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City Scene Travel

Madrid’s Wine Scene Deserves Your Attention

The pandemic turned Spain's capital onto wine in a new way

James Lawrence By January 31, 2022
traffic lights on Gran Via street at night, a main shopping street in Madrid
Rays of traffic lights on Gran Via street at night, a main shopping street in Madrid. Spain, Europe. Photo by kasto80/iStock.

Madrid’s nightlife is legendary: It guarantees a memorable hangover. The city’s inhabitants, Madrileños, have kept the spirit of “la movida” alive for decades, a cultural movement dedicated to unabashed hedonism that emerged after Spain transitioned to democracy in the late 1970s, following the death of Franco. Catering to this insatiable demand is the highest concentration of bars per capita in Europe, despite the inevitable dampening effects of the pandemic. In Madrid, going to bed early isn’t just a missed opportunity. It’s practically a crime.

Yet until recently, the city’s wine offering lacked the dynamism and internationalism of London, New York, or, whisper it, Madrid’s rival Barcelona. Catalan’s globalized capital jumped into esoteric and international wine styles long before Madrid’s bar owners could be persuaded to do the same. Centuries of domestic vine cultivation, combined with a fierce patriotism, imbued Madrid’s bar scene with a certain parochialism. Even in the best restaurants, your non-Spanish options were limited to the number of fingers on one hand. 

Meanwhile, bar flies would typically request “una copa de tinto/blanco,” still red/white wine, without enquiring deeply into the grape or provenance. It was taken for granted that your bartender would pour a local drop. Overall, though, beer and spirits were the dominant forces in Madrid’s nightlife for many years. 

Now, this is changing.

A wine revolution

Bar managers report that Madrid has opened its heart to viticultural diversity, partly driven by an emerging generation who want to step outside of their comfort zone. “The trend I observed last year was the rising interest in the wine category from the younger Spanish generation. This is common in the U.S. or London far less so traditionally in Spain,” says Tomás Ucha, manager at Berria wine bar. He adds that 21st-century Spanish millennials are increasingly eschewing stronger beverages for wine, demanding choice, and plenty of it!

wine tower inside Madrid's Berria Wine Bar

Each bottle is curated for the wine cellar by Tomás Hucha and his team of sommeliers at Madrid’s Berria wine bar. Photo courtesy of Berria wine bar.

“People now travel to Madrid to enjoy the so-called wine route of the city, which would have been unthinkable in the 20th century,” he adds, referring to tours of wineries of the Madrid wine region, outside the city. “By-the-glass offerings are expanding at an impressive rate, as venues like Berria rotate your options very frequently. I have also noticed a heightened demand for Champagne, while the global movement toward biodynamic and natural wines has landed in Madrid.”

Berria represents the new vinous face of Madrid. Friendly and multilingual staff have about 1,800 different wines at their disposal, from German Riesling to Napa Cabernet. Spanish treasures like Rioja and the saline whites of Galicia, in vogue with both visitors and residents, are also given a significant billing. Moreover, you can sample 80 different wines by the glass; copycat imitations are reportedly opening every month.

“Of course, the lockdowns in 2020 claimed their fair share of casualties in the hospitality sector, however, the switch to outdoor Covid-safe socializing in 2021 actually did wine some good. With huge increases in the number and capacity of terraces, Madrileños took full advantage of the nice weather we have for most of the year.”

The pandemic turned the city onto wine

Discussing the catalyst behind this cultural revolution, Madrileño José Urtasun finds it deeply ironic that the pandemic has, in his opinion, given the city’s wine scene an unexpected boost. When Urtasun is not frequenting the expanding array of wine bars, he’s running a niche Rioja winery called Remírez de Ganuza.

“Of course, the lockdowns in 2020 claimed their fair share of casualties in the hospitality sector, however, the switch to outdoor Covid-safe socializing in 2021 actually did wine some good,” he says. “With huge increases in the number and capacity of terraces, Madrileños took full advantage of the nice weather we have for most of the year.”

There is a long-standing culture of spirit-fueled nights out in Madrid that was curtailed by the curfews that demanded people be home by 11 p.m. Anyone who wanted to drink alcohol had to do it during the day, on the terraces. “This benefited wine consumption against spirits clubs lost out to the trendy alfresco wine bars, opened to satisfy rising demand.”

