Thursday, June 19, 2014

Wine of La Mancha, the Revival

Vineyard in La Mancha (Copyright: ©Richard Semik,/123RF.COM)
La Mancha, Spain, is the setting for Cervantes’ character Don Quixote, who gallantly tilts at windmills in a seriocomic effort to revive the ancient art of chivalry. 

There’s another ancient art in La Mancha – winemaking – and there’s no doubt that it is undergoing a serious revival and is capturing the hearts of wine lovers around the world.

As Spain’s largest D.O. (Denominación de Origen), La Mancha is home to about half of Spain’s total wine production, earning it the reputation as the world’s most extensive vineyard. And, it happens to be home to the world’s most widely planted white wine grape variety, called Airén, which is grown in few other places in the world, and few other places in Spain. But most importantly, the wines from La Mancha are some of the best values you can find on today’s market.

Out of necessity, D.O. La Mancha wines are a model for dry farming, with many drought-stricken Australian wine growers taking cues from the area. La Mancha’s location on the Meseta plateau, just south of Madrid, can be challenging for grape growing, to say the least, with 100+ degree summer temperatures, frequent freezing winter temperatures, wind, and drought.

But what La Mancha has going for it is a consistent soil throughout the vast region, 12-14 hours of sunshine per day during the ripening season, and consistent and steady winds that keep the vines pest-free and healthy. With the introduction of some irrigation and vine trellising systems in the last couple of decades, yields are up and more wine is being produced, but at good quality levels. “Young maverick” winemakers have entered the scene in La Mancha, introducing organic and biodynamic vineyards, and modern vinification techniques such as stainless steel tanks (replacing older concrete ones), fermentation temperature control (a big investment), cold soaking for deeper colored red wines, and whole cluster pressing for less-bitter whites wines.

In other words, D.O. La Mancha is keeping up with modern winemaking times.

A recent “Wines of La Mancha Tasting Seminar” in Los Angeles introduced me to a number of Airén wines,
Try some Airén at your next BBQ
which were simple, clean, crisp, and refreshing. There were also a large variety of other whites, reds, and blended wines from this ancient wine-growing region.

La Mancha’s 400,000+ hectares of vineyards grow 26 varieties of grapes. In addition to the drought-tolerant Airén (which, is being planted less, in favor of Tempranillo) white varietals include Gewürtztraminer, Riesling, Macabeo, Verdejo, Chardonnay, Viognier, Muscat, Sauvignon Blanc, Parellada, Torrontes, and Pedro Ximénez. Red varietals include Tempranillo (also known as Cencibel in Spain), Malbec, Garnacha (Grenache), Petit Verdot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Bobal, Graciano, Merlot, Syrah, Cabernet Franc, Mencia, Moravia, Monastrell, and Pinot Noir.

The presence of several “international varietals” in this grouping reflects the fact that while La Mancha may be an ancient wine region, recent efforts to modernize it have including the planting of such new world varietals as Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, and Syrah.  According to D.O. La Mancha literature, year-over-year sales have grown 10% for the last 10 years, and La Mancha wines are being exported to most major wine consumption markets worldwide, including the U.S.A.

Most of the wines tasted at the L.A. event were priced from $10 to $20, making them some of the best, most affordable wines I’ve experienced. Noteworthy were:

Bodegas el Progresso’s Ojos del Guadiana Crianza, 2009. This 100% Tempranillo had some nice age
(“Crianza” wines must be aged for 24 months minimum, with 6 months in oak), which provided a lovely cherry red color, and a nice balance of oak, tannin, and red fruit, with a long, silky, and pleasing finish. Price, $10.

Bodegas Verguguez’s Nebbia Tempranillo, 2010. Also 100% Tempranillo, had a pronounced floral bouquet, with dried violets. This is a more full-bodied wine, with richer, deeper fruit, more aggressive tannin (but not overly) and a silky long finish. Price, about $15.

I was drawn to Dominio de Punctum organic estate and winery as I always appreciate wineries’ efforts to farm biodynamically and sustainably. It’s Uno de Mil Viognier has a fresh citrusy nose and palate, some creaminess, and white flowers and earthy spices. With just 12.5% alcohol, this fruity and refreshing wine was perfect for a warm sunny afternoon. Price, under $10.

I tasted a few Rosé wines at the event, most from Tempranillo or Grenache graped, all delicious. The Airéns were all young, fairly neutral, but clean, and crisp.

I know I will be heading toward the Spanish wine section of my local retailer as I like finding alternatives to my usual fare, and think a young, crisp Airén will pair nicely with BBQ fish or chicken, and a fruity, full-bodied Tempranillo will go well with my favorite tri-tip recipe. My pocketbook should be happy too.

Until Next Time, Salud!

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