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A New Reign In Spain

Part 2 of a four-part series

Thomas Matthews
Posted: July 8, 2003

Traditional Spanish food is at home in a plaza in Salamanca.
  A New Reign in Spain:  
  Part 1: Madrid Fusión; Rioja Reclaims Its Past  
  Part 3: A Mixed Case; Building Bold  
  Part 4: Tasting the Future; Jean León's Challenge  
  The Spanish Cure
Iberian hams and sausages are finally becoming available in the United States
  Spain Comes to Connecticut
The most inventive Spanish food in North America is served in two suprising locales

Two Culinary Cultures

The Hotel Marixa is neither the most luxurious nor the most modern place to stay in the small Rioja wine town of Laguardia, but it has the most agreeable restaurant, a big open room with wine bottles stacked on every shelf and side table.

On a snowy night in January, the place is empty except for me and a table of large men drinking brandy.

The menu offers traditional regional standards, prepared and presented simply. A haunch of goat, roasted until the skin is golden and crunchy, is served with its natural juices and some potatoes browned in the pan. Gamy, salty and toothsome, it takes the edge off the winter chill.

The impressive wine list includes more than 150 selections, mostly Riojas. Most of the basic-level crianzas sell for less than $16; the alta expresión reds top out at $119. The list even offers Álvaro Palacio's L'Ermita from Priorat and Dominio de Pingus from Ribera del Duero -- Spain's most sought-after cult wines. Pingus, as usual, is the most expensive wine on the list, at $377 for the 1996.

I compliment the waiter on the selection.

"Oh, we're in Rioja," he replies. "We have to have a good list." What do people order? I ask him. "Crianza, mostly." What about alta expresión?

"We sell those, but only to people who really know a lot about wine. Foreigners. Most people don't want to complicate their lives."

Traditional Spanish food is perfect for people who don't want to complicate their lives. It's a cuisine based on high-quality, locally produced ingredients, no-frills preparations and unadorned presentation. It disdains elaboration and resists creativity.

Many people who love Spain see this resistance as a good thing: a commitment to continuity, authenticity and tradition that has blocked the advance of globalization and its concomitant uniformity. Anyone who has had the pleasure of standing in a raucous Spanish tapas bar enjoying a copita of manzanilla Sherry with a slice of sweet, rosy ham -- cured and naturally air-dried, from indigenous ibérico pigs raised on acorns -- will find it difficult to take the side of "progress."

But Rafael García Santos has no patience for this picture-book past. "Traditional cuisine is dying," he asserts. "It's been cut off at the roots. Traditional products have been overwhelmed by industrial ones, and women no longer have the time or inclination to cook traditional meals. We can no longer base our culinary identity on these traditions -- to believe so is only folklore."

García Santos is arguably Spain's foremost independent culinary critic. His annual ranking of Spanish restaurants in Lo Mejor de la Gastronomía is far more credible and influential among Spaniards than a rating in the Michelin Guide. "My goal is to promote the young chefs in order to push the cuisine forward," he says.

He is an apostle of what has become known as "the cuisine of the avant-guardia" in Spain, whose roster of saints is headed by Ferran Adrià of El Bulli. "Ferran is the genius of European cooking today. He's like Picasso. Picasso was a Spaniard, but his art was not Spanish. In the past, the place dominated the chef. Now, it's the other way around. Adrià, or Martín Berasategui, or Andoni Luis Aduriz, could all be just as inventive and as expressive in New York as they are in Spain."

It's not that García Santos dislikes traditional products. As he speaks, he leads me from one tapas bar to the next on a soft, rainy morning in San Sebastián, a small but bustling city on Spain's Atlantic coast that is the capital of Basque cuisine. We drink tumblers of Txakoli, a light, spritzy local white wine, and sample sardines, squid and anchovies. But he rejects a conception of Spanish cuisine that's limited to the humble presentation of homegrown products, and the chefs he cites are pushing against the old boundaries of local traditions, into territory new even to veterans of culinary adventure.

Aduriz, for example, is the 31-year-old chef of Mugaritz, one of García Santos' three top restaurants in Spain (Berasategui, also in San Sebastián, and El Bulli are the others). Mugaritz is a Ralph Lauren fantasy of an old farmhouse, perched on a hill outside of San Sebastián. Basic elements of its decor -- the tile floor and rustic wooden accents -- are comfortingly familiar, yet also elegant, almost spartan; the references to tradition are at once ironic and sincere.

