Sunday, March 25, 2007

Places: Etxebarri Restaurant--Innovative Grilling in Basque Country

Axpe, Vizcaya
Basque Country (near Bilbao)
Tel: 91 365 0804

Etxebarri is hot at the moment! It seems to be everywhere I look. It has been featured all over Spanish press recently as it's owner/cook Bittor Arginzoniz has been voted one of the top chefs in Spain this year. It has also made its way into international press, featuring in both Food and Wine magazine and most recently Time magazine.

I had no idea this restaurant was going to become so high profile when we picked it early in 2006 as the reception site for our September 2006 wedding. I just knew I didn't want my wedding in a hotel setting, but rather in a more authentic Basque setting. I also wanted outstanding food and wine. We found all those things at Etxebarri.

The restaurant had been since the early 90s and ahs been a local favourite for some time, but it is only recently that Bittor has been recognized for his innovative cooking techniques with the grill. The grill is the heart of the restaurant…it is specially designed to allow for perfect grilling control. Bittor grills everything…and I mean everything! He even invented special grill instruments to allow him to grill tiny things such as caviar or elvers (baby eels)!

The setting is magical, nestled in Axpe valley amongst the Basque hills. The location seems completely remote, yet it is only a 20 minute drive from Bilbao. The restaurant is beautiful, a traditional 300 yr old Basque caserio converted into an elegant restaurant where modern and traditional elements fuse perfectly. The décor is elegant and simple, yet warm and inviting. Most importantly the basic stemware is Reidel!! The new line of stemless glassware "O" is used for water glasses (much better than for wine!) The service is outstanding, efficiently managed by a team of highly professional ladies who have worked at the restaurant for years.

The overall experience is top notch, but the real top reason to make the trip is the incredible food!

Recently we returned again to Etxebarri and were again blown away by the cuisine. One new dish we tried this time was grilled oysters: a delicate and exquisite version fo this dish. The ouster are shucked and removed form the shells. All membranes are removed so just the perfect core remains. The oyster juice is reserved in a spray bottle and is used to keep the oysters moist as they grill for just a couple of minutes each side. Tender seaweed is also grilled until it gets a smoky quality and the oysters are presented on a bed of these. Totally simple, but at the same time shockingly original. The delicate, briny flavour of the just cooked oysters blends perfectly with the smoky grilled notes. The contrast in textures between the melt-in-your-mouth oyster and the seaweed is also surprising.

This is just a small example of the type of elaborate, yet simple cuisine at Etxebarri. For those of you not tempted by what I describe above…there are also some of the best grilled steaks in all of Spain!

The menu changes frequently, especially the starters. The main courses are always based on simply grilled fish and steaks. Other outstanding dishes we've tried there include:
Grilled monkfish (actually any grilled fish)
Lobster salad (tender lobster over bitter greens and tomato marinated in orange vinaigrette)
Txangurro (crab done Basque style, with brandy and cream)
Home-made chorizo (really home-made and really excellent)
Grilled herring fillets with zucchini (perfect to convert those who think they don't like herrings!)
Anchovies with fire-roasted peppers (another dish so good that it can convert anchovy-haters!)

The wine-list is short, but well-selected. With our last meal we had Roda II, the second wine from the Rioja winery Roda. A very modern Rioja: big cherry fruit, lively acidity and excellent French oak. Really nice with our perfectly grilled steaks!

The desserts are excellent and elaborate, but my favourite is one of the most simple: A wonderful sweet cheese ice cream made for the local Idiazabal cheese, served in a puddle of perfect sweet-tart wild berry coulis. Outstanding!

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Two Vintages of Bierzo or...tailoring wines for export

Confusing title perhaps, but I want to give tasting notes on one of my favourite Bierzo wines in very different vintages and also describe how that same wine is being altered for export to the US.

Bierzo is producing many outstanding red wines from the excellent indigenous grape Mencía. The region is very hot…producers from all over Spain are buying vineyards there. The top end wines are winning recognition from national and international wine critics. The prices, though still reasonable, are rising quickly. There are still a few great bargains…one of them is Cepas Viejas from the winery Dominio de Tares.

I have a soft spot for this was one of the wines at our wedding last September. The wine in the wedding was the 2003…now the 2004 is on the market.

Cepas Viejas is 100% Mencía and is aged about 9 months in American and French oak. It costs about 10€ here in Spain. 2003 was a very hot year…quite difficult in many parts of Spain. 2004 was generally a better year, dry but with less heat.

We only have a few bottles of the 2003 left and I like to put it in tastings against the 2004. The other day, the 2003 won again…it seems to be in its perfect moment for drinking now. It is at its peak and will not improve significantly, but it is holding on very well. The 2004 is still a brute, powerful and intense, but with some rough edges. I have already seen it improve in bottle since its release in fall 2006, but it still has a ways to go. The 2003 vintage made a lot of smooth, fruity, easily approachable wines, but many are not aging well. The Cepas Viejas 2003 is following that pathway, extremely pleasurable now, but definitely with a shorter lifespan than the 2004. The 2003 was far more approachable 8 months after release than the 2004 is today.

Cepas Viejas 2003: Vanilla cherry yogurt nose. Smooth mouth with cherry-vanilla, a hint of celery, clove. Tannins provide just a touch of grip but are very rounded. Very long fruit finish, like a cherry pie. Not a sharp edge. Still holding up well after 2 hours in glass.

