Doused in Rioja: Welcome to Little Spain at Mas
Dish had a chance recently to explore Spanish Rioja wines at Mas, which is fast becoming our "little Spain" in Downtown Belmont. Indeed, chef Tomas Rahal has made a habit of touring the "mother" country every year, and recently came back from a five-week sojourn he raved about on his blog.
"Their practices, profiles, proclivities and prerogatives confirmed to me that quality in materials and sourcing is always first and foremost," writes Rahal. "The fish we ate so fresh, at times alive just prior to cooking, the aged beef and cured meats incredible, the wines all ridiculously good but most importantly sustainably produced, and the farms, fincas, bodegas and estates showed us that no matter how big, conservation, respect for the environment and tradition can all harmoniously exist."
Two years ago, NYC-based public relations exec Pia Mara Finkell moved to Charlottesville with her husband, a lawyer who helped the Local Food Hub get off the ground, and managed to convince her agency that she could do her best work in Virginia wine country. A trained pastry chef, as well as a seasoned wine writer, Finkell handles a multi-million dollar account for the famous Rioja wine region of Spain. After finding a place to live in Belmont, imagine her surprise to find Mas right down the street.
"Even in New York, it's hard to get so many Riojas on one list than there is at Mas," says Finkell, pregnant with her first child and taking it easy at a tasting she's organized for Dish and Feast! manager Dave Kostelnik. "You can get Lopez here, it's insane."
That would be the famed López de Heredia family, who have been making wines in the northern Rioja Alta region of Spain for 130 years, and who many foodies have become familiar with following the "tapas" explosion that Mas has been riding. Finkell, who has organized a number of trips to the region, says the Lopez family members now running the show are "firecrackers" with a passion for what they do.
Indeed, at the Haro Wine Festival every summer, which takes place in the heart of Rioja country, hundreds of festival-goers begin the day dressed in white shirts and red scarves, and after a few prayers and a small parade, they drink wine from buckets and pour it all over each other, basically immersing themselves in wine! Then, of course, the party begins.
Clearly, Rioja wines can be an acquired taste, especially to those spoiled by the delicate, drinkable wines of France. Riojas, you see, can at first taste like you got a skunky bottle– until you keep drinking it.
Say what you will about these complex wines, grown in soil dominated by iron and by limestone-rich clays and created by superstitious wine makers, according to Finkell, who dare not touch the layers of mold that grow on cellar walls, or even the spider's nests, for fear of upsetting the natural environment and aging process of their wines–- drinking them makes you want to eat.
Whether its the warm brick-oven bread soaked in extra virgin olive oil, the roasted Medjool dates wrapped in applewood-smoked bacon, a simple plate of organic heirloom tomatoes with extra virgin olive oil, grey sea salt, basil, or (our favorite) the gambas al' parilla (jumbo shrimp grilled Catalan style-in the shell with garlic alioli and grey salt), a Spanish Rioja tastes like it's built for the task of bringing out the best in the food you're eating. Rioja, you could say, is unselfish that way.
One interesting thing about Rioja wines is that they are designated by aging. For example, R Lopez de Hereclia Vina Tondonia Rosado Gran Reserva, a rosé wine with hints of a tawny port, is aged for 4.5 years in an oak barrel and then six years in a bottle before being sold.
That kind of discipline means the wines are "ready" for you when you open them, revealing the maturity of the floral whites and fruit-infused reds and rosés in all their glory, yet with a boldness that can accompany anything Rahal and company can throw at you off the smoky grill.