Red Heat from Spain

I have often thought that the Forty Martyrs of Sebasteia should be the patron saints of Minnesota. Never mind that they are most likely mythical; they can stand for all the other martyrs the Romans executed in the first three centuries A.D. And the myth is certainly appropriate to our chilly state.
The Forty, it is said, were Roman legionaries serving on the Empire’s Euphrates frontier in what is now eastern Turkey when they were given the command to offer sacrifice to the Roman gods. When they refused, they were ordered to stand out in the middle of a frozen lake ’til they changed their minds. One of them did actually give way, legging it to the shore and then to a nearby bathhouse, which had been fired up by the detachment’s commanding officer in order to provide an allurement to apostasy. He promptly exploded. And the bathhouse keeper no less promptly ran out onto the ice to make the number of martyrs back up to forty. What then? Crowns, of course, descended from heaven onto the martyrs’ frozen heads, to the accompaniment of unearthly music and the crashing applause of the first-night audience. Martyrdom on Ice: If Minnesota doesn’t like the title, you could try it on Broadway.
An appropriate saintly patron is also apparently being sought for the Internet. The heavenly protector of Al Gore’s invention will probably be Saint Isidore, bishop of Seville in southern Spain in the early seventh century, and compiler of a work that swiftly became the medieval equivalent of Wikipedia. The Internet and Isidore surely deserve each other; Isidore’s Etymologies are replete with secondhand information, difficult to navigate, and often inaccurate. While the Internet …
What Isidore says about wine, for instance, is a characteristic blend of the derivative, the unpalatable, and the obvious. He alludes to Falernian, the famous sweet white wine from ancient Campania, which he had read about in Roman authors like Horace but is hardly likely to have savored himself. Beverages he is more likely to have actually sampled sound rather less pleasant—for instance, Oenomelum, a sickly syrup compounded of wine and honey.
But then, just as you give up on him, Isidore displays a gem of genuine interest. He mentions the wines of Gaza, carried from the Holy Land as ballast in the ships bringing pilgrims home from Jerusalem. This is interesting because archaeologists find the distinctive, dumpy flasks that held Gaza wine at excavations of post-Roman sites all over Western Europe. In fact, they find them as far away as the southern coast of England, where grand beach barbecues seem to have greeted the arrival of merchant ships coming from the eastern Mediterranean. It is good when the written story fits the physical facts. In fact, Gaza wine is important as evidence that Mediterranean trade long survived the end of the Roman Empire, until the Arab invasions swept through the lands east and south of the Mediterranean, reaching, within a century of his death, southern Spain where Isidore had lived and written.
Funnily enough, Isidore has nothing to say about the wines of his native Spain. It seems that they were no better publicized in the seventh century than they are now. That may be why they are such an excellent value when you do find them.
Try, for instance, the 2004 vintage of Protocolo, which costs less than seven dollars hereabouts. This wine comes from the high plains of La Manchuela in the bottom right-hand corner of Spain, an area with extremes of climate that the Forty Martyrs would have found familiar. The color is a deepest red, like the workers’ flag (which shrouded oft our martyred dead)—this area was a stronghold of the International Brigades during the Spanish Civil War. The grape is the Tempranillo, the variety made famous by Rioja, but Protocolo is innocent of the turpsy oak associated with those famous wines. This is a well-balanced and fruity wine with a firm scrunch in the center of the taste. This was pleasing with a piece of steak and tasted just as good with pasta. One can imagine it accompanying paella. At that price one could even mull it with suitable spices. If you do, be careful not to boil off the alcohol (there’s plenty). Anything to keep winter at a distance.