In a Wine Advocate article last year Luis Gutierrez observed: We all drink fresh wines and love Burgundy, people talk a lot about Galicia, Atlantic, cool-climate wines and about up-and-coming regions like the Canary Islands. But the warmer regions can also produce great wines, and I think the time for Mediterranean wines has come, as there is a small group of pioneers that have pushed the limits, broken barriers and prejudices, understood their grape varieties and terroirs, and produced wines that express where they come from with pride. Pride to be Mediterranean.
We’re also fans of Mediterranean Spain and are proud to have a selection of these pioneers on our list. We paid them a visit last month, to find out how they make balanced, elegant wines in this sun-drenched corner of Europe.
Making Monastrell great.
The first winery we visited, an hour and a half inland from the popular beaches of the Costa Blanca, was Casa Castillo. In a region that has little ambition to make fine wines José María Vincente is a notable exception. Since taking his family vineyards back from tenant farmers 30 years ago José María has been constantly learning and improving, and putting his faith in grapes like Monastrell and Garnacha which express this Mediterranean place best.
When we arrived they were preparing to host an event called Futuro Viñador, a collective of winemakers who are committed to sharing knowledge and practicing viticulture that is deeply rooted in the places and people. We started tasting their 2021 vintages under an open marquee with a panoramic view of his vineyards. Export manager Jose-Luis Hernandez explained that 2021 was the perfect Mediterranean vintage, with a little rainfall just before harvest. Their mainstay – Monastrell – is late ripening – so it’s in these warm vintages, when it achieves good ripeness that the wines have extra depth and complexity, with nuance and detail to balance the power.
“We need to be precise in the vineyard and in the winery to make fresh wines in Jumilla”.
José María Vincente, Casa Castillo.
A restless pursuit of precision.
Our next stop was Bodegas Ponce, an hour and a half north in Manchuela. The area was made a separate DO from La Mancha in 2000, it’s flat with vineyards on bright terracotta earth, and wheat fields stretching to the horizon. This is ‘la España profonde’ still a traditional rural area.
One of the first things Juan-Antonio said when we arrived at his bodega was: “Precision is important”. He explained that this starts in the vineyard, he doesn’t buy grapes, him and his small team mange 70 hectares – 50 of which he owns, 20 are rented. He’s recently re-planted the plot in front of the winery, rather than at right angles the vines are planted at 60 degrees making a diamond pattern. This means he can cultivate in both directions, not just along rows, which reduces soil compaction and allows soil microbes to thrive, a foundation of the biodynamic viticulture he practices. Planting is low density, with three metres between vines, but he encourages a high crop load on each plant, which slows maturation leading to lower overall sugar accumulation. This is a key distinction for making fresh wines in such a warm area, Ponce harvests 25 days later than other local vineyards and still achieves lower alcohol in his wines.
As we embarked on a tour and tasting in his bodega it became apparent all the areas where he applied his quest for precision. It starts with picking decisions, he crushes the berries in his hands and tastes to understand when they are ready. Grapes are brought to a cool room in the winery to chill down for 24 hours before fermentation. This is important because he doesn’t use temperature control, allowing ferments to go naturally, so by starting cool they will start in a slower more controlled way. He uses a vertical press which extracts low amounts of solids, as he’s looking for clean juice. He tastes the juice straight after pressing which he says already starts to tell him the character of the grapes that year, which is what he’s trying to get into the bottle, not the imprint of the winemaker.
There’s a perceptible energy to the wines, which they share with their creator, Ponce is excited to taste and discuss the wines with us, scooting around the cellar and taking samples from the large oak casks.
There is huge attention to detail at all levels, for Clos Lojen, one of his entry level cuvees he sources and vinifies from different plots, each bringing a different element to the final blend. The 2022, still in vats, was sappy and floral on the nose with great acidity, chalky tannins and a juicy fruit finish.
Ponce is really pleased with La Casilla, from 4 parcels around the village of Inesta. It’s currently in two large barrels: the first had a lovely almost Beaujolais quality to the fruit with firm chalky tannins; the second comes from a vineyard he’s just started working with, which has a smattering of Moravia Agria, continuing the Beaujolais theme this would be Morgon with bigger tannin. PF comes from a 100 year old vineyard planted on it’s own roots – Pie Franco means own feet, or roots, in Spanish. These are some of very few ungrafted vines in Machuela, the 2022 in barrel is quite savoury and musky on the nose, with juicy black cherry on the palette, fine tannins and a really long finish.
