On the eve of our most voluptuous meal of the year might be an inauspicious moment to reflect on the pleasures of gastronomic simplicity. And yet, as much as I await this momentous feast, I know that as soon as the sun has set tomorrow I’ll be yearning of pared down, minimalist—one might say naked—cuisine.
Now autumn is descending into winter and the holidays are just around the corner, so by ‘naked food’ I do not mean to embark on a diet of lettuce. What I have in mind is good, earthy cold weather cooking. One of my favorite meals that falls into this category is a simple enough to prepare after a day’s work yet elegant enough for the finest of guests: a dinner of lamb loin chops, rosemary roast potatoes, something green and leafy, and a choice bottle of Ribera del Duero.
Reds from this region are particularly suited to lamb, which is raised in abundance on the rocky, ancient terrain. Although the formation of the Ribera del Duero denominación de origen took place in 1982, winemaking in this region dates back over 2,000 years to the Roman era, as evidenced by a recent discovery of a 66-meter mosaic of Bacchus, the god of wine, unearthed at Baños de Valdearados. In the middle ages, new plantings by monasteries such as the Cistercians in Valbuena de Duero and the Benedictines from Cluny in Burgundy spurred a revival in local winemaking. Ribera’s earliest underground cellars with their distinctive chimneys were built in the thirteenth century in towns across the region, and still serve to protect wines from the extreme climate.
Last week I made the aforementioned meal. Outside it was inky dark by five o’clock and the rain battered against the windows with uncharacteristic ferocity. I popped a pan of potatoes in the oven, seasoned the lamb chops, and sunk into the sofa. There was little else to do but uncork a bottle and wait.
I chose a bottle of Alconte 2007 one of my current Ribera obsessions made by Viñedos Montecastro, a landmark project founded in 2001 by a group of Madrid professionals led by prominent publisher Alfonso de Salas, the Marqués de Montecastro y Llanahermosa. Modeled after the finest examples produced in the region, Montecastro has succeeded from its first vintages in creating wines unsurpassed for authenticity and breed.
First priority was the acquisition and planting of 55 acres in the heart of Ribera del Duero at high altitude and on poor, chalky/stony soils. Meanwhile, a small group of growers located in various sub-regions was carefully selected and placed under long-term contract. The mature plots range from 8 to 100 years old and are subjected to severe yield restriction. Vines are planted in a range of five distinct soil types at elevations varying from 2150 to 3500 feet, resulting in a multifaceted harvest essential for coaxing maximum complexity from mono-varietal Tempranillo. In each vintage up to 21 distinct terroirs are fermented and aged separately, allowing for an assemblage that achieves richness with subtlety.
The modern bodega emulates the traditional chimney (zarcera) feature of the area’s medieval subterranean cellars, serving the dual purpose of providing natural aeration and daylight illumination. Grape clusters are received in small crates and sorted before being transported whole on belts for stemming and crushing at the top of each of the temperature-controlled, epoxy-lined cement fermenters, avoiding pumping of the must.
Natural fermentation and skin contact according to vintage are followed by spontaneous malolactic and aging in 50% new and 50% second-year oak barrels, of which 70% are of French origin, 25% American and 5% Eastern European.
I sipped the result of all this labor. It was big and round with gorgeous velvet smoke, dark cherries, hints of vanilla and raspberries, dark spices, medium tannins and a lingering finish. At $22.00 it is an exquisite steal.