Drink Ribera

Not to be outdone by its more famous counterpart, La Rioja, the wine community at Ribera del Duero are putting forth a valiant effort into introducing and establishing their wines as some of the best Spain has to offer.  A grand tasting was held on February 23 at the Puck Building in NYC to showcase some of the more recent vintages, and give an opportunity for industry people to glimpse many producers without importers.

The D.O. was founded in 1982, primarily to promote the quality of wine and enforce standards.  Wine has been produced in Ribera for 2,000 years, and so this organization is a relatively new one.  Tinto Fino, better known as tempranillo, thrives in the Ribera climate, a region with high elevation and a short growing season, hence giving the grape its name (temprano meaning early).

With the risk of describing the primary characteristics of wines from the Ribera del Duero, the tempranillo grapes have flavor profiles along the lines of rich dark berry, black plums, cherry, and licorice.  The wines are often powerful and full-bodied, age well and are best paired with food.

On to the tasting, where several winemakers were present, and happy to talk about their wines.  Interesting to note, almost every table I visited spouted facts about how much and what type of oak was used.  From a technical standpoint I understand this is important information.  From a tasting viewpoint I was more interested in the integration of oak and the craftsmanship.

Of the over 75 wineries who were seeking importers, I have tried a handful of these wines in Spain, and simply did not have enough time to try them.  The 85 or so other wineries was sufficient work for the time allotted, leaving no effective time for conversing with colleagues or winemakers.

My focus was twofold.  First I was trying to get a feel for the 2004 and 2005 crianzas and reservas.  Second, I sought insight into the 2006-2008 vintages, and finally, I was looking for a good Joven for Pata Negra.

Generally speaking, the wines of the Ribera del Duero are serious wines.  That is to say they possess a lot of depth, structure, fruit, and tannin.  Very few are made in an easy quaffing style, and several of the wines require food to be enjoyed completely.  One of the winemakers at Finca Torremilanos completely disagreed with me, as evidenced by his displeasure with my sweeping characterization, and as it turned out his wines were among the “lightest” in style of the tasting.

I found that the 2004 and 2005 vintages were ripe and exceptional, but these wines were screaming for food, and can be laid down for an additional five to ten years to soften and be more accessible.  Some producers had 2006 crianzas on hand, and those were actually more ready to drink, a good point if purchasing for immediate consumption.

Standouts for the 04 & 05 vintages included Vina Pedrosa, Emilio Moro, Arzuaga, Arrocal, Pesquera (reservas), Pago de los Capellanes, Valduero, Figuero.  In many of these wineries, their 2006-2008 offerings were very good and more ready to drink.

Of the reservas and gran reservas tasted, most still needed more time in the bottle, but the Arzuaga, Pesquera, Valduero, Valsotillo, and Condado de Haza were drinking very well.

Vega Sicilia, one of Spain’s great wineries, was present and pouring the 1991 vintage, a stellar bottling.

There were a few roses on hand, and 2009 promises to be exceptional in this department.  The roses were steely, dry, round and refreshing.  The use of tempranillo added depth and complexity to the style.

I overheard a few conversations about how Ribera del Duero is not well known and does not get as much respect as La Rioja.  The wines are not prominent on restaurant wine lists and so forth.  I think that some of the winemakers are missing the point with their style of winemaking.  Some of these wines are revered by Parker and Penin, for their powerful style and aging potential.  Some of the wines I tasted were at 14.5% percent or more (sure the label says “14”, but come on).  I’ve never eaten so much bread during a tasting.  There should have been open pig and lamb roasts in every corner of that room to accompany these bold flavors and tannins.

But it would be a mistake not to seek out these wines, especially in the hands of great producers, who have distinctive styles and a good barometer for a complete, well rounded wine as opposed to a (dare I say) New World heavy hitter.  The RBD wines should be on more wine lists.  Wine directors and sommeliers should decant, and more jovens and joven robles should be poured by the glass at wine bars.

One of the greatest wines I have ever drunk in my life, 1970 Vega Sicilia Unico, hails from the Ribera del Duero, a winemaking region which clearly has the potential to be in the same class as La Rioja, if the winemakers just keep their eye on the prize.

The Big 40

Not having recovered from the previous day’s Unico luncheon with the Grand Crew, I was up and early in the ‘Burg dropping off the special ingredients slated for the dinner that would include the ladies.  I designed an evening around a return to civilization, and tried to control the basic elements of a good time, eating, drinking, and dancing.

