When I think of Spanish wines, one memory comes to my mind. I remember a few years ago attending a wine tasting at Ramiro’s in San Juan, Puerto Rico. At the time, I was a young sommelier listening to the Spanish winemaker Mariano Garcia prophesize about el vino nuevo, or the new wine. I was attending the tasting with my mentor, Gary Rush, a long time collector, restaurateur and chef. Of course, I was ecstatic to even be invited. (Mariano was the winemaker for Vega Sicilia for 36 years.) His wines were some of the most expensive and sought after wines on any wine list. But Mariano wasn’t talking about the Vega Sicilia wines. In fact, he only talked about one wine, the San Roman, from the Toro region.
Now at this point in my wine career, my palate consisted of tasting old Bordeaux wines, young California tannin bombs and nearly every traditional-style Rioja. It was neither conditioned nor experienced. Combine that with my Boriquened learned Spanish, and I was doing a lot of head scratching. Luckily, my mentor was as disinterested as I was confused. His thoughts on Vega Sicilia were simple: for that price, only 1st through 5th growth Bordeaux was worth it. However, when Mario, the sommelier at Ramiro’s poured the San Roman in our glass, both of our minds changed.
I had never seen such depth of color. Inky, purple highlighted with a hue of black that glistened as I swirled the wine around. When I raised the glass to my nose, I turned toward Gary with a look of astonishment. To my surprise, he had already sucked his down and was smiling like a child. It was the first time I saw a grown man’s lips, face and cheeks, stained by the power of wine. (Of course, as my experience grew I came to take great delight in such moments.) I looked back at my glass. Placing my nose inside, an aroma of heavy black currant, thick worn leather and spicy tobacco filled my senses. Everything I had ever read about wine came together in that moment.
By the time I came up for air, Mariano was talking about the conversion from American to French oak, Gary was waving his empty glass at Mario and I was drunk off one sip. It was like nothing I had ever experienced before. Yet, not all the Valium in the world could have soothed me the way that wine had. It was profound and I listened attentively as Mariano continued his discussion about el vino nuevo. As he went further in his lecture, I realized he wasn’t just talking about his wine. It was a sort of new renaissance in Spanish wine he was introducing.
Mariano spoke longer than any winemaker I had ever heard, and covered topics I had only read about in books. And for once, not only was the Spanish making sense, but everything he said about Spanish wine. The years of over aging, the breakdown of the Reserva and Gran Reserva nomenclatures, the influence of terreno (the Spanish word for terrior) on single vineyard wines, it was all beginning to come together. He fielded questions about Spain’s turbulent history: the various prohibitions, the weak international markets, and the bloody civil war. Slowly, I discovered the meaning of el vino nuevo. It was the new Spain. And it included everything: the cuisine, the people and most importantly, the wine.