No rain on the plain in post-Franco Spain

Spain has emerged from ossification since Franco’s death, and nowhere more admirably than in its wine industry.

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Poor Eliza Doolittle, mistreated and misinformed – taught to believe that a few redistributed aitches would make her a lady, or that being a lady, corseted and circumscribed, was a desirable thing to be. I loved the film My Fair Lady as a child – the songs, those wonderful Cecil Beaton costumes, that irascible old trout ’Enry ’Iggins – and although I wasn’t aware that the story was a version of George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion with all the liberal values taken out and shot, I did catch the rancid whiff of repression.

“I can do . . . without you!” trills Audrey Hepburn, before stomping out of ’Iggins’s ’ouse. But while Shaw gave his Eliza her freedom, these film-makers don’t consider a woman finding independence to be a happy ending. In the Greek myth that Shaw adapted, the sculptor Pygmalion falls in love with his creation, Galatea, prays for her to come to life, and then weds her. Ah, marriage. Even Beaton couldn’t have created a more rigid carapace.

I’ve put down my glass to go into this digression because Spanish wine always makes me think of this legend and of the two options – circumscribed security or scary freedom – available to any Galatea. Spain has emerged from ossification since Franco’s death, and nowhere more admirably than in its wine industry. There are still cheap, fruity quaffers and cruelly over-oaked Riojas, but there’s so much more – and not even the misery of recession will send Spain back to the darkness of an era when the man in charge considered wine to be good for sacramental purposes only, and when the quality of output reflected that belief. You wish the old teetotaller could see the now-wilful beauty he once dominated.

From the elegant Tempranillos of Ribera del Duero to the chalky southern vineyards where the Palomino for my beloved sherry grows, Spain now has an exciting diversity that is the best possible argument against one-size-fits-all Fascism. Venture out of Barcelona and you’re in Cava country; go farther down the coast and you reach Priorat, Spain’s only Denominación de Origen Calificada (the top designation) apart from Rioja. Further south are the cheerful, fruity Monastrells of Jumilla and Yecla; cross the country to the Portuguese border and you have the powerful, forthright reds of Extremadura.

Never mind the swaths of vineyards, more hectares than Australia has, between these two frontiers: it was another of Higgins’s many errors to suggest that the rain in Spain falls mainly on the plain. Apart from north-eastern Galicia, where Albariño grapes emerge from their Atlantic showers all ready to partner shellfish, this is a nation obliged to live with drought as intimately as with neighbours who fought on the other side in the civil war.

One easy way to appreciate Spain’s infinite variety is at a good Spanish restaurant. Tapas – originally a tiny snack atop the lid placed on drinks to keep out flies – has evolved into miniature showcases for salty individualism, perfect for creative chefs and the gastro-curious alike. At the new Ibérica in Farringdon, London, the executive chef, Nacho Manzano, partnered last month with Albert Adriá, of the tremendous Barcelona restaurant Tickets, for an antic and inventive meal of marvellous morsels – truffled brioche with mozzarella, Sangria-infused watermelon.

The wines ranged from a herby Marqués de Riscal Verdejo to a Priorat inappropriately named Humilitat. The wonderful dinner reminded me that no true gourmet could be a Fascist, because greatness pops up where and in whatever form it chooses, and should never be corseted or made to conform. Let’s raise a glass to liberty, to lovely Galatea and – given that wine is arguably also live beauty created from rock – to Spain’s delicious diversity, which could warm any but the stoniest heart.

 

Nina Caplan is the 2018 and 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and the 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman, and the author of The Wandering Vine: Wine, The Romans and Me, published by Bloomsbury. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

 

This article appears in the 02 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, After God Again