’s time for you and your wallet to get acquainted with this native grape.

You probably don’t even need a full introduction to monastrell. In countries outside of Spain, it wears another hat and goes by the better-known alias, mourvèdre. It’s with this different name that monastrell has achieved its greatest fame. The grape is most famously grown in France, where it’s used to make pretty rosés in Provence and powerful Châteauneuf-du-Pape wines in the Rhône Valley, home to the esteemed “GSM” blend. The prominent “M” part of the blend, winemakers in regions all over the world blend mourvèdre with grenache and syrah to make wines that are both juicy and savory.

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I love churros. They’re amazing. But I never realized that we here in America had made them the wrong way, until I went to Spain. At fairs, in schools, in bakeries, and all over in the United States, churros are served long, covered in sugar and cinnamon, and only eaten one at a time. I used to eat them at my school that way and loved them. Everyone waited in line for a long time to get the churros, and they were really good because they were served hot. But a new principal wanted to make things “healthy” and took away churros from the lunch room (I think it was just budget cuts). Eventually the churros came back, but they were served cold, shipped in from somewhere else, and by the time lunch came, they no longer had the same goodness. I still bought them, though, because it was the only option. But then I went to Spain.


“Un pincho de tortilla y un café con leche, por favor.”

It was an almost-daily order. The café near my little casa in Madrid had the best tortilla española around. And with a cup of espresso with milk, I was a happy girl. My options at such cafés were usually limited because I was a vegetarian. I had underestimated how difficult studying abroad in meat-loving Spain would be. I usually had two possibilities: tortilla española and gazpacho. As winter was approaching in my time in Madrid, the chilled gazpacho was not usually served, so tortilla was my go-to dish. MORE

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The first thing I wish I had known before I approached the car rental kiosk: Almost all cars in Europe are manual. The second: European car rental companies don’t really care about silly Americans like me that don’t know how to drive them.

Many young Americans are just like me. I learned how to drive in an automatic car. Five years have passed and I still cannot operate one with a manual transmission. At home, in my good old automatic, this is never an issue. But when I arrived in Europe last fall for a self-guided tour through wine regions in Spain, France, and Italy, my inability to manage a stick shift suddenly became a hindrance. Luckily, one rental company offered a solution to my problem: the Smart Car, which has an automated manual transmission and can be driven in either mode. It was extremely tiny, like a toy car — much smaller than any car I had ever driven. I wondered where exactly I was supposed to put my oversized suitcase. But while it wasn’t the most comfortable ride for a lengthy journey through wine country — certainly not very impressive to roll up to a winery in — the little car took me far.

Bargain Bottles

Garnacha Gonna Getcha

Spain’s other red wine


By now, the secret is out: Everyone knows Spain is a reliable source of good value and high quality wines. Store shelves everywhere are stocked full of them: Crisp, refreshing whites like albariño and big bold reds, as well as sparkling cava that is far cheaper than Champagne.

If you already know a thing or two about red wines from Spain, you’re probably most familiar with tempranillo, the great indigenous Iberian grape. By far the most high-profile Spanish wine in the U.S., tempranillo yields huge and intensely flavored wines, often with a good deal of oak aging. Earthy, rich leather and fresh tobacco leaves are typical aromas of these often-tannic wines. If you’re even more of a wine hipster, you’ve surely sipped some in-the-know reds from Bierzo, Ribeira Sacra, or Priorat. MORE

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When it comes to wine, we rarely consider its journey from grape to glass. Instead, we fixate on describing its characteristics, like fresh and fruity aromas, savory flavors or an elegant finish. Sometimes we complain that the complexity of a wine doesn’t correspond with the amount we paid for it. And far too often, we ponder the perfect food and wine pairings.

We readily use our senses of sight, smell, touch, and taste to evaluate the quality of wine, but we seldom consider the story behind that bottle. Every wine has a specific place where it was made and the greatest ones have the fingerprints of passionate and intriguing workers all over them. Just like knowing the roasted chicken you are preparing for dinner was raised cage-free or the organic apple you’re about to bite into isn’t covered in pesticides, hearing the details of any bottle of wine can absolutely make a difference in your enjoyment of it. At least, it does for me. MORE

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Right around the time I start digging out my sweaters, I begin to crave Spanish cheese. That’s because I associate Spain’s notoriously dense wheels with autumn smells – dry leaves, cool earth, a hint of wood smoke – and, especially, fall colors. A golden wheel of aged Mahon can be brighter than any maple, and a russet wheel of Ibores (rhymes with Delores) pops like neon pollen on new sidewalk.

Spanish cheeses take their color from spices like paprika, the source of Ibores’ rouge coat, and sometimes olive oil, which lends the surface of Mahon its characteristic dark gloss. Cheesemakers rub these ingredients into the rinds as the wheels age, a process that adds flavor – not just to the surface, but also to the paste as the spices slowly penetrate to the core. MORE