And let’s not forget the whites, we tasted the 2022 in bottle, this wine (previously labelled as Reto) is now called Ponce Blanco. It has a beautiful mix of fennel, flowers and quince on the nose; a slight salty grip and an energetic fresh, citric, mineral finish. Also excitingly we tasted a new top white from barrel, from a single vineyard, which will be called Albillo Seleccion. 20% of the wine is matured in new 1000l French oak. It’s looking impressive already, with a rich spicy nose, huge concentration and a very long finish.
Bobal in the vineyards
The following day we visited more of Ponce’s vineyards. First the 3.3ha plot which goes into Ponce, a blend of Bobal with 15% Moravia Agria, that he is proud enough of to give his family name. This co-ferment is aged in a single foudre to give consistency to all the bottles, he had previously aged it in barrels but saw small differences, he wants the wine to 100% reflect the vineyard. Luis Gutiérrez is also impressed commenting: “this has to be one of the finest wines in central Spain”, and awarded the 2020 vintage 98 points on The Wine Advocate. Ponce and his team are currently green pruning, which they do while the shoots are soft as it’s less work. Ponce says that if you do this well you don’t need to leaf-pluck later in the year, the key is getting the timing right and having a skilled team of workers who understand what they’re doing.
Bobal needs heat, Ponce explains, the inflorescences can dry out if it’s cold during flowering leading to less grape bunches. His secret is to encourage large bunches with large grapes – the low skin to juice ratio gives fresh wines. Conversely small grapes would yield concentrated overly tannic wines. Mediterranean grapes are well adapted to the warm climate, they tend to have large leaves which protect the grapes from the baking summer sunshine. But if you plant vines too closely they won’t have the vigour to produce enough leaves to shade the grapes adequately, which would lead to overripe alcoholic wines.
We left feeling much better informed about the Bobal grape, which despite being the second most planted red in Spain, after Tempranillo, is mostly hidden in bulk blends. In the right hands, with focus Ponce is showing it is capable of much greater things.
Envinate, the fearless foursome
It was time to jump into our cars again to meet Envinate, a collective for four young winemakers who met at college and now make a a range of incredibly sought after wines in three areas of Spain. We met at their new winery in Villamalea where they vinify Albahra, perhaps their lesser know cuvee, which could be because the vineyards in Almansa aren’t quite as dramatic and photogenic as those in Tenerife and Ribiera Sacra! That could be about to change, they put equal attention to detail into Albahra, a blend of Garnacha Tintorera from Alpera and Moravia Agria which grows near the winery. Moravia Agria has low colour, and really fresh acidity, Roberto explains: it has a lot of tension and needs aeration to soften, therefore they age it in neutral oak. It has a sweet smell, a bit like like Dolcetto, dusty tannin, and a slight slight herbaceousness. They vinify the Garnacha Tintorera in concrete to keep it fresher. They source Garnacha from several vineyards, which they vinify separately, adjusting the percentage of stems depending on the site.
And then came lunch, and what a lunch it was. Who could have guessed the otherwise sleepy village outside Albacete was home to a boutique hotel and gastronomic restaurant Cañitas Maite. We were very luck to taste the entire Envinate range from 2021 paired with exquisite small plates. Highlights? Delicate wild strawberry and garrigue of La Santa paired with oxtail disguised as a donut! Spice and earthiness of Migan with local mushrooms and smoked potato puree. All the courses and pairings had been carefully thought through, proof – if any is needed – that modern Spanish wines can sit at the top table of any gastronomic restaurant.
After lunch we just had time to visit the vineyard in Alpera, planted with a field blend, around 50% Garnacha Tintorerra, but including some white grapes. The team have worked this vineyard for several years and taken half the crop, but now they’ve bought it and plan to make some changes. It had been pruned to give high yields, they’re taking it back to two shoots to give the vines a better balance. They’re currently blending the wine into Albahra, but may make a single vineyard cuvee from here in future. Watch this space for updates!
