Saturday, March 23, 2024

Spain's Culinary Gems: Padróns & Piquillos

                              Smoky roasted red piquillos are flavor bomb toppers for these tapas

I have many favorite food items from Spain, but padrón and piquillo peppers are definitely in my Top Five gastronomic Spanish ingredients.  Go into any tapas bar in northwestern Spain (Galicia, Toro, Rueda) and you’ll see the ubiquitous small green padrón peppers represented somewhere in the lineup of tempting bite-sized morsels. Continue to the eastern part of northern Spain (the Rioja and Ribera del Duero wine districts) and the bright red piquillo will most likely be on every menu in some type of form.  Neither of these peppers are hot so they can be utilized in a wide variety of dishes, or eaten simply by themselves.

                            Padróns are a main-stay on restaurant menus throughout Spain

The shiny green padrón pepper is named after the town of Padrón in Galicia, Spain (home to the famous Albarino wines).  But, the padrón is not native to this area.  In fact, it’s not even native to Spain.  The padrón pepper was brought back to Spain from South America by the Conquistadores.  Monks in Galician monasteries began growing them and the padrón became immensely popular in the local region.  Today, tasty padróns are known throughout Spain.

                                     Once cooked, tiny padróns are the perfect small bite

What makes padróns so popular?  Typically served after a quick sautée in olive oil and a sprinkle of sea salt, padróns are intensely flavorful and sublimely sweet.   That being said, there is an occasional hot one among the bunch.   Regardless of the one-in-ten that can be quite spicy, padróns are addictive.   In fact, their popularity has been brought back to the Americas.  In the last few years San Diego farmers’ markets have been featuring padróns.  (If you can’t find them, however, shishito peppers are a good substitute).

                                       Very mild Piquillos are roasted over fire

Piquillo peppers, the same color as our red bell peppers, are much smaller than bells (usually 2-3 inches), and have thinner flesh.  Like bells, they are sweet and have no heat, however, Piquillos---unlike bells--- are not eaten raw.  Instead, they are roasted over fire which gives them complex smoky flavors.   Because of their small size, they are perfect for stuffing with everything from goat cheese to tuna or even minced lamb.  Their dimension also makes a piquillo perfect for a tapa.

               These peppers, available on Amazon, are protected by law to prevent counterfeits

Piquillos are native to the Rioja region in northern Spain not far from the Pyrenees mountains and the Basque district.  They are critical to the region both economically and culturally, so much so that they have been awarded a protected status (PDO) by the European Union.   This means that only this variety of pepper, grown in the Rioja, can be called a piquillo.  (Like PDO Parmigiano-Reggiano, PDO Roquefort cheese, and PDO San Marzano tomatoes, the guaranteed origin of a product is everything for a customer to knows he is buying the real-deal and not a knock-off.)

Coming on Wine-Knows' sold out trip to northern Spain this autumn?  You’ll taste both padróns and piquillos.  In fact, our first night in Porto, Portugal the restaurant has padróns on their menu.   Seems like the padrón’s popularity has crossed the border from Galicia, Spain to northern Portugal.  If you're not coming to Spain with Wine-Knows, both piquillos and padróns  are available in the US.

Buen Provecho!

Thursday, March 14, 2024

White Wines of Northern Spain

                              The Viura grape, by law, must be at least 51% of a white Rioja blend

White grapes in Spain’s home of the world famous red Tempranillo grape?  That seems like an oxymoron to those who enjoy the Rioja or the Ribera del Duero’s world-class reds.  But, wait!   There is "white" life beyond "red" for wine lovers.   Spain’s north produces some wonderful white wines and you don’t have to travel to Spain necessarily to have them.  With summer approaching these sublime whites can enchant even the most discerning of wine connoisseurs.

                            Rioja Blanco is a rarity in the red Tempranillo-centric Rioja district

White Rioja (aka Rioja Blanco) is made from a blend of white grapes, the most important of which is Viura.   Rioja Blanco is rare, accounting for only a mere 10% of the Rioja’s entire wine production.   Often aged in oak, these whites take on bold aromas of roasted pineapple.  On the palate, an older white Rioja can reveal layers of subtle lemon flavors, minerals and good acidity.  In its youth, these whites offer a lemon-lime profile, laced with honeydew melon and mineral nuances.

