We are waiting to cross the highway, leaving the entrance of Vega-Sicilia. Through the windshield, across the road, the vines that grow the estate’s most famous wine, Unico, rise up the hill facing us. Closer to the top, the forest begins, where the hill reaches toward the high plain that lies to the south, our ultimate destination for lunch, if the light would ever change.
Down the road to the right is Valladolid, a city on the Duero River where, in one of the many castles of Castilla, 550 years ago, Ferdinand II of Aragon married Isabella I, the princess whose family controlled this northern center of Iberia. There would have been no intersection here at the time, no Vega-Sicilia until 400 years later. The road would have been a cañada real, wide enough for driving a vast flock of slow-moving sheep instead of this endless stream of speeding lorries.
At that moment, centuries ago, this corner of Castilla was about to become the capital of a country encompassing most of the Iberian Peninsula, uniting disparate, long-warring kingdoms under the new flag of España. It would become the seat of power from which proclamations drove the Moors and the Jews out of the new Catholic country—though Catholics would keep the sheep on vast pasturelands that the Moors had established in Isabella’s realm. It was the local breeds that would bring fame to the asadors of Castilla as lechazo—slow-roasted milk-fed baby lamb. Valladolid would, for a time, become the center of the Western World, as Columbus left town with a warrant to explore the sea routes to the west. And he would die here, an Italian, later rumored to be a Jew, in Valladolid, after setting in motion the Spanish conquest of the Americas, without which I would not be here, at this light, waiting to cross the highway.
Centuries after the country’s imperial muscles began to go slack, there was a different efflorescence of power and wealth, this time due to wine. It happened, mostly, across the mountains to the east, along the Ebro rather than here on the banks of the Duero. It was in Haro, where the trains began shipping wine to a Europe whose vineyards had been ravaged to their roots by an American louse called phylloxera. While the Riojanas raced to fulfill orders from abroad, their vines not yet damaged, Don Eloy Lecanda y Chaves, a Castillano who had trained in Bordeaux, returned home with cuttings from France to plant here, in the town of Valbuena de Duero, establishing them on the north-facing hillside directly across the road, where, looking to the right, hidden behind the trees, are the closest relatives of those original vines: the Hontañon block, now 120 years old. The block was planted with a range of 23 varieties—as there was, at the time, a dispensation from the king, allowing Vega-Sicilia to import exotic vines.
Enrique Macías, who heads up viticulture for the group now known as Tempos Vega-Sicilia, is in the back seat of the SUV. He knows these particular vines as intimately as a doctor knows a longtime patient, and is working with IMIDRA (Instituto Madrileño de Investigación y Desarrollo Rural Agrario y Alimentario) to assess their place in an uncertain viticultural future, exploring their diverse genetic patrimony to find a path through a changing climate. He hopes, after propagating and planting a selection of the most promising vines, to find, perhaps, a microvinification that is both delicious and restrained enough in its ripeness to clearly show the full extent of the place where it grows.
Macías has also explored ways to accommodate the vines to soils that can be violently high in their pH, by fermenting a compost of sheep and goat manure, then mixing in leonardita—ancient buried plant material that’s transitioning from peat to brown coal, which, when combined with the compost and spread on the vineyards, helps to lower the pH around the vine roots, providing access to minerals, particularly iron, that would otherwise be blocked.
His work allowed Gonzalo Iturriaga, who heads up wine-making for the group, to bottle an astonishing Valbuena 5 in the ripe 2015 vintage, his first at the estate. Pablo Alvarez, the CEO of Vega-Sicilia, has the wine in the car for us to drink with lechazo at lunch.
“We were going to take you to my favorite place, near Valladolid,” Alvarez explains, as the light changes and we head in the opposite direction, toward the east, then south along the high plateau. “But you already ate there yesterday.” That would be El Yugo de Castilla, in Boecillo, which Mariano García, from Bodegas Aalto, chose as his favorite spot for lechazo.
García was director of winemaking at Vega-Sicilia for three decades, until 1998, when he left to start new projects. He was a founding partner in Aalto a year later. “I come here because of Albito,” García told me, introducing the chef. “He goes out to find the best lamb; if he can’t find it, he doesn’t bring it. And he has a clean, lean way of roasting lamb—it doesn’t repeat after you finish.” García stood, smiling, as the chef brought the round terra-cotta platters of lechazo to the table, and remained standing to carve and serve the lamb. “I don’t usually do this,” he said, “but I know what each of you like.” He spoiled his international guest first, assuring la tajada del pastore, the meat on the shoulder blade, the leanest part, with the least amount of fat, was the best part.
