Atrio is an unexpected discovery: a contemporary structure set against the surrounding medieval town, far more captivating that its anonymity would suggest. The pair behind this achievement, José and Toño, explain how, they created at their restaurant one of Spain’s most prestigious wine cellar.
Interview of José Luis Paniagua, Atrio’s wine director
1) You’re not a winemaker, yet you chose to give wine a prominent place in your restaurant.
When did you know you wanted to dedicate your life to wine? How did you start your collection?
We started our wine collection almost at the same time as we opened Atrio in 1986. We thought having an interesting selection of wines could make us a food destination as well as a destination for wine lovers. Wine is something that may come to you by chance but if you begin to take an interest in it, it’s something that you cannot leave behind, and then it becomes your passion.
2) Is Extremadura a special region for producing wine? Does this region have an important wine culture?
Extremadura is an important wine region in terms of quantity but not in quality. It’s true that the quality has improved significantly in the last few years and today there is a range of wineries producing very good wines. The wine culture in Extremadura goes far back, with the Romans creating vineyards. It’s true there has always been an important interest in wine, but the soil and climate aren’t the best for making outstanding wines.
3) What are your favorite wines?
I think here at Atrio, we remain very traditional in terms of what we like about wine at this point. We are big on France because it’s the only country that produces outstanding wines in large quantities. Bordeaux, Burgundy, Champagne, Rhone are almost unbeatable. Germany is also very interesting in terms of white wines. Spain, in terms of reds, is always solid, and we always keep an eye on Italy and Portugal.
4) When you built the wine cellar what were you looking for in terms of architecture?
Creating a wine cellar for Atrio was an idea shared between the owners and the architects. It was important to create a space where the wines could be kept under the best conditions and which our guests could visit and see our wonderful collection.
5) How does the chef work with the sommelier? How important is wine to the menu?
We always work closely in pairing wines and dishes. Sometimes the chef creates an outstanding dish and the sommelier then decides which wine is best, and other times we have guests who come to Atrio with the idea of drinking a specific bottle of wine and it’s the chef who creates a menu to go with that wine. For us the wine is the best beverage to go with food; we believe a good dish isn’t the same if it isn’t paired with wine. We believe the wines enhance the experience of dining at Atrio.
6) In contrast to selecting a wine to pair with a dish, do you sometimes imagine a dish to be paired with a specific wine?
Always! As soon as I taste a wine, I start thinking about the type of dish that could enhance the wine. If the wine has briny notes, I think it might go well with seafood. If the wine has earthy, leathery, cigar-box aromas, I start thinking about the kind of meat and type of preparation that are best for that wine. This is part of our job.
7) How do you advise guests in their choice of wine?
Today we have to be very attentive because we don’t know who is in front of us. I think it’s very important to listen to the guests’ likes, to know how much they want to spend, to know if they want a wine that’s familiar, or if they prefer to drink something completely new. The most important thing is to make the guest experience unforgettable and to advise the guest on choosing the right wine considering the previous elements.