If I didn’t force myself to explore wine further, I would have never discovered the lace-covered brute force behind Priorat, the depths that a Vintage Port can reach, or the absolutely seductive allure of an old Rioja. Obviously, I’m talking about Spain and Portugal, two regions that have been producing fine wine for centuries. It’s not just about ancient bottles of Port and Rioja either (although they are wonderful), both regions are turning out traditional and modern-styled wines that would tempt a lover of Old World and modern styles alike.
What’s more, they are unique from all other regions. I find that there’s something of a wild core to the wines of Spain, with rich yet structured textures that lend well to foods on the table. Meanwhile, Portugal’s wine industry continues to morph and grow with exciting new wines that are stunning yet have great value. It’s a good time to be drinking wines from Spain and Portugal, and that makes it an even better time to think about what you want to pair with them.
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Spain - Rioja
In my opinion, Rioja is one of the most underrated wines being made today. Whether a young Crianza or a well-aged Gran Reserva, these wines speak on so many levels. A Rioja wine is driven and exciting, with rich flavors offset by a balanced structure lending the ability to age or to be enjoyed young. The younger wines show the lively flavors of Tempranillo with the rich sheen of Garnacha, while aged Rioja remains rich and fruity but with all the tertiary notes that drive aged wine lovers crazy.
It’s a classic pairing and there’s a very good reason for it: Lamb with Rioja. The only question is in the preparation. I find one of the best to be braising. Lamb Shanks Braised with Tomato works well with both an aged Rioja and the more modern styles. It’s simple yet perfect with tender meat that literally melts in your mouth. I also found the tomatoes added another level of depth that worked great with the Pujanza Rioja Norte.
2001 Pujanza Rioja Norte - The nose showed tobacco and underbrush up front with notes of cherry and crushed fall leaves. On the palate, it was soft with balanced acidity, showing sweet red fruits, earth and saline minerals. The finish was staying and slightly tart yet highly enjoyable. (91 points)
Spain - Priorat
I remember my first Priorat clearly. It was dark and sexy yet earthy on the nose, rich yet structured on the palate, and at the end of each sip, I wanted to take another. The wine is made primarily from Garnacha (Grenache) yet is planted on soils made up of slate and quartz. The interesting thing is that you can easily imagine how the wine comes from these soils. Many producers go for an intense and modern style. This is important to keep in mind when deciding with what to pair.
Some of my favorite pairings with Priorat are dishes off the grill or furred game. However, with the weather turning colder, I’ve been craving Cassoulet, and it just so happens that Priorat is a perfect pairing. If you haven’t made this dish before, you don’t know what you’re missing, it’s worth every second of the preparation. It’s a rich and warming dish with wild flavors of sausage, gamey notes from the duck confit and the slow-cooked comfort of well-seasoned pork and beans.
2007 Mas La Mola Priorat - The nose showed tart red berries, sweet floral notes, moist undergrowth and a hint of dark chocolate. On the palate, it showed tense, focused red fruits with firm structure that was softened by a dose of juicy acidity. Flavors continued to evolve in the glass, showing wild berries, tobacco and savory meat broth, all the while remaining fresh and youthful. The finish was dry and structured, promising years of development yet still enjoyable now with its tart red berry fruit that clung to the palate. (91 points)
Spain - Sherry
Up until recently, Sherry was a total mystery to me. I would sometimes hear fellow wine lovers talking about it and throwing around names like Amontillado, Oloroso and Manzanilla. It wasn’t until late last year that I had my first eye-opening experience. What sold me was how well it paired with food.
My favorite Sherry at the dinner table is a Fino or Manzanilla. Manzanilla is a dry Sherry with an array of tart fruits, earthy elements and minerals. It’s extremely versatile, making it great for tapas. Everything from charcuterie, seafood, cheeses and especially fried foods are all eye-opening with a glass of Sherry. For sweeter styles, like the off-dry Amontillado, you can look to heartier recipes, such as roasted chicken and game meats. The slightly sweeter Oloroso goes well with rich blue cheese, pate and even beef.
For this Manzanilla, I went with a recipe of Linguine with Scallion Sauce and Sauteed Shrimp.
NV Equipo Navazos Jerez-Xeres Sherry “I Think” Manzanilla - This showed such a unique bouquet of Granny Smith apple, fresh cranberry, nettles and almond skins. On the palate, it was bone dry yet refreshed by vibrant acidity with a sour bite, as flavors of pear, stone fruit and minerals filled the senses. The finish was slightly earthy with grass tones and a lingering note of caramel. (92 points)
Up until recently, my experience with Portuguese wines was very limited, but now I’ve seen the light. I’ve been hearing rumblings of some very good wines being made in Portugal, not just sweet ports but younger, fresher, dry table wines that would challenge some of the best that Europe has to offer. The Quinta do Mouro Tinto is one of those wines. The Tinto is a blend, primarily made from Aragonez, otherwise known as Tempranillo in Spain, with Alicante Bouschet, Touriga Nacional and Cabernet Sauvignon filling out the rest. It’s a gorgeous wine and it makes a great case for dry table wines from Portugal.
What should you pair with it? I could tell you braised or stewed beef, but that would be boring. Instead, try a recipe of Roasted Game Hens with Caramelized Root Vegetables and Dried-Currant Sauce. I know a lot of people have trouble getting around red wine with white meats, but in this case it works. The Tinto is a juicy wine with an elegant structure and it works perfectly with game birds. Don’t be afraid of the currant sauce either, as this wine has the muscle and fruit concentration to handle it.
2007 Quinta do Mouro Tinto- The nose was dark and earthy with tart raspberry, savory herbs, coffee bean, leather and the slightest hint of spicy oak. It was seamless and juicy on the palate with tart fruit saturating the senses, showing intense wild berry, exotic spice and cacao. As it came to a close, notes of red berries continued to excite the palate throughout the mouth-watering finish. (93 points)
Portugal - Vintage Port
I find Vintage Port to be one of the hardest wines to get people to try. First, there’s the fact that it is sweet and sweet wine has been out of style for quite a while here in the States. I believe that most people think that the wine will be too powerful, with an overwhelming presence of alcohol, but it isn’t. The fact is that Vintage Port is not meant to be drunk young. Can it be? Sure, but you’re really missing the point if these wines are opened in their youth. What’s more, one of the best things about Vintage Port is that you can find aged bottles relatively cheap, sometimes for the same price as a new vintage.
My favorite way to enjoy Vintage Port is on its own with a piece of dark chocolate or Stilton Blue cheese. However, I’m not much of a dessert eater and Vintage Port can be a dessert on its own. When the cards are on the table and you need show your hand, pairing Vintage Port with a Dark Chocolate Soufflé Cake with Espresso-Chocolate Sauce would certainly be the way to go. There’s no denying this hedonistic pairing, where the dark chocolate and espresso accentuate the cherry and spice of the Port. What’s more, there’s a textural exchange that’s created between these two items, like pouring silk over velvet. What more is there to say?
1991 Dow Porto Vintage - The 1991 Dow Vintage Port was a beast on the nose with vibrant black cherry, chocolate and boysenberry. The palate was rich and silky with cherry fruit, cinnamon and black strap molasses with some tangy acidity showing through. The finish was fresh yet layered with cherry and dark chocolate. (92 points)