Written by Ashley Ryan
If there are two things that Spain is known for, it is food and wine. With roasted meats, fresh tapas and some very special varietals of grapes, it’s an area that is sure to delight the senses.
While Spain as a whole is considered a wonderland of flavor, one lesser-known region in particular is home to an exceptional combination of wine, cuisine and culture. Located in the north-central part of the country, Rioja’s size is no indication of its impact. The smallest region in Spain, Rioja is the country’s largest producer of wine. It is also brimming with history, art, architecture and, of course, rich culinary traditions. Verdant landscapes with plenty of room to roam give way to sprawling vineyards, mountainous monasteries and romantic castles. Museums focused on everything from history and religion to fossils and contemporary art line the medieval stone streets.
“Rioja is such a blend of old and new,” says Dhane Chesson, national accounts director for Wines from Rioja, which has partnered with Omni Hotels & Resorts for this year’s Flavors of the World culinary program. “There’s such a juxtaposition if you look at the architecture. There’s an old, family-owned restaurant where the mother is still cooking right down the street from a Michelin-rated restaurant.”
According to Chesson, Rioja’s people are what make a visit to the region truly special.
“People plan a trip to Rioja because of the wine,” she says. “But it’s the people and the culture that draw you in. It’s the authenticity and the passion—it engages visitors. They want to learn more.”
This summer, members of Omni Hotels & Resorts’ food and beverage team ventured to Rioja to prepare for the brand’s Flavors of the World series. Now in its 10th year, the recurring culinary program will highlight the Spanish region from Oct. 1 through Dec. 31 with specially crafted dishes and hand-picked wines. By exploring the region firsthand, Omni associates were able to bring back the best of their flavorful discoveries to share with guests.
According to Wines from Rioja, prestigious varietals have been produced in the region since the early 1100s. Wine production in Rioja became more of an art form in 1787, when the Royal Economic Society of Rioja Growers was created to enhance cultivation.
The wines in Rioja continued to improve and eventually earned Denominación de Origen Calificada (DOC), the highest rating from Spain’s quality control system. This is an accomplishment that only one other region has achieved since Rioja became the first in 1925. Rioja produces a variety of wines but is particularly known for having some outstanding reds—especially those made with the tempranillo grape. A black grape variety that creates full-bodied wines, tempranillo has become somewhat of an icon for the area. With a knowledge of the region’s proclivity for red wines, Omni Amelia Island Plantation Resort Executive and Regional Executive Chef Daven Wardynski says it was actually the region’s whites that blew him away.
“When I think Rioja, I think of red wines and big flavors,” he explains. “But I got over there and it was the white wines that really surprised me.”
The area’s impressive winemaking abilities may be a result of one technique in particular: aging. Chesson says that the local wineries, also called “bodegas,” hold the wines in the cellar until the winemakers deem them ready for consumption. They are typically aged in 225-liter oak casks, of which there are over a million in the region, for approximately one to three years. Rioja wines are then bottle-aged for anywhere from six months to six years.
Knowledgeable winemakers aren’t just experts in their craft, but in the overall culture of Rioja. According to Chesson, paying a visit to a bodega will provide a chance to discuss everything under the Spanish sun, from the local produce and cheeses to the natural beauty of their surroundings. “They take everything as one big culture to speak about,” she explains.
According to Stephen Rosenstock, executive vice president of operations for Omni Hotels & Resorts, “The wines that come from Rioja are really meant to be served with food.” Rosenstock says that he feels this more in Rioja than anywhere else in the world.
Rioja’s varied wines can be successfully paired with many different types of cuisine, all of which take center stage in Spain. According to The Culinary Institute of America, young wines with fruity aromas tend to complement everything from beef, rib-eye steak and venison to vegetable curry and blue cheese. Fish-based meals or spicy dishes are enhanced when fruit-forward crianza wines are served, while foods like paella and risotto pair well with reservas. Heighten the flavors of dishes suchas duck confit, winter stews or sautéed mushrooms with gran reservas.
