The Spanish natural wine scene has been rapidly gaining international attention in recent years, proving that Rioja doesn’t have to be jammy and that there are grapes in Spain beyond Garnacha. A new generation of small-scale producers in Spain are making lower-alcohol, less oaky wines, often with unusual and indigenous varieties and unexpected flavors. If these terms are still foreign to your ears, you'd do well to head to xYz, a new East Village spot championing the unique vintages that are actually a callback to Spain's wine-making roots
The full-bodied, oakier wines often coming from Spain, usually made from Garnacha or Gempranillo grapes, are actually a modern style, begun only in the '90s. Trailblazing importer José Pastor was one of the first to look for Spanish winemakers working in an ancestral style, with indigenous grapes, and bring those wines into the United States, and other importers have further championed the cause in recent years. At xYz, Spanish wines made in a historical fashion—less filtered, made with organic grapes, and unsulfured, often featuring native varieties—are poured alongside incredibly flavorful and fresh Spanish food with a Basque flair, another re-emerging trend unto itself.
While the food is outstanding at xYz, cooked by Basque native chef Javier Ortega—who previously owned the TriBeca restaurant Pintxos and ran the kitchen at the natural wine bar The Ten Bells—the wine selection is truly unique and adventurous. Alvaro de la Viña, a 31-year-old importer who grew up partly in Spain, partly in Westchester, is responsible for the list at xYz. You won’t find the usual suspects to drink; the list is populated by unheard of outside of the wine cognoscenti grapes like Rufete, which de la Viña says will please Pinot Noir drinkers. Of course, the list features many of the wines that de la Viña imports, but not exclusively.
de la Viña (Rachel Signer)
Viña and his girlfriend, Anna Gonzalez, with whom he co-founded his wine importing company Selections de la Viña, took inspiration from the shelves at Chambers Street Wines, which carries many small-production, natural wines. "Natural wine sucked us in; we loved the stories behind each bottle," de la Viña explains. Plus, they found that organically produced wines just tasted better than ones made in a conventional style, with chemical farming and preservatives. Soon, the couple set out to Spain to look for producers and in a short time joined the ranks of small-time importers with big passion for natural wine.
Many people might feel intimidated by a list featuring obscure grapes from lesser-known regions of Spain. To this, de la Viña advises keeping an open mind, and counsels that leaving your comfort zone is actually “one of the things that makes wine so fun: the endless amount of possibilities.” And there’s no need to fret about whether the wine will work with a particular dish. "I don’t really believe in rules when it comes to pairing, I think it should be experimental and fun," he adds. "In the end, it's all about how food and wine taste together. They should bring out the purity in each other."
At xYz, the list is categorized according to whether the wine is sparkling, white, pink, or red, but also by how light or full-bodied it is, a simple and helpful way to guide diners toward the right bottle. The servers—who include two of the chef’s daughters—are very knowledgeable about the wine list, and the food, which is tapas-style but with generous portions. Come with friends, so you can share many dishes, and many wines.
Specialties include head-on langoustines, the “gulas,” which is a dish of fried baby squid that melt in your mouth, and of course, jamon Serrano and jamon Iberico. Chef Ortega injects the menu with local, seasonal elements, as well, such as the “Ensalada de Otoño” with root vegetables from the market. In this vein, xYz also features excellent artisanal cheeses from New York and Vermont but the lamb chop is from New Zealand because to the chef, it’s best. For dessert, do not miss the fruit tart, made with a base of tangy lemon curd, fresh fruits, and topped with toasted merengue and perhaps another glass of wine for the road.
There's no wrong way to go in the wine direction at xYz, but here are a few highlighted by de la Viña for their unique characteristics:
Marenas “Bajo Velo” Pedro Ximenez ($74): this white wine is made from the grape typically used to make fortified Sherry wine. “Bajo Flor” means that the wine is produced under a veil of yeast, allowing oxygen to come into contact with the fermenting wine and create a richer taste. It’s something done in the Jura region in France, and a few other places, and it is a fun wine for the start of a meal, or with fatty foods like lamb or beef.
Mandrágora Vinos ($62), Rufete, which de la Viña says is genetically similar to Pinot Noir, and has a similar flavor profile. Thanks to the cooler climate the grapes are grown in, the wine has great minerality and acidity, which gives it elegance and makes it a great wine for lighter foods.
Partida Creus Vinel-lo Blanco ($52), a white blend of seven local grapes, typically found in Cava, crisp and fresh with floral notes from the Moscatell. “Lemonade for adults,” says de la Viña, meaning low-alcohol, easy to drink.
4 Kilos Vinícola “Motor America” ($50), to try something really different, order this red wine from Fogoneu, a native grape that’s aged in a clay amphora vessel made from regional dirt from the highlands of the island of Mallorca. The iron-rich clay soil of the area lends depth to the medium-bodied wine.