Standing along the brass rail of a crowded storefront bar in the Casco Viejo neighborhood of Logroño not long ago, surrounded by an arc of friends I hadn’t known an hour before, I was eating a half-sandwich of freshly grilled sardines with tangy guindilla peppers and drinking a wine I probably would have passed up if it had rolled by on an airplane cart. My glass of 2003 Solagüen Crianza, a soft, translucent red that cost all of $1.65, seemed to shine in the dim light. It tasted tart yet viscous, like a Table Talk cherry pie. I’d spent the day sampling decades-old Riojas, fascinating wines that offered up glimpses of truth like a Lorca poem. I could discuss each of those for an hour, consider their attributes, chart their progress. This wine I didn’t want to talk about, just drink. At that moment, in that place, it felt exactly right.
The Rioja is Spain’s most celebrated wine region. In some areas of the country, its name actually serves as a synonym for wine: the way to request a glass of generic red is to shout “un Rioja!” at the barman. Despite all of its $100 bottles and spectacular new wineries, it also remains a bastion of unpretentiousness in an increasingly urbane nation, an area renowned for an elemental way of life that’s rooted in the land and the livestock, and in the farmers and viticulturists who work them. Yet for such a central and evident place, an amorphous stain near the top of Iberia, it can be maddeningly difficult to access. Eating and drinking there at El Soldado de Tudelilla, acting out the useful Spanish verb potear—which connotes a Spanish version of a pub crawl, only with better nutrition—I remembered a doctor I know and his wife, bright and resourceful people, who’d called upon their return from a recent trip to complain that they’d traveled right through the Rioja and yet somehow missed it. They’d had in mind a Spanish version of Burgundy or Tuscany, but instead of gentle slopes and leafy trees and enchanting villages with picturesque cellars, they’d encountered a craggy brown landscape that reminded them of Wyoming. They saw faceless apartment blocks ringing Logroño and charmless wineries along the highway that look like giant warehouses.
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