Boquerones stuffed with mussels sounded ghastly, but I was wrong – they were spectacular. In fact, they were not ‘stuffed’ at all, but two individual fishes wrapped round the stuffing and deep fried.
Four of us were having lunch at The Ocean and we agreed that it was just as good as a red mullet dish we had tasted years before, when we had holidayed in Scotland and dined at the Michelin starred Martin Wishart. Since then we held the red mullet dish as one of the best fish dishes we had ever tasted. The boquerones were a hard act to follow and the Dover Soles, ordered as mains, turned out to be unremarkable. To accompany the fish a bottle of Palacio de Bornos purposely selected so we could mull over the latest fad in wine – Verdejo.
My last recollection of the exuberant, Richard Sanz was Richard handing round small glasses of intensely purple tempranillo straight from the barrel in the wine region of Toro. Toro was considered by many as the ‘next big thing’ in wine regions and even Vega Sicilia, perhaps the most venerable of Spanish wine makers, had just claimed a stake there with their Pintia wine project. For Richard and his family Toro was also a new venture well away from Verdejo and Rueda. At that time, few Toro wines existed but with the success of Ribera del Duero, Toro was considered near enough physically to be described as another expression of Duero wines! Richard, excited at the possibilities of this new region, told us their new wine would be called Orot which, he explained, was Toro spelled backwards. My lack of enthusiasm must have shown as I suggested that given the choice I would steer away from a name where rot was so clearly prominent. It was too late as the name had been registered and labels printed. Earlier that year Richard had visited Gibraltar when we had arranged a tasting at our small shop in Queensway Quay. We had started importing Palacio de Bornos Verdejo, Richard’s family wine from the now well-known region of Rueda – home of Verdejo an ancient grape variety now highly fashionable.
Driving up the A7 from Madrid it takes about one hour thirty minutes to Rueda, the town after which the wine region is named. At 700m in altitude the region has cool nights, ideal for night-time harvesting minimising the risk of spoilage and oxidation. Verdejo, a grape variety, grown in Rueda for centuries, stayed under the radar until Marques de Riscal, in 1972, started making and selling Rueda Verdejo. A new age of white wine making in the area was born.
It strikes me that wine producers share some of the qualities of lemmings. Whenever a ‘new’ wine region is ‘discovered’, usually by a lone winemaker who manages to attract high scores by one or more wine writers, mayhem follows. Land prices rocket and all and sundry will start new projects – nobody want to be left out in case this promising new region turns out to be another El Dorado. Soon the public will hear about this wondrous new region and its wonderful wines and before our eyes a new fashionable wine or grape variety is born. Initially demand for the wines will exceed supply and prices will rise. That is until new plantings come of age, modern techniques are introduced and production increases dramatically. The new region, previously almost unknown, transforms itself into a volume producer where quality is overshadowed by competition exacerbated by ever decreasing prices. Serious wine makers in the region, intent on making quality wines, are then damaged by the region’s new-found image as a volume producer of inexpensive, quaffable wines. Many will leave the D.O., meaning they will no longer sell their wines under the region’s name but simply sell their wine as ‘table wine’. Many believe this is happening in Rueda.
The best wine I have tasted from Rueda, so far, is Naiades Verdejo 2012. I tasted it blind and thought it a very good wine fooling me into thinking it was not Spanish. Its fermented and aged for many months in new French oak – something which would be uneconomical for the bulk of Rueda’s whites. The wine itself is very intense, attractively bitter and sufficiently complex to make the grade as a quality white. We have come to think, for good reasons, that Spain is a red wine country, with few note-worthy whites. As I wrote last month it’s simply a function of climate. It would seem that all the great white wines of the world are grown in climates considered the limit at which grapes can be grown. Chablis with its frosts and hail or Mosel which only manages because of its steep slopes facing the sun and the warming effects of the Rhine. Rueda’s climate is continental and does suffer from colds and frosts but daytime temperatures rise steeply as the sun makes an appearance. So, what do Rueda’s Verdejo taste like? Verdejo is aromatic with bitter notes of grass, lychees and other tropical fruits, and can easily be confused with Sauvignon Blanc which Rueda also grows in abundance.
It remains to be seen if Rueda’s better wine makers will succeed long term. Selling Rueda Verdejo at premium prices £20 and above will prove difficult as in the mind of the consumer Rueda is an inexpensive white wine region. Unlike red there is nowhere to hide when making whites, with many resorting to over-oaking or aromatic grape varieties hoping to overcome the inherent climatic hurdles facing top-notch white wine makers in warmer climes. These challenges are worldwide and not just in Spain.
Richard Sanz and his father eventually went their separate ways and Palacio de Bornos is now owned by others. With his brother and sister, they have a new venture called Bodegas Menade. They have left the D.O., I believe, and now sell their wines simply as table wines. Their Menade La Misión, a barrel-aged Verdejo was awarded 92 points by Parker and sells for around £20 a bottle. The Wine Society, probably the best wine merchant anywhere and considered ‘truffle hunters’ when seeking wines, stock two of Richard’s cheaper wines, and that’s saying something.
It would be great to go back to Rueda and visit Richard, taste la Misión and see his new venture. Richard has a knack of making everyone feel special… and that is seriously cool.
Marquez de Caceres Verdejo 2017 – 15/20
Very pale lemon colour. Quite watery on the palate. Simple.
(tasted the following day the wine had improved suggesting it may be better after another year in bottle. This may confirm the view that Verdejo has ageing potential).
Protos Verdejo 2017 £6.50 The Cellar – 15.5/20
Pale gold. Gentle notes of lychees. Quite grassy. Not very complex.
Marquez de Riscal Rueda Verdejo £8.50 The Cellar – 16/20
Pale Gold. Quite exuberant, refreshing, grassy with tropical fruits.
Finca la Colina Rueda Verdejo 12 Euros (Hipercor) – 15.5/20
Gold in color. Subdued and slightly bitter but not in a nice way. Watery finish. Disappointing.
Naiades 2012 Verdejo. £18.00 (Online UK) – 17/20
Pale Gold. Quite aromatic on the nose. Elegant and complex with a good finish.
Palacio de Bornos Verdejo £7.40 Lewis Stagnetto – 16/20
Pale gold. Very exuberant. Definite tropical notes including pineapple. Reasonable finish.
Not sure how well it went with our fish.