New York chef Alex Raij loves a Basque red called El Chaparral so much that she befriended its creator. Here, she visits Spain to find out just how food-friendly “Chappy” really is.
Recently, husband-wife chefs Alex Raij and Eder Montero of Manhattan’s Txikito traveled from New York City to Spain’s Navarra region with their two-year-old daughter, Maayan. Their arrival set off an explosion of luggage, toddler gear and right-to-left cheek kisses.
They’d come to visit Concha Vecino, winemaker at Basque country’s Bodegas Nekeas and creator of Vega Sindoa El Chaparral. Raij admits to an obsession with this $15 Garnacha. “I have a terrible memory for wine names, but this stuck with me from the first time I tried it,” she says. “It goes well with almost anything—peppers, fatty meats, fish.” She drank a glass almost every day, and eventually the wine earned a nickname: Chappy.
A few years ago, when El Chaparral’s importer invited Raij to a winemaker dinner in New York, she specifically requested to sit next to Vecino. “Alex told me, ‘I love El Chaparral, and I just had to know the person who made it,’ ” Vecino recalls. “I was moved by this, because El Chaparral is my baby.” The two women immediately hit it off.
Vecino is soft-spoken and calm, while Raij deserves her own nickname: Speedy. “Concha is so gentle, and she has a lot of patience, which I really admire because I don’t have much,” Raij says. Says Vecino, “But we like the same things. Things that are natural—not made up or too sophisticated.” New York chef Alex Raij (right) visits Spain to sample Basque food with winemaker Concha Vecino’s (left) food-friendly wines. © Marie Hennechart. After vineyard visits, Raij goes to work in Vecino’s tiny kitchen. © Marie Hennechart. Chef Alex Raij makes her pastel de parra. © Marie Hennechart.
The friends and their families have convened for a weekend of eating, drinking and cooking at Vecino’s home in Añorbe, a village of white stucco and red-tile roofs not far from Bodegas Nekeas’s modern winery. Vecino and her husband, Juan José, a vegetable farmer, live in one of the townhouses built in Bodegas Nekeas’s former winery space, overlooking the Nekeas valley. Set in the foothills of the Pyrenees, the valley is dotted with wheat fields, vineyards and olive orchards; its slopes are topped with pines and the shrub cover called chaparral.
Navarra’s wines are not as celebrated as those of the neighboring Rioja or Priorat regions, but the climate—cold by Spanish standards, thanks to eastern mountain winds—is ideal for making fresher, lighter wines with more food-friendly acidity. Here, Vecino and her Bodegas Nekeas team lead a movement to protect old Garnacha vineyards. The winery is owned by eight local families with more than 500 acres of vineyards and a near equal amount of olive groves, all of it farmed without irrigation and with minimal herbicides and pesticides. In 1997, one owner wanted to tear out a plot of century-old vines, but Vecino pushed back, arguing that even though these vines don’t grow as many grapes as younger ones, those old-vine Garnacha grapes can make some of the world’s most complex, concentrated wines.
Vecino experimented by fermenting the grapes from that vineyard separately. The result was a distinctive wine with layers of spice, herbal notes and minerality alongside incredibly alluring fruit. Over the next few years, Vecino perfected a blend from Nekeas’s oldest and best Garnacha plots, 40 in all, for a new flagship wine, El Chaparral.
One morning, Vecino takes Raij to see one of the vineyards that produces grapes to go into El Chaparral. Rather than perfect rows of grapevines neatly trained on wires, these are twisted, arthritic-looking vines standing about five feet apart—each an independent sprawling shrub with bunches of tiny grapes. These special vines have to be worked entirely by hand.
“The land here is basically a pantry,” Vecino says as she and Raij walk through the vineyard, along a stream, to a tree loaded with plums. She points out walnut, apple, fig and cherry trees scattered throughout the property. “You have everything you need—wheat, olives, vines, nuts, fruit—growing side by side.”
Many of those ingredients fill the actual pantry in Vecino’s tiny kitchen, which is equipped with just one electric burner and a portable oven. Yet for dinner, Raij manages to make her impressive pastel de parra, a pie with a buttery crust filled with hard-boiled eggs, spinach and grape leaves that have been sautéed in garlic. “I wanted to make something related to winemaking,” Raij tells Bodegas Nekeas’s vineyard manager, José Manuel Urricelqui, when he delivers a bushel of fresh Garnacha vine cuttings from which she selects leaves for cooking. “I’m going for tender: We’re trying to treat the grape leaves as a vegetable.”
He is unconvinced. “Eating grape leaves? It’s not done here.”
To go with the main course of pan-sautéed trout topped with cured ham, Raij creates a salad of tomatoes, green beans and canned white asparagus that she bought at the market that morning. The Basques adore white asparagus. “Something happens when you preserve vegetables,” says Raij. “It’s like when you age wine, I guess. I think the tin actually brings out some good flavors. It sounds weird, but that taste has become part of the Basque terroir.”
Later, Raij simmers freshly picked plums and apricots in a few cups of Vecino’s bright-pink rosé wine, with vanilla bean, lemon zest and sugar, to make a compote to serve with crème fraîche and butter cookies.
“She is like a woman from another time,” Vecino says, watching Raij. “The way she moves—like my grandmother and mother. It’s strange: I feel like I am a baby and my mother and grandmother are in the kitchen.”
France-based writer Robert Camuto’s most recent book is Palmento: A Sicilian Wine Odyssey.