Sushi with a Spanish beat
Story and photos by Dwight Casimere
Awash in a shower of red light, an excited collection of wine aficionados, enthusiasts and a handful of wine novices gathered in the vaulted ceiling Red Room at the rear of SushiSamba Chicago for a unique wine tasting experience. The ENYE Group, specialty importers and distributors of boutique wines and spirits from Spain hosted a tasting of their newest portfolio of wines accompanied by the daring fusion cuisine of the landmark national chain, which has restaurants in New York, Las Vegas and Miami in addition to its River North locale near the Merchandise Mart.
“This is a chance for us to show off the diversity of our wines,” said winemaker Raul Acha of Spain’s Vintae wine group and the Castello de Maetierra label which he represents. Speaking in his best English with the help of our conversation facilitator, Freda Mooncotch, a Chicago wine specialist and writer, Acha spoke passionately about the wines and regions of his homeland.
“I was born into the wine business,” he said. “So I learned the making of wine from an early age. From a child up. There is only way to make great Spanish wine and that is from the ground up. It starts with the soil and then you must have exceptional grapes.” Spain has its own unique grape varietals, the most famous of which is Tempranillo. Soils, ranging from almost gravel-like rockiness to fine desert sand, produce grapes and wines that have a unique expression. In the hands of an expert winemaker, the blends can support a wide-range of flavor palettes. Served with the imaginative hors d’oeuvres prepared by SushiSamba’s eclectic chefs, the wines cast the shadow of a Flamenco dancer’s fan across the fusion flavors of Asian ‘tapas’, flavored with hints of sizzle and spice.
Castillo de Maetierra’s Libalis wine ($10.76) was paired with steaming hot spears of Tiger Shrimp Tempura. This signature wine made from a special selection of Muscat (90%), Viura (5%) and Malvasia grapes (5%) made for a potent accompaniment to shellfish. “I’m thinking scallops,” said my tasting companion Freda Mooncotch, aka The Wine Wench. “I’d like to have it really cold with scallops drenched in a light lime and butter sauce.” The very thought was mouthwatering. Libalis literally explodes in the mouth with an elegant bouquet. Silky smooth with a balance of fruit and acidity, the wine had a long, pleasant aftertaste.
My host, ENYE Group Managing Partner Manuel Pulido urged me to try the reds next, starting with Hacienda Lopez de Haro Crianza (a surprising value at $6.33) from the famed Rioja region. A classic Tempranillo blend of red Granacha and Graciano grapes that is aged more than 3 years in new French oak and in the bottle, it is a prime example of Old Vineyards grapes selected from different areas in La Rioja. The wine was served with two stunning examples of SushSamba’s signature brand of Asian/Latin fusion; calamari tentacles drenched in a spicy marinade of aranche peppers and soy sauce and a chef’s masterstroke, barbeque short ribs of beef served Shu Mai style, encased a soft rice-flour bun that was absolutely fantastic
I next ventured into a trio of numbered wines from the Winery Arts group, 3 square, 6 and nine. The wines represent various blendings of Tempranillo; Merlot and Cabernet Franc grapes aged 16 months in new French oak barrels. These are flashy wines that showcase the skill of the winemaker. They are all made from low-yield vineyards and are dramatic expressions of the land stretching from the high foothills of the Moncayo mountain range in Aragon up to the warmer lands crossed by the river Queiles, in the autonomous region of Navarre. This is some of the most beautiful countryside in all of Europe and the wines it produces are full-bodied and highly structured. These are great wines with food but I am a firm believer that wines this rich in character are a meal unto themselves and are best savored in solitary or “soledad” as my friend Freda would say.