My good friend Chef Diego Gonzalez took up the cooking challenge, and his lovely wife Aisha and her sister hosted the event at their charming Williamsburg restaurant, Barberry.
Diego is a Galician chef with Mediterranean sensibility.  His food is honest, Italian in spirit, and delicious.  Barberry has the look of an old charming parlour, with rustic wood beams and classic tin tiled walls, open and cozy.

For proper cocktails, I set up a table at Hotel Delmano, a cocktail bar that has mastered the balance between precision bartending and hipster chic, decorated with lovely old world details and furnishings.  After perfect Sidecars, Manhattans, Juleps and specialties such as Smoking Flowers and French 75, our appetite was whetted for the first course at the bar, oysters and champagne.

I designed the menu around foods I love to eat the most, delicacies that I would command for my last supper, narrowing the choices to five, cutting out some perennials for me like fried chicken.  The oysters came from the Lobster Place, Hama Hama and Beausoleil, not to create and East Coast vs. West Coast rivalry, but rather to have salty and sweet.  The champagne was from a grower producer, Larmandier-Bernier.  The vintage 2005, Terre de Vertus blancs de blancs, 100% chardonnay with no dosage.  My play list was a harkening back to great voices and big bands, a mix of Ella, Billie, Patsy, Glenn Miller, The Andrew Sisters, Cole Porter, Louis Armstrong, Sinatra and the like.  Everyone was dressed to thrill, suits and ties, kerchiefs, dresses and lots of flesh revealed.

After champagne and oyster hour, we sat down to magnums of 2008 Domaine Pepiere Clisson Muscadet, creamy with Atlantic minerality.  Diego crafted an amuse-bouche of king crab with a carrot ginger citrus dressing. Excitement sufficiently stirred, a pork liver pate from Dickson’s Farmstand was spread on crusty baguettes.  Onto a Galician treat, pulpo a la Gallega, tender octopus with scalloped potatoes and pimenton, cooked to perfection.  This dish caused a frenzy.  It was difficult to imagine other courses ahead.

Then a lesser known riesling, 2008 Lauer Aylerkupp from the Saar, which stood up to the richness of a Hudson Valley foie gras and fruit compote, flecked with Maldon sea salt.  The tunes were now Roy Orbison and Dinah Washington, Ray Charles and Nina Simone, prompting swooning and embraces, enough lead time for a paella of arroz negro, unctuous squid ink with ideal soccarat, paired with an indigenous 2008 Maranones Albillo from Spain, whose sherry like qualities accentuated the luxury of the rice, both heavenly mates.

Out carted the baby roast suckling pig, a twenty pounder, with crisped skin and spice rub, served with an arugula citrus salad, as if any one had room for such a main course.  There were plenty of leftovers for Sunday brunch to go around, save for Jay who insisted on carrying his second piece with him King George style for the rest of the party.  For wine I poured contrasting styles, a 2007 Volnay from Lafarge, and a 1995 Mastroberardino  Taurasi Radici, stylistically different approaches which had subtle effects to each porky mouthful.

Sade and Prince took their turns, D’Angelo and Barry White, and of course Marvin Gaye, for the chocolate soufflé, decadence on our minds, erupting molten chocolate putting an end to the savory onslaught during the past four hours. All that remained was a small bottle of 1996 Royal Tokaji 6 Puttonyos, a developing dessert wine that was very complex and satisfying on a brisk wintry night.

At 40, you take stock of your accomplishments, health and direction.  On this night, I noted all of my long term relationships, friends who have been with me on my life’s journey, friends who have become family and whose lives are indelibly interwoven with mine.

A special thanks to my dear friends who have inspired me to live, learn, and love.


I am a February baby, and trying to figure out how to celebrate the big 40 can be a challenge.  I decided on several small celebrations, rather than a blow out gala or trip to a foreign land.  First up was a lunch with close foodie friends, gentlemen who I have known for over ten years, eaten delicacies at home, restaurants, and through many travels. We have formed our own homage to a gastronomic club like those in San Sebastian, called the Grand Crew.  There are women in this club too, but for this leg of the event, due to the limitations of time and wine quantity, the guest list was four herbs and a bottle.

