Just before vendimia 2006, I had the luxurious fortune to spend time with a great neophyte winemaker from the Rioja Alta, Miguel Merino. Solera was the host restaurant, and the guest list was put together by my feisty colleague from Frontier Imports, Mickey Vail.
The occasion was festive, what with everyone jockeying for position next to such a humble, successful winemaker. With Pedro Romero Aurora Manzanilla in hand, we chatted about wine and New York City and Spanish gastronomy. Mr. Merino looked refined, but with his ear to the ground, was immensely gracious and soft-spoken. I learned that he took over the winery on a dream and a whim, perhaps with some help from being an attorney for so many years prior. His first vintage was the glorious 1994, and he freely admits that even he could not screw that up.
Nervous energy transformed into delirious chatter, as talking with Miguel Merrino the man brought out more appreciation for the wines themselves. Mr. Merinoâ€™s opening words were aided by a few glasses of that delightful manzanilla, as he commented about his boys back home and the upcoming harvest, more importantly about how he felt about wine and the people who love it.
The 1998 Reserva was paired with a piquillo pepper stuffed with morcilla and lentils, a tapa that was fantastically crafted and a joy with the wine. Mr. Merino said that the â€™98 was a bit feminine. We all agreed, partly in expectation of it to reach full maturity, and partly because we were so happy. Then came the 2000 Reserva, a fabulous poached egg atop a potato and chorizo stew, a hearty manâ€™s appreciation for all things good in Spain. The 2000 needed more time, prompting another few words from Mr. Merino, thus far emanating a tremendous warmth in his explanation of the vintage.
Before we could make further comparisons, a plate of sea bass with pimiento chorizero was matched by the superlative 1995 Reserva, an introduction into one of the finest wines of Spain if there ever was one. Light-bodied, but full flavored, well integrated tannins and complex fruit, the 1995 was a stunner. Things were really humming now.
Exquisite lamb chops sided by potatoes Riojas and Roncal crisp proved to be an ideal pairing to the imperial 1994 reserva, a wine that had everyone swooning. A collective but unspoken â€œWow!â€ was felt throughout the room, and everyone looked around as if searching for witnesses. The 2001 was also served as Mr. Merino felt the two vintages had tremendous similarity. Assorted Spanish cheeses and cookies were then offered with a barrel sample of the 2004 vintage. At this point I was looking for any leftover 2004 to polish off.
Mr. Merino remained affable and generous. I felt like I had a new friend in la Rioja, and anxiously accepted an invitation to visit in the future. Many good memories linger from that evening, and I scrambled home to see if I was smart enough to put away any of the â€™94 or 95â€™ bottles. Chef Danilo Paulino put on a superb show, and the service and course of events were masterfully orchestrated by Maitre dâ€™ Ron Miller. Solera is an excellent choice for fine Spanish dining, and I will be looking forward to reviewing it in the future.