It's the same with Aduriz's food. His 10-course "Nature" menu (an incredible bargain at $77) is entirely conventional in its progression. There's a salad, shellfish, foie gras, the ubiquitous salt cod and hake, a humble pot roast, local cheeses and a series of desserts. Yet each dish explodes expectations, challenging the mind as well as the palate. It's as though a path that begins in your backyard suddenly leads you to the moon.

I lose my way when the waitress sets a bowl in front of me that features a small brick of salt cod surrounded by four colorful, mysterious garnishes, then pours on a thick, gelatinous soup. I can tell that the dish references bacalao, the national classic, but despite its beauty, I find its flavors bland and disjointed. Later, sipping coffee with Aduriz in his office, I tell him so.

He jumps to his feet. Tall, slim, handsome, Aduriz is passionate and articulate, a young man in a hurry. "That dish conveys a millennium of Spanish history," he exclaims. "But you're not Spanish. You weren't raised on bacalao, like we were. Of course you couldn't understand." He launches into a long explanation of the cooking method, how each garnish -- bread crumbs, bitter greens, plums, tomato confit -- refers to a different traditional way of preparing the cod, how the dish bridges memory and imagination without abandoning the past or shrinking from the future.

He sits down.

"People come here and say, as you did, 'I don't like it.' Fine. But to say, 'You cooked it badly'? No. I work hard to get it right according to my own ideas and standards. It's right. Whether people like it or not, that's a question that doesn't bother me.

"I accept that the larger society will never understand alta cocina. They may respect it, but they'll never experience enough to know it. Food is not just satisfying hunger. Bread and ham is enough for that. I'm trying for something more. Today, I believe, Spain is reaching for something more. And the rest of the world is paying attention."

Priorat Struggles With Success

Among Spanish wine regions, Priorat can claim the most impressive recent transformation, emerging during the 1990s from obscurity to worldwide success. But despite the extraordinary progress, the debate between tradition and modernity rages unabated here. Boiled down to its essence, it's a showdown over which grapes to cultivate: the indigenous varieties of Garnacha and Cariñena, or imports such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah.

The Cinderella story is well-known by now. The region, nestled in the mountains west of Tarragona, has been a wine producer since Roman times, and the monastery of Scala Dei made one of the more reputable wines of the Middle Ages. Then, at the end of the 19th century, the vine louse phylloxera attacked. By the 1970s, most of the vineyards were abandoned and the region was in economic collapse.

But René Barbier, an idealistic Frenchman with family roots in Spanish wine, believed in Priorat's potential. In the 1980s, he enlisted a group of friends to join him in a winemaking project. Working together in a communal bodega until 1989, then on their own, they began to remake the region. Hard work paid off; by the mid-1990s, their wines were garnering high praise and commanding high prices.

"Everything is moving so quickly here," says Julián Baste, 28, whose father was an original member of the Barbier band. Baste now works with Barbier's son, also named René, in a winery called Laurona just outside the Priorat boundaries. "Wine changed everything: the economy, construction in the area, even immigration, as new people came to work the vines. Even tourism is growing now."

The Hostal Sport in Falset is proof of that. Though basic, it offers a level of modern comfort that's new to the region. Its restaurant is a gathering place for Priorat's winemakers, and in February I lunched there with Baste, René Barbier Jr. and Sara Pérez, daughter of José Luis Pérez, another of the pioneers. Along with friends, the three winemakers are engaged in a multitude of overlapping projects, exploring Priorat's possibilities. They are enjoying its success; now they want to find its soul.

"My father brought the family here from Barcelona when I was 9," Pérez recounts. "I was dying of boredom. I hated wine and I vowed to leave. But one day my tastes changed. I looked around and realized this was not only my home, it was the most exciting place I could imagine to work."

Pérez makes wine at Clos Martinet, which her father founded in 1992, at Cims de Porrera, in conjunction with a local cooperative, and with Los Ocho, a group of eight young friends. She also produces Venus and Eneas, muscular red blends from the Montsant region where Laurona is based. She's keenly attuned to the history embedded in the abandoned vineyard terraces that mark Priorat's steep hills, and in the character of the old men whose ancient vineyards supply the grapes for Cims de Porrera.

Pérez is jubilant about Priorat's progress, noting that while there may have been as many as 15,000 acres of vineyards planted pre-phylloxera, in 1990 there were fewer than 2,000 acres, along with only 10 bodegas. Now there are 42 bodegas working nearly 5,000 acres of vines. But at the same time she fears for the region's character.