It is often a task to figure out when to drink expensive wine that you’ve been cellaring, and we often try too hard to wait to open wine, when a simple occasion with friends and loved ones will do .    Not so much for a 40th birthday, the sky is the limit.  I learned from my good friend Jay, whom I have shared many a birthday bottle with, a gift from his father, who had enough foresight to buy several bottles of his son’s birth year to present as a gift when he reached the tender age of twenty one, allowing for maximum aging and enjoyment.  My father only drinks Dominican rum, and so I have sought out some wines from 1970 myself. Luckily for me, 1970 was good for Bordeaux, Barolo,  Barbaresco, Rioja, and Ribera del Duero.

The crown of my collection is a 1970 Vega Sicilia Unico, considered one of the greatest wines ever crafted in Spain and the world, and I planned the whole meal around it.  Every year I ask my grandparents and mother to make several delicacies I have enjoyed my whole life, without which there would be much less joy.  The menu was simple and complimentary to what I though the Vega Sicilia would taste like.  Pork liver pate from Dickson’s Farmstand, lamb kibbe and mechie, Middle Eastern-Haitian staples, celebratory food in the Marcelin household, a real family project and production for preparation and execution.

Kibbe is composed of ground lamb and bulgur wheat, with spices and herbs shaped into torpedoes or patties, and can be eaten raw or deep fried.  I cannot live without them.  Mechie is stuffed cabbage, grape leaves, and eggplant, filled with a rice and beef mixture, often spiced with scotch bonnet peppers.

Now that the menu was set, other wines had to be considered. El Capitan brought a white, and wanted to bring a Champagne.  In my absolute anticipation of the Unico, I could not think clearly, and only asked for he white, a grave error, especially for a Champagne whore such as myself!  But we survived, being consoled by a tremendous Chablis from Dauvissat, a 1999 premier cru, “La Forest”, brimming with exuberance, almost too delicious for its own good, not allowing for time to appreciate, bestow compliments and evolve in the glass.  The middle wine was a gift from Maria Jose of Lopez de Heredia, who I visited this past summer in La Rioja, and generously sent me home with two ‘64’s, both Bosconia and Tondonia.  This would be the wine to lead up to the Unico, as I was careful not to drink them side by side begging for comparison, as both are outstanding wines in their own right.

I played Haitian music throughout the meal, and that accompanied with our friendship and the amazing food, caused dancing in the seat, especially after we sipped the ’64 LDH, a gorgeous, floral, feminine beauty, standing up to the spiciness of the kibbe, and enhancing our appreciation of it.  We were drinking the Bosconia, which Maria Jose swears is more masculine in style than the Tondonia, and that the bottling choice was a mistake they never chose to correct.  I can’t wait to try the Tondonia to corroborate her story.  I know she is the winemaker, but all Bosconias I have tasted in the past seem feminine to me, and all Tondonias, more masculine.

The kibbe was the best I had ever tasted.  I went to Dickson’s Farmstand for all the meat, which added a brightness to each bite, the lamb bringing the dish to the next level.  The mechie was delicate, steaming and nuanced were the flavors, built from slow simmering.

Then we opened the Vega Sicilia Unico, which was an indescribable wine.  It was elusive, powerful yet finessed, not young or old, ageless.  I have actually been thinking about how to describe this wine for several days now, and have come no closer to understanding its seduction.  It is easily the greatest wine of my memory, a real masterpiece.  Its flavor profile is just delicious, and talking about this wine in an academic way is to dishonor the spirit of this wine, which promotes a feeling of being very special just by drinking it.

We had some wine left in the glass for the Vacherin Mont d’Or, easily my favorite cheese in the world, consumed in minutes, raw milk unctuous creaminess sopped up with a filone from Grand Daisy, followed by chocolate covered almonds from Jacques Torres.                                          

The jubilee was at a zenith when I opted for the Cohibas and Havana Club, even Dr. L. and Jay could not refuse, an absolutely perfect pairing, sending us into a dizzying frenzy of euphoria, blunting our palate so as not to drink more vintage wine, thankfully what a defense.

Somehow I made it to Pata Negra later that evening, high on life and happy to see friends and new clients at my place of business.  I was surprised to receive another gift from Maria Jose, delivered to my door during the day, all handled secretly by the lovely Chris, the charming mademoiselle who you will find working the room at Pata Negra when I am not around.  I remember having a conversation about drinking birth year wines very casually, and she offered to send me a 1970 LDH.  I didn’t think on it until the bottle was in my hand, a Tondonia.  She is most gracious for the gift, and I felt blessed to have such fine friends and family all who have showered me with gifts throughout my life.  I am truly grateful.

At 40 I have learned something important from that Unico, that age is just a number, that we should strive to be like a great wine, elegant, powerful, indescribable, delicious and timeless.