San Sebastian continues to be a magnet for food and wine lovers. Michelin stars are generously sprinkled throughout this beachside city and even those who don’t care for modern Spanish gastronomy can’t resist the lure of pintxos (tapas) that are unmatched anywhere else in Spain. Walk through the lively Parte Vieja, the old town of San Sebastian, and all around you are small, packed restaurants with the bar counters stacked and brimming with beautiful, fresh pintxos.
Foodies interest in all things Spanish began with the rise of Spanish culinary geniuses like Ferran Adria of El Bulli Foundation, the Roca brothers and Juan Mari and Elena Arzak. It is these talented Spanish chefs’ abilities to modernize and some say revolutionize the way we approach food and dining, by taking the science of food as seriously as its flavors, that have attracted the attention of both food lovers and professionals worldwide. Some call this new food movement ‘molecular gastronomy’, others refer to it as modernist cuisine, both are just labels to capture a new culinary approach inspired by top Spanish chefs. The term that is used to define and categorize this movement is less important than what is at its core: dedication to innovation, food science and creativity.
In San Sebastian, there are plenty of restaurants that are at the vanguard of this progressive, modernist approach to food. Seven years ago, on my first trip to San Sebastian, I remember being mesmerized by the dishes at Martin Berasategui and awed by the presentation of the dishes at Arzak. A few visits later, I found the continual tile and stone plates used by the Michelin-starred establishments to be repetitive and the numerous finger foods a bit tiresome. My recent meals at Mugaritz and Martin Berasategui in June 2017 made me want to reject yet another alginate sphere and say, “Been there, done that. Can we move on now?”
The wine lists at these restaurants serving haute-couture cuisine are, as they should be, exceptional. But they come with exceptional prices to match. At 3-Michelin star restaurant Mugaritz, I was astonished that the sommelier brought me a Maison Leroy Nuits-Saint-Georges instead of the Domaine Leroy Nuits-Saint-Georges that I ordered from their list. After pointing out that Leroy’s domaine and maison wines were completely different, with the estate-grown domaine being much more expensive, I requested the correct bottle be brought. Sheepishly, the sommelier returned ten minutes later to say that actually the wine list erroneously listed the negociant bottling as a domaine with its corresponding domaine prices on the menu. I couldn’t help but think, “How many people before me ordered this wine assuming it was the domaine wine when it was the negociant bottling?”
The best value and the greatest wines on these extensive restaurant wine lists are the local Spanish wines. The older Riojas dating back to 1950s and 1960s are a joy a drink and a relative bargain – their conditions are immaculate since most of the Spanish wines were sourced by the restaurant direct from the producer and they didn’t have to travel very far.
If Rioja red wines agree with your palate then try the more earthy and tannic Ribera del Duero reds, made in a slightly cooler neighboring region. In these well-known northern Spanish vineyards, Tempranillo is king and this versatile variety can be found all over the country in a myriad of styles from young, juicy and fresh to serious, dense reds. For fuller-bodied, concentrated red wines, try the Garnacha (Grenache) grape variety from Priorat or Montsant while more elegant, lighter versions are available from Penedès. I am also a fan of Mencia grape variety from Bierzo, which ranges from elegant and light (like a Pinot Noir) to intense, riper, denser examples.
The country’s wine scene is growing and innovating as quickly as its food scene. While the well-known Riojas offer mellow, sweet red fruits and soft tannins, it is worthwhile to explore beyond the familiar regions of Spain. Try the wonderful, chilled Finos and Manzanillas with pintxos or the sweeter Oloroso Sherry with nuts and cheese. From affordable sparkling Cavas to the full-bodied red wines made from Garnacha or Tempranillo from all over Spain, there is incredible diversity and variety.
During the warm summer months, I especially enjoy the refreshing Albariño white wines from Rias Baixas in Galicia – crisp, medium-bodied white wines that are lightly citrusy and floral. Another region for delicious white wines is Rueda, where elegant, fresh whites are made from Verdejo grapes. Rioja also makes lovely white wines from Viura grapes, which can be medium-bodied and crisp or serious, fuller-bodied, oak-aged versions.
Cava is a wonderful alternative to Champagne at a fraction of the cost. It is a blend of three indigenous grape varieties (Macabeo, Parellada, Xarello) and made in a lighter style. I recommend Cava as an everyday sparkling wine that pairs with nearly every meal and every kind of pintxos – be it sardines, ham or olives.
The best meals I had in San Sebastian were outside of Michelin-starred restaurants. Wonderful pintxos bars like La Vina, Txepetxa and Gandarias offer a fun, lively ambience to graze on tasty, simple food and affordable Spanish wines. The city and its surrounding towns are filled with fantastic seafood restaurants, many with excellent, great-value wine lists. The best turbot I had in my life was at Zelai Txiki – simply grilled with just a sprinkling of salt and lemon. At Kaia Kaipe in a picturesque neighboring town called Getaria, all the seafood is fresh and delicious. Wine markups for these casual restaurants are much more reasonable than at their fancier counterparts.
Wine lovers from around the world flock to Rekondo, not just for their delicious Basque comfort food, but mainly for their extensive wine list with low mark up. The list is studded with rare wines such as Le Pin and Romanee-Conti, but real value is found in their older Spanish wine section. Where in the world can you find a 40-year old Rioja at under 100 Euros?
Today, the Spanish food and wine scene is modern and hip. Spanish chefs are adept at bending traditional rules and creating innovative, amusing dishes. As much as these culinary innovations wow and delight guests, there is just as much to celebrate in simple Basque cuisine that puts ingredients, freshness and simplicity before presentation and novelty. Spanish wines are in step with both the modernist and traditionalist approaches, offering great diversity of styles and wines that have the versatility to pair with just about any type or style of food.