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Man of La Mancha | Adolfo Muñoz

Spain's La Mancha region brings to mind El Greco and Don Quixote, not world-class wine or food. Adolfo Muñoz is helping to change that. At a recent party at his Toledo home, the influential chef and restaurateur showed off his modern Spanish cooking—and his bold new wines.

Most people make the 40-mile pilgrimage from Madrid to Toledo to gaze at one of Spain's most impressive Gothic cathedrals, visit El Greco's house, shop for damascene knives and marzipan (a Toledo specialty that goes back to the days of the Moors) and hastily soak up 900 years of Spanish history—a melding of Muslim, Jewish and Christian cultures. Me? I traveled there to meet Adolfo Muñoz, the 50-year-old chef and owner of one of the country's best restaurants, Adolfo. The introduction came from my friend José Carlos Capel, the revered (and feared) food critic for the newspaper El País. "Not only will you eat and drink stupendously," Capel promised, "you'll also meet a remarkable character"—a great chef, host of a daily cooking show, caterer to Spanish celebrities, winemaker and olive grower. I packed my bags.

Soon I was in Toledo, winding my way through the city's medieval center. Walking down twisting cobblestoned lanes flanked by reddish-ocher facades with an occasional arabesque arch or latticework window, I finally reached Muñoz's antiques-filled restaurant. Muñoz greeted me at the door with a vigorous handshake; minutes later we were heading a few blocks up a moonlit street to his cellar.

Wine cellars can be a musty yawn—not Muñoz's. It isn't just that the collection, with more than 40,000 bottles, includes obscure ice wines and complete verticals of cult Spanish names like L'Ermita and Pingus. The cellar itself is amazing—a ninth-century house, once owned by a Jewish family, that later served as an ancient water-storage facility. (The street level was much lower back then, Muñoz explained; hence the underground site.) After acquiring the building above it 22 years ago, Muñoz unearthed the house and created the wine cellar. A huge restoration job later, the place looks like a designer dungeon, and it has the ideal temperature and humidity for storing wine. "In Toledo everybody is an archeologist by default," Muñoz said wryly, pointing to a hearth used for baking bread and marzipan—1,100 years ago.

Born into a large farming family that cultivated olives and grapes near Toledo, Muñoz got his first cooking gig at age 13, peeling potatoes and turning out hundreds of omelets a week at an inn. He launched his first restaurant and bar at age 21. Three years later, he and his wife, Julita, opened Adolfo, which just celebrated its 25th anniversary. What started life as an asador—a rustic place specializing in roasts—has evolved into one of the most sophisticated kitchens in Spain, highlighting regional ingredients such as olive oil, saffron, Manchego cheese and Alto Tajo truffles. The result is dishes like delicate shrimp in a passion fruit vinaigrette or perfect raw oysters afloat in an intensely flavored tomato gelée. King Juan Carlos once declared Adolfo's partridge to be the best in Spain. Singer Julio Iglesias is another fan.

"I wanted to prove that you can do thoroughly modern Mediterranean food without necessarily making foams," Muñoz said, referring to the frothy emulsions that have become ubiquitous in Spain. In a country where the culinary scene shifts abruptly from uncompromising tradition to off-the-wall innovation, this makes him an iconoclast.

When we returned to his restaurant, Muñoz uncorked an unlabeled bottle. The wine had a gorgeous deep cherry color and a full flavor, combining the easygoing vitality of a young bottling with the structure and smooth tannins of something noble. "What is it?" I asked. "Meet our baby," Muñoz said with a grin, "the just-released 2001 Pago del Ama Colección," a Syrah blended with Cabernet and Merlot and aged for a year in oak. He had grown the grapes at his estate, the only vineyard within Toledo city limits. The 2,300 bottles were meant only for him, his guests and patrons at his friends' restaurants, like the three-Michelin-starred Arzak and El Bulli. But the wine recently caught the attention of respected American importer Eric Solomon, so with no Spanish commercial release, it debuts this month in the States.

The wine's elegance is a sign of the region's coming of age. Castilla—La Mancha, the vast arid plain surrounding Toledo where a certain Cervantes character battled windmills, is Spain's largest viticultural area, with almost a million and a half acres of vines. Yet until quite recently, most of what was produced here was plonk, destined for cheap table wines and for blending. Today La Mancha is on the verge of something much bigger, with Cabernet planted here in addition to the indigenous red, Cencibel (called Tempranillo in Rioja). However, Muñoz and his brilliant sommelier and co-winemaker, José Mar’a López Querencias, decided to try Syrah, influenced by the friendly fruitiness of Australian wines and convinced that the grape would thrive in Toledo's hot, dry climate. "Colleagues looked at us funny, planting Syrah," López said. But the duo's quixotic venture paid off. The resulting wines—a straight Syrah and the Pago del Ama Colección—have wowed the skeptics.

Meanwhile, Muñoz has already moved on to his next project, planning a palatial five-star hotel in the center of Toledo as well as another, smaller inn high in the hills near his house and wine estate, Los Viñedos de Santa María. It's hard to imagine a prettier spot. Centered around a cigarral—a traditional Toledo villa—the estate is lush, with grapevines and olive groves, juniper bushes and 300-year-old oak trees. Scattered about are a few tinajas, huge earthenware jugs that have been used for fermenting and storing wine in the area since Roman times. Muñoz, of course, uses temperature-controlled vats to make his wines, but he keeps the tinajas here to remind him of La Mancha's viticultural history.

As the setting sun bathed everything in a golden-pink light, Muñoz pointed to the Toledo vista below. Perched on a craggy bluff across the river Tajo, the delicate cathedral spire and the somber towers of the Alcázar, the city's famous fortress, rise above a jumble of houses with terra-cotta roofs spilling down from the hill. That could well be, he mused, the vantage point from which El Greco had painted his masterpiece View of Toledo.

That evening Muñoz hosted a supper for friends—painters, architects, television personalities—to celebrate the American release of Pago del Ama. The gazpacho on the menu included strawberries added to the usual pureed base of tomato, peppers and bread. "The berries snap the flavors into focus, so you don't need vinegar," Muñoz said. The next course, a light salad of salt cod, oranges and basil, was one of the most popular summer dishes at his restaurant. Salt cod has been a La Mancha staple for centuries, he noted, while the oranges are a Moorish touch typical of Valencia and Andalusia, regions from which he draws much inspiration. To show off the Pago del Ama, there was a lamb shoulder—local of course—braised in wine and aromatic herbs. To finish: individual chocolate cakes that had the springiness of a sponge cake, yet were remarkably moist, topped with thyme-tinged ice cream.

As friends and family gathered around the table and gushed about each dish—estupendo, increíble, fenomenal!—Muñoz poured himself a glass of the Colección, swirled, sniffed, sipped and then smiled. He was happy that the meal brought guests such joy, but for him, the new wine alone was enough.

Anya von Bremzen is the author, with John Welchmann, of Please to the Table: The Russian Cookbook and the forthcoming The Greatest Dishes: Around the World in 80 Recipes.

Published October 2003
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