Understanding Wine: Spain

Danny Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group (USHG) has recently made its internal wine training program available to the public at Institute of Culinary Education. The 10-week course, entitled “Understanding Wine: a Course for Enthusiasts and Professionals,” is the same one that the Group’s sommeliers have gone through.

A friend of mine is taking the course and, because she is out of town, I got to sit in her seat for last night’s class covering Spanish wines.

The course is led by John Ragan, the Wine Director of USHG, which includes restaurants Union Square Café, Gramercy Tavern, Maialino, and The Modern. Ragan is a Master Sommelier (one of only 135 people in North America) and has received a James Beard Award for Outstanding Wine Service. For last night’s class, he was joined by Andrew Rastello who works at Gramercy Tavern and recently passed the Advanced Sommelier level.


I received a warm welcome when I arrived. I was given a glass of fino sherry to sip before the class got started and I served myself a plate of cheese, olives, almonds, grapes and ham to accompany the tasting and make sure the wine doesn’t go straight to my head.

Before starting the material on Spain, there was a discussion of a few general issues. One question discussed: In a restaurant, when is it okay to send a wine back? The answer: Of course, send back a corked bottle and we also should feel comfortable sending back a bottle that was recommended by the server or sommelier that is not what we wanted. And if a wine is really not what someone expected, restaurants like those of USHG may even accommodate those customers with a new wine. The restaurant can do many things with the unwanted bottle—incuding using it for staff training or pouring it by the glass.

Spanish Wine

After a quick look at the map and a run through of the classifications of Spanish wines, we began a tasting of 8 wines, which would take us through the regions of the Basque Country, Rias Baixas, Rioja, Ribero del Duero, Priorat and Jerez. For each region we got a look at things like climate, soil, and vine growing method. For the tastings, we went through, as a group, a discussion of appearance, nose, taste of the wine.   We used a framework which divided nose and palate into categories of “fruit”, “earth” and “other” (flower, vegetable, herbs and spice). We also discussed the structure of each wine: its acidity, alcohol level, tannin and body.

Then we went though possible pairings for each wine with Rastello giving examples of pairings with dishes on Gramercy Tavern’s menu.

Blind Tastings

The tastings included an interesting side by side blind tasting of two wines. They turned out to be the same wines from the same producer except that one was a “Reserva” while the other was an older “Gran Reserva”. While more people seemed to prefer the Gran Reserva, there were plenty in the group who preferred the less expensive Reserva.

American vs. French oak

Rioja wines are known for their use of American oak. In order to contrast American oak with French oak, we were given cups of Bourbon and Cognac to smell.

Rioja vs. Ribero del Duero

We tasted two red wines from the Rioja region and one from the Ribero del Duero. All three wines are made from the Tempranillo grape. I’ve been a big fan of Ribero del Duero wines, and this tasting confirmed my preference for these wines over the Riojas. We tasted a 2010 Emilio Moro wine which was more fruit forward and youthful, with less notes of American oak , than the Riojas we tasted. Unlike Riojas, we were told, Riberos are meant to be drunk young—there doesn’t seem to be any indication that they will get better with age.


The first wine we tasted was a Txakoli—a bracing, lightly effervescent white wine from the Basque country. In the Basque country, it is cheap and plentiful. It’s served in big water glasses—sometimes poured from high above the glass for show. Like water, it is served all the time regardless of what is being eaten. I’ve been noticing txakolis on wine lists lately and it’s been served to me in some wine dinners recently.  I admit—I’ve had a hard time taking this wine seriously. Should it be? It included as one of our three white wines (not counting the sherries). And, it was quite well-received by the class. I’m going to look into this some more—Stay tuned for more about Txakoli next Wednesday!

So, I have to thank my friend for giving me the opportunity to take her place. It was a real pleasure to have the perspective of these two high calibre restaurant professionals. The class was informative, it featured a range of wines and focused on tasting skills.  And the wines were delicious—I didn’t spit out a drop!