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Connecting with Curious Palates in Brooklyn: Spanish Wine and Cheese Tasting

Editor’s Note: Today’s article comes from Diane Letulle, an passionate wine writer who we’ve known for quite some time. Today is her submission after attending a Spanish wine and cheese tasting in NYC by another good friend of ours, Adrian Murcia. We hope you enjoy her adventure.

On a mild Friday night in April, a small group of food and wine lovers descended upon the Brooklyn Museum, which rises in neoclassical glory just steps away from the C train. Piped in samba music greeted the visitors as they navigated around Rodin’s somber Burghers of Calais in search of a different kind of art.

They had come to attend Fermented Spain: Wine, Cheese, and Ham, one of a series of culinary classes from Brooklyn Fermented. I joined the 31 professional-looking men and women who appeared to range in age from 30 to 60. We sat at a horseshoe of tables set under billowy mushrooms of soft white fabric, an installation called reOrder: An Architectural Environment by Situ Studio. The high ceilings, white walls, and fabric cylinders created an air of reverence, and we spoke in whispers.

Perhaps reverence was what Adrian Murcia, the founder of Brooklyn Fermented, was aiming for. Early in the class, he quoted Anne-Claude Leflaive, director of Burgundy’s Domaine Leflaive: “Wine cellars exist in a realm beyond time, where we disconnect ourselves from daily concerns. Only then do people open up, to themselves and others, indulge in magnificent communication. That is why these are sacred spaces.” Adrian discussed the emotionality of tasting, and he said that we should try to “be in the moment, which requires slowing down the mind and heightening the senses.” He taught proper wine tasting technique (nose in glass, please), and also told us to pick up the cheese with our fingers, smell it, break it open, and experience the tactile sensation of it, too.

Adrian is known in New York culinary circles for his stints as fromager and assistant sommelier at Chanterelle; educator at Murray’s Cheese, City Winery, and other venues; and U.S. Spokesperson for Rioja. He is a Wine Academy of Spain-Certified Spanish Wine Educator and holds a Level II (Certified Sommelier) Certificate from the Court of Master Sommeliers.

Adrian fell in love with Spain while studying at the Complutense University of Madrid post-college. He told me, “That’s when I realized the whole notion of terroir in Spain–that Jamon Iberico is from the Iberico hog, that Manchego is from La Mancha.” In 2000, he won a travel grant from the Geoffrey Roberts Trust to study Iberian ham production. According to Adrian, “That had a huge impact on my frame of reference.” Now, with his own series of wine, beer, and regional cuisine classes, Adrian seeks to share his passion for the origins, cultural significance, and sensory experience of fine food and beverages.

Our class was seated in front of small dishes with a slice of fragrant ham, wedges of cheeses, and a cube of quince paste. Arcing behind the food were five glasses with generous pours of white, rosé, and red wine. Over the course of an hour and a half, Adrian walked us through the pairings while providing a running narrative of Spanish wine and food traditions and regions.

We began with a glass of Ruchel Godello 2009, DO Valdeorras, a Galician wine noted for its use of natural yeasts. Adrian paired it with an Ibores from Extremadura. As the class sipped the steely white wine and tried the firm goats’ milk cheese, Adrian talked about his time in Extremadura, which he likened to a “forgotten region” of hillsides and canyons, with each valley having its own culinary resources, from cherry trees to paprika to goats. The Iboras was dusted with smoky Extremadura paprika on the rind, which gave it a spicy bite.

Our second pairing was a Gutierrez Colosia Fino, DO Jerez-Xérès-Sherry, from El Puerto de Santa Maria. I noticed a man with horn-rimmed glasses sniff his wine and raise his eyebrows–unfamiliar with the world of Sherry, as so many Americans are. Adrian enthused about Sherry as a part of Spain’s traditional cuisine, especially when consumed with Jamon Iberico and almonds. We bit into the soft shaving of pink ham, savoring its salty, sweet flavor, and crunched almonds that echoed the aromas in the Fino Sherry.

We swung from bone dry to fresh and fruity with a Gurrutxaga Rosé 2010, DO Bizkaiko Txakolina. My classmates were pleased with the fresh strawberry and lime aromas, and one remarked, “This is a good time wine.” We dug into a shared plate of Jamon Serrano and munched on Quesos de los Beyos from Asturias. Adrian was excited to serve us this cheese because it’s rarely seen stateside–although he admitted it had a chalky, ungiving character. He joked, “It’s not like I’d say, ‘Let’s go rent a movie and get a Beyos.’” The class, which had retained a fairly studious demeanor up until then, loosened up and laughed. Adrian explained that a pressed cheese like this was made because farmers wanted to preserve their food as long as possible.

By the fourth pairing, the class was no longer awed by the museum atmosphere and felt relaxed by the wines. Adrian held the group’s attention with his easy-going yet erudite presentation style, and it was clear that the participants were enjoying their adventure into Spanish cuisine. Adrian later told me, “Brooklyn Fermented students share a curiosity and a sensitivity to the origins of things, and they have a desire to put a name to something they’re experiencing in flavor – cheese from summer milk or wine from old vines for example.” He continued, “My mission is to share the passion and knowledge I have without making people feel silly for not having known it already.”

Our next pairing was a Bielsa Garnacha 2009, DO Campa de Borjas, a jammy pour full of black fruits, and a nutty Manchego cheese. Adrian explained that Garnacha is an indigenous grape that Spain continues to produce in great quantity. He pointed out that Spain is unique in the wine and culinary world because it is both a place of tradition as well as innovation. As an example, he showed the class a slide of the space-age structure built as a tasting room for the staunchly traditional vintners, Viña Tondonia of Lopez de Heredia. The 21st century building, shaped like an asymmetrical decanter, houses a 1910 tasting stand inside–visual reminders of past and present co-existing.

While there are strong efforts to innovate in Spain, Adrian believes that the pendulum has swung away from modernism just for the sake of fashion. Wineries that had abandoned old wine production techniques in favor of fruit-bombs that would score well with American wine writers, now were scaling back to create more refined wines. And what’s true in the winery is also true in the kitchen. Adrian told me, “You hear more about Spain’s traditional foods now than molecular gastronomy.” As for Spain’s ascendency in the international arena, Adrian feels, “As long as Spain continues to be both innovative and traditional, I think that the fascination with Spain will continue to grow.”

The time was winding down and the class was on its last pairing – an elegant, rich wine from Ribera Del Duero, the Federico Tinto Roble 2008. The cheese paired with this silky wine was Idiazábal from País Vasco. It was my favorite pairing of the night: the buttery yet smokey cheese tasted just right with the lovely Tempranillo-based wine with its well-balanced fruit and judicious tannins. We passed a plate of rustic bread, and Adrian told us that the Idiazábal is made in hills that still have a large shepherding culture. Originally the cheese gained a smoky flavor from the shepherds’ fires on cold winter nights.

When the evening drew to a close, students came up to chat with Adrian and thank him for an informative and delicious class. As they walked off into the museum galleries, where they had free entry as part of their class admission, I asked Adrian, “Why Brooklyn?” He told me, “I was a reluctant Brooklynite, but once I moved here I was stunned by how many people had an almost other-worldly passion for knowledge about food and wine. I moved around to different areas of the borough, and all over there was this subculture of good taste. “ He concluded, “I found my people.” And with his Brooklyn Fermented classes selling out in advance, it looks like Adrian Murcia’s people have found him too.

Brooklyn Fermented will present its next sessions on June 3 and 24.


Diane Letulle

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