Restaurante José Maria sits on the Plaza Mayor in the town of Segovia in Spain. Segovia is a spectacularly beautiful city about 50 km North of Madrid. In 1985 it was declared a World Heritage Site. We ended up in Segovia as the first stop on the Fine Vintage Tour of Ribera del Duero and Rioja. And what a first stop it was! We kidded our tour guides that they had peaked early, that they could not possibly keep up this quality of food and wine over the week in front of us.
The restaurant is the creation of José Maria Ruiz Benito, the owner and head chef since opening its doors in 1982. The restaurant itself was packed when we arrived. Apparently that is always the case at José Maria, such is the reputation and the popularity of the restaurant. Our group was led to their beautiful private dining room adjacent to the restaurant where things were a little less boisterous. There we were treated to some of the most delicious food and wine that Spain has to offer. We began with a pork salad with apple sauce vinaigrette, followed by grilled asparagus with eggs and potatoes. Each dish was spectacular in its simplicity: the main ingredients were able to shine through without too much decoration and the intensity of the flavours was something else.
We then moved on to the main event, what José Maria is known for, the cochinillo, or roast suckling pig. Cochinillo is THE signature dish of Segovia. Segovia does no dish better than its cochinillo and no place does cochinillo better than Segovia. To many, José Maria does the best cochinillo in Segovia. The 36 day old pig is roasted in the wood burning oven for 3 hours before serving. Its flavours are so delicious and so intense that it is prepared with just salt and olive oil, sometimes a small amount of fresh garlic may be added. It is either served alone or perhaps with a simple green salad. The pig comes out whole on a clay pan, cooked to tender perfection. In fact, it is so tender, that the traditional way to carve the cochinillo is to use the side of a plate! What arrives on your plate is pure deliciousness–intense, pure pork flavour with a skin that is incredibly crispy and light. The slow cooking in the asado renders all of the fat away so that you are left with a remarkably tender meat that contrasts with the crispy skin. It is amazing how a wood-fired oven can create a dish that comes out so tender and so juicy, it was if it were braised, not roasted. The combination of textures and the pureness of the flavours explains the constant line up to get into this restaurant. We finished with an amazing dessert of Grappa, burnt lavender, orange peel ice cream and a chocolate churro. A truly amazing meal!
Our guides from Fine Vintage had their work cut out for them when choosing wines that were up to the quality of the food. But they managed to pull that off with considerable skill. We began with a 2007 Vega Sicilia Unico. Vega Sicilia is Spain’s most storied winery and up there with its most expensive. It is also extremely rare and allocations are minimal. We were tremendously lucky to have any at our table, let alone multiple bottles. Vega Sicilia truly is Spain’s First Growth. The estate has 1,000 acres of which roughly 250 are under vine and is located near the city of Valladollid in the Ribera del Duero Denominacion de Origen or D.O., the Spanish term for viticultural region. It was founded in 1863 by Don Eloy Lacanda y Chaves who brought over cuttings from Bordeaux of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Malbec. He planted Tinto Fino, the local clone of Tempranillo alongside them. The winery’s reputation was sealed when the 1917 and 1918 vintages won awards at the 1929 World’s Fair. Rigorous selection and meticulous handling have cemented the wines quality and make it one of the most collected and one of the most age-worthy wines in the world. The estate was acquired in 1982 by the Alvarez family who have paid great respect to the traditions of the past while blending in some of the more recent winemaking techniques.
The 2007 Unico (which means unique) had just been released, some 9 years after the vintage. Typical for Unico is to spend 6-7 years in a mixture US and French oak and then a further 3-4 years in bottle before being released. The result is a sublime wine. Garnet in colour with just a slight fade at the rim. Black cherry, exotic spices and hints of minerals are delivered with great finesse. The wine shows great balance and one is tempted to call it elegant. While that would certainly not be incorrect, it tends as a descriptor to understate the power this wine possesses. The body is medium to full with medium+ tannins and medium acidity and they balance perfectly against the slightly ripe fruit profile which results in a velvety mouthfeel with great persistence. Already nuanced, it will only get more complex over the next 2 decades. Excellent/Extraordinary
We tasted two wines from the Ossian winery in the Rueda region of Northern Spain which sits between Ribera del Duero and the Portuguese border. The Quintaluna wine is 100% Verdejo made from 30 – 40-year-old vines. Medium gold colour this wine shows great freshness with its grapefruit, citrus and lemon oil character. Medium body and medium acid with a nice melon flavour that adds good balance to the citrus notes. Very Good/Excellent
100% Verdejo and aged for nine months in oak, this wine is the big brother to Quintaluna. Richer than its un-oaked sibling this is a more textured wine that exhibits a riper stone fruit character with hints of tropical fruit as well. For us we think the Verdejo grape generally works better when made in a fresher style and that the barrel does not add much to the wine. A lovely wine, but we would probably take the variant point of view and prefer the Quintaluna. Very Good+
This winery was founded in 1987 by José Maria Ruiz Benito and his partners to express their vision of Ribera del Duero and the wines it can produce. Made from 85% Tempranillo, 10% Cabernet Sauvignon and 5% Merlot, the Autor (Spanish for author) is the winery’s Crianza specially bottled for the restaurant. Cherry, blueberry, vanilla and spice, this shows much more of the modern style of Spanish winemaking compared to the more traditional hand shown at Vega Sicilia. Medium to full bodied with a nice spicy note on the finish. 12 months in American and French oak. Very Good+
Alion was created in 1991 by Vega Sicilia to produce a more modern expression of Ribera del Duero that offered a wine that could be drank earlier and make a good counter-point to the style of Unico. About half of the grapes for Alion come from Vega Sicilia’s own vineyards and half from Alion’s vineyard near Penafiel. Though the “modern” handle applies, the hand of Vega Sicilia is definitely in evidence, as this wine is beautifully crafted. Dark red, offering a melange of black cherry, raspberry, blackberry, vanilla and spice in a fruit forward almost Napa-like style. The body is medium-full, with medium+ tannin and medium acid, that has a velvety smoothness. More modern than Unico, but still well in bounds, this beautiful wine has a long life ahead of it. At about a fifth of the price of Unico, this is a particularly good value in the world of fine wine. Excellent+
Calle Cronista Lecea, 11, 40001 Segovia, Spain
+34 921 46 11 11