As mentioned above, white Rioja is a blend of Viura with an accompaniment of a few other obscure white varieties not known to consumers outside of Europe.  For example, ever hear of a white Tempanillo?  A cousin of the red Tempanillo grape, this white often appears in a Rioja Blanco.  Malvasia and white Garnacha are two other popular white grapes used for blending.  By law, however, Viura must account for the majority of any Rioja Blanco.

          Seafood paella, popular in Spain's south, is often accompanied by a Verdejo from the north

Verdejo is the other hallmark grape of northern Spain.  Go into any restaurant in Spain and ask for a glass of white wine.   Or, head to any wine shop in Spain and ask for white wine.  Chances are in both cases you’ll be offered a Verdejo from Spain’s Rueda wine region.  Verdejo accounts for 40% of all wines sold within the country of Spain.   Its popularity may be due to Spain’s warm climate, although Verdejo is a flavor bomb offering up tropical, stone fruit and citrus.   

If you’re looking for a new white for the summer, both White Rioja and Verdejo from Rueda are terrific wines to try.  Both are available in the US.


Monday, March 4, 2024

Rueda Wine: 5 Important Facts to Know

             An inhospitable terroir allows only grapes & grains to grow in the harsh Rueda

The last three blogs have discussed the wines of Spain’s Rioja, Ribera del Duero and Toro wine regions.   Today we move to the final wine district in the quartet of northern Spain wine regions that Wine-Knows travelers will be visiting this autumn, the Rueda.  The first three wine regions are known for their red wines.  The Rueda, however, is all about white wine.  Below are five facts a wine lover visiting the region (or simply drinking these high QPR wines at home) should know.

1.  The Verdejo grape put Rueda on the world’s wine map. 

The Rueda is home to the largest number of Verdejo vines in the world.  98% of Rueda’s wines are white and the majority of them come from the Verdejo grape.   Research has shown that Verdejo arrived in Spain from North Africa in the 11th century.  It gradually made its way north to the Rueda after adapting in the vineyards of Spain’s south.

Today 4 out of every 10 wine bottles sold in Spain is made from Verdejo and most of it comes from the Rueda. 

          2.  Verdejo wine is a light to medium bodied aromatic wine with the                              following characteristics:

          ~ Citrus (lemon, lime, grapefruit)

          ~ Stone fruit (peach, apricot)

          ~ Tropical (pineapple, melon, mango)

          ~ Herbs (licorice, grass)

Well made Verdejo, unlike many white wines, can often age beautifully for 5-10 years developing rich textures and nutty nuances in addition to its fruit-centric tastes. 

             Stones absorb the heat during the day & warm the vines during cold nights 

3.  Rueda’s terroir forces grapevines to work hard.

Like the adjacent Toro wine region, Rueda is located on the same 2,000-3,000 foot plateau where the harsh landscape is wild and the soil is low in nutrients.  On the other hand, this higher altitude means cooler temperatures during the area’s extreme summers.  Plants are forced to work hard to survive so only grains and grape vines grow in Rueda’s inhospitable terroir.   

Rueda’s stony soils provide a great drainage system for winter rain to seep deep into the earth.  In order to live during the hot summers the grape vines must send their roots downward through the earth to seek water and nutrients.  Traversing many layers, the struggling vines bring back to the plant complex nutrients which translate into complex wines.    

The Duero River helps moderate the heat of summer and cold of winter so it’s no surprise the finest wines are made from vineyards located along the Duero’s banks.

           Wine-Knows has a harvest appointment at Menade to taste their high-scoring wines

           4.  Rueda's wine laws effect what's in your wine glass.

Rueda received official status from the Spanish Government (D.O.) as a unique region with noteworthy wines in 1980.  In order for Rueda to appear on a wine label, it must contain a minimum of 50% Verdejo.   Wines labeled “Ruedo Verdejo” have a higher bar in that they must have a minimum of 85% Verdejo grapes.  Many Ruedo Verdejo, however, are made entirely from the Verdejo variety.

The D.O. wine laws also permit blending with Sauvignon Blanc, along with Palomino, Virua, Viognier and Chardonnay.  That being said, Verdejo D.O. must be a minimum of 50% of all Ruedas made.


5.  The Rueda also grows some red grapes for red wine.

Up until the end of the 19th century when the vineyard bug phylloxera destroyed most of the vines throughout Europe, the Rueda region was known for its red wines.   It wasn’t until after the phylloxera pandemic that white grape vines were planted.  The Rueda, like its western neighbor Toro and eastern border Ribera del Duero, grows Tempranillo.   Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Garnacha are also permitted by Rueda’s D.O. laws.