There are endless routes to achieve exclusivity. Just ask Mugaritz chef Andoni Luis Aduriz, who has cast aside conventional rules on wine service. The Basque restaurant, 21st on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants, has made the most of the six months it closes every year (the whole winter and part of autumn and spring) to develop its own collection of wines.
The new range is the result of various partnerships with leading Spanish wine producers -plus two sakes and a likely future incursion abroad- and has been described as "a living and evolving series of wines that can only be enjoyed at Mugaritz". The name of the project, Vis à Vis, emphasises this strong bond with "like-minded and inspiring people".
The aim is for Vis à Vis to eventually represent 80% of Mugaritz's cellar. While wines made exclusively for restaurants are not new -in fact, we are witnessing a growing international trend-, we are not aware of any other range of this size and relevance. In addition to 15 wines and a cider (listed at the end of the article), there are more wines in the pipeline, such as the one by Priorat superstar Álvaro Palacios, which required further bottle ageing. Production ranges between 300 and 400 bottles.
The idea stems from Andoni Luis Aduriz's own reflections and customer satisfaction studies carried out for the restaurant. "We thought that people came to Mugaritz to enjoy the food, but we realised that what customers really appreciated was the experience they had, and that includes the whole concept: the cuisine, the service, and all the emotional and symbolic aspects. In fact, we started to develop dishes to be paired with specific wines in order to strengthen the perceived experience. The result was enhanced as we went a step further and looked for exceptional experiences", explains the Basque chef. Some examples in this regard include past collaborations with Château d'Yquem or with González Byass to turn the veil of yeasts usually found in sherry into a solid, edible dish.
Aduriz is a chef who cares about wine: "I have always been interested in it. I'm not just a cook, I'm also a foodie who looks at wine in terms of enjoyment," he notes. He even took a course at the Sommelier School in Barcelona in the early 1990s and wrote a letter to Custodio Zamarra, sommelier at Zalacaín restaurant in Madrid, requesting an internship.
He has always been attracted to historic wines like Greece's retsina, tea wines aged in pine tree casks in La Palma (Canary Islands) or Santorini's vin santo ("you realise the urban pressure in an island that has embraced a profitable way of life but has neglected the farming traditions that transport you to ancient times"), as well as Sherry. "The Sherry region is one of the few places in the world where you can take something unique, which is just for you, and accumulate an unimaginable amount of time," he says.
He is now set to apply to wine the same groundbreaking, risk-taking approach that he has always practiced with his cooking. Aduriz wants to choose what diners drink, too. "Mugaritz has shaken up all protocols. The menu does not exist and we are absolutely unconventional in the way we design the meal and its different dishes. We don't serve bread, sometimes cutlery is absent from the table, and we encourage people not only to eat with their hands, but also with their bodies. What's the point for a restaurant that has done away with all those conventions to have a formal wine list? I don't need 10,000 wines; that's outdated; it's like having 100 pieces of silver cutlery. I don't need any of that in a totally creative and free house".
This radical approach, however, will be somewhat nuanced as 20% of his cellar will include iconic wines. "If a guy wants to drink a Romanée Conti or Vega Sicilia, he'll be able to, but we will not provide a physical wine list. These two elements [Vis à Vis and classic wines] should allow us to meet any request", he explains. This year, in fact, Mugaritz offered two paired menus: Vis à Vis and one with top international wines.
Operational issues also play a role, particularly the high turnover of sommeliers, which imply changes in the management of the cellar depending on who is in charge at any given time. Aduriz acknowledges that the ongoing legal dispute with Guillermo Cruz had an impact in his change of approach. Cruz, who worked at Mugaritz between 2012 and 2019, is accused of misappropriating wine worth upwards of €30,000.
"Sommeliers are to cuisine what surgeons are to medicine. They focus on a very specific area and I had never interfered out of respect,” says Aduriz. “I don’t mean to take over their role. I just don’t want to hand a key element of the house to people who are just passing through. Two of the four sommeliers in this year’s team will not continue the following season."
One of them is Korean-born head sommelier Haemin Song, who, together with Javier Vergara, a veteran member of the R&D department, has overseen the Vis à Vis project. Song, however, will continue to manage it during the months when the restaurant is closed.
Th life of this Business Administration graduate who left a well-paid, yet boring job in her country to seek new horizons changed when she was put in charge of a group of Korean chefs visiting Spain’s three-Michelin-star restaurants. Soon after, she embarked on a master’s degree in gastronomy and during her first internship at Carme Ruscalleda’s Sant Pau restaurant near Barcelona, she discovered “the magic of wine in the dining room”. After passing her WSET Diploma and gaining experience at top restaurants such as El Celler de Can Roca in Catalonia and Azurmendi in the Basque Country, she joined Mugaritz in 2019 and became head Sommelier in 2021.
The Vis à Vis collection started out with a map of styles and categories to meet the needs of a paired menu at Mugaritz. Later, the restaurant team sought out and visited producers to find the right wine in each case.
