Vamos a la vina

Drink - Victoria Moore enjoys her Spanish holiday

There's something very satisfying about "discovering" a wine while on holiday and, on returning home, trekking round the shops until you winkle out a bottle - at twice the price, naturally. That some buyer with a fine palate has thought the wine worth importing seems to confirm your own good taste. But what if this happens in reverse?

What if you fly to Spain, taste buds primed, salivating as you step off the plane at the prospect of an entire country of different wines waiting for you to drink - and all that's on offer are the very bottles you've spent the past three months buying from Oddbins in anticipation of the trip?

If you're me, you take it as a personal affront. The trouble began in the seaside resort town of San Sebastian. We had promenaded round the bay, watched the local fishing competition, and parked ourselves in a seafront restaurant for lunch. We ordered sardines, grilled langoustines and garlicked hake. Then I turned to the wine list, and was outraged to find the only roses on it were the familiar Marques de Caceres and Chivite Gran Feudo, plus one other which, as it was sparkling, hardly counted.

All around town (and house wine aside), those two producers were hard to escape. Ditto Campo Viejo. And Faustino. And it wasn't just the bigger brands. It seemed that every bottle of Spanish wine I had ever drunk in England was here, on a tapas bar menu, and nothing else was. I was livid.

"For God's sake, Victoria," said my boyfriend. "Are you seriously complaining that the wine you drink quite happily at home" (here, I pointed out that he has always been keener on the Spanish stuff than I have) "is now not good enough for you just because Oddbins or someone has been kind enough to import it?" That's right. I was.

That evening, my mood was improved somewhat by a bucket-sized gin and tonic that sailed straight into my list of top ten gin and tonics at number three. We had had to wait so long for the waiter that I'd been threatening to emulate the peach-clad senoras at the table next to us, who simply hissed loudly whenever they wanted to order a new round of bitters. But when he came, and offered me a choice of three different gins (Larios, Tanqueray, Beefeater), I was instantly placated. When the drink arrived with a firm slice of lemon zest and the usual proportions of gin to tonic reversed, I was happy as anything.

Perhaps we were to blame for avoiding the town's Michelin-starred restaurants, but still the wine situation did not look up. Nor did it when we moved west down the Atlantic coast to Santillana del Mar, apparently described by Jean-Paul Sartre as "the prettiest village in Spain". Was he being sarcastic? Perhaps, in his day, every building had not yet been transformed into a knick-knack shop. It reminded us of Howarth. Even the thick medieval sandstone walls everyone so admires contrived to look like Disney stone cladding. Naturally, the menus there were tourist-tastic, too.

So we got in the car and headed south towards the vineyard areas. Now we are in the Castilian city of Burgos - the home, in the 11th century, of El Cid, within striking distance of Rioja (to the east) and Ribera del Duero (to the south) - and there's a marked improvement. The posher restaurants have a double page of Riojas to choose from, and we've found several goodies. But it's the scummy fast-food bars, with their sub-motorway service station raciones (vile mussels and fried potatoes coated in glutinous white sauces), that have the most exhilarating selection of wines. It is not just that I still have enough of a student mentality to be entranced by the existence of 20p-a-glass house wine. I love it that, here, even the scrubbiest bar can offer you a choice of three different roses, and at least five each of reds and whites.

I've got a long way to go before I decide which of the reds I like the best, but on the rose trail, my favourite so far has been a pale pink Rioja from David Moreno. And if it's on the shelves at Tesco or Thresher's, I don't want to hear about it, OK?

This article first appeared in the 16 July 2001 issue of the New Statesman, How long have we got?