Sep 23, 201102:38 PMFood & Wine
Wine and Tapas
Grapes are typically happy in Spain in September. Days are quite warm, but not hot. Evenings are cool - only about 10 degrees diurnal temp variation. There is a light morning fog, creating an easy but important challenge for the sun to burn off and further concentrate the natural sugars in the grapes for an excellent vintage. There is much celebration before the official harvest period begins and a quiet hush descends over the vineyards as the hard work of hand-picking and crop selection begins.
The perfect introduction to Rioja begins at Dinastia Vivanco Museo de la Cultura del Vino. Unlike most of the rest of Rioja, this elegant museum and high-design winery complex is over the top in production quality, almost like a movie set. But the museum tour is well worth it, providing a comprehensive global history of wine and an overview of the entire winemaking process, plus lots of interesting winemaking artifacts. (Beware to visitors, the exhibit is presented entirely in Spanish.) My favorite exhibit was the corkscrew collection, especially the section called "indelicato" with strategically placed tools. :)
After an abbreviated tasting of the winery's 2005 Crianza, the first of many for the day, we drove like crazy to arrive at our second destination, Granja Remelluri. (Granja means farm, and being on time means very little.) We had an abbreviated tour of GR's extensive caves - they produce 1/2 million bottles per year - and then repaired with great enthusiasm to the restaurant for a traditional Riojan lunch.
We started our meal with freshly sliced tomatoes laced simply with fresh garlic and olive oil, roasted peppers served warm, and slices of blood pudding sausage. (I had to be coaxed into the latter. Let's just say that once was enough.) Next on the menu was a pair of stews, one the same potato/chorizo combination we had been served at Hotel Los Agustinos in Haro the previous night, the other an equally tasty dish of fresh white beans. Preparation of both dishes was simple yet flavorful. Our group quickly polished off a 2005 Crianza with the tomatoes and stews!
Next came simply grilled lamb chops. A fire made from vines rescued from winter pruning was set in a small brick cooking shed situated next to the restaurant. We could see the chef shuttling in and out of the kitchen to tend the fire and grill the meat. The lamb was served with a simple green salad. This course was a perfect complement to the 2003 Granja Remelluri Reserva. Dessert was simple as well, a pear poached to perfection in red wine served with excellent strong coffee. By the time we left the restaurant, it was 4:00 pm. It’s quite clear to me why a traditional siesta is necessary!
Later that evening, we gathered for a glass of white Rioja (Muga, a large producer readily available in the U.S.). Haro is quite small, so an evening walking tour really consists of getting situated at the town square and then selecting at random from many tiny tapas vendors. I love to eat this way – small plates of this and little bites of that, exquisitely rendered flavor and presentation, each morsel of fish or vegetables more savory than the one before. In all, we sampled 15 items and ended the feast with a groaning plate of jamón y queso with a bottle of Muga Reserva. We learned an important distinction between tapas (small plates) and pinxtas (little bites, pronounced "pin-chas"). I couldn't begin to describe all of the flavors, so let me share my favorites: a small slice of bread, toasted and smothered on olive oil, topped with garlic-laden mushrooms and savory shrimp, and hot chiles rellenos stuffed with sausage.
At some considerable risk of embarrassing myself, I have to share the dubious honor of drinking from a porron wine decanter in public in a bar full of only locals. This custom requires a degree of finesse and coordination in order to avoid wearing your serving down the front of your shirt! (There were a few spills. My closest friends will be shocked when I tell you no drips for me....)
Photos by Nick Fear.
Part I of this Spain series is called “Hola la Rioja.” Parts III and IV will be published in coming weeks.