Text & Photographs by Gerry Dawes ©2008
In recent years, Spain has become increasingly popular with American wine drinkers. Once perceived as a source of inexpensive wines with an envious price-quality ratio, Spain has become increasingly sought out for the quality of its wines and many are fetching high prices. The American boom in Spanish tapas bars and restaurants (more than 70 establishments in New York City alone), with by-the-glass sales and adventurous Spanish wine lists, has helped introduce a multitude of new consumers to the jewels of the Spanish wine world. Likewise, savvy sommeliers around the country, once attracted by price, now by the quality levels of Spanish wines, are giving them prominence on wine lists at a broad range of restaurants, including the mostly highly regarded restaurants in the country. This has also been spurred by intense publicity about Spanish cocina de vanguardia, which has attracted many American chefs and food lovers to Spain where, in the process of discovering Spanish food, they have also discovered the wide gamut of Spanish wines.
Spanish wines are naturally great with the broad spectrum of Spanish traditional cuisines and many of them work well with ultra-modern dishes and cooking techniques inspired by Spanish chefs. But the real revelation is the ability of these wines to match well with a range of cuisines just as the wines of France, California, Italy, and Australia do. In this article, I will make some broad sketches of different Spanish wine types and equally broad recommendations about some foods they might pair with. With some tasting and experimentation, American chefs, restaurateurs, and wine-lovers will find a whole new world of exciting possibilities within the range of Spanish wines now available in many markets.
Sherry wines with cheese
Spain’s great classic wine, sherry, has long been pigeonholed as a wine to be served with Spanish tapas or perhaps, in its sweeter versions, sipped in front of a fireplace, accompanied by quiet conversation or a good book. Relatively few people understand that sherry and its nearby cousin, montilla, range in style from bone-dry to richly sweet, which makes them excellent matches for anything from Japanese (especially sushi and tempura) and other Asian cuisines, to fried foods, to a broad range of artisan cheeses (sweet sherries matched to blue cheeses are spectacular).
Among dry sherries, all of which should always be served chilled, crisp, fresh, salty, apple-y manzanilla is a great match for shrimp, oysters, scallops, clams, and other shellfish; it is a quintessential accompaniment to tapas; and it offers a refreshing counterpoint for cheeses, especially Spain’s aged ewe’s milk cheeses. Fino, from inland Jerez, is also bone-dry and a bit weightier, gutsier and more alcoholic, but is still a good match with many of same foods and a fine substitute for sake with Japanese food.
Amontillado, in some of its best versions, is also dry, but many amontillados have been sweetened for broader market appeal. The drier versions are longer-aged and more complex than manzanillas and finos, and are splendid with richer dishes like game, duck risotto, and organ meats, as well as superb companions to cheeses. The sweeter amontillados also go well with cheeses and especially foie gras.
Olorosos come in both dry and sweet versions and can be among the most monumentally great and emblematic sherries. Dry oloroso, it is often said, is best in front of a fireplace with a serious contemplative attitude, a good book and a dish of nuts, but these wines are also superb when sipped as a course match on a tasting menu, especially with a game bird or a dish with cheese in the sauce. Sweet olorosos and cream sherries make for lovely sipping, good matches for foie gras and game courses, and may just be the perfect match for sipping with espresso, or café con leche (milky coffee).
Super sweet, syrupy Pedro Ximénez sherries, redolent of orange peel, raisins, prunes, figs, and baking spices can be sipped alone, but are used by many chefs to sauce foie gras and game dishes, but can also be poured of ice creams as a fabulous sauce, especially when blended with chocolate
Cava with tapas
Cava, the Spanish equivalent of champagne, made mostly in Catalunya by the same exacting standards as in France, is very versatile; it can be used as an ideal, inexpensive by-the-glass aperitif and in bubbly drinks such as mimosas, but its palate-refreshing qualities also make it ideal with with Spanish tapas; with all kinds of seafood--especially mollusks and crustaceans; and with American-style appetizers. With the fiery picante qualities of many Mexican dishes, cava can serve as a cold, refreshing counterpoint to the heat, and it is delicious with a broad range of Asian cuisines (sushi, Chinese food, even spicy Thai dishes). Cava also marries well with modern cuisine, dishes with complex flavors and multiple ingredients. After all the Catalan stars of Spain’s cocina de vanguardia pour cava liberally with many of their most creative tasting menus.
Spanish white wines (vinos blancos)
Spanish white wines deserve to be better known—and they are becoming so, quite rapidly in the case of albariños from the Rias Baixas region of northwestern Atlantic Spain. Albariños have had great success recently: They are fresh, lively, well-balanced and delicious—often with lovely lime, pear and mineral flavors--and are very versatile, both for stand-alone sipping and as companions to a wide variety of dishes. Moreover, Albariños suit cooking styles that range from the simplest grilled shellfish and other seafood of northern Spain to contemporary American cooking to Asian cuisine, indeed any food that calls for a crisp, fruity, often minerally white wine. Because of their versatility and rapid consumer acceptance of these wines, many American restaurants now consider Rías Baixas wines a must on wine lists, so much so that the United States has become the region’s most important export market.
But versatile, high quality white wines in Galicia don’t stop with Rías Baixas. There are a number of superb whites emerging, many of them exhibiting surprising, character, wines that show a distinct sense of place due to native grape varieties married to a fortuitous combination of rainfall, sunlight, altitude, and, above all, mineral-laced soils (granite, pizarra slate, limestone). Many of these wines are potentially on a par with the best of France’s legendary whites. Wines from the denominaciones de origen (D.O.) Ribeiro, Ribeira Sacra, Valdeorras, and Monterrei, based on native godello and treixadura varieties, are showing the potential and food affinities to place them among the world’s greatest white wines.
Other excellent Spanish whites are from Rueda, south of the historic town of Tordesillas near Valladolid, where wines based on the native verdejo grape are versatile and affordable; from the northern Basque country, whose “green,” fresh, crisp flavors of Txacoli are so palate refreshing; from the Atlantic-influenced and Mediterranean Contintental climates of Navarra east of La Rioja, where well-balanced whites based on chardonnay are are some of the most food-friendly white wines in north central Spain; and from La Rioja itself, which, in addition to its stellar red wines, has some oak-aged viura-based wines of distinction.
Cataluña also has a broad range of superb Mediterranean-influenced whites, including some chardonnays from Conca de Barberà (Tarragona) and Penedès that rank among the best in Spain; native variety xarel-lo, macabeu (viura) and parellada mono-varietal and blended whites from Penedès; and some surprising, unique, full-bodied garnacha blanca whites from Montsant and especially, Terra Alta, south of Priorat. Alella, virtually on the outskirts of Barcelona makes a lovely, crisp fresh white from pansa blanca (the local name for the xarel-lo variety). This wines marry well with traditional local dishes such as arròs negre (black rice flavored with squid ink), Catalan mar y muntanya (surf and turf) dishes such those using seafood and goose and suquets (fisherman-inspired seafood stews). These wines are also proudly served in Catalonia’s star restaurants paired to cutting edge cocina de vanguardia dishes.
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