What Pairs With Life-Changing Tomatoes?

And other investigations from Madrid.

My first few days in Madrid were a whirlwind of old favorites and new discoveries. I’m happy to see that the classic tapas crawl has survived the pandemic (though you can’t stand at the bar anymore, and capacity is now limited). For me, it’s been amontillado at La Venencia; prawns and manzanilla at Fide; Yayos (a cocktail with vermouth, a little gin, and a fizzy soda) at Casa Camacho; fresh, young Cabrales cheese and mussels to go with the cider at Asturian spots like Perlora and Casa Parrando, countless tiny cañas of beer to wash down sardines, Manchego, jamon, jamon, and more jamon. It’s great to be back.

What’s excited me the most so far has been Madrid’s — and Spain’s — evolving wine scene. Madrid’s wine game is at a much higher level than it was even five years ago. There’s even a super exciting, cutting-edge wine region on the rise in the Vinos de Madrid D.O., within an hour’s drive from the city (more below).

But in a larger sense, what’s on display in Madrid is the remarkable shift in the style of wine being produced in Spain right now. The classic Spanish wine regions, with their intensity and heavy oak aging, were rather late to the party in embracing the trends that have remade the wine world over the past decade (whether it’s simply making lighter, fresher, more acid-driven, using less oak, or a diving deeply into natural wine making).

One of the big reasons for that shift has been, worldwide, people eat differently than they did even ten years ago. Even in Spain — the land of jamon iberico — diners are seeking more plant-based dishes. (Even if only as a respite from the abundance of amazing ham).

Among the memorable meals I’ve had was at a wine-centric restaurant called Angelita. The dish was: Tomatoes. Full stop. (Well, to be fair, there was also some oil and salt). Of course, these weren’t just any tomatoes. They were a variety called Corazón de Buey that were grown in Zamora at the family farm of Angelita’s owners (David and Mario Villalón). I also ate those tomatoes in the Villalón’s famous pisto or “Spanish ratatouille” in which they are slowly cooked for seven hours and mixed with onion, bell pepper, and zucchini (all sauteed separately) and served with an orange egg yolk and confettied fried egg whites.

Now, when it comes to pairing, tomatoes — as well as bell peppers and zucchini — are among the most difficult foods to match with wine. So the two wines that Villalón served us were noteworthy. For instance, the César Márquez Parajes Bierzo 2017 ($22) represents where Spanish wine is moving right now. It’s a juicy red that drinks almost like a white — fresh, savory, great acidity, light on the oak. It’s a field blend that comes from 80- to 120-year-old vines, most of it being mencia (a grape that was once obscure and now is sought after), but also some local white varieties that grow among the mencia. There’s whole-cluster fermentation and some of it is foot trod. It’s a wine that feels both modern and old-school, totally Spanish and totally new. It’s probably not a coincidence that César Márquez is also the nephew of Raúl Peréz, one of the most visionary winemakers in the world and at the forefront of the new wave of Spanish wine.

While that Bierzo was magical, another wine at Angelita sent me on a journey of discovery. “Discovery” is always a fraught word: whatever I personally “discovered” in Spain is something millions of people already know about. Still, the other pairing with those tomatoes, Cadausolo de los Vidrios — a rosé blend of garnacha and white varieties, made by a winery called Comando G — opened my eyes to Sierra de Gredos, an exciting region about an hour from Madrid that’s quickly gaining reputation for innovative new-wave wines. I decided to visit.

Surprises from Vinos de Madrid

While “Sierra de Gredos” is a wine region that’s increasingly sought after in Spain and elsewhere, the name is not official. The D.O. is technically Vinos de Madrid, which was created in 1990 and covers a vast area surrounding the city. Sierra de Gredos places the wine specifically in the mountainous area of San Martín de Valdeiglesias and Cebreros.

I met with Marc Isart in the San Martín de Valdeiglesias subzone. Isart is the sort of winemaker with his hand in many different projects. From 2008 to 2013, he was one of the original partners in Comando G, the sought-after biodynamic producer who introduced wine lovers to this mountainous region. Isart now makes wine in Sierra de Gredos for Bernabeleva, as well as for Pegaso, owned by famed Spanish winemaker Telmo Rodríguez. He also has his own label, La Maldicíon, located in Chinchón, a different part of the Vinos de Madrid D.O.

Isart drove us up into the mountains, past 300-year-old olive trees, fields of wild thyme and lavender, and scrub land. The sun beat down on us hard as he talked about the challenges of growing garnacha (aka grenache) and albillo (the local white grape variety). This is a hot region, and they usually begin harvest in mid-August. I’ve tasted a lot of garnacha from hot regions and they can be big, high in alcohol, and flabby. Not these wines from Sierra de Gredos.

Given the heat, what’s incredible is how fresh and lively the garnacha here can be. But one of the effects of the early harvest is big, edgy tannins, almost like young nebbiolo. “People always say the garnacha here is like Burgundy, but I don’t agree,” Isart said. “For me, it’s more like Barolo.”

To be honest, what Sierra de Gredos represents is something completely new, different from garnacha anywhere else in the world. “It’s always easier to introduce a fresh, new-wave style in a lesser-known region, rather than in an established region,” Isart said.

Wines From Madrid To Try

Bernabeleva Arroyo del Tórtolas 2018, $35

Illustrates the fresh style of garnacha from Bernabeleva’s top vineyard. Intense, youthful tannins with notes of fresh cherry, wild herb, rose.

Navaherreros Blanco de Bernabeleva 2018, $21

Ripe, zesty blend of albillo (white grape indigenous to Sierra de Gredos) along with muscat and macabeo.

Pegaso “Zeta” Sierra de Gredos 2019, $20

Hard not to love a garnacha that’s complex, easy-drinking, and great value.

Comando G La Bruja De Rozas 2019, $27

Fresh, juicy, fruity, balanced, powerful. Everything you want in Comando G’s flagship wine.