A wine lover’s guide to Granada

The Alhambra, the jewel of Andalusia, stands proudly overlooking the town of Granada. Constructed in the mid 14th century…

Now shut the guide book and show me the snacks. Call me a heathen but the thing that made an impression on me wasn’t the architecture, mind-bending though it is, but how well you can drink in this city. When it comes to growing vines, southeast Spain is a bit of a desert (literally). But Granada is an oasis for wine lovers – if you know where to go.

Take a walk down Calle Navas. It’s the street some guide books dismiss; a 250m stretch of touristy tapas bars churning out overpriced paella and burgers. But there are some hidden gems to be discovered; a stylish restaurant, a rowdy tapas joint, a smart wine shop, an extraordinary deli and a wine bar that of itself would make the trip worthwhile.

In the far corner of Plaza del Carmen, a quiet municipal square in the centre of town, you’ll see the start of the narrow street. Before you enter, on the corner to the right you’ll see the ornate windows of Puerta del Carmen – it’s one of the best restaurants in Granada, and it certainly looks the part. That’s why all the tables are reserved. But hang around and you’ll get a seat at the snaking bar. It’s worth the wait; they have a tempting wine list, mostly top-end Spanish reds and a good range of sherries by the glass. If you deserve a special bottle, and you’re in the mood for some relaxed luxury, this is the place to go.

Within a few minutes of walking down Calle Navas, you’ll see laughing, chattering groups spilling out of Los Diamantes. The plastic sign above the roller-shutter door might not bode well, but don’t miss it. Even if it’s heaving with people, squeeze yourself in. It’s a young, raucous tapas joint; a long bar with a few pieces of flimsy metal furniture sat amongst screwed-up napkins and paper plates that are strewn all over the floor. The seafood is as fresh as anywhere else in town, and the bottle of Barbadillo Solear Manzanilla behind the counter never gets put down. It just flows into the line of empty glasses, open-mouthed like baby birds, until it lands, empty, in the overflowing bin – and they pull the cork on the next one. For the remaining people out there who still don’t get sherry, this place is sure to convert you.

Refreshed, it’s time to escape the clatter and pop into La Carte des Vins over the road for a quiet browse. The name of this long, thin shop might be French, but the wines are Spanish and the English-speaking owner will be happy to guide you. It’s a concise range, but it’s expertly chosen, from traditional Riojas to oaky fruit grenades from Jumilla and Campo de Borja. Buying older bottles from shops in hot countries can be a gamble, but the Bodegas Áster Reserva 2001 from Ribera del Duero we picked up was wonderful.

When it’s time for dinner, ignore the identikit tapas restaurants with their dog-eared, laminated menus on the main strip and walk to the end of Calle Navas, until you get to La Oliva. A small delicatessen by day, its dark wooden shelves are crammed with delicious local specialities. In the evenings the owner, Francisco, makes room for a few tables and chairs, enough for ten people. He turned away a further 20 the night we were there – make sure you book. And arrive hungry.

There’s no menu. Francisco just brings you food, occasionally paired with glasses of local wines: olives, hams, cheeses; small cooked dishes of vegetables, fish, chicken, pork; a few sweet things to finish. It’s worth asking to see his kitchen: it consists of a single electric hob and a chopping board in the storeroom. It’s all he needs, as the ingredients speak for themselves. A small plate of salt cod, orange, radish and black olive needs nothing but a glug of fruity olive oil, a grind of salt and a spark of paprika and it’s ready to eat. If he gets inspired, he’ll phone a mate, jump on his bicycle, and return ten minutes later with more goodies. For us, it was some bright, fruity sorbets from his friend down the road. He describes himself as a ‘simple shopkeeper’ but he is hugely knowledgeable and a friendly, welcoming host.

Opposite La Oliva is a wine bar called La Tana. The cool, airy room is lined with stools along the walls, and behind the faded wooden bar is a solid wall of stacked bottles and a sprawling display of flowers, fruits and vegetables. Order a drink and you’ll receive a ‘tapita’ – a mini tapas that comes free with every drink, a civilised custom unique to this part of Spain. There’s no choice, you’ll just get a plate of whatever is at hand. We ordered a half bottle of the rich and toasty Bayanus Cava Reserva 2007 and a plate of tapas to share, and waited for our tapita.

Both plates arrived at the same time, and so generous is the tapita at La Tana that it was hard to tell it from the tapas. But with so many excellent wines to choose from, a firm foundation was just what was needed. We chose another bottle of Ribera, a Bodegas Aalto PS 2005 this time, and greedily piled our way through. The owner Jesús is a relaxed presence behind the bar and his wine list is extensive, covering even the smallest, most obscure regions of Spain. The prices at the bar are about the same as you would see in a shop back home, sometimes even less, so you can treat yourself without breaking the bank.

All of these gems on just one street. With only one of these places in our guidebook, it makes you wonder what else there is in Granada to discover. And, yes, eventually I did take an interest in the Alhambra. It’s the name of the local lager…

First published in www.toniquemagazine.com.