Castles & Lions Reimagined

Quick. What images come to mind when you think of France? Long, languorous meals, the arts, fashion, croissants, and maybe a picturesque countryside filled with sunflowers and lavender too? Italy evokes images of its own. Pasta imaginings and the Pope go without saying. So to Ferraris, Michaelangelo, Parmigiano Reggiano, gelato, truffle dogs searching the Tuscan hillsides, and the spectacular canals of Venice

Whether or not we have visited either of these countries, we have impressions of them. Over the years, storytellers and adventurers have crossed the ocean and shared interpretations of their food, culture, and the arts. Those are now woven into the fabric of American culture, to the point where we can tick them off like flashcards, so familiar they are. 

Now think about two of Spain’s most prestigious regions for red and white wines – Ribera del Duero and Rueda. It would be understandable if no specific images come to mind, at least not yet. But these two wine regions in northwest Spain are well on their way to establishing reputations as vivid as those of France and Italy. This transformation is being led by these regions’ winemakers who are producing world-class Tempranillo and Verdejo respectively that are slowly but surely making their way to the American table along with the foods and stories that go with them.

Strength and grace

Ribera del Duero and Rueda are set in the larger region of Castilla y León. Just as the name implies, Castilla y León is the land of castles and lions, a place where history, strength, grace, majesty, and grandeur combine to create a region with gravity and meaning, camaraderie, and vibrant tables. The flag of Castilla y León bears images of castles and lions – the coat of arms and symbolism of a region with a sense of purpose and prestige.

Of the two wine regions, Rueda is home to Verdejo, the world’s next great white wine varietal and a region known for having the most female winemakers in Spain. It is most closely aligned with the lion (León) – or lioness if you will. The regal animal shares the flag with the symbolic castle (Castilla) rising over the countryside including Ribera del Duero, home to a very distinctive style of Tempranillo – the varietal grown in the vineyards here. 

The landscape in these two regions, located just two hours north of Madrid, represents a bit of a paradox. It is at once harsh, extreme, and ostensibly inhospitable to anything that grows. Dig a little deeper, though, and you’ll find vines that have been producing Spain’s number one selling white wine (Verdejo) and noble red wine (Tempranillo) for over a century. 

The spirit of the lioness, the heart of a lion 

Rueda’s Verdejo is a sleek white wine that, with its grace and light-footedness, calls to mind its animal spirit. Because it is made in three distinct styles – joven or young, lees-aged (to bring creaminess and texture to the wine), and oak-aged (to add structure and cellar-worthy qualities) – it is at once unpredictable and exciting, graceful, and balanced. The elegance of these wines may make it no surprise that women lead one-third of the wineries here. 

The animal reference doesn’t stop there. When choosing a style of Verdejo and the foods to go with it, one need only invoke the stately image of the lion at different ages to help make those choices. For example, a joven-style Verdejo and a lion cub share common characteristics – light on their feet, playful, sly, maybe coy, and bright. A table set with fresh goat cheeses, crudo, fish tacos, or a citrusy salad, or with highly aromatic dishes with minty herbs would be the wine’s perfect companions.

The adolescent lion, its power still waiting to be unleashed, will signify a slightly richer wine style destined for more daring cuisine such as conservas, meaty olives, triple-crème, and mountain-style cheeses, and grilled fish dishes. These foods call out for the creamy, mouth-filling lees-aged Verdejo that pairs with more complex dishes, though still ones with balanced acidity. 

Once fully matured, the adult lion reaches its strength and brings forth complexity during aging just as an oak-aged, world-class Verdejo will do. To go with this style of wine, consider more full-flavored fare like a hearty vegetable-driven stew, scallops with a rich lemon-butter sauce, an umami-rich roasted chicken, or a dynamic Valencian rabbit and chicken paella. Well-constructed Verdejo has a reputation for richness, herbal notes, complexity, minerality, and aging potential of 5-10 years. Whether Rueda Verdejo or Ribera del Duero Tempranillo, one rule is shared by both regions: age brings complexity and a path to irreproachable food pairings.

Castles in the vines

The Ribera and Rueda regions are defined by the Duero River and thousands of years of religion, survival, transformation, and winemaking. The castles in the Ribera del Duero are the physical representations of this. Today, these stately edifices play host to visitors and call to mind the region’s history, strength, power, and determination.

The Tempranillo grown in this part of Castilla y León is not so different. The varietal, known as Tinto Fino locally, is unique in this region because of its ability to survive and adapt in uber-extreme climate conditions. The result shows strength and muscle with an elegance that tempers the wine’s power – a power harnessed only by the winemaker who must make the decision about how much of the grape to express and how much to control. It can be dark and brooding with deep dark fruit and forest flavors or light and layered with fine tannins and a long, memorable finish.

Aging wines in tunnels under castles and in caves is synonymous with Spain. Keeping with this is the desire for fruit-balanced wines combined with distinctive earthy flavors that emerge from these natural aging environments. In the glass, wines from Ribera are a reflection of the earth, climate, and soil in which the grapes grow. So too the barrel and bottle aging that brings complexity and ultimately a path to successful food pairings. 

This means that a Crianza – at three years of age, the most youthful representative in the layered landscape of Ribera Tempranillos – pairs with the widest range of dishes like boldly seasoned fish, roasted birds, and lightly smoked and charred proteins with subtle animal notes. Cosecha, another classification for Ribera Tempranillos at all ages, warms up to different levels of spice, vibrant aromatics, heat-induced meat sugars and crusts, umami notes, sauces, cheeses, and patés. Regardless of the complexity of flavor, the wines can conform to dominant spice boxes and cooking techniques.

Production and aging techniques are governed by minimum standards set by the appellation. So-called Reserva wines, aged four years or longer, sit best on the table with foods that have compelling, layered flavors and unctuous textures. Cheeses with a dense, chewy paste (the portion of the cheese inside the rind), sugar-like crystals, and nutty and savory flavors love a Reserva. Think long-aged cheddars from Vermont or a well-aged Zamorano from Castilla y León. Meats love Reservas too, especially slow-cooked dishes tinged with hints of smokiness. 

Just as castles have layers of history, food dishes have layers of flavor. The more layered the dish, the more likely the longest-aged, most sophisticated wines will go with it. Furthering this notion, when we think about the castles that have stood the test of time – the keepers of history, protection for the king – we can’t help but think of a Gran Reserva – a wine that is aged at least five years. Wines with this type of gravity beg for long-cooked, richly flavored dishes to fill the table. Heat will intensify toasted notes as well as aromatic, earthy, and spicy flavors. 

Full-flavored smoke treatments like mesquite render super-rich, unctuous fats and delectable textures that make each experience thrilling. For example, the perfectly roasted baby lamb or lechazo, a specialty of this region, is a perfect combination of fire, salt, time, fat, and sustenance – the food equivalent of the regal Tempranillo grown here.

Bringing Ribera y Rueda to life

Now, quick. What do you think of when you think of Ribera del Duero and Rueda? Hopefully, a picture is beginning to emerge – one of castles and lions, Tempranillo and Verdejo. If you didn’t guess already, the trio of Ribera del Duero, Tempranillo, and Castles create the perfect image for remembering the types of foods to match and a sense of place  – a way to build your mental flashcards if you will. The same goes for Rueda, Verdejo, and Lions. This is Ribera y Rueda – move over France and Italy, the secret of Spain is out.

Lucky us.

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