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A New Reign in Spain

Revolutionary chefs and winemakers shake up the traditional culture

Thomas Matthews
Posted: July 7, 2003

Miguel Ángel de Gregorio and his sister Mercedes make an alta expresió red from their Calvario vineyard.
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Madrid Fusión

Call it a revolution -- or, at least, the tortoise overtaking the hare. Spain, once a laggard, is setting the pace in Europe today when it comes to wine and food.

The energy for this transformation comes from a clash between an immovable object -- a deeply engrained culinary culture -- and the irresistible force generated by a growing number of visionary chefs and winemakers. The progress is hardly smooth, but the change is profound.

A three-week trip early this year rode a seesaw of tradition and innovation. I made a circle around the northern half of the country, visiting the wine regions of Toro, Ribera del Duero, Rioja, Navarra, Tarragona and Priorat, and stopping to eat in Madrid, San Sebastián and Barcelona. I encountered enthusiastic pioneers, exciting new flavors and the fruitful failures that inevitably accompany risky ventures.

I started in Madrid, for a three-day culinary conference called Madrid Fusión, which drew top chefs from around the world. During the opening ceremonies, French icons Paul Bocuse, Pierre Troisgros and Michel Guerard gathered on stage. Flanking them, grinning broadly, were Spain's own culinary leaders Juan Mari Arzak, of longtime Michelin three-star Arzak Restaurant in San Sebastián, and Ferran Adrià, the creative force behind three-star El Bulli in Catalonia.

"The conference was so important to me," Adrià reflects. "Not only for what happened, but for what it represented. It showed Spain shoulder to shoulder with France and the best of the rest of the world. Ten years ago, that could never have happened."

Indeed, this is not the same country that I've visited periodically since 1978. It's a new world -- at once confident and anxious, prosperous and precarious, stubbornly clinging to the past, yet defiantly plunging forward. As one Madrileño boasted, "The buildings are bigger, the men are richer, and the women are more beautiful."

When it comes to wine and food, Spain may never achieve the technical sophistication of France or the natural harmony of Italy. But its very contradictions are sowing the seeds of an exciting new synthesis. With enough dedication and a little luck, Spain may succeed in forging a culture that truly embraces both its own glorious past and the onrushing global future.

Rioja Reclaims its Past

In 1993, European bureau chief James Suckling and I visited Rioja, Spain's most prestigious wine region. We organized a tasting that encompassed nearly 150 red wines from 15 bodegas; the vintages ranged from 1990 back to 1970.

Our verdict: "The average wine sacrificed grip for smoothness, fruit for oaky flavors, and liveliness for easy drinkability."

At the time, the producers defended this supple style as traditional. They accused us of favoring a more robust, New World approach that allowed no room for Rioja's distinctive regional identity. "Rioja has to be Rioja," the technical director for a major bodega told us. "It has to keep its individuality."

But times change -- and so do perceptions of "tradition."

This January, I returned to Rioja and discovered that many Rioja producers have a new perspective on the past. Now, they regard the light, oaky reds of the 1970s and '80s as aberrations, distortions of the authentic Rioja tradition, and they are looking to an even earlier era for their models.

Vicente Cebrián is the young, dynamic owner of the venerable Bodega Marqués de Murrieta, founded in 1852. "In the 1960s and '70s, Rioja changed into a very commercial style," he asserts. "When you taste a Murrieta from the 1930s or '40s, it's amazing to see how closely they resemble the alta expresión wines of today."

Miguel Ángel de Gregorio makes some of those alta expresión wines at his Finca Allende. The phrase -- denoting praise from some critics, derision from others -- refers to the dark-colored, highly concentrated reds that have emerged across Spain during the past decade. They deliberately step outside of Spain's legal quality hierarchy (which moves from crianza to reserva to the top level, gran reserva), in much the same way that Italy's super Tuscans avoid the DOC system. Allende's Calvario is one of the best of these new wines. Made from a 1-acre Tempranillo vineyard planted in 1945 and aged in new French oak barrels, Calvario is generous and expressive, rich with fruit and oak.

De Gregorio's father was vineyard manager at Murrieta for 40 years. "I have had the good fortune to taste Rioja's classic wines -- every Murrieta since the 1880s, for example," de Gregorio recounts. "I loved those wines from the 1940s and '50s. I thought, why not try to make wines like those? During the 1970s, commercial forces completely changed Rioja and its wines. In the last 10 years, we've been trying to return to the classics of the prewar days."

Allende is not the only Rioja producer successfully making "new traditional" wines. The list is long and growing. Among the best reds I sampled during my visit were Bodegas Muga Torre Muga 2001, lush and intense with cassis and vanilla; Bodegas Sierra Cantabria Colleción Privada 2000, very firm and rich with mineral and coffee notes; and an experimental wine from Murrieta, made in 2001 from an old Tempranillo vineyard called La Plana, dark, spicy and hugely structured.

Their distinguishing characteristic, apart from their ripeness and structure, is that all are vineyard-based. This is unusual in Rioja, where most wines are blends made by large bodegas from fruit purchased from many small, independent growers. "Our main challenge is to recover and rediscover our vineyards," says de Gregorio. "At its best, Tempranillo is extremely sensitive to terroir. And, in my opinion, Rioja has the most complex and varied terroir of any great wine region in the world."

I think about these new wines as I taste by the dim light of hissing gas flames in the damp stone cellars of Marqués de Riscal, the bodega that gave Rioja its modern identity back in the 19th century. Technical director Francisco Hurtado supervises as a cellar worker opens cobwebbed bottles with red-hot tongs, snapping the necks below the cork and pouring the wine gently into our glasses.

"These wines are made from a blend that includes Tempranillo, Cabernet Sauvignon, even Pinot Noir," notes Hurtado. "Back then, the Rioja vineyards were still discovering the grapes that would grow best. And they were harvested with potential alcohol levels of only 11 or 12 percent, with quite high acidities in today's terms. But they must have known what they were doing."

A 1953 shows a dark ruby color, with mineral, tobacco and black cherry aromas and flavors on an elegant, supple frame. Extraordinary. We have to open three bottles of 1945 before we get a good one, but it's amazing, extremely dark and rich, with ripe plum flavors still supported by firm tannins. A 1900 is still ruby in color, with aromas akin to the '53, silky and fresh on the palate; it actually improves in the glass.

These old wines were the equal of great Bordeaux that I have tasted from similar vintages. They showed not only longevity, but consistent character. If this is the authentic tradition that today's Rioja producers are attempting to recapture, then more power to them.

A few days later, I have dinner at Restaurant Arzak in San Sebastián. Chef and owner Juan Mari Arzak, 60, represents the third generation of his family to run the restaurant; he's Spain's equivalent of France's Paul Bocuse, an icon of culinary achievement. To accompany a dish of black truffles and potato puree, he serves a Cune Viña Real 1968. This wine is also an icon, from a classic bodega in a legendary vintage. It's fully mature, supple and elegant, with dried cherry, leather and spice flavors -- the epitome of a "traditional" Rioja.

I mention my discussions in Rioja and ask Arzak about his experiences comparing wines from vintages before and after World War II. Characteristically, he decides that actions speak louder than words, and pulls from his cellar a Marqués de Riscal 1925. Though nearly half a century older than the Cune, the Riscal has a deeper color, just as rich a structure, and a lively core of ripe fruit.

"Those old wines can teach the young ones a thing or two," Arzak comments, with a sly glance at his talented daughter, Elena, who is following him in the kitchen. "Something was lost after the war. Maybe today the winemakers are finding it again."

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