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Rioja : Food From the Spanish Wine Country

January 13, 1994|COLMAN ANDREWS

LABASTIDA, Spain — One fall night, some three or four hours behind schedule, I drove through hard rain and thickening darkness up a hill behind the town of Labastida, a few miles from Haro in the northeastern end of Spain's famed Rioja wine district. My goal was the estate known officially as la Granja Nuestra Senora de Remelluri, the Farm of Our Lady of Remelluri--producers of the excellent wine called simply Remelluri--where I was to have dinner and spend the night.

At last, I turned through a low stone gate and rattled up a rutted, gravel-strewn dirt road, curving through low hills covered with ghostly black clumps of vines, until I came into a large yard with a long winery building at one end and the Remelluri manor house straight ahead. I banged on the ancient wooden door. It opened, and there stood Amaya Rodriguez, who runs the estate with her brother Telmo (he as winemaker, she as director of sales and marketing). "Welcome!" she exclaimed. "We were starting to get worried about you!"

In I was led, through a warmly lit foyer casually furnished with antique tables, dried flowers and a few pieces of old pottery, and then directly into a large, extended kitchen. To the far right was an arrangement of modern appliances, complete with microwave. In the middle stood a long, irregularly finished oaken table, with chairs on one side and a long bench on the other. Behind the bench was a high, narrow table laden with bottles of wine, cheeses, a basket of nuts, a bowl of fresh fruit. On the left side of the room, behind the chairs, was a huge brick fireplace, roaring out a welcome of its own.

Within minutes, I was warm and dry, sipping the vino de la casa with my back to the fire, nibbling olives and slices of homemade sausage. I felt like a wayfarer saved from the road and taken in and catered to by some legendary abbey or inn. This was the first time I had met the Rodriguezes, but immediately I felt signal hospitality of the most honest, earnest and sensible sort.

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When the rain abated a bit later, I went off to the winery to taste barrel samples with Telmo. Remelluri is one of the newest wine producers in Rioja, and one of the area's few family-owned concerns. Although the winery is recent, the property itself, high in the hills of the region known as La Rioja Alavesa (officially part of the Basque country), is ancient. The name Remelluri commemorates a 10th-Century Alavesan count named Erramel, who once lived on that spot; uri is a Basque word meaning villa. Later, the estate belonged to the monastery of Tolono, whose remains can still be glimpsed on the crest of the hill behind the property. Amaya's and Telmo's father, a successful property developer who specialized in golf courses, bought the heart of the place in the early 1960s, then purchased as many as 50 tiny parcels of land around it. The estate now covers 222 acres, 148 of them planted to vines.

The first Remelluri vintage was 1971, and from the start the estate earned a good reputation. Since Telmo took over winemaking duties in 1990, though, the wine has progressed from good to extraordinary: rich, superbly balanced, deeply flavorful--a wine few other Rioja producers, frankly, are making anymore. (Telmo's first vintage, the 1990, has just been released.)

Returning to the house with Telmo after an hour or so of dipping into barrels, I sat down with the family for a perfect dinner of baby lamb cutlets grilled in the fireplace, salad, great bread from the local bakery, and then cheese and fruit, accompanied by an assortment of older Remelluri vintages. I slept upstairs in a room whose walls were slightly discolored by honey seeping through the adobe from a beehive outside one window.

Amaya and Telmo invited me to come back to Remelluri the next time I was in Rioja, and I made plans to do so last June. But this time, I asked, would they consider sharing some of the secrets of their hospitality with me--sharing, at least, some of the family recipes? Amaya replied that they would be delighted to do so, and with Victoria Martinez, the longtime family cook, she worked out a menu of traditional Riojan dishes and house specialties and invited me to haunt the kitchen as they were prepared.

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The cooking of Rioja is nowhere near as complex as that of Catalonia, the Balearic Islands or the coastal Basque country. It is based on lamb, an array of sausages, game birds (in season) and above all a wealth of vegetables--most notably the region's famous sweet red peppers, which seem to figure in nearly every Riojan dish, in either fresh or dried form. Garlic and onions are common flavoring elements, but herbs are used comparatively sparingly, though they grow all over these hills in fragrant profusion. Above all, it is simple cooking, sometimes time-consuming but not technically demanding--the kind of satisfying, easy food that makes guests feel welcome and leaves them feeling well fed, no matter what the weather or the time of year.

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