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Made in Rioja, Married in India

How do Riojan wines stand up to a robust Punjabi meal? As we set out find an answer, we discovered two eminently drinkable wines from Saenz de Santamaria.

By Sourish Bhattacharyya

I was disappointed not to find Saenz de Santamaria in Jeremy Watson's selection of La Rioja's top 50 bodegas in his authoritative reference work, The New & Classical Wines of Spain. My disappointment stemmed from the fact that just the night before, Subhash Arora, President,Indian Wine Academy, and I had subjected two wines from the bodega to the toughest test that any wine can be pitched against -- namely, the kebab and curry test -- and they'd performed surprisingly well.

To my relief, immediately after his Top 50, Watson declares that "you are unlikely to go wrong with wines" from 14 other bodegas, and Saenz de Santamaria is one of them. Watson couldn't have done better. Considering that La Rioja, Spain's flagship wine region located in the north-west, has more than 500 wineries producing 400 million bottles a year, the ranking puts Saenz de Santamaria pretty much at the top of a crowded pile.

Traditional wisdom tells us that a wine goes best with the food cooked in the region of its origin. If that's the ground rule of food and wine pairing, then the world can forget about selling its wines to us. If we have to get Indians drinking international wines, we have to find matches, through trial and error, with Indian food. Which is why we chose to subject the two Riojan wines -- one a viura and the other a tempranillo, which had travelled remarkably well to New Delhi -- to a robust Punjabi meal of Murgh Malai Tikka (cubes of chicken marinated in cream and cheese and grilled on a skewer in a coal-fired tandoor), Mutton Barra (lamb ribs marinated in yoghurt and spices, and grilled gently on a skewer in a tandoor) and Rarha Gosht (lamb cubes and mince cooked in a red hot gravy) from the well-known takeaway, Colonel's Kababz.

Most people, when they're commenting on Indian food, confuse the sophistication of spices with the slam-bang machismo of red chillies. There's no way you can pair a wine with a chilli-hot Rarha Gosht, because the dish is bound to overpower the drink. But the gently spiced Murgh Malai Tikka tempered with a mint and yoghurt dip matched effortlessly with the medium-bodied, golden-hued Rondan Blanco Crianza. The wine, incidentally, is made with Viura grapes (better-known as the Macabeo elsewhere in Spain), and, in deference La Rioja's exacting standards for even a Crianza, it's aged in 225-litre oak barrels for six months and released in the second year.

Viura is the main white variety in the North of Spain, mainly Aragon, Catalunya, Navarra and Rioja, and lately, it's appearing increasingly in Castilla-La Mancha and the Levante. According to Watson, it's "a fairly prolific, late budding variety that gives some acidity and structure," but it "lacks any real personality, being better either as a vehicle for oak vanillin aromas and flavours, or for blending with other varieties."

True, the vanilla-dominated taste of oak was pronounced in the wine, which was bound to happen because of the Viura's submissive personality. It was interfering in what could have been a great marriage, but we were rescued from our predicament by the mint and yoghurt dip. The tang of the dip balanced the spiciness of oak.

There are two other features of the wine that deserve a mention. It has a sweetish after-taste and surprisingly long legs in the glass. The long legs should signify a high alcohol level, but we checked the label and it said 12.5%. We were expecting 13.5%. Appearances can be deceptive.

Unknown to the creator of either, the marriage between a Tempranillo and Mutton Barras was blessed by God in His amazing laboratory up there. It's amazing how the unlikeliest of combinations sometimes work so well that they surprise everybody. The Rondan Crianza 1998, a 90% tempranillo, had been aged in 225-litre barrels for 12 months and released in the third year (the Riojan standards for Crianzas are definitely more stringent than what's laid down elsewhere in Spain

The barrels, says the label, were a mix of French and American oak, and there are sensible reasons for this mix. "French oak is split rather than cut like American oak," explains Watson, "so it is less porous and wines develop more slowly under its influence, which should mean the impact is more subtle than with the brasher American types. On the other hand, French oak is tougher and might overpower the wine with its pervasive tannins ... ." So what's the sensible way out of this dilemma?

For the answer, let's turn to Watson: "French oak is here to stay and I welcome it, but it is no panacea for great wines and it is important to continue with a good percentage of American oak, which helps personify classical Spanish wines, including those of the new style." It appears that the wine-maker at Saenz de Santamaria is on the same wavelength as Watson.

While on the subject of oak, Watson makes an important observation about stipulations requiring a minimum period of ageing. Maybe the Riojans can learn yet another lesson from the Bordelais, whom they have been following very closely ever since the Spanish nobleman, Luciano de Murrieta (who later became the Marques de Murrieta), borrowed quality oak casks from Bordeaux to create what is regarded as the first 'modern' Rioja.

"In Bordeaux," Watson informs us, "there are no regulations stipulating minimum periods of ageing, which means they can remove the wine to storage vats once they are content the oak has done its job. Perhaps that is why the French still make the greatest wines in the world. This is the flexibility that is needed in Spain so that winemakers do not need to manipulate the elaboration process to meet the requirements of generic regulations."

Going back to the wine, it was garnet red, light to medium-bodied, with ripe tannins and black cherry notes. It does not have the complexity of a gran reserva, but that's fine if you, like us, believe in polishing off a bottle of wine as soon as you get it. It's the kind of wine that's meant to be drunk here and now. It opens up remarkably in the glass and because its tannins don't leave you senseless, it's a wine with which you can approach food, especially a platter of Mutton Barras, without being wracked by the least self-doubt.

The wine's drinkability more than made up for its lack of complexity. What really mattered was that we had a satisfying evening. Now we're ready, more than ever, to challenge established wisdom and test new theories.

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