19 March 2015

n.d.p. in andalusia: bodegas el gato, rota

On the surface, there appears to be no reason whatsoever for a wine traveler to visit Rota. It is the runt of the sherry towns, almost entirely overtaken, since 1953, by a vast American Naval base, whose 4000 or so American personal tend to favour beer over the regional wines. Guinness and Corona are as easily obtained as sherry in Rota, and all three drinks vastly outsell the town's helplessly unappealing specialty, a sweet wine in the passito / vincotto vein called Tintilla di Rota.

But Rota is where the Native Companion and I wound up spending a few days last summer. We were visiting our friend B, who works on the Naval Base there, and enjoys the perk of a splendid beachfront apartment. We duly beached it up, frozen margaritas, barbecue, and beer. It was almost as an afterthought that we paid a visit to Bodegas El Gato's unassuming despacho des vinos one afternoon, drawn as much by a sense of anthropological duty as by the psychedelic cat mural on the bar's exterior.

We peered into the retail area, which seemed to be shut, or staffed by small dogs. We noticed that the Bodegas El Gato's Fino hasn't the right to the Jerez appellation; the bodega instead bottles it as a vino de mesa (table wine) and refers to it, on their website, as a "Fino Andaluz." In the adjacent terraced bar, populated unanimously by older Andalusians, we nibbled some surprisingly affecting goat cheese, which we both found more memorable than the bodega's Fino Andaluz. But nothing prepared us for dinner that evening, when our friend B led us to Bodegas El Gato's bar, around the corner from the despacho. In a standing-room-only space, behind a long bar, beneath audible neons, its mugging, churlish chefs grilled up explosive chorizo sandwiches and crackling, curlicued shrimp, plates which, while costing next to nothing, collectively amounted to our favorite restaurant experience in the entire region.

I say 'restaurant experience' and not 'culinary experience' because - let's be serious - I can't with a straight face go into raptures about cuisine that, given the right ingredients and a grill, I could probably reproduce myself. It was the context that counted: the smoke from the grill lazily making its way out the barn-door sized bar entrance; the ingenius wastebins perched just below knee-height beneath the high tables; the sun-shriveled local drunks in baseball hats mocking me for being skinny.

Still, as in the case of other simple, near-unimprovable food cultures, Bodegas El Gato's best raciones attain their distinction through perfectly-judged proportions, rather than novel flavour combinations. For instance, in the wake of this meal, I never want to bite into a chorizo sandwich in which the chorizo slice is any less thick than the bread containing it. Searingly hot shrimp perfectly occupied the perimeters of their plastic plate, in a bounteous portion that never seemed to end. With the awareness that describing such a meal as being in any way "designed" is to some extent absurd, I might still assert that some ergonomic genius dictates portions and service at Bodegas El Gato.

Being rich tourists, we eschewed the house Fino Andaluz for the very marginally more expensive, and vastly more delicious Hidalgo La Gitana Manzanilla also on offer. When that got monotonous (as it can), I switched to a brown ale by recently founded local Rota brewery Cervezas 37.

It was later, on a return trip to Rota, when we stayed in Sanlucar, that I realised how necessary non-alcoholic beers are to a meal like this. The rollercoaster salt content requires beer, and yet the drive home along almost unlit roads in coastal marshland requires some degree of sobriety...

Although it hasn't featured in any of our meals at Bodegas El Gato, I would be remiss not to mention the bodegas' Tintilla de Rota. They are the sole producer of this infinitesimally obscure grape to still possess vineyards within Rota, all local producers, El Gato included, having been displaced in the 1950's by the arrival of the American Naval base. The owner is Juan Martín-Martínez Niño, whose father, a grapegrower, founded the winery in 1957 with compensation from the resettlement. For sake of completion, the NC and I bought a bottle of the joven version at the town's supermarket.

It's still in our fridge, about four sips lighter, eight months later. Sweet wines produced with cooked fermented grape-must occupy what you might call an unenviable market position. With even the world's greatest, most symphonically complex sweet wines having lost their place at the contemporary table, shunted out by diner preference for shorter meals and restaurateur preference for higher turnover, what occasion, nowadays, might ever call for what is by definition a simplistic sweet wine?

Bodegas El Gato recommends foie gras. For my part, I suspect that Tintilla de Rota - and Abruzzo's vincotto, and all other sweet wines produced from cooked fermented grape-must - are relics from a time of long meals in relatively impoverished multigenerational households, never intended to appear in public establishments or attract aesthetic commentary. They're a simple, cost-effective method of continued togetherness, nothing more.

Interior of bar beside the despacho de vinos.

The cheese we tasted at the bodegas' despacho-side bar, however - this warrents greater attention. The Spanish-fluent NC questioned the elderly bartender about it, and he revealed that it was his family who made the cheese, a company called Quesos Artesanos El Bosqueno. It's called queso emborrao de cabra payoya, a cured cheese from milk of the Andalusian payoya goat that features a rind of olive oil and wheat bran. It's low in fat, nuanced and saline, with a tight texture distantly reminiscent of haloumi. We went through several plates that afternoon.

Psychdelic cat mural on side of despacho de vinos

The despacho de vinos

Exterior of the amazing taberna.

Bodegas El Gato (the taberna)

A splendid 2013 post on Bodegas del Gato and their Tintilla at Cadiz Gusta
A good post in Spanish on Tintilla de Rota and Bodegas El Gato at De Copas Con Baco

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