Monday, December 12, 2011

Fashion in La Rioja II, or Bargain-hunting on the Ebro

Los Agostinos is, as the name suggests, in a former Augustinian convent, and it's a bargain. Hotel rooms in Beaune can run well into the hundreds of euro; the most expensive room at Los Agostinos, which is probably the best hotel in Haro, is €116. The hotel restaurant, Las Duelas, is just as affordable. Its €20 lunch menu was a steal, with a delicious filet mignon-like piece of Galician beef following a tapas-size portion of Waldorf salad (you use good apples and walnuts, you get a good salad) and a cod croqueta that was easily the best of the trip.

Lunch came with a carafe of the house red, but I also perused the list, which featured even lower mark-ups than the one at Echaurren. With the exception of a bottle from Lopez de Heredia, the whites were young and under €25. The reds, mostly from La Rioja, are split into two categories - the traditional and the more robust, higher-alcohol wines made in the style rewarded by Robert Parker, the American wine critic who's generated immense controversy in the wine world for his effect on the prices of his favorite wines and therefore, on how wine is made around the world.

The sommelier had a very strong preference for the traditional wines of his region. "It's grapes, not gold," he said, shaking his head at a youngish Contador that went for €220, up from €80 after Parker gave it a high score a few years ago. Instead, the somm raved about a Vina Ardanza reserva from the 1990s for about €40 (I did not take detailed notes on years and prices). The somm had a very detailed knowledge of La Rioja wines and also loved, among others, Abel Mendoza's 2010 Malvasia and the 2005 Valenciso reserve. Neither is available in the U.S., as far as I can tell. He brightened when I mentioned the '93 Lopez and mentioned the hint of banana in the wine.

The somm said that those in search of robust Spanish reds should look to Ribera del Duero, whose most famous wine, Vega Sicilia's Unico, commands hundreds of dollars a bottle and has been made since the estate was founded in the 1864. Its intensity is often attributed to the dramatic spread in intra-day temperatures in Ribera del Duero, from the mid-90s Farenheit in the day to the low 40s at night in the summer. Climate may explain more than tradition here; aside from Vega Sicilia, most of the wine industry in Ribera del Duero dates from the early 1980s. But that's another region, another story, another blog post. When I return to Los Agostinos in November, I'll have to try one of the somm's favorite reds with the restaurant's roast pigeon with wild mushrooms.          


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