However meltingly sweet that lamb may have been, delicately spiced and contrasted by a platter of maruja, a cress-like herb that grows in slow currents of streams and provides its own refreshingly crisp green spice, that was yesterday’s lechazo. Now, we are headed to Campaspero, a small town with young vineyards scattered on either side of our approach (an altitude until recently too high and too cold for vines). At the center of town, Mannix, the lechazo mecca of Campaspero, makes no pretense of looking like an old-fashioned asador. Instead, it’s modern in a 1980s sense. As we walk in, one of my companions whispers to me, “The chef may be crazy, but he is very good.”
Marco Antonio García, dressed in a blood-red chef’s coat, turns out to be a bundle of energy and ego manifest, completely, in his own personal zen of lechazo. It would be hard to imagine a more passionate advocate of all things baby lamb.
“Do you want to see the oven?” Iturriaga asks as the chef hovers at the table. And so, we follow the fifth-generation owner into the kitchen, where he gives a lesson in the hours-long process of roasting lamb.
He begins with the elements: The eye-height domed oven made of clay and straw; the evergreen oak, Quercus ilex, for building a fire in the center of the oven, until, when it is starting to turn to coals and ash, he moves them to the right side to make space on the left for the lamb.
He pulls out one of our cazuelas from the oven and touches the inside of the leg. “After two hours, the meat is completely cooked,” he says. So, now he turns it, salts it, and kicks over the fire, needing a flame to crisp the skin.
While it’s finishing, he pulls another cazuela from the oven, filled with parts from the lamb that are not served to the guests: the underside, or inside of nose-to-tail butchery—from the trachea to the pancreas to a part he decides not to translate—all used to cure and prepare the barro (terra cotta). “It starts like this,” chef Marco Antonio says, reaching under the counter to find a raw, uncured terra-cotta plate, then finds another, explaining, “after a month of priming it every day, it looks like this.” He explains that the fat of the lamb has filled all the pores of the terra cotta. Then he places a third cazuela next to the first two, darker and richer in its patina, the chef estimating that it is 30 years old. “They say the barro is alive,” he tells me as he carefully stores them away.
Finally, he goes to the walk-in to pick out a baby lamb. He carries the pale, naked beast in his arms, grinning as he holds the animal in a frozen leap, its front legs and back legs reaching for either end of the room, its mouth open just enough to hold the PGI tag that authenticates it as one of the three local breeds of lamb, raised only on its mother’s milk, and slaughtered when no more than 26 pounds within 35 days of its birth. The chef explains that it’s a churra lamb, a breed native to Castilla y León.
Back at our table, the sommelier is opening the 2015 Valbuena 5 and Unico from 2010 and 1996, all the while ribbing Pablo Alvarez, hoping he might give her a larger allocation of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti. (Vega-Sicilia has an exclusive import arrangement with DRC, as well as Château Pétrus).
“Do you eat sweatbreads?” Iturriaga asks, passing a cazuela brimming with mollejitas and golden garlic scapes. Then the chef carries out a cazuela with roasted kidneys, which Iturriaga holds up for his guest, raising his eyebrows. “This is the only place I eat kidneys,” he assures me. And it is soon deliciously clear why that might be.
Alvarez, a quiet Basque from Bilboa, is bemused by the show. “When I was growing up, we ate lechazo only at Christmas,” he says. “Now, people eat it any day.” He gestures toward the kitchen door where Marco Antonio is emerging with a stainless-steel cart and two cazuelas of lechazo. “It’s like dim-sum service,” Alvarez says. Then he reaches under the table to his bag, and pulls out a bottle of 2014 DRC La Tâche to hand to the sommelier. And though I initially wonder why Alvarez would pour this wine in the company of his own 1996 Unico, it’s soon clear that no matter the ethereal beauty and underlying strength of La Tâche, the mysterious powers of Unico reign here in the land of lechazo. There is something mystical in the way the lechazo melts into a memory of texture and a whisper of gamey flavor, only to be resurrected by the dark energy of the Unico, the two lasting together in some ancient form of marriage.
