Venta Moncalvillo is one of those secret addresses everyone should know about. It’s located in a very small place, Daroca de Rioja, a 48-inhabitant village just 12 miles (or, a 15-minute taxi ride) from Logroño, La Rioja’s capital city. A venta is a popular roadside restaurant/hostel used to provide services to travelers; it’s an old word you can find if you read books like Don Quixote. They tend to be old rustic buildings that offer local food. And Venta Moncalvillo fits the description perfectly.
The restaurant now has it's own vegetable garden, has renovated the rooms to give them more light, and it has made a real effort to fill their cellar with some of the best wines in the world, with a special focus on old vintages of traditional Rioja. Eighty percent of their ingredients are sourced within a 30-mile radius of the restaurant. Since 2010, Venta Moncalvillo has been awarded one Michelin star, and one of the haute cuisine addresses in Rioja, with what is possibly the best restaurant wine cellar in the region.
Brothers Ignacio and Carlos Echapresto are the chef and maître-sommelier respectively, and are not newcomers at all. The 20 year veterans have collected a number of awards throughout the years, both for their food and their wine service—Carlos received the 2016 National Gastronomy Award for best sommelier. But showing their focus on wine, they have recently hired another sommelier, David Bosch, an old-timer of the wine trade in Spain who is making a comeback at Moncalvillo.
Seasonal menus are offered featuring local ingredients including vegetables, mushrooms, meat and game, without forgetting about fish and seafood. My recommendation for good restaurants with knowledgeable sommeliers and good wine cellars is to let them decide and give you the food and wine they want to serve.
Here, the ride typically starts in the wine cellar, where they serve simple tasty amuse-bouches with the first bottle of wine. There you have the opportunity to discuss what wines you are going to drink with your food, surrounded by very tempting bottles including rare vintages from Viña Tondonia, Castillo de Ygay or CVNE. I think having these small bites in the wine cellar is such a good idea—I wonder why more restaurants don’t do it?
Talking to Carlos Echapresto you realize his vast knowledge and passion for traditional Rioja wines, yet he explains everything with simple words everyone can understand and appreciate. He’s been researching a lot of different subjects related to his region’s wine while, of course, unearthing old vintages from cellars throughout the country to fill his own cellar. He’s also writing a book on Rioja wines.
I was with people from Rioja, so the wines we had were mostly wines from other regions; as with many wine-savvy restaurants, they like to offer foreign wines to locals, and local wines to foreigners. They surprised us with a very fresh and precise Alsatian Riesling, the 2015 Riesling Bildstocklé from Gérard Schueller, one of the popes of natural wines. With its fresh acidity, it cleansed our palates, getting us ready for the next bite, exactly what an aperitif wine should do. It surprised me how focused, clean and precise it was.
I had recently returned from a trip to the Jura, and we had been discussing some of the wines from Jean-François Ganevat. And it happened they did have a few bottles on display in their cellar. I couldn’t help but notice a vintage of my favorite Les Vignes de Mon Père, a wine that always surprises and sparks lively discussions, so earmarked it went. The rest was up to them…
They decided to continue with another white from Alsace, again from Schueller, a 2015 Pinot Gris, which had more body and could take the last of the amuse-bouches and dishes like the squid with potatoes and borage that appeared when we moved to the dining room. This first dish showcased Moncalvillo’s cooking—fresh, clean, precise dishes with striking flavors, balanced, with three or four ingredients, not too complicated and based on exceptional fresh produce.
Artichokes are one of those wine-challenging ingredients, and so is the texture of egg yolk, which made the following dish—a combination of artichokes with "cow tongue" mushrooms and egg yolk—quite a test for the skills of the sommeliers. Most people will tell you Amontillado Sherry is the way to go with artichokes, and it’s true, but it also depends on the way they are cooked.
As we had selected a 2006 from Ganevat for later, Echapresto decided to uncork another 2006 from Ganevat in Jura, in this case a 2006 Savagnin Cuvée Prestige aged under flor. It had the pungency of a Vin Jaune, with those curried, mushroomy aromas and flavors, and the piercing acidity and concentration from years under a veil of yeast. It's power surprised me, and I was amazed to read on the back label that the wine had aged nine years sous voile! It was even longer than required to qualify as Vin Jaune, the yellow wines from Jura produced with Savagnin grapes that need to be aged under a veil of flor yeasts in non-topped-up barrels at least until the seventh year after the harvest.
Other bottlings of this Cuvée I’ve had before had been aged under the yeasts for a lot shorter, usually 48 months, so I wonder if this pungent 2006, which had enough oomph to take the artichokes and a lot more, could have been a second bottling. Which, coming from someone like Jean-François Ganevat, wouldn’t surprise me.
The way to go for mushroom names is to resource to the Latin, scientific name, as the popular names hardly ever translate. So the "cow’s tongue" mushrooms are hydnum repandum, a humble mushroom that combines nicely with other ingredients, in this case the artichoke and the egg yolk cooked at low temperature that added a mellow texture. As with many dishes, you have to break the yolk and mix all the ingredients before eating it. (Which is always kind of a shame given the beautiful presentation.)
Migas means literally "crumbs" in Spanish, and it’s also the name of a popular, humble dish, eaten by shepherds in the past. They are now part of popular gastronomy, prepared with bits of toasted bread, usually hard from the day before. It’s a dish designed to make use of leftover bread, and whatever meat or vegetables people could get their hands on. The version currently served at Moncalvillo—some ingredients might change with the season—is with mushrooms and chestnuts, an autumn preparation presented in a trompe-l'oeil way that looks like you’re literally eating forest floor, leaves, mushrooms, earth and all, with intense, clean flavors, yet not heavy at all.
