Emilio Rojo – one of Spain’s most sought after white wines.

Emilio Rojo in his vineyard.  Adapted from an article by Xurxo Lobato/Omayra Lista published by El País on July 1st 2013. I have taken a few liberties with the translation.     

“La crisis no da en el blanco” – this headline, and quite a cryptic one for El País, a Spanish newspaper, can mean two things – that the economic crisis is not hitting the target, whatever the target is, or that the economic hecatomb gripping the country for the last four years or so is not really affecting the sales of white wine, at least not the one that Emilio Rojo makes.
Emilio Rojo’s D.O. Ribeiro wine is extremely sought after around the world. Around 5,000-6,000 bottles are sold long before they’re ready to be launched onto the market. The key to this enviable success is a ‘policy of cutbacks’ wisely applied to his vines: reducing production in order to obtain an optimum quality wine. The scarcity of the wine stimulates the obsession of the high end consumer intent on getting his or her hands on a bottle or two. Loyal customers have included the arch-famous El Bulli, Arzak and the King Juan Carlos I of Spain. Emilio Rojo diehards won’t even be able to taste it this year as the 2012 vintage won’t be available for purchase till next year. Not content with making just a great, great wine, he wants it to ‘grow up’, to ‘purge itself of the sins of youth’ during its time in the cellar.
Freeing oneself from the ‘dictatorship of time’, i.e. the local consumer preference for drinking white wines young, is a serious challenge for Galician winemakers. Casting aside oak barrel ageing, ‘sur lies’ fermentation and ‘bâtonnage’ seems to be the direction Galician white wine making will take in the future. In fact, notable D.O. Rías Baixas wineries such as Pazo de Señoráns, Pazo de Fefiñanes and Martín Codax already apply this process to their wines.
‘Lies’, or lees in English, are the yeasts responsible for alcoholic fermentation. They undergo a decomposition process in the bottom of the fermentation vats. In layman’s terms, these yeast deposits have to be stirred (bâtonnage) from time to time so they release a series of compounds which will improve the characteristics of the wine. According Galician wine guru Luís Paadín, “The yeasts reduce the oxygen level, thereby preventing oxidation so the wine keeps much longer”. The goal is that the wine holds up well in the bottle and can be consumed beyond three years, at the same time improving the bouquet and achieving a wine with more body. Every ten days, Emilio stirs the lees with a chestnut wood stick so that they settle evenly and create an infusion, conveying their rich properties to the wine. “A period of sixteen months sur lies enhances the wine giving it the character of a Vino de Pago or single estate/cru wine”, Emilio Rojo explains.
It’s the finishing touch inside the winery of a ribeiro that has been pampered right from its time on the vine. On an Atlantic climate, east facing slope, Emilio Rojo’s vines are almost as scarcely populated as the nearby deserted village of Ibedo, which is just the way he likes it, low on fruit but high on flavour. With his worn, calloused hands, this former telecommunications engineer, a combination of farmer and delicate wine whisperer, thins out branches, snipping away at bunches to obtain better grapes. He could easily make 10.000 litres of standard quality wine but prefers to sacrifice quantity for quality. “I’m a perfectionist, not an elitist”, he states. The rest is an alchemic blend of native grape varietals: treixadura – around 65% – with loureiro, lado and albariño. It’s a success formula that has this ribeiro rubbing shoulders with the most famous white wines in the world. A wine that’s served not only in the best restaurants in Spain (and that’s saying a hell of a lot), but also in the finest eateries of the USA, Japan, the UK and Denmark.
Paradoxically, the combination of shrewd ‘cutbacks’ in the vineyard and a captive export market have enabled this ingenious winemaker to ride out the storm currently battering many of his compatriots.

Xurxo Lobato from Galicia is one of Spain’s premier photo-journalists. You can view his work here: http://www.xurxolobato.es
                                                                                                                                

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Restaurante Acio – Santiago de Compostela.

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Meet Iago Castrillón and Eva Pizarro, joint owners of Restaurante Acio in Santiago de Compostela, winners of the 1st prize in the “Revelation Restaurant” category at the prestigious gastro show Madrid Fusion 2013. The jury, made up of more than forty representatives from the Spanish gastronomic press, placed their votes in absolute secrecy. This year, for the first time, 2nd and 3rd prizes were awarded to Abadía Retuerta of Valladolid and Apicius of Valencia respectively. Congratulations are order.

Adrian: How did it all begin for you at Restaurante Acio?

Eva: We’ve always worked at high-end restaurants. While on holiday in Italy once, a dining experience we had one evening had a huge impact on us. The cook was working alone in the kitchen, calmly preparing dishes. Lamb was roasting slowly in the fireplace. Dinner that night was fabulous, most of all because the cook himself came out of the kitchen to serve us a few of the dishes he’d prepared.