Today, even the smallest hole in the wall can electrify your palate with natural wine from the Jura, organic Cava, and biodynamic Grenache from the Languedoc. And as the time restrictions are no longer in place, Madrid can go back to normal. In the summer, friends will often not sit down for dinner until as late as midnight, with drinks from 9:00 to 11:30 p.m. 

Exploring the burgeoning wine bar scene is also wonderfully easy. The city is safe, compact, and serviced by an efficient transport system; almost every bodega in Madrid is less than a five-minute walk from a metro station. The more internationally-leaning and upmarket venues tend to be found in the moneyed Salamanca and bustling downtown areas, while more traditional bars fill the lively barrios of La Latina and Malasaña.

This is the most endearing feature of Madrid’s nightlife. Despite the onward march of progress, long-established addresses, Covid-19 notwithstanding, are not being consigned to the trash heap. The demand for Spanish labels remains buoyant among the older generation, while not everyone wants a gargantuan tome and Hollywood interior. The city’s bars run the whole gamut, from wood-paneled wine cellars and globalized haunts to places that will never, ever change their approach. If you’ll forgive the cliché: There is something for every palate and preference in Madrid. That certainly wasn’t the case 15 years ago.

Top 5 Madrid wine bars:

Angelita

Founded by brothers Mario and David Villalón, Angelita has captured the attention of Madrid’s wine lovers. Just off the main thoroughfare Gran Via is a bustling two-story bar, with delicious small plates cunningly used to whet your appetite for a generous range of wines by the glass. The brothers’ motto is “there’s nothing wrong in approaching abstinence with moderation,” and who could resist the attractive prices and variety of Spanish and imported labels? There are several good wines available for less than $4.50, including a pungent Garnacha from Navarra and a salt-licked Manzanilla sherry. The brothers also list several brilliant wines produced in Gredos, an up-and-coming region less than an hour’s drive from Madrid. But, in the unlikely event that you’re bored of exploring local tipples, there is Champagne, Austrian Grüner Veltliner, and Vermentino as well. 

Berria

Berria’s wine selection features an extensive list of international bottles. Photo courtesy of Berria wine bar.

Jet-setting oenophiles go nuts over Berria, and who can blame them? It’s a wine paradise, with half the space taken over by grass-fronted wine storage cabinets. Berria is a new face in Madrid, yet it gets everything spot on. By-the-glass choices are extensive, encompassing a variety of styles and price points. Spain and the wider world receive equal attention, with a noticeably generous selection of fortified and dessert wines — a rarity in the capital. Service is excellent and the tapas are to die for. It’s hard to find fault.

Cuenllas Salesas

 

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Small and intimate, the space is presided over by some of the friendliest staff in Madrid. Their mission is to nudge patrons outside of their comfort zones, with a selection of esoteric wine styles, both domestic and internationally-sourced. Opened by Madrid stalwart Fernando Cuenllas, this hybrid bar/wine shop/grocer has over 700 different wines, encompassing Burgundy, Rioja, California, the Loire, and a fair few bottles from Galicia. As ever in Madrid, tapas are available to complement your wine choices.

El Tempranillo

Old fashioned and proud of it, El Tempranillo is all about Spanish classics like Rioja, Ribera del Duero, and Cava. You could come here for the tapas, but the impressive array of wines by the glass is the real reason to walk down to La Latina district, located south of the center. El Tempranillo has never been a cutting-edge bar — it’s simply a chilled space to unwind with wine and friends. 

La Venencia

The owners of La Venencia have lost count of how many times tourists have requested beer at their sherry-only bolt-hole, despite the fact there’s a sign saying no beer, albeit it’s not translated into English. Indeed, the drinks offering and rustic decor in this small neighborhood destination will never change, as regulars would probably riot. It serves all manner of sherries, from Manzanilla to aged Oloroso, stored in dusty bottles and barrels found behind the bar. Andalusian tapas aside, there are no-frills, concession to modernity, or music; it’s all about the grape at Venencia. A must-visit address for lovers of Spain’s premier fortified wine.