"Not all the partnerships we wanted were possible," says Song. "It's not easy for some producers to accommodate our requests. We let them design the labels if they want to because we like to treat the producer as an artist; otherwise, we work with our graphic design studio, which creates a unique label for each wine.”
The philosophy of each producer also comes into play here. Rafael Palacios, for example, is usually reluctant to this sort of collaborations, but he wanted to support a chef who has always distinguished himself for caring about wine.
One of the most remarkable projects is the one with 4 Kilos in Mallorca. "We are as weird as them," Song jokes. The wine, a complex, spicy Callet with refined notes of pink pepper, had a dish specifically designed for it: a sobrasada, the island’s traditional sausage, but made only from dried tomatos. This is, hands down, one of the best pairings of the Vis à Vis menu. The label, a still life with allusions to pork and vegetables, was designed by the producer.
The most appealing thing of the Vis à Vis wines is that they are not generally on release. Grapes for Rafael Palacios's Godello, for example, were sourced from a very old vineyard planted to a wealth of grape varieties which was re-grafted with Godello plant material from O Soro and Souto, two of Palacios's best plots. From Rioja comes an unreleased vintage of Remirez de Ganuza's new single-vineyard sourced from a site called La Rad in San Vicente de la Sonsierra.
One the most original wines is a multi-regional blend crafted by Mario Rovira (Akilia) in his winery in Bierzo. He blends Palomino from Pago de Miraflores and Balbaína in Sanlúcar and Jerez with Pansa Blanca and Macabeo from Alella, his homeland in Catalonia. The wine was aged in Manzanilla casks. It didn't develop a veil of yeast, but it has retained the umami sapidity one would expect from Jerez’s chalky soils, yet it is lighter and with higher acidity. Oddly enough, the original idea when they contacted Rovira was to produce a red Mencía, but a visit to the winery turned things around.
On other occasions, as is the case with 4 Kilos, Barco del Corneta Verdejo (La Seca, Valladolid) or the Pinot Noir made by Castell d'Encus in the Lleida Pyrenees, the wines come from a specific barrel with distinctive features. Juan Carlos Sancha (Valle del Alto Najerilla, Rioja), in contrast, generously shares one of the three barrels destined to his single-vineyard white Cerro la Isa. Can Ràfols dels Caus provides a Chenin Blanc barrel from the Piula plot.
Showcasing Spanish wines
The main drawback, particularly many of the whites, including the 14% abv. single-vineyard Albariño from Tricó in Rías Baixas, is that they were too young. A curious contrast with other gentler, less structured reds like the Garnachas from Viña Zorzal in Navarra and 4 Monos in Gredos.
Fortunately, there were a couple of mature wines in the menu like the 2012 Cariñena from Sangenís i Vaqué providing the necessary silkiness to tame Priorat's natural power. A nice surprise, although it is not part of the Vis à Vis collection, was a superb Mestres Mas Vía 2000 in magnum. And Song confirmed that they intend to lay down about 30 bottles of each wine.
Given the high number of foreigners dining at Mugaritz, the Vis à Vis menu is a perfect vehicle to showcase the diversity of Spanish wine. "Customers are surprised with such a wide variety of wines in Spain. It's a great discovery for them," Song points out. Obviously, the background and skills of the producers behind the wines adds to the experience.
It will be interesting to follow the project closely, witness the improvement in wine and food pairings and see whether Mugaritz can be a trend-setter. Considering that the project started in 2021, it is impressive that they have managed to put together such a selection of wines in just a few months. For the 2023 season, a sparkling wine has been announced and hopefully Álvaro Palacios's wine is also on the pairing menu. Beyond the promise of living a unique experience, will the Vis à Vis collection add an extra motivation for wine lovers to visit Mugaritz?
15 WINES, TWO SAKES AND A CIDER
Vis à Vis nº0 Malus Mama
Sweet ice cider
Vis à Vis nº1 Barco del Corneta 2021 White
Vis à Vis nº 2 4 Monos 2020 Red
100% Garnacha Tinta
Vis à Vis nº3 Urkizahar White
100% Hondarrabi Zuri
Vis à Vis nº4 4 kilos 2020 Red
Vis à Vis nº5 Remírez de Ganuza 2018 Red
Vis à Vis nº6 Juan Carlos Sancha 2020 White
Garnacha Blanca, Malvasía, Viura, Turruntés, Calagraño
Vis à Vis nº7 Can Rafòls dels Caus 2021 White
100% Chenin Blanc
Vis à Vis nº8 Rafael Palacios 2021 White
Vis à Vis nº9 Sangenís i Vaqué. 2012 Red
Vis à Vis nº10 Castell d´Encus. 2018 Red
100% Pinot Noir
Vis à Vis nº11 Bodega Akilia 2017 White
Palomino, Pansa Blanca, Macabeu
Vis à Vis nº12 Cía. de Vinos Tricó 2018 White
Vis à Vis nº13 Viña Zorzal 2020 Red
100% Garnacha Tinta
Vis à Vis nº 15 Dominio do Bibei. 2019 Red
70% Mouratón, 30% Garnacha Tintorera