Firing Up Summer With Rueda Verdejo

Courtesy of James Beard Award-winning writer Laura Werlin @cheezelady

It’s Sizzle Time!

Summertime and the grilling is easy. Or it is when you have a few basic tools, the right ingredients, a well-crafted fire, and most importantly, the perfect wine to pour alongside. The last one is easy. It’s called Verdejo. 

This grape, hailing from Rueda in Spain’s Castilla y León region, brings out the very best in grill fare once you have a little background along with a guide to Verdejo’s best ingredient friends. But first, it helps to look back at the homeland of this storied white wine and at Spanish grilling history and terminology. Perhaps surprisingly, these inform what and how we cook our own backyard grill fests to this day. 

Spanish fire roots

The basic elements of fire and water have never converged more than they did when Basque fishermen set sail from Spain. The water was their highway, but their fire-based grilling methods kept them afloat. Fire and fish went well together, and since they had both, they not only sustained themselves, but they also set fire, so to speak, to an entirely new way of cooking in South America, the Caribbean, and ultimately the American south.

In Spain, there are many types of outdoor cooking, and each has its own name. A parrilla is a grill and is the basis of the best-known Spanish grilling get-togethers called a parrilada or barbacoa. Brasa refers to the hot coals over which the parrilla is set, and an asador is a grill restaurant – at least mostly. In Argentina, asador refers to the grill master, and an asado is the event itself. So many terms for an elemental way of cooking! To keep it simple, let’s just say “fire up the grill.” The good news is that the different cooking methods allow for a variety of foods to be made over the fire and with those, a wide choice of Verdejo styles to put with them.  

What you need to know

Verdejo is a white wine with bright acidity, almond and hazelnut notes, lime, grapefruit, melon, and herbs along with a variety of textures ranging from light and bright on the palate to weighty and mouth-filling. This translates to a range of wines that can handle an equal range of flavors. 

Younger brighter so-called joven-style Verdejos love green herbs, leafy salads, Greek salad, vinaigrettes, green vegetables, lime-forward ceviches, and ingredients like capers, tomatoes, and olives. They also like fresh-style cheeses like goat cheese, feta, halloumi, and Mexican panela. For grilling, that translates to lighter fare like basil and lemon-marinated shrimp, grilled halloumi, or panela cheese drizzled with vinaigrette (these cheeses get soft when warmed but never melt), and spices like cumin and salt. Grassy herbs such as basil, mint, oregano, thyme, tarragon, parsley, and cilantro love Verdejo and vice-versa as do tropical and stone fruits. The heat level of peppers should be on the low to medium side – sweet pimentón and a judicious sprinkling of red pepper flakes will work just fine. 

Fuller-bodied Verdejos, so-called lees-aged ones, are the perfect wines to pair with tinned fish (for your pre-grill offering), citrus and herb-spiked grilled chicken, fish, pork, lamb, and grilled vegetables. 

Complex oak-aged Verdejos sidle up to all these foods but also Indian and Moroccan spices, grilled fatty fish like salmon, Chilean sea bass, and scallops, and the lamb and pork as well. These are heartier and richer flavors, and the oak in the wine, although not overpowering, lends structure, body, and sweet spice flavors that complement these foods.

The newest Verdejo designation, called Gran Vino de Rueda, refers to wines made from grapes grown on vines at least 30 years old. The winemaker can make the wine in any style from joven to oak-aged, but you can be sure the grapes have a soul, and the wines inevitably will too. That’s why every grill party should include at least one of these wines. It’s a bit of a wildcard, but the wine inside? Anything but.

Think of the range of Verdejos like this: subtle > bright > lees > oak > old vine. In other words, young to aged and light to weightier on the palate. In turn, that’s your key to the types of foods, spices, and herbs that go with each style of Verdejo.

Bringing Verdejo and your backyard parillada together

Now that the Verdejo building blocks are spelled out, perfect pairings are just around the corner. Start with this pocket guide to your Verdejo grill-fest and be inspired by the dish suggestions that follow. 

Verdejo and grilling pocket guide

 

The herbs: basil, cilantro, dill, mint, oregano, parsley, tarragon, and thyme. 

All together: think grassy and green.

 

The spices: salt, lemon pepper, cumin, sweet pimentón, red pepper flakes, cinnamon, cayenne, cardamom, curry, and turmeric. 

All together: Think perfumed, citrus-like, light heat, and smoke.

 

The vegetables: all green veggies, eggplant, fennel, yellow and orange beets, romaine lettuce cauliflower, onion, and garlic. 

All together: Think produce aisle and firm enough to grill, and you’re there.

 

The fruits: avocado, tomato, lemon, grapefruit, tropical fruits, green olives, peaches, apricots, and nectarines. 

All together: Think stone and tropical fruit along with more vegetable-like fruits like avocado and tomato.

 

The proteins: chicken, fish, tofu, lamb, pork, veal

All together: Think light-intensity meats

 

The cheeses: goat cheese, young Manchego, queso fresco, halloumi, panela, feta, ricotta, brie, and other soft-ripened cheeses

All together: Think tangy, light, mild, creamy, and buttery

 

The condiments: mustard, white and rice vinegars, olive oil, hot sauce (mild to medium heat), green Thai curry paste, harissa paste or sauce

All together: Go for tangy, “high-note,” condiments and mild to medium spice levels

Dishing it out

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