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The Religion of Wine in Rioja Valley, Spain

The Religion of Wine in Rioja Valley, Spain

It was 10:30 in the evening on a weeknight, and I was standing outside the hostel in a light drizzle. Laughter danced around the corner, emanating from unseen cafés. I heard glasses clinking, bursts of lively conversation intermingled with a Spanish ballad, a ball bouncing, and kids giggling. Is tomorrow a holiday? I wondered as I slid the key into the door and hoisted my luggage up a short flight of stairs.  

El Ciego

I would come to understand that Spain has its own unique rhythm: slow and lethargic in the morning, a burst of energy in sidewalk cafés during lunch, followed by a mass vanishing in the afternoon. During siesta, the streets empty and the shops close. It’s when the sun descends that Spain comes alive again with bright faces and unrestrained laughter. Friends share pinxtos and swap stories until the wee hours of the morning, fueled by hearty blends of Tempranillo, Mazuelo, Graciano, and Garnacha. In Rioja Valley, wine is a religion and I had come to be baptized. 

My first wine-drinking experience decades ago was more layman than ecclesiastical. College friends and I shared a pint of bottom-shelf Wild Irish Rose around a campfire. I awoke the next day with a crimson-puke-stained t-shirt, no shorts (found them by the pond that I had jumped into with glee moments before hurling), and a throbbing headache. Over the years, I matured from twist-top bottles of pink bubbly White Zinfandel to more adult dry reds with real corks, but I remained an amateur when it came to a true appreciation of wine.  

“Wine tastings intimidate me,” I explained to Inma, expert sommelier and my local tour guide from Rioja Wine Trips. “I don’t understand all the sniffing and exaggerated descriptors –notes of cinnamon, flutters of smoky cheddar. I mean, what are they even talking about?”  We were seated on a wooden bench inside the dimly lit tasting room at the Remelluri estate, a vineyard dating back to the 14th century. It was a few weeks past the final harvest. Frost adorned the crinkled, yellowed leaves of the region’s gnarled grape vines, and snow capped the mountain peaks of the surrounding Sierra de Tonolo. Inma smiled with kind eyes and began with the basics.  

She poured a few ounces of burgundy bliss into a tasting glass and instructed me to pick it up and swirl the contents. I cupped the bowl of the glass with the palm of my hand and gyrated it with vigor. She calmly raised her own glass, holding it by the stem near the base and tilted it, gently rotating the crest of the wine in a slow circle. “Wine is best experienced slightly below room temperature, when the aromas and taste blossom. Body temperature warms the wine.” I adjusted my hand position to match hers.  

She held the tilted glass up to the light and pointed with her little finger to the thin viscid film on the inside surface of the glass, which trailed the swirling wine. “How would you describe the color of the wine?” I think I mumbled something about brownish with red undertones.  

“The natural elements of a growing region, like soil, sunshine, and moisture, contribute to a wine’s color. The acidity of the wine, type of grape, aging medium, and exposure to oxygen also affect color.” She paused, then continued, her patient voice rolling r’s and aspirating h’s in Spanish fashion. “By examining the wine’s hues and color intensity, you receive hints about its taste, texture, and smell. A young, acidic wine aged in a tank will be a brighter red; a more mature wine aged in an oak barrel will be deeper and browner in color.” Inma had poured a reserva, which in the Rioja Valley means the wine was aged at least three years, including one year in an oak barrel. Now its deep russet color made sense. 

She brought her glass to her nose, closed her eyes and inhaled. I did the same. “What do you smell?” My overachieving brain began to sweat, searching for the right answer. (“Do I smell pear? Or is that tobacco? Persimmon — does persimmon have a smell? Am I doing this right??”) She could sense my anxiety. “It’s OK,” she assured me. “There is no right or wrong answer. The description will be unique for every person, because what we bring to the experience of smell and taste are our own memories and reminiscence. Maybe the aroma reminds you of a favorite uncle who smoked cigars. The association may cause you to smell tobacco. One person may say she smells elderberry, but someone who has never encountered an elderberry may choose a different descriptor. The important thing is to notice. Now take a sip.”  

I sipped and swallowed. (“Mmmm,” my simple mind cooed.) Her dark brown eyes held no judgment. “Try another sip, but this time pay attention to the sensation on your tongue. Let it spread across your palate and slowly swallow. As you do so, what do you taste? Does the taste evolve? How would you describe the texture? What image arises in your mind?” She was not probing for answers. She was helping me observe. She reassured me again that there were no correct answers. Every person’s tongue perceives taste and texture in its own unique way based on the density and dispersion of taste buds and the range of flavors in his or her own diet. I began doubting the objectivity of those pretentious wine bottle labels touting hints of spice and pepper.  

She provided me with a vocabulary to describe “mouth feel”: smooth or astringent (referring to acidity), balanced or aggressive (the interplay between sweet or sour), full-bodied or thin (in reference to time it takes for the taste to disperse). I took a slow sip and waited a moment after swallowing, then said, “First, I tasted a sweetness like blackberries. The rough tannins mellowed in my mouth quickly, leaving a smooth sensation. A woody coffee bean flavor developed before swallowing, balancing the sweetness.” Gold stars for the acolyte!  

“Notice the point at which the experience of your sip has receded and you are ready to start anew with another taste. What is your mental state?” Another quiet pause, as we reached for our glasses. “As you continue to enjoy your glass of wine, how does your mental state change? If you are eating food, how does the experience change when the wine mingles with the food?” She was cueing me to something beyond wine tasting. This was a guided meditation.  

Later that evening, as we were dining on her homemade lamb and potato stew in the cellar of a medieval monastery, I asked Inma how to judge a “good” wine. In the flickering candlelight, she said, “Some wines will have enough complexity and depth to keep the drinking experience interesting from start to finish. Other wines will not be full-bodied enough to sustain interest. What is your intention? If you just want to get drunk, any table wine will suffice. When you want to calm the mind and savor the moment, a more complex wine will provide richer stimuli.”  

No “good” or “bad.” No "wrong" or "right." Set your intention and pay attention. As yoga is to Hindus, wine drinking is to Spaniards. It's a ritual of slowing down to connect with the present moment, acknowledging what that moment has to offer, then letting it go. With this epiphany, wine drinking took on a whole new dimension for me. I no longer saw it merely as a means to intoxicate but, rather, as a path to mindfulness and greater awareness. Yes, in Rioja Valley, wine is a religion and I became a convert.  

See more photos and stories from Spain at traveliszen.com/spain.

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