Winemaker José Moro has much love for Tempranillo despite the fact that it “doesn’t stand out for anything but has everything.” Moro’s words point to the paradox inherent in the wines made from Spain’s famous black grape: while they don’t tend to tickle the nose with exotic aromas or leave an immediate and indelible impression on the palate, they are some of the loveliest wines in the world. How is that possible?
I had the chance to find out, courtesy of a dinner at Coya Miami, in which Moro’s Cepa 21 wines were paired – not with tapas – but with lively and inventive Nuevo-Peruvian dishes. We sampled four wines with four courses, each course consisting of at least three small plates. And then there was dessert! Much to our delight, the kitchen crew decided to show off their skills, tempting us with ceviche, patatas bravas, sea bass, and tenderloin, each dish looking like a painting on a plate. As for the wines, well, they had their own message to deliver: Tempranillo is a protean creature, capable of translating unique terroirs into wines of character and personality; multiple personalities, in fact.
The Moro Family Tradition – Three Generations in Ribera del Duero
José and his brother Javier, of the famed Bodegas Emilio Moro, yearned to create a modern winery in one of the oldest and most prestigious Denominaciones de Origen (DO) in Spain. But rather than breaking with tradition, they tweaked it, marrying tried-and-true methods with innovative techniques. José reminisced about the hard work he endured as a child: carrying harvest baskets for hours, until his clothes turned purple with grape juice; climbing inside the wine casks to clean them because he was the only person small enough to fit inside. Spending his early years with his father and grandfather, tending the vines and maintaining the winery fostered an attachment to the process, the people, and the property. As he put it, “I learned how to love the wine in childhood. It all turned to passion.”
At Cepa 21, the Moro brothers honor many traditions initiated by their father. The winery’s name refers to the grape (cepa) in this case Tempranillo, and 21 signifies the 21st century and a new way of looking at things. One of the secrets passed down from their father was a particular clone of Tinto Fino (as Tempranillo is known here), one whose grapes are smaller and the clusters looser than comparable versions. Moro says this lends more structure to the finished wines and, of course, more personality.
They also inherited dad’s respect for the terroir, understanding the need to plant on hillsides that help keep the vines cool during the long, hot summer and protect them from frost in the fall. All of the Cepa 21 parcels lie on north-facing slopes, at altitudes between 700 and 850 meters, in the coldest stretch of Ribera del Duero. Soils are a mix of loam, chalk, and clay, lending the wines freshness, finesse, and structure, respectively.
Innovation – Deliberate Steps Toward the Future
Moro fervently believes that innovation, for its own sake, matters little. Instead it must fit hand-in-glove with tradition, enhancing the quality of the wine, the brand, the legacy. He and his brother took this idea to heart when designing the modern winery, insisting that it become part of the living landscape of the countryside, rather than a reflection of “architectural design and fashionable, marketable concepts.” As such the winery mirrors the soul of Cepa 21.
Cepa 21 uses no irrigation or chemicals, and its 124 acres have been certified organic. Inside the winery they embrace the use of natural yeasts, selecting those that best enhance the personality of the wines they seek to create. Winemaking techniques pay tribute to what Moro calls the Balance Triangle: the delicate dance of acidity, alcohol, and structure. Only in understanding the terroir, respecting the grapes, and upholding quality standards within the winery can such elusive balance be achieved.
Away from the winery, the Moro brothers embrace another phenomenon of 21st century life – social media. José believes platforms like Twitter and Instagram drive communications strategies for modern businesses and, as you might suspect, he and the winery have cultivated a following of nearly 50,000 devotees. An impressive feat, especially considering that many wineries have not yet grasped the importance of social media to their overall marketing success. At our dinner in Miami, Moro emphasized his interest in connecting with all of us afterward and being “tagged” in any tweets or articles we posted. I wish all winemakers would adopt this practice.
Social Responsibility – The Emilio Moro Foundation
Concurrent with his role as winemaker at Cepa 21, José Moro also chairs the Emilio Moro Foundation, which seeks to improve daily living conditions for disadvantaged people around the world. Galvanizing its efforts around the slogan, Wine Helps Water, the foundation has recently launched efforts in Sri Lanka, Nicaragua, and Peru to make clean water available and accessible outside of major metropolitan areas. And, each year, the Foundation donates all proceeds from its Clon de la Familia wine, to designated projects such as rehabilitating classrooms in the Philippines (2015).
When I step back and think about the philosophy of the Moro brothers, the one word that comes to me is equilibrium. Just as Moro explained the idea of the Balance Triangle in crafting superior wines, it seems the company’s ethos is predicated on an artist’s appreciation for a different kind of balance – the deftly-managed juggling act between corporate growth and good citizenry. It’s the Character Triangle: equal parts tradition, innovation, and social responsibility.
And Now, the Wines
José Moro enthusiastically dubs Tempranillo the “Authentic Protagonist” or true star of Cepa 21. After tasting through four wines with him, it’s easy to understand why. All in all, Cepa 21 and Emilio Moro produce nine different wines from the grape and, according to Moro, each one is unique. Tempranillo expresses itself differently depending on the age of the vines, the elevation and exposure of the vineyard, and the use (or not) of oak (French or American.) The four described below took us from one end of the style continuum to the other.
