There’s no way to put this so that it doesn’t seem like I’m rubbing it in, so I’m just going to say it. While y’all were enjoying the last residue of winter over here, the wine gods smiled upon me and gave me a freebie trip to Castilla-La Mancha, in Spain, last week, along with about a dozen other wine importers.
OK, so it was a junket, but I left having learned a lot about winemaking. And heck, if you’re going to be tasting wine, why not do it somewhere beautiful and warm? I’ll be talking about the wines in more detail in future posts, but this week is about the two things that stuck with me as I got on the plane to come home.
The visuals represent the attitude. Yes, it’s that La Mancha, of Don Quixote fame. He’s everywhere in the region. A rendering of his face was etched on practically every wine glass we used for tastings and the regional wine authorities have appropriated him as a symbol of the appellation. But after a few days I got the feeling that winemakers in the region identify with his story as well as his image.
Castilla-La Mancha (or CLM, as we saw on posters all around) produces more wine than any other part of Spain, and from what I hear, more than the entire U.S. wine industry produces as well. But it’s not a region we hear about much, and I think that the whole tilting at windmills thing is a good metaphor for the region’s attempt to fight its way to world-class status.
One of the reasons our trip was scheduled at this time was because it coincided with the opening of the Second Biennial World Wine Summit in Toledo. Listening between the lines of the opening remarks by the President of CLM, María Dolores Cospedal, it’s clear that the idea of organizing and holding the first summit there in CLM wasn’t universally welcomed. But she and Maria Luisa Soriano, CLM’s agricultural minister, pushed ahead and did it. And by all indications, it was successful the first time, and this time too. So at least for the moment there’s an international spotlight on CLM, and the question now is whether the region’s wine can sustain the attention.
Organic wine may be the region’s breakthrough. CLM makes a lot of organic wine. The main reason is the climate — hot, dry, and windy, but with plenty of water available for irrigation. So there’s less need for chemical intervention.
My experience with organic wine up until now has been mostly in a boutique context. A great many organic, biodynamic, and so-called natural wines have a kind of artisanal/mystical air about them. While some of this strikes me as nonsense, I think there’s good reason to have an extra bit of respect for a well-produced organic wine. There’s a lot more hand-work involved in growing the grapes, especially when the weather is less than ideal, so the resulting wines are generally more expensive than you’d find for something similar not labeled organic. Consequently, most organic producers make higher-end wines — not that they can’t produce everyday organic wines, but because the marginal cost of organic production is about the same per bottle no matter what they make. Customers just don’t notice it as much if the wine is already expensive.
But organic wines shouldn’t be limited to the higher end. We tasted a bunch of drinkable, inexpensive, everyday organic wines in CLM. The climate reduces the need for most of the hand work, making lower prices possible. You won’t get down to a $7/bottle price, but $10-$14 retail is doable, even with the costs of importing, transport, etc. This is no small thing. The ability to drink organic wine should be more available, just like eating organic food. If CLM can do that, I think it will be extremely positive for the wine industry worldwide.
Food was a highlight of the trip. Our last tasting session was held at the Museo de Queso Manchego — the Manchego Cheese Museum, in Manzanares, south of Madrid. The Manchego cheese we get here in the U.S. is very good, but most of it is the fully-aged variety. In the museum, we got to taste young Manchego aged for just a short time. It’s creamier than the older Manchego, not as sharp. But because it’s aged for less than 60 days and contains raw sheep’s milk, we can’t get it here. The Manchego authorities (yes, they exist) have sanctioned some younger Manchego made with pasteurized milk for sale, so give it a try if you can find it.
No worries if you can’t, though — the aged Manchego is delicious and a little like Italian Pecorino but with less sharpness and saltiness. It makes a wonderful accompaniment to tomatoes and eggs, which made me think of a recipe I made years ago — tomato clafoutis.
Clafoutis is a catch-all term for a baked dish that can be like quiche filling or like pancakes. Dessert fruit clafoutis are usually cakier, while savory clafoutis tend to be more like custard, which is what this recipe is. Either way, the mixture comes together in minutes. Since it’s not exactly tomato season, I’d roast the tomatoes for about 45 minutes before assembling and baking the dish. Roasting concentrates the flavors and makes even hard winter tomatoes taste better. But if you have great fresh tomatoes on hand, you can salt and drain the tomatoes instead. Both techniques make a delicious clafoutis.
First Vine doesn’t carry wines from Castilla-La Mancha (yet, anyway), so try the clafoutis with one of our Spanish wines from Rueda, Bodega Traslagares Sauvignon Blanc ($13). It’s kind of a cross between the lushness of a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc and the chalkier, more mineral-y ones from France. An inter-planetary wine for everyone!
Serves 8 – 10 as an appetizer
8 ripe, plum tomatoes (about 2 pounds)
Salt and freshly-ground black pepper
2 large eggs
2 large egg yolks
1/3 cup heavy cream or half and half
2 tablespoons flour
3 ounces grated aged Manchego cheese (3/4 cup grated on the small holes of a box grater, or about 1-1/3 cups if you use a fine microplane grater)
1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Lightly oil a 9-inch cake pan or deep pie plate, or spray with vegetable oil spray.
Core and quarter the tomatoes lengthwise. Lay them out cut-side up on a foil-lined baking sheet and sprinkle each with a little salt. Put them in the oven to roast for 30 to 45 minutes. They should have shriveled up some and may be a little bit brown on the edges. Set them aside to cool for a few minutes.
(If your tomatoes are wonderful, don’t roast them, but instead line the baking sheet with paper towels. Salt the tomatoes and then cover with more paper towels and let drain for 45 minutes. This removes some of the water and helps the clafoutis set up properly.)
In a large bowl that gives you plenty of room, whisk the eggs, egg yolks, cream, flour, half the Manchego, and half the thyme, along with 1/2 teaspoon of black pepper for about a minute. You want everything well-combined and slightly thickened.
Arrange the tomatoes in the greased baking dish and carefully pour the egg mixture over. Top with the rest of the cheese and thyme. Bake for 30 minutes, then check to see how it looks — it should be puffed and just starting to get a little brown on top. Bake for about 5 more minutes if it needs it. Let cool, and serve warm or at room temperature.