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.
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, 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.
Rosé wines (Rosados)
Among the most refreshing, delicious and versatile of all of Spain’s wines are its rosados, a beautiful collection of rosé wines that range in La Rioja from the ethereal, pale, onion-skin garnacha-and-viura blends in the southern part of Spain’s most famous wine region to fuller-bodied, tempranillo-based rosados from the north. Nearby Navarra also produces some fine rosés, especially those based on garnacha grapes, and they also make rosado blends that include merlot and cabernet sauvignon.
Other regions producing notable rosados include Cataluña, whose rosats, as rosados are called in Catalan, tend to be deeper and darker in color and consequently more intense in flavor and aroma; Valencia, which produces some unique rosados from the native bobal; and Castilla y León’s tinto del país (tempranillo) rosado zone, Cigales.
All these wines are delightful and, for the most part, quite dry. Although some rosado producers make market concessions by leaving residual sugar in their wines, most are excellent companions to a broad range of dishes from all over the world– seafood, pork, Asian cuisines, American barbecue, Mexican and South American cuisines and of course, with a wide variety of Spanish dishes from patatas a la Riojana (potatoes with chorizo) to seafood and other paellas.
Spanish Red wines (tintos)
Spain is best known for its red wines, offering a range of options for food pairings. Reds run the gamut from Galicia’s lovely, lower alcohol Ribeira Sacra and Valdeorras, to medium-weight reds from Bierzo in the north of Castilla y León, all made from the mencía grape. Tempranillo-based wines from la Rioja range from lighter, well-aged reservas and gran reservas to the winemaker stars–dark, concentrated wines made from single vineyards or old vines. Depending on whether they come from the cooler up-river Duero Valley Ribera de Burgos area, or from the muy caliente downriver areas in Valladolid province, Ribera del Duero’s tinto fino (tempranillo based) wines have drawn rave reviews in the past decade and are staples on many American wine lists. Because of their balance, this variety of wines goes well with a wide array of foods, from by-the-glass tapas bar fare to the most sophisticated modern cuisines. They are great with just about anything that calls for glass of good red wine, including pizza, pasta, steaks, and game dishes.
Big, powerful, voluptuous, extracted wines, are among the most highly rated wines in many popular wine publications, but often are not as food friendly as more restrained, better balanced wines. Such big wines come from Toro (west of Ribera del Duero) and its tinto de toro grapes; from Jumilla in the Mediterranean Levante where the monastrell grape is a revelation; from Castilla-La Mancha, where there are several high-powered notable estate reds; from Penedès in Catalonia, where a number of first-rate cabernet sauvignon, merlot and syrah blends and 100% varietal wines are made; and from Cataluña’s Tarragona province, where the quality of Priorat’s licorella slate soil adds unique nuances to its old vine garnacha- and carineña-based wines. Often blended with varying percentages of cabernet sauvignon, merlot and syrah, the wines of Priorat are among the greatest red wines of the Mediterranean. Neighboring Montsant uses the same grapes, but has a wider variety of soils and offers a more affordable approximation to the wines of Priorat. And, surprisingly, the province of Madrid is producing some balanced, very promising reds from native and foreign varieties grown in high altitude vineyards. Because of the low acid, high alcohol, and wood component, a bottle of one of these big wines, is better shared among four people. They do well with pizza, steaks, and cheeses, and also work well with Mexican and southwestern American cuisine.
Except for dessert sherries, Spain has not been famous for dessert wines, but there are an incredible and unique range of sweet and off-dry styles, especially from the warmer, Mediterranean-influenced areas. Besides sweet sherries, Andalucía also has superb Pedro Ximénez-based wines from Montilla and late harvest moscatels from Málaga. The Levante—Valencia and Alicante—produces some luscious moscatels and the legendary monastrell-based fondillón, a rare and unique, off-dry to sweet wine that is on a par with a great tawny port. Always versatile Navarra turns out some stunning late-harvest moscatels; the volcanic soils of the Canary Islands create a superb malvasia; and the warm climate, Mediterranean areas of Cataluña produce some old-style garnacha, moscatel and malvasia-based wines that may date back to the Roman era. Try some of these wines with egg-based, nut-based and chocolate desserts.
These wines can be wonderful with desserts or just sipped by themselves after dinner. Cream sherries, for instance, marry well with espresso coffee and some like the Pedro Ximénez can be used as sauces with foie gras (for instance). Like all sherries, they can be revelations when sipped with cheeses.
As we have seen, Spain produces an exceptional array of wines, which offers an infinite multitude of possibilities for unique wine and food pairings.
(For some specific classic Spanish wine and food pairings, see Gerry Dawes’s article on iconic Spanish food and wine experiences.)