Carlos Echapresto likes to surprise you by pouring wines you have never heard of. This time it was with a non-vintage rosé from Rioja. But it was not your average Rosé—it was a bottle which must have been produced in the 1930s, a Rioja Grand Rosado from an obscure winery that no longer exists, Bodegas Vasco-Riojanas. To add to the mystery, the clear bottle with blue-green tints (a characteristic of the old bottles) had a back label from a Colombian importer! So the wine had crossed the Atlantic twice, or maybe it was never paid for and never shipped. The appellation seal was also quite unusual.
Furthermore, it also said Armentia & Madrazo on the label, a name that was linked with the origins of Paternina and later a trademark of Bodegas Carlos Serres from Haro. It was a most unusual Rosé, unlike other old vintages from Marqués de Murrieta or López de Heredia, which tend to age more in the direction of a white and take on lots of truffle, mushroom and earthy aromas. There was a very unusual balsamic freshness here, closer to a white than a red. I don’t think I’ve ever had a wine like that before.
Someone took a bit of that wine and had it analyzed the day after. (People in the trade can sometimes analyze a wine on the spot!) It was so unusual and surprising we thought it would be interesting to look at the parameters of a wine that nowadays most people consider needs to be drunk before the next harvest arrives, that at 80-something years of age was pungent and vibrant, and was able to stand up to powerful and flavorful food like migas or cocochas. Just for the record, it was only 10.78% alcohol with a pH of 3.2 and 6.3 grams of acidity, with seven milligrams of free sulphur and 83 milligrams of total sulphur, extremely healthy parameters.
Cocochas—often written with the Basque spelling kokotxas—is a gelatinous, intense-tasting muscle found under the chin of every fish, often consumed from hake (and sometimes cod), and in case you have not guessed it yet, was the next fare. They have a good affinity with the smoky aromas of a fire from vine cuttings, which is the way they are prepared here. The secret is that they have to be ultra-fresh and the cooking time short to preserve their flavor and texture. It’s a dish based on the produce, presented on its own; there’s no need to add anything.
The following dish, the first meat course, was so rich and sticky your lips almost got stuck. It was a terrine of pig’s trotters in a vegetable and truffle sauce. With something so filling and powerful, you need to serve a small portion, because there’s nothing worse than getting too much of a foodstuff: it’s better to get a bit too little and be left wanting some more: that way it often feels more delicious.
It was time to uncork a red, and we got an unexpected 1996 Château Belair, the Saint Emilión Grand Cru Classé produced by Pascal Delbeck. It was a very elegant and underrated Bordeaux with a Burgundian spirit, clean, transparent, subtle, developed, earthy, with lively acidity that cleansed your palate from the richness of the trotters.
It’s not easy to get an elegant dish of game. You know, we always want sweet wines to not feel too sweet or tannic reds to not feel too tannic. We don’t want the obvious, we want it in a subtle way. That’s what many mind-boggling wines and foods have in common: they go beyond the obvious. It’s easy for a young vintage Port to be a blockbuster, or for a sweet wine to be super sweet, but can they feel elegant and fresh?
When it comes to game and deer, it’s easy to get a powerful dish. But how often do you get something full of developed, complex flavors that melt in your mouth? Well, that’s what the deer with cocoa, mushrooms and chestnuts felt like, one of the best game dishes I’ve had in a very long time.
The flavors and texture of the Belair perfectly complemented those of the deer, one of those marriages made in heaven where both the wine and the dish are intense and pungent, yet they respected each other and both kept their character. I’m sure if the bottle had been a magnum it would have been drunk without much effort. Yes, I’m talking about drinkability… and eatability! Even the few that were already full and didn’t want this last meat dish ended up eating it, it was that delicious.
I don’t know if it was a coincidence—it usually isn’t—but we had somehow started discussing a very unique sweet ice cider produced in Astigarraga by Iñaki Otegi, an oenologist from Basque Country. Some of the people sitting around the table had never had it, and were curious about it. Of course, it’s nothing like any other cider I can think of, it has no bubbles, has around 11% alcohol, is sweet and what's currently selling are the last bottles of the 2010 Malus Mama. To make a long story short, it’s like a great sweet wine, but technically it’s not a wine, as it’s produced with apples rather than grapes. The juice is concentrated by freezing, and everything gets concentrated, not only sugars, but also all the rest, especially acidity. The resulting product, which is aged in oak barrels for one to one and a half years and then kept in bottle for some five years until it’s sold, comes through as a very fresh sweet wine.
It’s a unique and surprising product, difficult to explain, but which doesn’t fail to surprise everyone who tries it. The discussion triggered the need to match it with some dessert. I don’t think the conversation was spontaneous, as the Echapresto brothers had an apple dessert lined up for us, which I think could be a perfect match for Malus Mama. It was a baked apple in textures, different preparations of apples and a good match for the wine, with some parts working better than others, depending on temperature or texture. I still think the perfect match for it is a simple tarte tatin.
As we were discussing Otegi’s wines, someone mentioned he also bottles some Txakoli, the classical wine from the Basque Country. His often has a twist (and no appellation of origin): it can be sparkling and Rosé, or in the case of the 2012 Kaldatzfiñ we drank, still but sweet. For me it’s hard to follow the acidity of Malus Mama, and perhaps it would have been better to have the Txakoli before the sweet cider. But I think this time the bottle was really not planned, and was uncorked simply because enquiring minds wanted to know.
The second and last dessert was one of those compositions where you are not really sure what’s edible and what not: some textures on the actual dish looked like honeycomb but were made of pottery, while part of the honey dipper was an edible mousse made with nuts. It was a composition they called honey, cheese and nuts, wonderful ingredients to close a very satisfying meal.
Because of the food, because of the wines and the way they match them with their cooking, I think all wine lovers visiting Rioja should pay a visit to Venta Moncalvillo. You deserve it and they deserve you!