Back to his roots
Our next destination was La Font de la Figuera, inland between Valencia and Murcia, and home of Javi Revert’s small garage winery. Javi has strong roots here in his home region, he studied viticulture in Valencia, and his family have farmed here for several generations. I’ve heard Javi talk about walking with his grandfather in the hills behind their family farm, discovering the vines his great-grandfather had planted, which are the foundations of his project. The picture is much clearer now I’ve walked through them myself, feeling the drop in temperature as you walk up the slopes, the plots are between 750-850 masl, and smelling the fragrant aromas from the herbs and plants that grow freely between the vineyards.
Javi works with the higher north facing plots on his family’s land, the soils are sandy on a fractured limestone base which the roots can penetrate. Micalet was the first vineyard he saw when he came to the area, it was established in 1940 with eight different grapes, including Tortosí, Trepadell, Merseguera and Verdil. He’s just started to age the eponymous white he makes from this plot in concrete eggs, to better express the chalky soils. Last year he took a massal selection of cuttings from this old vineyard to propagate the vineyard next door. He planted American rootstocks two years ago, to give them time to bed in, and earlier this year – with the help of the vineyard team from Casa Castillo – hand-grafted the young Micalet scions onto the roots. He had the cuttings screened for viruses so the diversity is not just preserved but strengthened. Finally we scaled the steep slope to his highest vineyard, which he planted in 2018, and will become a new red wine called Foradà made from Garnacha and Arcos. He’s done electro-conductivity tests to assess the soils, which are very diverse, and he bases his harvest decisions on the soil type rather than the grape variety.
We tasted the new releases from 2021 and 22, which will be in the UK later this summer. Micalet has been aged in concrete eggs for the first time. Simeta 2021 (100% Arcos) was floral with a warm earth spice and a fine chalky structure. New wine Foradà from the highest vineyard had mouthwatering acidity and a lovely balance of ripe strawberry, aniseed and liquorice. It’s impressive to see his clear vision for reviving these old vineyard sites and local grape varieties to produce distinct and delicious wines.
Rafael Cambra inspired by tradition
Our final visit of the trip was to Rafael Cambra, who started his project in 2001. Rafa explained that Valencia is an ancient area for winemaking, the Moors built terraces, and the landscape still retains the Mediterranean culture of mixing vines, cereal, almond and olive trees. He plants bush vines at a high density for the region (4,000 vines per hectare), as he says that the local varieties like Forcalla, Arcos and Bonicaire benefit from competition. These native grapes weren’t favoured in more recent times, they have less colour, lower alcohol and ripen later, but Rafa prefers later ripening varietals which he says show their place better.
Rafa trained in Bordeaux and worked in Rioja prior to starting his own project, initially he used a lot of barriques in the winery as is customary of both places. Now he prefers to use larger neutral oak, concrete and amphorae, which were used traditionally in the area and bring more freshness to the wines. Our tour came to a close with a fantastic lunch of paella – what else when in Valencia. And we made a discovery that Soplo – the fresh, perfumed quintessential Mediterranean red blend – has a sister wine Soplo Blanco. We’ve got a couple of pallets on reserve because we’re sure this zesty white with a lovely mix of green apple, citrus and green herbs will become an instant hit on your list.
While we were enjoying lunch there were rolls of thunder and a huge downpour bringing very welcome rain to what has been an extremely dry spring in the south of Spain. All the winemakers we met will be thankful about that, here’s to 2023 being another celebrated Mediterranean vintage.
What’s in stock?
The 2021 vintage of Casa Castillo Monastrell is already available, Las Gravas and Pie Franco 2021 will be released in the autumn, we have previous vintages in stock. Read more about Casa Castillo on our blog.
The first 2022 releases from Ponce have just arrived, we have limited stock of 2021 of Buena Pinta, La Casilla, PF and Ponce.
We have limited stock of Envinate 2021 wines, speak to your sales rep for details.
New releases of Javi Revert‘s wines will be in the UK later this summer. In the meantime snap up the last of Micalet 2021 and Simeta 2020.
Rafael Cambra – good stock of Soplo Tinto and El Bonne Homme, watch out for Soplo Blanco and other new cuvees arriving later in the summer.