Based on discovery of grape seeds at burial sites, wine has been grown in the Valencia region of eastern Spain for more than 2,700 years.
The Utiel-Requena appellation, one of the main regions of Valenica, is about 65km from the coast and has a Mediterranean climate with hot summers and mild winters.
This region has changed its approach since 1999, moving from production of bulk wine to a focus on quality. Many of the 100 wineries are organic and some have embraced bio-dynamic approaches. The latter is a more sophisticated and complex form of organic winemaking, using among other things phases of the moon for planting and harvesting.
Wine has become this appellation’s main economic driver, employing about 6,000 families.
Bobal is the main grape and it occupies a reported three quarters of the 35,000 hectares. It is indigenous to the area. Scientific research shows that Bobal contains one of the highest concentrations of resveratrol, the substance in grapes said to be good for cardiovascular health. But medical opinion is divided on the benefits of this substance, also found on the skins of blueberries, mulberries and raspberries.
Spain has more vineyards than any country but is only the third highest producer in the world. This is partly due to small yields because of low rainfall and poor soils, plus wide spaces between vines. Many vines in Utiel-Requena are bush vines; that is each vine is an isolated bush rather than being planted in concentrated rows.
After Spain joined the European Union its wine laws were brought into line with those of other nations. Each autonomous region administers a five-tier classification system. Vino de Mesa are similar in quality to most country’s house wines while Vinos de la Tierra are like vin de pays in France. Vino de Calidad Producido en Región Determinada (VCPRD) are like France’s Vin Delimite de Qualite Superieur (VDQS) system and is considered a stepping stone towards DO status.
Denominación de Origen (abbreviated as DO) tends to be the mainstream quality level. Denominación de Origen Calificada (DOCa/DOQ) is the designation similar to Italy’s Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita (DOCG, translated as “controlled and guaranteed designation of origin”). Each represents the best quality in these countries.
A fascinating feature of winemaking in the area is the use of clay amphora. These are huge jars holding anywhere between 200 and 4,500 litres. The most typical size is between 1,000 and 2,500 litres.
Casa Los Frailes is one the most impressive estates in Valencia. Jesuit friars planted the vineyard in the thirteenth century. In 1767 King Carlos III expelled the Jesuits from Spain. Casa Los Frailes has belonged to the Velazquez family since 1771, and in 1999 the thirteenth generation converted the property to organic viticulture and is working towards bio-dynamic certification. The results are impressive – pristine and pure fruit delivering wines of rare beauty and power. The 2011 Casa Los Frailes 1771 made from Monastrell beautifully represents the quality of the estate, while the 2014 Blanc de Trilogia (a blend of Sauvignon Blanc, Muscat and Verdil) is zingy yet complex and will match with almost any Asian food.
Miguel Velazquez, winemaker and managing director, believes Monastrell grows well on his estate. “Our Monastrell are bush vines, some more than 75 years old, and they make unique wine.” Yields are low, at about 2.5 tonnes per hectare (about 3,000 bottles) but the wines are superb examples of the Mediterranean terroir.
Bobal is Spain’s second most planted grape, after Tempranillo. Between 2000 and 2014 plantings of Tempranillo soared 42 per cent to 205,187 hectares. But plantings of the other main red varieties declined over the same time frame. Spain had 64,293 hectares of Bobal in 2014, a decline of 35 per cent since 2000. Garnacha with 62,841 hectares in 2014 was also down 38 per cent over the same period.
Monastrell is Spain’s fourth most planted grape. It has been grown in the Spanish Mediterranean since the twelfth century. An international conference about this variety was held in Alicante, on Spain’s Mediterranean coast, in mid November to change perceptions and celebrate the grape. The location was appropriate given that Alicante, along with the Protected Designations of Origin of Almansa, Jumilla and Yecla have the most hectares of Monastrell in Spain.
In 2014 Spain had 45,213 hectares of Monastrell. This was 44 per cent lower than 14 years earlier. The variety lost favour because it is difficult to grow, needing lots of sunshine and water. The conference heard that with climate change the time was right for a Monastrell revival.
Monastrell probably evolved around the Spanish Mediterranean city of Murviedro near Valencia. This explains the name the French gave the grape – Mouverdre comes from Mourvèdre in the Catalan dialect – when they introduced it in the early sixteenth century.
In Australia the grape is called Mataro. That name is believed to have come from the Spanish town of Mataro, near Barcelona.
Dave Brookes, a wine writer from Australia, told the conference that Monastrell has 95 synonyms in his country, such as Balzac. Australia has the oldest Mataro vines in the world. Dean Hewitson makes a beautiful Old Garden Mataro from vines planted in 1853 in the Barossa Valley of South Australia.
Brookes believes Monastrell has a bright future because of global warming. “In countries where temperatures are rising, Monastrell is the ideal grape. It loves the heat, whereas Syrah shuts down when the temperatures get too high.”
Special mention must be made of the beautiful wines of Antonio Sarrion Martinez at Bodega Mustiguillo near Utiel. Martinez believes the region has great potential provided it concentrates on quality rather than bulk wine. His 2014 La Garnacha de Mustiguillo is one of the best wines we’ve tasted this year, with its perfumed nose and delicate body, plus a dream-like intensity in the mouth.
Disclosure: The authors were the guest of IVACE,Valencia’s business development agency, while in Spain.
VINEYARDS OF VALENCIA