Iago: It changed our perspective a little and we started thinking about having our own restaurant, for the both of us where we’d cook the food ourselves, provide a calm, unhurried service and actually enjoy doing something we like… away from haute cuisine where you have predetermined roles and a brutal pace of work. So this idea gradually began to take form till it became Acio, our restaurant, where little by little we’ve built a reputation for our cooking, unhurriedly, at our own pace, maintaining our philosophy.  The awards and recognition came later, which came as a real boost enabling us to keep doing what we were already doing, without going crazy in the process. 

Iago, tell us something about your experiences as a chef in Madrid and London and why they were so important to you in terms of your current success.

My time at these restaurants provided me with the basis of the cooking I’m developing today at Acio.  At each restaurant, in each city, in each place I’ve spent time in, I’ve tried to absorb trends, ways of doing things, and of course, learn from the great chefs I’ve had the privilege of being trained by.

Adrian: A lot has been said in recent years about the concept of time and space, championed by people like René Redzepi, owner of NOMA in Copenhagen, until very recently the Nº1 restaurant in the world. What’s your opinion on these particular trends?

Iago: In the last few years it seems as if every restaurant has had to identify itself with one particular trend, or alternatively differentiate itself from that trend in order to have some kind of identity. I think that as chefs each of us has his or her own vision of cooking and he or she translates that vision into a set of ideas or trends that people will either identify themselves with or not. 

Adrian: How do you select the ingredients you use in your cooking?

Eva: The essence of our cooking is based on Galician produce. Galicia is a magnificent, natural pantry of high quality food products.  Iago goes to the Plaza de Abastos every day, the great market in Santiago de Compostela, and selects the ingredients he’ll use in his kitchen, placing great emphasis on seasonal items.  

Iago: Having said that, we don’t rule out the idea of fusion so you’ll find Japanese products, for example, adapted to our dishes, rice dishes…

Adrian: How important are the local farmers when supplying your restaurant?

Iago: They’re the ones who guarantee the supply of seasonal products, the freshest ones, the ones that are in their prime.  In order to achieve that, it has to be a two-way thing. You have to tell the producer what type of product you’re looking for and get him involved in your ‘cause’ so he comes up with the goods.

Adrian: Eva, what’s your opinion on natural wines?

Eva: Natural wine is wine made from the natural grape, neither adding nor removing anything from that grape. The net result will be a true reflection of the land the wine was ‘born in’. Using that definition of natural wine as a starting point and the commitment to environmentally sound growing methods, respect for the environment itself, the grower as the ‘author’, authenticity and singularity… I believe it’s the future of wine if we want unique wines that represent the terroir that produces them. In short, if we want wines to inspire and excite us.

Adrian: Do you have any one day of the week reserved for ‘special sessions’ as in other vanguard restaurants?

Eva: We don’t set aside a specific day of the week, but we do organize wine tastings, winery presentations and wine pairing dinners. It’s something extra that our customers enjoy and appreciate.  

Adrian: Since the closure of El Bulli, the world of what some people call ‘molecular cooking’ has evolved substantially. Where does Acio situate itself amid all this change, new trends etc?

Iago:  We do what we do, our cooking, the way we like it, the one we believe in. We don’t follow any kind of trend, we simply do what we think is best in any given moment. This means that at times you do traditional recipes that happen to sit comfortably on the menu with the very latest gastronomic techniques.

Adrian: On one occasion, Ferrán Adrià was asked if he ever ate ‘normally’.  What are your favorite ‘everyday’ dishes?

Iago: I love my mother’s cooking, traditional Galician cooking, with its slowly cooked stews: el cocido gallego, with ‘all the splendor of the pig’, los callos… Traditional, home cooked food, made with all the love and affection of our mothers.  

Adrian: Do you ever get customers that simply don’t ‘get’ your cooking, however much you try to explain it to them?

Eva: Normally the people that come to Acio already know something about us and our cooking. They know it’s a safe bet, a sure thing, though a very personal one. They tend to go with the flow and allow us to show them what we can do.

Adrian: Do you see yourselves opening a restaurant outside Galicia or Spain?

Iago: You never know. Right now, it’s ‘poco a poco’, the way we always wanted it to be. Taking short steps, but positive ones.

A level playing field for hybrid winemakers?

If anybody is planning to visit Galicia in the coming months and wants to experience the age-old tradition of drinking red country wine from a white porcelain bowl (CUNCA), don’t forget to order a bottle of ‘TINTO BARRANTES’. The European Union, in its infinite wisdom, has banned the growing of the hybrid grape (HDP) used to make this tannin rich, gum staining wine. Those that refused to destroy their vineyards doggedly continue to make their wines for local and not so local (Madrid) consumption, but are not allowed to label the bottles. The local government (XUNTA DE GALICIA) enforces this absurd decree with fundamentalist zeal. However, in Rheinhessen Germany they’ve been selling what appears to be an HDP wine called REGENT since the 1960s. Are German winemakers above the law then? Interestingly, this same beurocratic battle is being fought in the UK, where many of our now 400+ vineyards have planted the French HDP Seyval Blanc, producing quality white wines from it, even though the ever vigilant zealots in Brussels are hell-bent on stamping it out. To the barricades ladies and gentlemen!!