2016 Hito Rosado (100% Tempranillo; SRP about $10 US)
The Cepa 21 website lauds this wine as the “freshest, most aromatic version of our grape” and, in 2016 the vines were treated to plentiful rainfall during winter followed by one of the driest summers in recent years. Workers had the luxury of harvesting individual plots as they reached optimum ripeness. Grapes macerated for 24 hours and the must fermented for 20 days at 57 degrees Fahrenheit. The wine rested on its lees for one month before bottling.
Color: A beautiful whisper of pink, this wine is pale – much lighter in intensity than most rosés I see on the market – as if just barely kissed by the skins.
Nose: The website is correct – this wine is profoundly aromatic! I never think of Tempranillo as very distinctive on the nose but this one has lovely notes of strawberry and raspberry and a touch of cream.
Palate: Tart red fruit, a little lemon zest, and bright acidity make this a most refreshing quaff, especially if you live in South Florida. As I ponder it more, I’m struck by the lean, clean structure of the wine whose hard edges have been delicately shaved off by the lees-aging. It finishes cleanly, with lasting notes of strawberry. For me, this is a well-balanced wine perfect for sipping or pairing with grilled seafood. For the price, it’s off-the-charts good!
2015 Hito Tempranillo (100% Tempranillo; SRP about $15 US)
Hito is the Spanish word for milestone, usually a stone that has been carved to indicate direction on a path. I think you could consider it a directive to purchase a bottle of this wine for yourself, as soon as possible. The youngster of the Cepa 21 line-up, this wine is crafted from the youngest vines and is intended for early drinking. It spent just eight months in second-and third-use French oak. Moro believed it was important to offer a full array of wines, from fresh, young Rosado to more complex wines meant for aging.
Color: Dark ruby red to the rim, with glints of violet sparkling throughout. As pale as the Rosado was, this wine is densely colored.
Nose: A profusion of red and black fruit – raspberry, blackberry – and soft hints of vanilla. A touch of herbs adds to the bouquet.
Palate: This wine has intense black fruit flavors framed with medium tannins and medium acidity. There are notes of mint and licorice on the long finish. It’s a powerful wine that begs for a nice slab of steak or some lamb chops.
2015 Cepa 21 Tempranillo (100% Tempranillo; SRP about $27 US)
This is the flagship wine of Cepa 21 and, according to Moro, 2015 was the “best vintage ever.” Vineyards enjoyed warm, dry weather from April to July, when the rains arrived to help cool things down and prevent vine stress. Large diurnal shifts in temperature during the growing season optimized the maturation process and ensured complete phenolic ripening.
Color: Another bright ruby red wine, with color saturated to the rim.
Nose: Intense aromas of black cherry, currants, and blackberry mingle with notes of vanilla cream and thyme.
Palate: Juicy black fruit flavors dominate, followed by dried herbs and notes of vanilla and coconut. Medium+ tannins and a bright ribbon of acidity provide structure and body. There’s a lot going on here! The finish is long and intense, with notes of licorice and blackberry jam. This is a warm and inviting wine; one to linger over with a special friend.
2011 Malabrigo (100% Tempranillo; SRP about $70 US)
Malabrigo, which translates from the Spanish as “bad coat” is an homage to the brutally cold temperatures that define this single-vintage wine. Moro called upon his own memories of pruning the vines in mid-winter – and freezing! – when he designed the label. He shared the story of one particular day when the wind was howling, and all the workers gathered at the base of a tree to share lunch and a communal bottle of wine. Moro reflected that those days were indeed “the heart of this work.” The 2011 is the 11th vintage for Malabrigo, and I’m thrilled I had the chance to taste it.
Color: Medium ruby with glints of garnet toward the edge.
Nose: Intense blackberry and cherry notes mix with an herbal component and a touch of leather, making for one delicious-smelling wine!
Palate: The fruit is blackberry compote over vanilla ice cream, without all the sugar. There’s a sprinkling of herbes de provence and a hint of leather and dirt, too. Tannins? Check. Acidity? Just right. This wine is the epitome of balance and finesse, and it will probably still evolve. Just a beauty!
And Now, the Food
Coya Miami dished up some seriously gorgeous plates to accompany the Cepa 21 wines. While based on traditional Peruvian cuisine, the menu explores flavors on a global level. The restaurant itself is intriguing, with décor ranging from graffiti-chic in the private dining room, to industrial-modern architecture in the main salon. They have a beautiful, candle-lit terrace perfect for al fresco dining in the heart of Miami. I love how they describe themselves: “Inclusively Latin, exclusively for everyone.”
I’ve captured a few photos of the courses we enjoyed, as well as a copy of the tasting menu; they cannot possibly do justice to the real thing! As for service, it was perfection, with appropriate respect given to the wines – proper temperatures, glassware, and serving protocol. The whole evening was such a wonderful experience that I look forward to returning with family and friends.
Grácias a Todos
Thank you, Cepa 21, José Moro, María Fernández, and Coya Miami for an enjoyable, informative, and eye-opening evening. I loved learning about the philosophy behind the wines and the traditions they were built on. And I appreciated your generosity in sharing your personal stories about them. I hope to revisit both the wines and the lovely food of Coya again soon.