A Spanish treat for all gastronomes ans oenophiles
Last week I wrote about our weekend in lovely and elegant Valencia. The city is certainly worth a long weekend’s visit if you haven’t been. And a bonus. If you are a wine lover (and I don’t know many people who aren’t), you can extend your Spanish trip, as we did, by heading southwest of Valencia into one of Spain’s lesser known, but newly fashionable, wine producing areas. On Monday, after our weekend in Valencia, we did just that.
Helga and I were joined for our wine exploration by Judith and Nigel Adams and Vibeke and Poul Snorgaard from the Algarve. We used as our base the wonderful hotel Montsant, located in Xàtiva, a town of about 25,000 set amidst vine and cypress-covered hillsides. Although the town dates from Roman times, Xàtiva’s main claim to fame is that the two Borja popes, Callixtus III (Alfonso de Borja) and Alexander VI (Rodrigo de Borja), were both born in the hilltop castle where the original village was located.
The hotel Montsant is located on the slopes of Monte Vernissa, below the castle, with panoramic views down on Xàtiva itself. The beautiful hotel grounds, which occupy the same perimeter as the former Cistercian convent, are like a large overgrown jungle, with paths for strolling and secluded terraces for sitting and thinking great thoughts. The rooms are all spacious, comfortable, ground-floor cabana-type units, spread around the property and surrounded by lush green foliage. The restaurant, which we used on our last night, was absolutely fine dining and produced an astounding array of delicious Spanish dishes.
Most everyone who drinks wine knows about Rioja and the Ribera del Duero, both in northern Spain, and tempranillo (known in Portugal as aragonez). But less than 100km south of Valencia there is a unique conjunction of five different denominaciones de origen protegida (DOP) areas, each producing excellent wines. Although separated by (not very high) mountains and with differing microclimates, these five DOPs are close enough together that it is very easy to visit vineyards and producers in all five in just a matter of days. Which is exactly what we did.
The five DOPs are Valencia and Alicante (both in the Valencian Community Region), Yecla and Jumilla (both in the Murcia Region) and Almansa (in the Albacete Region). All of these DOPs produce mainly red wine but, instead of tempranillo, so common in the rest of Spain, here monastrell (known in France as mourvèdre) is king of the varietals, often blended with garnacha tintorera (known as grenache in France or alicante bouschet in Portugal), syrah and/or cabernet sauvignon.
Our vineyard explorations took us to Moixent (Bodegas Celler del Roure), Ontinyent (Bodega El Angosto) and Fontanars dels Alforins (Rafael Cambra and Bodegas Los Frailes) in the Valencia DOP, Pinoso (Bodegas Volver) in the Alicante DOP and the towns of Yecla (Bodegas Castaño), Jumilla (Bodegas Juan Gil) and Almansa (Bodegas Atalaya).
These wineries ranged from the very small (Rafael Cambra makes just 120,000 bottles a year) to the very large (Juan Gil produces about seven million). Most are rather old and family owned and run. In the Los Frailes winery, which was formerly a monastery, Maria José Velazquez proudly showed us the original purchase document from 1771 when her family first acquired the property. This winery has been in one family and producing wine for longer than my country (America) has existed!
All of the winemakers we visited impressed us with their genuine interest in nature and their terroir. Most were producing biodynamic wines organically, without using artificial fertiliser, herbicides, pesticides or fungicides, and proudly showed the certificates proving it. Several were using old terracotta amphorae, buried in the ground, in the fermentation stage (most interesting in this regard was Celler del Roure, which produces 250,000 bottles a year biodynamically using amphorae).
As we moved from one to another of our five DOPs, we could taste marked differences in the wines being produced, even when the same varietals were being used. In one remarkable demonstration, at Los Frailes, we tasted two wines – Caliza and Dolomitas – both 2016, both 100% monastrell and both fermented in old 18th-century concrete deposits and aged 10 months in amphorae. The only differences were that the Caliza was produced at 600m above sea level from very poor limestone and sandy soil while the Dolomitas was produced in a different location, at 700m and from stony ground in which the rocky base is very close to the surface. The difference in taste was very discernible, even to our amateurish palates.
Of course, being gastronomes as well as oenophiles, we were interested in the food of the region as well as the wines. We found a number of excellent restaurants for lunch (La Cuina, a Michelin star restaurant in Ontinyent, Los Tres Soles in Jumilla and Mesón de Pincelín in Almansa) and for dinner (Pebrenegre , El Túnel and El Gourmet del Socarrat, all in Xàtiva).
By Larry Hampton
And all of this rich and diverse bounty is just a day’s drive from the Algarve. We are truly blessed!