"Cabernet Sauvignon is the second most planted grape in Priorat," she says. "It terrifies me. We spent 10 years trying to copy Bordeaux. It was the wrong path."

Pérez is working primarily with old-vine Cariñena, especially at Cims de Porrera. The grape was widely planted in Priorat after phylloxera, because it was easy to cultivate and highly productive. Though it has a reputation for making simple, rustic reds, she finds that in this terroir, with yields limited by the advanced age of the vines, Cariñena can make structured, richly fruity wines. But while her dedication to this traditional variety is sincere, her regret is ironic, since her father was one of the first proponents of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot in Priorat.

The elder Barbier explains that historical records aren't specific enough to prove exactly which grapes flourished in Priorat during its eras of glory. Probably, he suspects, a heterogeneous multitude of varieties. By the time he and his confederates got there, no one was certain what vines would produce the world-class wines they envisioned.

"I was from the Rhône," Barbier explains, "so I planted Syrah with the Garnacha. José Luis Pérez had a passion for Cabernet. We all took our own paths. Cariñena wasn't really in any of our projects. But first we discovered there was less Garnacha and more Cariñena here than we expected. Then we realized that it could make good wine."

Álvaro Palacios disagrees. "I knew Cariñena from Rioja, where it's called Mazuelo. In my opinion, the wines don't age very well." And though Palacios grows Cabernet and Syrah in his Clos Dof' vineyard, it's only because the grapes were already planted when he bought the property in 1989. His pride and joy is L'Ermita, a vineyard of old-vine Garnacha.

"When we got here, nobody believed in the old vines," Palacios recalls. "But old vines have always been my obsession. So I began buying fruit from the old vineyards that nobody else wanted." He wanted to buy the vineyards, too, but didn't have the money. Now he has the money, but those old vines are no longer for sale. "The locals have recovered their pride," Palacios sighs, with a mixture of admiration and regret.

The struggle is not only over grape varieties, though. The choice of grapes influences the structure of the vineyards, and this in turn affects everything from mechanization to irrigation to the broader environment. One of the most visible contrasts here is between the narrow, fragmented terraces (where the old, head-pruned vineyards struggle for footholds on the hillsides and must be worked by men with mules) and the broader terraces (suitable for tractors) that are creating emphatic new contours on the mountains.

Palacios, for his part, insists that Priorat can find true success only by cherishing the old ways, sustaining them where possible, re-creating them where necessary.

"I'm a romantic," he avows. "This landscape inspires us to live within a long and glorious tradition. Changing the landscape in order to facilitate the work is to betray that tradition and lose its potential. I don't believe that classic wines can come from these industrial vineyard terraces. Our task is to recuperate the possibilities of Spain's history and individuality."

Barbier is sympathetic, but skeptical. "To return to the mules to work the vines is a beautiful thing, a piece of history," he says. "But the mule doesn't work alone. You need a person, too. And few young people today are interested in working with mules. Also, these labor-intensive, traditional practices raise the price of wine production significantly. Priorat wines are already expensive. I don't want to make wines only for rich people."

These competing visions express the irony and challenge of Priorat. Barbier, Palacios and the others came here because the terroir gave a wine they loved. But that terroir was expressed in a varietal blend, a viticultural practice and a vinification technique that can't be entirely replicated today. So the winemakers must find new methods to reproduce the old wines -- or, from another perspective, create new wines that are still faithful to the old spirit.

The best wines answer these questions on their own terms. Whether it's the savage elegance of L'Ermita, the brooding power of Barbier's Clos Mogador or the polished richness of Viña del Ocho, Priorat wines show distinctive character and a heady appeal. They reflect the rugged geography of their birthplace; their aromas capture the fragrant mix of olives, almonds, pines and wild herbs that have taken over the abandoned terraces and mingled with the ancient vines.

And they testify, too, to the transformative power of great wine. Carlos Pastrana was another of the original pioneers. His Costers del Siurana was the original winery where all worked together in the 1980s. "At that time, Priorat was one of the most economically depressed regions of Spain," Pastrana says. "Now it's flourishing. I take as much pride in this social progress as I do in the success of the wine."

It's still an open question which grape varieties will come to dominate Priorat's vineyards, and what wine style will emerge as truly expressive of the region's terroir. But in their disparate ways, the pioneers and their heirs have committed themselves to search for truth as well as success. They seem to be on track to achieve both goals, an impressive accomplishment and a beacon for the rest of Spain.

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