Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Forever Rioja -- wine, food, design and travel

I just returned from a truly enjoyable dinner with Jose Luis Muguiro, owner of the Marques de Riscal vineyards in Spain, which has the oldest wine bodega in Rioja with a history dating back to 1858. Jose Luis was only in Manila for two nights, as part of a two-week Asian trip; and on his last night we had dinner at L'Opera at the Fort, after which I persuaded him to check out Salon de Ning at the Peninsula.

The dinner itself was very delicious and uncannily, we sat across each other and ordered the very same thing without realizing it: scalloppine with a truffle pasta on the side. For starters, we had octopus salad and shredded crab meat, and Jose Luis raved about the crab. When the main course arrived, he loved the truffle pasta so much that he ordered a second.

Best truffle pasta

"I've traveled everywhere, but this is one of the best truffle pastas I've had," he said. "The balance is perfect. This is even better than truffle pasta I've had in Milan or Rome." He savored another mouthful and then added: "That's the wonderful thing about traveling. You learn and experience so many things. Who would've thought such incredible pasta -- better than Italy -- would be found in Manila?"

This is a pretty important statement from someone who counts Ferran Adria, star chef of El Bulli, judged several years in a row the world's best restaurant, and Juan Mari Arzak of the restaurant Arzak in San Sebastian, as some of his closest friends. "We were the first people to take Ferran Adria abroad," he recalls. "We brought him to London to make a fabulous dinner at the Savoy Hotel and he became famous after that."

The food at L'Opera was certainly good, but I hardly even noticed, actually, as the conversation we had was so interesting -- we talked about the history of his vineyard and his plans for the future, as well as about the luxury hotel he also owns on the property. The Marques de Riscal hotel, a very exclusive boutique hotel under the umbrella of the Luxury Collection, is a truly amazing architectural and design landmark created by Canadian architect Frank Gehry, one of the world's eminent architects. Gehry is the designer behind the Guggenheim Bilbao Museum.

Hotel designed like a woman's skirt

"The design is similar to a woman's skirt," Jose Luis said, with a twinkle in his eye. "It's really spectacular. And when Gehry was creating it, he already told me that the women in the family would hate the design at the outset. He was right. Everyone said: 'To build a modern building on top of the oldest bodega in Rioja is a disaster.' Of course, now, with it's great success, the women all love it; and they say that they've liked it from the start. But I remember otherwise."

The amazing ultra-modern hotel, sitting on top of his winery, which is the oldest in Rioja, is truly a spectacular sight, especially as it's literally next to a centuries-old church. Watch out for more on this hotel in an upcoming issue of Travelife Magazine.

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Jose Luis was visiting Manila for the first time, but he has lots of ties to the Philippines. "I used to play polo in the south of Spain with the Zobels, and I bought my current office in Madrid from the Soriano family," he revealed, when I pressed him for more details of his Philippine connections. "It used to be the office of San Miguel in Madrid. And I was just with Isabel Preysler last month. I see her often in Madrid and also in Sotogrande."

Cathedral of wine

Meanwhile, the Marques de Riscal winery is famous for its fantastic wine cellar and collection. The original bodega was constructed in 1858 and it is still used today. Inside this bodega is a wine cellar lovingly called the "Cathedral," where some of the family's greatest wines are kept. The family collection is made up of bottles from all vintages produced by the cellar since its first bottled vintage in 1862. This is the only wine collection of its kind in the world.

"We're probably the only wine house in the world to have a complete vintage," Jose Luis observed.

Ties with Spain's royal family

Marques de Riscal also has close ties with the Spanish royal family since the 19th century, when King Alfonso XII first tasted their wine at an exposition in Vienna. He was reportedly amazed at how wonderful the wine tasted, and he was even more amazed to be told that the wine he was drinking was from his very own Spain. Since then, Marques de Riscal wines have been a staple drink of the Spanish royal family.

Back to Jose Luis. He was in Manila for a very brief stay to observe the wine market and explore more opportunities for his wines under the Marques de Riscal brand. Apart from being the oldest winery in Rioja, the Marques de Riscal brand is one of the most recognizable Spanish wine names in the world. In the Philippines, Marques de Riscal is sold by Premier Wines, one of the Philippines' most respected wine distributors, with prices ranging from PhP400 to PhP5000.

We began dinner with a very nice white called Rueda 2009, which is Marques de Riscal's top seller globally. It went very well with the seafood appetizers we ordered. For our main course, we drank a Marques de Riscal 150th Anniversary Gran Reserva Rioja 2001, which Robert Parker had awarded 93 points. For this wine, the makers selected the best grapes of the 2001 harvest, composed mainly of tempranillo grapes. It's aged for about 60 months, with a minimum of 24 months in the barrel and 36 months in a bottle, before releasing.

What's next for Jose Luis,
gourmet and global traveler?

A recordbreaking wine auction in Beijing in April 2011 and -- literally closer to home -- a vertical tasting of meat that he is planning together with a friend. Marques de Riscal will be holding a vertical auction of all its vintages from 1860s onwards in the largest Mercedes-Benz showroom in Beijing -- an event that Jose Luis believes will get them into the Guiness Book of World Records as there's never been a wine auction dating this far back and as complete as the one they are planning, before. "It will be an amazing event," he declared. "Only 150 people will be invited. You must come if you can." I quickly checked my Blackberry to see how my April was like. Spring in Beijing certainly sounded good to me.

Vertical tasting of vintage beef

The second event, a vertical tasting of steak, sounds just as exciting. His good friend is planning a trek through the Spanish mountains to buy the beef of vintage cows. Yes, vintage cows from 2001 all the way to 2010. They then plan to grill these vintage steaks with a little salt and do a taste test.

"Maybe we'll wait till you visit Spain next year to do this," he said. "And we can pair these with our wines. A Riscal 2001 to go with the vintage cow 2009, perhaps."

"So you'll only be tasting Spanish cows?" I asked him.

"Of course," he replied, almost indignant at that question. "Spanish cows are the best, and actually the meat of local cows is the most expensive and also the most delicious."

Wine and dancing week

It's certainly been an eventful week of wine and dancing. When we weren't dancing at the Peninsula's Salon de Ning, we were breaking bread with winery owners. Tonight was dinner with Marques de Riscal and tomorrow is lunch with the owners of Staglin. Life can't be much sweeter -- or should we say much tipsier?

Join us in Italy this September 8.
Travelife Italy Night
with Margarita Fores

with Margarita Fores
and the Embassy of Italy & Bacchus Epicerie
September 8 at Whitespace

Please call TRAVELIFE at 8138400/ 8922620
to reserve a limited seat
For reservations and information, please contact:
Bernice or Rachel at TRAVELIFE
813-8400/ 892-2620


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