Some friends asked us if we could organise a visit to a bodega. They didn’t really mean me, they meant my partner, Maggie. She likes wine, she likes to visit bodegas. Wine is one of her hobbies, she knows a good deal about the local wineries and their products. I count beer and brandy among my hobbies but the focus is somewhat different.

Spain produces a lot of wine. I wasn’t quite sure how much or where the country was in the pecking order of wine producers but I was sure the Internet would know. Like so many times before I found that the information is not so cut and dried as you might expect. 

Where Spain ranks in world wine production fits with what may, or may not, be a Spanish urban myth about Italian olive oil. Spaniards say that the oil produced in Spain is shipped in bulk to Italy where it is put into stylish bottles with Italian labels and passed off as Italian. The Italians have, for a long time,  marketed their oil as a top quality product, much better than the humble Spanish equivalent, so it’s easy to sell Italian oil at a premium. Spain almost certainly does the same with Iranian saffron. And, for years, Spaniards have argued that they ship wine harvested and produced in Spain to France where it is mixed with the local plonk to produce something more palatable. Again, French wine has more caché than the Spanish product. The French though, who are the biggest importers of Spanish wine, deny the claim and counter attack by saying that Spanish wine is often a mix of Spanish wine with stuff produced in Latin America. I didn’t spend too much time trying to unravel this tangled skein of international wine trade name calling. It wasn’t what I’d set out to write about. Let’s just say that Italy is the biggest wine producer in the world and either Spain or France comes second. The US, the fourth largest producer, has the honour of being the country that drinks most wine.

Until quite recently most wine, nearly everywhere, was pretty rough. For the “pensioner” generation of Spaniards wine was simply a drink. Something, instead of water, to go with food. It was often rough enough to need mixing with casera type gaseosa to make it palatable. It’s only relatively recently that most Spanish producers have got around to producing wine under controllable conditions, bottling their wine up and putting labels on it to claim ownership of a fine product. Although the first steps to produce a better quality product go back to a system introduced in 1932 the first real attempt to up-quality wine began with regulations in 1970 which were upgraded in 1988, amended in 1996 and upgraded again in 2003. The current system for good quality wine (see the diagram at the head of this blog) starts with DO (Denominación de Origen), steps up to DOCa (Denominación de Origen calificada) and reaches the zenith in VP (Vino de pago). There are only 20 VP wines in all Spain. Four of them are from our region, Valencia – Finca El Terrerazo, Pago Vera de Estenas, Los Balagueses and Chozas Carrascal.

Whatever the politics and economics of it all we’re in a geographically good spot for wine production. We have three areas with the DO quality mark in the Valencian Community – Alicante (this is the one that includes local bodegas like the co-op in Pinoso and our bodega in Culebrón), Utiel-Requena and Valencia. In fact some of the wines in the Valencia region have the next grade up, DOCa status, as well as the Vinos de pago mentioned above. Across the border in Murcia there are three DOs – Bullas, Yecla and Jumilla. Both Jumilla and Yecla share a border with our hometown, Pinoso.

So now we’re back to where I wanted to be. Talking about bodega visits. The friends wanted an afternoon visit. A couple of local bodegas said they might be able to do afternoon visits but there were “special circumstances” that made it impossible this time. Basically if you want to visit a bodega it’s going to be a morning visit. Unsurprisingly visits at the weekend are the most popular.

There was a time when you could just show up at a bodega and there was an even chance that they’d have someone who could show you around. It was never particularly common and it’s certainly not like that any more. Bodega visits are now a business. You need to book up beforehand. Some bodegas are more organised, more reliable than others. We foreigners are often a bit loathe to use the phone, because of the language difficulty, and we think that an email or a WhatsApp message will be easier. Some bodegas will respond to emails and messages but the simple truth is that a phone call is still the surest way to do it. Or to go in person to book of course.

The cost varies. I seem to remember that when Maggie first started dragging me around bodegas we got a couple of tours for free. Maggie tells me that’s because I have a dodgy memory (or because of my beer/brandy hobby) but she agrees that the price was usually a nominal 3 to 5€. The visits cost a lot more now. It’s impossible to generalise because there are all sorts of offers and the bodegas keep coming up with new ideas. The typical, basic trip, which comes out at around 12-15€ per person, includes being talked through the process of wine making as you stare at stainless steel tanks or oak barrels, followed by a wine tasting with three or four wines. Usually there’s a bit of cheese and ham too. 

That experience is now added to in all sorts of ways from the frivolous, shoes and socks off to tread the grapes, to the more upmarket, where a meal becomes part of the tour, through to the plush, luxury weekends where wine and food are mixed with all sorts of pampering. I suppose that the only limits are the imagination of the people offering the programme and the boundaries imposed by any health and safety requirements. I’ve seen publicity for picnics among vineyards, courses in wine harvesting, full dining experiences with fancy chefs in impressive surroundings, opportunities to taste the wine before it’s strictly ready directly from barrels and storage tanks, a day where you get to be the winemaker, blending various wines to make your own designer product, art exhibitions and concerts in bodegas etc., etc.

If you’ve not visited a bodega, even if you’re not a wine buff, it can be an interesting experience. I’ve done too many but I still enjoy the way that the different bodegas, all of which vary the way they produce the finished product, insist that their way is the best. That’s the spirit!

To start here are links to two of the easiest networks for local bodegas. There are many more only a Google away.

Local Alicante bodegas

Local Jumilla bodegas

If you enjoyed this blog there are more, in the same style, at Life in Culebrón