Roman pot lamb meets Rioja

Assessing a wine en masse at a tasting is all well and good, but to really get to know a bottle, you’ve got to take it home and show it a good time. So this weekend, in preparation for The Perfect Cellar’s new wine list, I’ve been ‘road testing’ some lovely Riojas that are arriving imminently. And what better way to put a bottle of Rioja at ease than with a slow cooked leg of lamb.

The wines

The Perfect Cellar have got three wines coming from Hacienda Grimón, a small family-run bodega located in the north of La Rioja, 15 kilometres from Logroño. Based in Ventas Blancas, a sleepy village nestled in the Valle de Jubera at the foot of Monte Grimón, the bodega is run by the Oliváns family and is fairly unique. Not only do the Oliváns own and tend all their own vines (quite a rarity in Rioja), but they are proper ‘old-school’ organic viticulturists (i.e. they’ve been doing it for years because they actually believe in it, and not just because it’s a marketing angle). Hand harvesting, no herbicides or pesticides, good-old tried-and-tested sheep manure to keep the top soil active …they are one of those wineries you wish all the others could be like.

The three Grimón wines are the Rioja Tempranillo 2010, an unoaked, un-aged modern tempranillo with bags of up-front fruit characteristics; the Rioja Crianza 2008, a more rounded number ripe with sun-baked fruit and vanillary warmth; and the Rioja Reserva 2005, a lovely classic reserva with a sumptuous, elegant softness and well-judged oak. Across all three wines, the quality of the winemaking and the dedication of the winemakers to express their particular parcels of land is evident. These are not identikit Riojas, there is a finesse and an effortless Spanish authenticity that really sets them apart from the pack.

The food

Since I first tasted these wines, I’ve had in mind pairing them with lamb so soft, it would make a good kleftiko blush. They are just that kind of Rioja. And it just so happened that my getting hold of these bottles coincided with a trip to Stourhead farm shop, purveyors of some of the finest meat in all Wiltshire/Somerset. One look at this leg of lamb, and I knew exactly what to do…

A textbook half-leg of lamb from Stourhead farmshop in Wiltshire. I'll never buy meat from a supermarket again.

To help it on its way… a whole head of garlic, mashed with rosemary and massaged all over the meat. Onion, carrot and celery to line the Roman pot; rosemary, thyme and bay to keep the lamb company, plus a splash of leftover Côtes-du-Rhône for good measure.

3 hours later… The beauty of a Roman pot is that it browns the meat nicely, and yet no moisture escapes. This lamb fell apart as soon as the fork touched it, and the texture was beautifully, meltingly soft. I thought about passing the 'sauce', but it didn't feel very in keeping with the spirit of Spanish rusticity (besides, the aromas were driving me crazy by this point), so I didn't ponce about. We just got stuck in.

The results

Ok, I hate to be too annoying here, but the lamb was SUBLIME. The garlic had seeped through and the rosemary and thyme had permeated well. It was a very lean leg of lamb, but the natural flavour of the meat was really sweet and full, a marked contrast to some über-bland supermarket lamb you get these days. We accompanied the lamb with the wines, obviously, starting with the pure Tempranillo. In reality, however, I knew exactly which one would best match, and I wasn’t wrong. Slow cooked lamb like this, steeped in garlic and herbs, is a natural partner for the smooth, oaky sumptuousness of Reserva Rioja, and the old-fashoned smoky elegance of Hacienda Grimón’s Rioja Reserva 2005 was the undefeated champion.

The pure Tempranillo paired well, with its well-defined fruit and good acids cutting through the meat, but the lack of oak was all too evident against the lamb. It would probably fair better with some thinly sliced ibérico de bellota ham or other good charcuterie. The Crianza, on the other hand, was fantastic, but in relation to the Reserva, felt a little too ‘punchy’. It could easily handle some more robust flavours, perhaps if I’d incorporated anchovies and peppers into the Roman pot it might have been better suited. I’d imagine a ratatouille-style lamb dish, with smoky aubergine flavours and earthy paprika would be a fantastic match, and I’m already planning that event in the back of my mind.

All in all though, this was a very pleasant experiment, one that drew the best out of three thoroughly excellent wines, and proved a very indulgent and satisfying way to spend a Sunday. All in the name of research, you understand…


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