James Beard Publication of the Year 2017

A Toast to Absent Friends and a Disappearing Wine Tradition

A Toast to Absent Friends and a Disappearing Wine Tradition

Pitarra in Spain

“Somewhere along the line, what people drink changed,” said Sinforoso Garcia, my third cousin by marriage and primary source of local lore, as we stepped over one of the streamlets that run down the middle of the cobblestone streets of San Martin de Trevejo.

“It got a whole lot redder and the glasses got bigger and fancier, but the wine that has always been on the table around here has a whole different color and story from what you find in the shops.”

Here in the Sierra de Gata, the last stop before Spain becomes Portugal, olives, pigs, and the vine have long formed the holy trinity of food production.

“I suppose it’s not only what people drink that has changed, but how they drink, and this has affected the way the wine is made,” he said, as we ducked below the wooden beams that make up the balconies jutting out from the three-story stone homes.

We were visiting his old amigo, Pantaleon’s wine cellar. Pantaleon had recently passed away, and his friends were gathering to celebrate his skills as a winemaker.
Sinforoso explained that every home here has a bodega—a place where goods are stored, friends meet, and of course, where wine used to be made. If you’re invited to a bodega while the sun is shining, don’t expect to leave until long after nightfall.

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In these mountains, not only does the wine differ from village to village, but from house to house, and even between the different man-sized clay pots in which it is fermented. These wines aren’t conceived to win awards, but to fuel everyday lunches and dinners and the stories that grow from them. The wine, or pitarra as it is called here, isn’t meant to be stored for years, but to be part of the day-to-day.

“Families that had extra wine used to hang a laurel branch over their door to let anyone know that they had some to sell,” said Sinforoso. But now, he explains, with the taxman wanting a piece of everything and the regional government pressuring everyone to sell their grapes to the local cooperative, fewer people find it worthwhile to make their own, and the art is dying.

We sat down on the stubby stools designed to accommodate the low ceilings, and the first bottle was opened. The amber-colored wine flowed into the outsized shot glasses common around here. Toasts were made, homemade chorizo appeared.The wine was cool and fresh and hit the tongue like a strong white, with overtones of brandy, hinting at its strength.

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As we worked our way down the rows of bottles, Aquilino, another of my acquired cousins, suddenly said, “Oh no, this one must be from a few years ago. It’s spoiled and turned to vinegar.” Another bottle was opened with the same result, and this was repeated along the row until he suddenly said, “This one is kind of sweet.”

“Sweet?” Sinforoso questioned as he reached for the bottle, “No, way. Let me try.” Taking a deep swig, his eyes bulged and his face reddened. “Sweet? I think your taste buds have gone sour. This is 60 percent aguardiente!”

The wine from the Sierra may be famous for being strong—-but not aguardiente strong.

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