Food-friendly Spanish wines

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 13 September, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 13 September, 2012, 11:53am

The talent of Spanish chefs such as Ferran Adria and Juan Mari Arzak and his daughter, Elena, is indisputable among people who take food seriously. But how many have heard of Xavier Ausas, Peter Sisseck or Alvaro Palacios, the winemakers of Vega Sicilia, Pingus and L'Ermita, respectively.

When gelatinous balls that explode on the tongue into essence of foie gras and caramelised apples dazzle the food lover, wine becomes an afterthought.

Most talented young chefs I have come across seem to have moved beyond molecular gastronomy to more familiar flavours and native roots. But the ethos remains: to surprise and delight by creating light, flavourful dishes. The focus is on light - away from heavy, dense and creamy.

Meanwhile, the wine world in recent decades has been moving down the opposite path - greater concentration, higher alcohol and body.

In Bordeaux, alcohol levels regularly go above 13.5 per cent, and merlot-based reds can reach 15 per cent. When you talk to winemakers about why alcohol levels have increased in recent decades, you will receive responses ranging from global warming to green harvesting and the importance of ripe tannins measured in IPT units (index of total phenolics). Their strongest argument is often the "enlightened" understanding of physiological and phenolic ripeness. Does this mean that the delicious 1970 or 1986 red Bordeaux at only 12 per cent alcohol that I enjoy even now were made from grapes that were not ripe?

In Spain, this split in the evolution of the culinary and wine worlds is more dramatic than in many other countries. Spanish chefs rock the culinary world with their progressive techniques and flavour combinations that tickle tongues as much as minds.

Modern Spanish winemakers, on the other hand, are more interested in working with a hammer than a whisk, with powerful wines that can remind me of weightlifters on steroids. In the world of modern Spanish reds, whether they hail from Ribera, Priorat or Rioja, it is nearly impossible to find wines below 14.5 per cent alcohol. In trendy Priorat, 15 per cent alcohol and incredible concentration are squeezed from tiny berries and small bunches harvested from ancient vines. They do have immense flavour and power, but what crosses my mind is: "Shall I use a fork and knife to cut through this?" The wine is so big, it is a meal in itself. Forget pairing it with the cooking of Adria or the Arzaks.

Thank goodness there are those who clearly have both food and wine in mind when crafting their wines. Alejandro Luna at Luna Beberide is one such winemaker. His reds from mencia, an indigenous Spanish grape variety, have the perfume, elegance and lightness of pinot noir combined with the firm, herbal palate profile of a cool-climate cabernet franc. His Finca la Cuesta from Bierzo in northwest Spain is a wonderful food-friendly wine with bright red cherry flavours and an array of floral notes of violets, roses and jasmine. It is beautifully textured and layered, and versatile enough for progressive European or even Cantonese food.

Mencia is attracting a local following. Alvaro Palacios, better know for his garnacha from Priorat, is now making wine with the grape. Although I admire Palacios' Priorats from old vine garnacha, his mencia is far more drinkable. It is not deeply coloured and moderate tannins add to its versatility. The flavours range from black to red berries, sweet spices, flowers and herbs to tea leaf. And always, there is a taut structure that suggests that time will offer even more dimensions.

In the eastern region of Valencia, Toni Sarrion is making a name for himself with an unlikely variety - bobal. It was always known as the cheap workhorse in southern Spain, producing full-bodied, deeply coloured and forgettable wines. Sarrion is changing this, making perfumed, very fine bobal from old vines. I love his Quincha Corral, made from 90 per cent old vine bobal, balanced with tempranillo and cabernet sauvignon. I tasted the 2004, 2007 and 2009 vintages recently. These are full-bodied, deeply coloured wines that call out for red meat dishes. However, they are not heavy or powerful; they possess delicacy and subtlety. I would especially recommend the 2007, which shows the finesse that this variety is capable of achieving as well as its ageing potential.

Jeannie Cho Lee is the first Asian Master of Wine. You can e-mail her at, or follow her at