In Spain, eating lamb, and especially milk-fed and suckling lamb, is practically a religion. Usually it’s quartered and roasted in a big terra cotta cazuela in a dome-shaped, wood-burning oven, emerging so tender you can cut the meat with a spoon. That’s the way I had it last fall at Restaurante Mannix in Ribera del Duero, where some of Spain’s best reds are made from the Tempranillo grape. Compared with Tempranillo stronghold Rioja, where many of the historic cellars date from the 19th century, Ribera del Duero is a relative newcomer. But in both wine regions, lamb and Tempranillo rule the table.
You could spend a week in that part of the world and eat lamb every day, either as tiny chops grilled over vine cuttings the way the winemakers like to do it or roasted in a wood-burning oven. Here, lamb isn’t such an everyday dish. And a roast leg of lamb is usually reserved for special occasions or at the very least Sunday dinner. You can drink a Pinot Noir or Syrah with lamb, but those Spaniards from Rioja and Ribera del Duero know that Tempranillo is an especially pleasing match. The lush, full-bodied red does a lovely two-step with the sweet, tender meat. That’s exactly what’s meant by a synergy between the wine and the food of a specific corner of the world.
2005 La Rioja Alta Viña Ardanza Reserva Rioja ($30 to $40)
This old-school Rioja from the La Rioja Alta, an estate that dates to 1890, is consistently worth seeking out for its quality-to-price ratio. The latest release is the 2005, and it has everything going for it: gorgeous fruit, enticing aromas of red fruit, sweet spices and tobacco, and a long, smooth finish. Tannins are soft and round, the effect elegant. A blend of Tempranillo with 20% Garnacha (Grenache), the 2005 Viña Ardanza is layered with complex flavors yet still fresh at 10 years of age. You keep going back to the glass to see how the wine evolves through the meal. Distributed by Golden State Wine Co. (818) 908-9509.
2006 Lopez de Heredia Rioja Viña Cubillo Crianza Rioja ($25 to $29)
Hard to believe that you can get an organic Rioja from the 2006 vintage — almost 9 years old — for $25. But then Lopez de Heredia’s Viña Cubillo has always been a bargain. A blend of Tempranillo and Garnacha, with a little Mazuelo and Graciano, the deep red wine is bottled unfiltered. You want character? This traditional Rioja has strong red fruit, with notes of pepper and spice. It may not be Lopez de Heredia’s top Rioja, but it’s one you can welcome to the table often. Imported by Vienna Wine Co. (510) 848-6879.
2011 Pago de Carraovejas Crianza Ribera del Duero ($45 to $54)
The 2011 Crianza from Pago de Carraovejas in Ribera del Duero tastes rich and burnished yet has something wild and untamed in its character. It’s 93% Tempranillo with just a touch of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Drinking this impressive Tempranillo takes you back somehow to a old taverna in the countryside, where, of course, you’d be feasting on roast lamb cooked in the fireplace. It’s the most expensive bottle in this grouping, and worth it. You might want to open it an hour or so before serving. Imported by Authentic Wine Selections. (510) 486-8347.