Cepas Viejas 2004: milky, closed nose. Mineral with some cherry notes as it opens. Intense mouth, impressive structure, with very present tannins that are good quality, but need some polishing. Fresh cherry fruit in mouth. All angles still, but has lots of potential. With some time in glass…opened a lot.

The winery, Dominio de Tares, was one of the trendsetters in Bierzo, and has received acclaim form many international critics. Some of their other wines include:
Entry level wine with a few months of oak: Baltos (5€)
Reserva level wine: Bembimbre (20€)
Alta Expresion or Designer wine: P3 (45€)

All are very good.

The Cepas Viejas has been exported for some time to the US, but since 2003, the winery has done a separate label for the export wine….see the picture to the right! What a difference!
Even the name is changed: Exaltos instead of Cepas Viejas! Since 2004 the wine inside the Exaltos is actually different. Many wineries in Spain are now tweaking their export wines to better suit American palates. The Exaltos has 9 months in 100% French oak while the Cepas Viejas has 9 months in a mixture of American and French oak. Studies have shown that, ironically, the American palate much prefers the flavour French oak!!! If only those "Freedom Fry" people knew that!

When I get my hands on the 2004 Exaltos…I'll contrast it with the 2004 Cepas Viejas!

So remember when you taste some of those great Spanish wines arriving on American shores, you may be getting a different wine than what we are tasting here!

Thursday, March 1, 2007

Exciting Spanish wine in unconventional categories

I've been tasting so many great's been hard to keep up! Today I wanted to talk a little about some unconventional Spanish wines that fall into 2 categories: Vino de la Tierra and Vino de Mesa. In theory these two categories are not quality wines and should be inexpensive, lower quality wines….but in reality, there are some very premium wines being made under both categories!

1. Vino de la Tierra is a very hot category today in Spain. By EU law it is not considered a "quality wine". It actually falls under the Tabel wine category along with the lower sub-category "Vino de mesa". Vinos de la Tierra (VdT) are subject a to fewer rules and regulations than Denominacion de Origen (DO) wines. They cannot put the aging categories of Crianza, Reserva, and Gran Reserva on their labels, but they can put the vintage on the label (unlike table wine). There are 41 areas that are designated Vino de la Tierra. Two of the hottest are VdT Castilla Leon and VdT Castilla (La Mancha), but there are many great wines coming out of other areas as well.
Some wineries make this category because their vineyards are not within a designated DO area, others are making it because they don't want to deal with the DO bureaucracy and want more freedom in making their wines.

Examples of very well known and excellent VdT wines are: Mauro, Leda, and Abadia Retuerta, all from Castilla Leon. Recently I had an excellent one that was VdT Iles Baleares. It's called Son Bordils Negre and is made of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Manto Negro, Callet, Tempranillo, Monastrell, and Syrah! It was a 2003, had 12 months in French, American, and Hungarian oak and costs only 12 euros. It was one of the favourites of my class that evening…beating out some blockbuster wines. The only wine that scored higher that night was the Santa Cruz de Artazu 2004 from Navarra (100% Garnacha…awesome!)
The Son Bordils Negre was a lean elegant wine with cherry, mineral (wet stones), and anis. The nose was closed at first, but kept getting better over 3 hours. In the mouth is was medium bodied, elegant, with refreshing cherry fruit and great acidity. It had some smoky oak notes and a long finish, with a refreshing bitterness. Tannins were very present, but smooth. A very original wine from the islands!

2. Most recently my biggest wine surprises have been in the lower category of Vino de Mesa. I was so focused on Vdt, that I had neglect the hot wines cropping up here! These wines have very few rules, but also some serious limitations…for instance you cannot put the vintage on the label. Wineries, therefore, have to get creative about it…one winery puts it on the top of the cork and puts no capsule on…another puts a simple 02 on the label….
I'll mention three different wines:
  • A Vino de Mesa from Murcia from Bodegas Lavia. Lavia is made from Monastrell and Syrah and is aged 6 months in new French oak…10€. Very mediterranena..high alcohol, with plum and anis. In mouth a very candy-like fruit…red licorice? Very full-bodied and a little hot, smooth with a nice finish. Nothing to blow you away…but very nice. 10€
  • A Vino de Mesa from Penedés (Cataluña) from Heretat Mont Rubí. Durona (2003 on the cork) is made from Sumoll, Garnacha, Cariñena, Shiraz, Merlot, and Cabernet Sauvignon. It has to be a Vino de Mesa because of the inclusion of Sumoll, an indigenous variety that's not allowed under DO. Powerful, yet elegant…with bright cherry fruit. Very persistent in mouth…this wine was very easy to drink and kept getting better with aeration. 15€
  • A Vino de Mesa from Madrid! This one was recommended by the excellent folks at Casa Lucas…you can check out the review I did on this fantastic wine bar. This was called Montazo and is made of the Garnacha grape by one of the wine gurus of Spain: Telmo Rodriguez. It had a pale color and a very mineral nose: graphite. Very complex, but closed initially. Later it became floral with plum and anis. Great acid in the mouth…I usually don't mention refreshing with many Madrid wines! The mineral mouth lingered a really long time. Unique and original, thoroughly challenging, yet original! 15€

Bottom line: Check out some of these new wines in these lesser categories...this is the cutting edge of Spanish wines!