Christine Austin offers a special Easter guide on what to serve with the main event.
There is nothing better than the delicious aromas that waft around my kitchen when lamb is roasting in the oven. Spiked with rosemary and studded with garlic, it is served, still pink, with Yorkshire pudding on the plate and just a hint of redcurrant jelly in the gravy. This is the centrepiece of my Easter eating.
And Rioja is the wine to drink with it. The great thing about Rioja is that prices start at good value and then climb the quality ladder, gradually ascending to a level that can only be described as gorgeously superlative.
At the Martinez tasting in Ilkley last week I was bedazzled by the range of Riojas from Muga. They are one of my favourite producers, still family owned and run, and they have a clear focus on quality. Many of their vineyards are at relatively high altitude where lower temperatures allow a long, slow ripening process and, while Tempranillo is their main grape, winemaker Jorge Muga is fascinated by the effect that small amounts of other grapes add to the blends. When I visited the bodega recently he said: “Graciano and Mazuelo are already added to blends, in small amounts, and we planted around three hectares of Maturana about 10 years ago and now it is in production, it is added in tiny amounts to the wine, adding richness of flavour.” Maturana is a long-lost local grape that disappeared from vineyards decades ago in favour of higher-yielding varieties. Now it is being re-introduced by top producers.
Muga also have their own cooper to make and maintain barrels for ageing the wine. While oak ageing of Rioja is an important part of the process Muga seem to achieve a lightness of touch and a harmony of fruit in the final wines that sets them ahead in quality terms.
Muga Reserva 2011 (£16.95, Martinez) is packed with black fruit flavours, still grippy on the palate, but paired against roast lamb it opens up and its richness of flavour partners the meat perfectly. This is a wine that will happily keep for a decade, gradually expanding its profile so why not buy several bottles and tuck them away? Step up to the Reserva Selección Especial 2010 (£24.99, Martinez) which is only made in the best vintages. The grapes for this wine come from 40-year-old vines grown on well-drained, stony, sandy terraces overlooking the Ebro river. The flavours are deep and dark, with prunes, chocolate and a sprinkle of spice. 2010 was a cool vintage so the wines show restraint with fine, elegant tannins. For this reason, decant the wine two hours before serving if you plan to drink it this Easter.
While Martinez has a fine range of Muga wines, including the sensational Prado Enea Gran Reserva, if you can’t get there today for your Easter drinking, then head to Majestic where they have a limited selection, at similar prices.
Aged Rioja is in a class of its own and the sure way to get a wine that is perfect for drinking the moment you buy it is to look for wines from Bodegas López de Heredia. Founded in 1877, this is another family business that straddles tradition and modernity with ease. Behind it all is a youthful winemaker, Mercedes López de Heredia, who brings the family tradition of expressing terroir from each vineyard, and then ensures the wines age to perfection before being released. The wines are not so much fruit driven, more silky and savoury in style. Try Viña Tondonia Rioja Reserva 2002 (Field & Fawcett, £28.50) for the rich, elegant taste of dark berries, earthy, complex truffle notes and an edge of balsamic.
Another favourite Rioja is Contino which is unusual since it is an estate of just one piece of land rather than a collection of vineyards dotted around the region.
With 63 hectares of vines, production is limited to whatever they grow and they are still suffering from the total loss of crop in 2013 when a devastating hailstorm swept through the vineyard. This means there is a hole in their production, but their wines are well worth seeking out. Head to Hoults in Huddersfield for Contino Rioja Reserva 2008 (£21.50) for vibrant red fruit flavours, backed by gentle oak and a long, balanced finish. Field & Fawcett and Penistone Wine cellars also have stocks of Contino wines.
For those whose budget has been severely dented by the leg of lamb that will be the highlight of tomorrow’s lunch there are several good value choices on local shelves.
For exceptional value for money head to Majestic and the ripe, red-berries of Viña Eguía Rioja Crianza 2012 which is normally £9.99 but comes down to £6.49 when you buy any of the mix-six deals. Move up to the rather smooth cherry and vanilla elegance of Rioja Crianza from CVNE at £6.99 on a mix-six deal.
At Waitrose the clear red berry fruit and sweet vanilla of Torres Ibéricos Rioja Crianza 2012 is £9.99 while the big, creamy dense flavours of Baron de Ley Reserva 2010 have come down from £12.49 to £9.36 until April 12.