That evening, in the twilight of Gumiel del Mercado, a hilltown to the northeast, Goyo García Viadero meets us at the door of his cellars. The building had been in ruins when García Viadero bought it, the roof and several walls caved in, the elm beam that spanned the room deteriorated. He has since rebuilt the walls and roof to look like a clean version of what they may once, originally, have been, their limestone rock in random shapes and sizes, the beam restored to lift the stone press that rests beneath a giant wooden screw. But this is just an anteroom, the public space that leads from his vineyards, in the northern hills of Ribera del Duero, into the cellars below.
He is in no rush to head down the cellar stairs, a narrow passage walled in the same random limestone blocks, with stone stairs and a peaked stone arch giving the stairway a sense of entering an empty niche in the wall of a church, a Catholic rabbit hole both ancient and a little psychotropically twisted as the stairs increase in depth with each step and the stone arch turns in a gentle meander as it progresses further and further into the earth.
The narrow tunnels of the caves are lined with barrels, the walls breathing moisture through their sandy limestone grit. The 20th century bypassed these cellars, as, it seems, the 21st may as well. They are now home to the fruit of ancient vines, parcels García Viadero acquired when he returned to Ribera del Duero after 14 years in La Mancha. He’s known here as Goyo, to distinguish his wines from his family’s at their modern Bodegas Valduero, where his sister Yolanda oversees 495 acres of bush vines planted in the late 1980s, around the time he decamped.
Goyo took a different path, fascinated from a young age by the traditional wines of the region. He still has bottles he made when he was 21 years old, in 1986, from old vines using no added sulfur. When he returned in 2003, it was the peak of the trend toward new oak and hyperextraction, powerful wines built to compete in the international market. “I didn’t like the wine people were making in Ribera,” he explains. “I thought we must return to the past.”
He set out to grow his vines in the tradition of the region, often as field blends of tempranillo with albillo, a white grape, the varieties cofermented without any additions, aging them for three years in old French oak barrels in his deep, limestone caves.
“We don’t use any sulfites, so three years in barrel can be very difficult,” he says as he thieves tastes for his wife and fellow winemaker, Diana Semova Geogieva, as well as for longtime W&S contributor Patricio Tapia, who is here with me in Ribera del Duero.
Though I had cajoled Goyo to take us to his favorite spot for lechazo, he insisted on preparing it at his own cellars. Back upstairs, while he tends the fire in a massive stone hearth, he cops to the fact that, in La Mancha, he had been in charge of a flock of 2,500 sheep. So, he knows, intimately, how it was possible to serve baby lamb all year round.
“Normally, there were two moments in the year when you could eat lechazo—in summer and in winter. The female sheep were interested in mating in spring and autumn.” On market days, people in Burgos would come to town for their supplies, then stop for a meal, and that would be lechazo. “Now, there are many opportunities to eat lechazo,” Goyo shrugs, explaining how ranchers create the constant supply. “The males are always horny,” he says, going on to detail how the ranchers trick the females into being interested in a mate.
Goyo’s vineyards are in the highlands of Burgos, which is also where he got this particular lechazo, from a friend who tends sheep in the mountains. The grazing is considered better there than in the lowlands by the river, as the native herbs—rosemary, thyme and rockrose—create more flavorful milk from the mothers feeding their lambs.
While we drink his clarete (in this case, a saignée wine), Goyo arranges the chuletas, with their tiny pockets of rib meat, on a large grilling cage, the kind that you might use to roast a whole fish over coals, only much bigger. He lays it on the coals and, a few minutes later, he’s waving it around in the air. “The Roa people are so good with chuletas,” he says of the residents in this constellation of hilltowns, “and they do this. But I don’t know why. For the chuletas, when the fat changes from white to golden, they say they are done.”
On a late winter night, in an ancient press room, this is lechazo and Burgos red as it might have tasted before Castilla became the center of Spain and the center of an empire. The layering of albillo and tempranillo, of mountain herbs and coals sputtering with baby-lamb fat, the gracious welcome of a meal in Spain, where the simplest of ingredients, tended with impeccable care, give flavors and satisfaction that have sustained the local people here through hellish winters, scorching summers and centuries of endless wars. The fruit of ancient vines and the tender meat of baby lamb, lechazo, siempre.
This story appears in the print issue
of June 2020.
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