It was one of those dreary, wet Saturdays in a wet, dreary month: the UK endured its soggiest April on record in 2012. Perfect lunching weather, in other words. I sat for a while in a coffee bar near to Old St, watching London’s most fastidious street cleaner diligently work his way down Leonard St and back. And then, with ever-lightening footsteps, I made my way to Eyre Brothers.
This Iberian restaurant isn’t normally open for Saturday lunch, but today’s event had been organized by ‘Sip and Savour’ to showcase some of the Rioja wines I most enjoyed when I traveled to the region last year. The Mozambique-born David Eyre is my kind of chef, too. He’s not one of those ego-laden kitchen pets who’ve spread like an infectious disease across TV screens in five continents over the last decade, but a tortured stove artist obsessed with fine raw materials and their assembly in as simple and authentic a manner as possible.
The wines were a synthesis of new and old. I’d hoped, in picking Muga’s admirably crisp, pungent 2011 Rosé to partner Eyre’s own cured olives (without oil, which he finds too cloying), that it would be a salvo to summer as May Day approached. The rain had other plans, but no matter: the 30% Viura in the blend, and the subtle use of lees, still made it a dramatic illustration of how rosé has been re-thought in Rioja. It’s no longer a repository for Garnacha leftovers, but something shapely, structured and gastronomic.
I could eat Eyre’s Salpicón of Seafood three times a week or more: tiny clams, baby squid, little prawns and other marine afterthoughts scraped up off the sea floor, tumbled and dressed with tarragon, raw vegetables and a little necessary vinegar. The two white Riojas we drank with it were educationally contrastive. The 2010 from Contino was a perfect Iberian riposte to fine Pessac-Léognan: pale, subtle and engaging, expanding slowly in the glass, inviting the next mouthful, unraveling suavely and coping adroitly with the vinegar in the salpicón. Allende’s 2008 was, rather like its irrepressible creator Miguel Ángel de Gregorio, a more exuberant wine, chewier, fuller and more marrowy. Our 70 lunchers preferred the Allende as a wine on its own, but the Contino with food.
The main course was, hey, meat and potatoes. Huge, succulent chunks of marbled Ibérico pork, pinkly tender in the middle and charry at the edge, lounging on unctuously soft, oiled ‘poor man’s’ potatoes, humming with thyme and just punctuated with a little green pepper. Any vintage of CVNE’s magnificent Imperial is always a treat, and the 2005 was as silkily engaging as I had hoped it would be (I’d tried the 2004 last year), turning the mouth into an echo chamber of aromas: wonderfully easeful and restful, the sort of bottle that anyone would be happy to spend the afternoon with, and the rainier, the better. To compare with the Imperial, though, we feasted on the 2005 Reserva from the Remelluri estate. I rated this and its 2005 Gran Reserva sibling so highly last year that I feared a re-taste might bring disappointment. Not a bit of it I still think these are two of the best Riojas I have ever drunk: perfect balance, weight, texture and depth, and resonant to the last drop.
Wines, in sum, I would love to own. A little research revealed that all of the whites and reds we had served are available in the UK, hovering at about £20 each. Bordeaux is not an inapt comparison for Rioja: midweight food wines, subtle in profile, and with an evidently rewarding ageing trajectory. (Rioja, of course, was where the Bordelais turned to find claret-like wines when phylloxera first cut a swathe through their own vineyards.) To drink Bordeaux of this quality, though, you would need to spend between two and five times as much. Their value as fine wines is remarkable.
We finished with Eyre’s Tarta de Santiago: a flourless synthesis of almonds, eggs and citrus. The Gonzalez Byass Matusalem rose effortlessly to the challenge: library-dark, vapoury with the memory of raisins and figs and sunlight, as complex and as hard to summarise as the 30 years of history it has shared.
As I walked away, I remembered that €950 million’s worth of debt has forced Jerez to cancel its Vinoble event for this year, and that the city’s bus drivers and social workers hadn’t been paid for four months, leaving them to beat drums outside the town hall. I remembered, too, that one in four workers in Spain no longer have work, and that half of those under 25 in Spain are unemployed. I’m not sure that the world’s wine drinkers alone can do much to buoy a nation’s economy, but the quality of this meal and these wines on a rainy Saturday in London in April suggested that those of us lucky enough still to be in employment should try.
Written by Andrew Jefford