While Cariñena is sometimes made into a varietal wine, it is more often blended—especially with Garnacha (Grenache), although Mourvèdre and Syrah are other usual blending partners. For centuries, it has been a component of the wines of Rioja (where it’s called Mazuelo), Navarra, and the Cariñena DO, named for the grape itself. Cariñena extends naturally to France’s Mediterranean Languedoc zone and is successful in Chile, too. Robust, the wines are an essential pairing for foods that are traditional to Aragón, such as beef and lamb; Jamón de Teruel, hand-salted and cured at more than 800 meters above sea level; and the cow-goat-and sheep-milk Tronchón cheese, immortalized in Miguel de Cervantes’s 17th-century novel prototype, Don Quixote.
“We like to pair this variety with any type of charcuterie, especially our salchichon,” says Chef Alexandra Raij, and with husband Eder Montero, co-founder/co-owner of four Spain-inspired restaurants in New York City including El Quinto Pino, Txikito, La Vara, and Saint Julivert. At the Basque-based El Quinto Pino, that air-cured sausage is dressed with lemon, parmesan, and crispy artichokes—the latter notoriously difficult to pair with wine because the cynarin acid it contains makes anything you sip following a bite of it taste much sweeter. Cariñena’s hefty dose of tannins, a wine component which also reads as bitter, clears that hurdle at the same time that its richness and acidity match the earthy notes of that sausage and cheese.
Keep Cariñena’s acidity in mind and now think about its fruitiness, too. “At Txikito, it works well with our Trucha,” says Raij about her dish of a whole brook trout served with jamón, per Navarran cuisine. The unexpected keeps going: She sees these wines fit for other dishes on their menus: spiced marinated lamb skewers; cumin, coriander, and spiced onion whole roast chicken; lamb breast with cumin, scallion, preserved lemon, and dates. Spicy in the piquant sense counts too: At Saint Julivert in Brooklyn, Raij turns to a sandwich of beef tenderloin, spicy mustard, and fried oysters. “The richness of the meat with the salinity of oysters goes so well with the dry fruit, minerals, and tannins so often present in these wines,” she says.
Take Chef Alexandra’s words and run with them: think salty-sweet Jamaican codfish fritters for Cariñena’s refreshing acidity and peppery notes; onion-brightened Turkish kofte meatballs for its structure and black fruit aromas; eggplant or beans seasoned with baharat (a basic mixture used throughout many Mediterranean/Middle Eastern countries and based on spices such as coriander, paprika, cardamom, cumin, cloves, and pepper) for Cariñena’s savory and spicy side.