Wardynski recently took a trip to Rioja to immerse himself in the food, wine and culture prior to this autumn’s Flavors of the World series. He found that while the region is heavily influenced by Basque culinary traditions that include plenty of grilled meats and fish, Rioja’s menus were saturated with dishes that change seasonally and are heavily ingredient-driven. From fresh serrano peppers and chanterelle mushrooms to lush baby peas, the restaurants in Rioja don’t rely heavily on sauces and seasonings to add flavor. “It is just delicious food done right,” Wardynski says.
One dish that he could not get enough of when he traveled to Spain was jamón ibérico de bellota. The finest cured ham in Rioja, it is sourced from free-range pigs that feast heavily on acorns. It is cured for more than two years.
Although the dishes sampled by the Omni team in Rioja often incorporated many of the same ingredients, such as cured or grilled meats and fresh vegetables, Wardynski found that the complexities of the flavors allowed each dish to stand on its own. With the Flavors of the World menu that the team is developing, he hopes to bring the authenticity of Rioja cuisine back to the United States.
“If you haven’t been there to see, taste and immerse yourself in the culture, the food and the wine, and the people, the authenticity isn’t intact,” he explains. Rosenstock agrees with Wardynski about the food in Rioja, noting that the tapas are especially impressive with the way their ingredients are mixed. “It reaffirms our philosophy—less is more, quality is what drives great food,” Rosenstock says.
Bringing it Home
Now, with the flavors still fresh on their tongues and an incredible experience under their belts, the Omni team members aim to bring a little bit of Rioja back to the U.S. at properties nationwide.
While Omni’s restaurants already seek to include unique menu items that represent each property’s local culture, the progressive Flavors of the World series brings epicurean experiences from around the globe to guests staying on property. It offers an authentic taste of a far-off destination for a limited time. Previous programs have highlighted areas including Chile, France, Argentina and Italy.
The Rioja experience began in March for the food and beverage teams. A food and beverage representative from each Omni property attended a brand culinary conference that included speakers from the featured region. A ballroom filled with tasting tables from Rioja’s wineries gave these representatives a chance to sample each wine and select those they believe will resonate best with their guests. As a result, each property is able to provide its own unique selection of Rioja wines.
Two months later, the teams flew to Rioja for a weeklong immersion trip that gave them insight into the region’s history and what makes the wines unique. They were also able to sample a variety of local fare.
Next, they learned to re-create the unique flavors that inspired them during their visit. Each property’s executive chef traveled to The Culinary Institute of America in San Antonio, Texas, where instructors demonstrated additional techniques. It was here that they practiced and perfected Rioja-inspired cuisine to ensure the food served on property is authentic.
“We walked away with an understanding of the creativity… and the importance of food and wine pairings,” Rosenstock says. While the wine menus will vary, the bar and restaurant menus will be consistent nationwide. The bar menu will be filled with tapas like Dátiles con Tocino, ibérico bacon-wrapped dates stuffed with manchego cheese, and Chorizo Carbonizado con Aceite de Oliva, charred chorizo with olive oil.
Guests dining in Omni restaurants will find a variety of inspired tapas, entrées and desserts on the Discover Rioja menu. Starter options include croquettes, as well as albondigas—ground beef and ibérico bacon meatballs with oregano, green onion and tomato. Some of the main dishes incorporate Rioja wines such as the tempranillo-braised beef. End the meal on a high note with one of two sweet treats: caramelized flan known as Flan Casera or Gâteau Basque cake made with vanilla, lemon and dried cherry.
According to Rosenstock, the program is a way to provide a unique value to guests. “At Omni, we believe in a bottom-up approach,” he explains. “… People get to come and try something they wouldn’t normally.” All of this is largely the result of the intense preparation that allows Omni’s chefs to speak about the menu in a more intimate way.
Ultimately, Wardynski says the entire Flavors of the World series is centered around the guest experience. “The goal is to come back and provide an authentic experience because that’s what our guests deserve—a trip to Spain in a spoon.”