The waiters have just begun to serve the third course at John Sedlar’s restaurant, Rivera, in downtown Los Angeles. The plating is inspiring: Occupying the top third of the square white dish and painted in spices, is an image. Five different pictures in all, divided among the fifteen or so at the table. Mine is a word, something (meaning now forgotten) printed in delicate Arabic letters, tasting primarily of cumin and paprika. The person next to me has an image of a bull. Beside them is a plate painted with a pair of female eyes, gazing back beneath heavily lined lids. Each picture, the accompaniment to Sedlar’s grilled Snake River Farms chuleta de puerco (under the green of a pureed pippan sauce), is whimsical and strong and leads to an immediate surge in conversation.
But the well-presented pork chops aren’t the only reason the table is buzzing. Vinos Unico, a San Francisco-based wine importer specializing in Portuguese, Spanish and Argentinean wines, invited guests to this dinner to show off their new portfolio of Bodegas Riojanas wines. And they just poured a 1978 and a 1964, side-by-side.
The brands on display tonight, Viña Albina and Monte Real, both represent traditional Spanish Rioja – brambly, earthy, slightly untamed. The Viña Albina wines, in particular – from the 1978 Gran Reserva to the 2004 Reserva (paired with macerated salmon, white asparagus and nasturtium), are all masculine power – berries braced against tannin and spice, unfolding into cigar and barnyard and forest floor. These wines are smooth, but substantial. As they open, it’s impossible to predict the direction they’ll take. The ride is exciting.
The Monte Real Rioja, by contrast, are more restrained. These wines, while still possessing the earth and complexity of the Viña Albina, are more feminine; they’re big but pretty. The journey is less unpredictable; they’re gentle and soft on the finish. Even after ten, thirteen, forty-seven years of aging, these wines still show fruit. If everything aged so pretty, half the people in Beverly Hills would save a fortune on fillers and peels.
Rioja wine comes from La Rioja, an autonomous community and province in northern Spain. The region, itself, is divided into three separate areas: Rioja Alta, Rioja Alavesa and Rioja Baja. Grapes (traditionally Tempranillo, Graciano, Mazuelo and Garnacha for red; and Viura/Macabeo, Malvasia, and Garnacha Blanca for white) are grown in each of the sections – top, middle and lower. The most acclaimed wines come from Rioja Alta, whose higher elevation tends to produce the best combination of fruit/structure/acid/alcohol. By contrast, most of the grapes from Rioja Baja are used for blending.
Bodegas Riojanas is a Rioja Alta producer. Both lines feature a majority of Tempranillo, with Mazuelo and Graciano making up the remainder of the blends. True to tradition and D.O.C. regulation, the Reservas have been aged anywhere from 24 – 30 months in oak barrels and spend another year in bottle; the Gran Reservas spend 36 months aging in bottle after 24 – 30 months in oak.
The 2001 Viña Albina Dolce Reserva, on the other hand, is an entirely different story. This is a sweet white Rioja; the rich, viscous, honey-citrus blend made from Viura and Malvasia – and has just been paired with Sedlar’s honey ice cream, anise kumquat cookies and macerated blueberries. It is the perfect ending to a presentation of unforgettable food and wine; an evening that has proven to be an enlightening combination of old and new in Spanish wine and cuisine.