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4/21/2007

The Wines of La Comunitat Valenciana--Valencia, Alicante, Utiel-Requena: Hitting Their Stride as Their Home Region Hosts the America’s Cup

The exotic, once Moorish-dominated Comunitat Valenciana–which encompasses the provinces of Valencia, Alicante and Castellón de la Plana–and its capital, the ancient, but suddenly ultra-modern and rapidly growing Mediterranean port city, Valencia, has long been known for its wild end-of-winter Fiesta, Las Fallas, and sunny beaches that have become nirvana for northern Europeans who flock to Valencia like Americans do to Florida. Gastronomically, Valencia is known world-wide for paella–in reality a wide variety of rice dishes made with local bomba, senia or bahia arroces–and nationally for its Mediterranean seafood, Valencia oranges and clementines (from Castellón), almonds and almond turrón candy from Jijona and dates from the largest date palm forest in Europe in Elche (both in Alicante province). Until recently, except for the large quantities of bulk wines shipped most to northern Europe, the only vinos la Comunitat Valenciana was known for were a strange, but exotic and wonderful vino rancio from Alicante called Fondillón and sweet dessert mistelas made from luscious moscatel grapes from the vineyards of Valencia and Alicante.

But in recent years, a new dynamic has emerged. Mega Euros have poured into Valencia and the surrounding region fueling an unprecedented building boom. Valencia recently completed the multi-billion dollar La Cuitat des Arts y Ciencies (City of Arts and Sciences), Europe's largest and most advanced such cultural-leisure complex (see), and will play host in 2007 to the world’s most prestigious yacht race, the 32cd America's Cup (see box). This coming of age for one of Spain’s most historically rich regions has spawned a cultural renaissance (the riverbed of the diverted Río Turia is home to La Cuitat des Arts y Ciencies and is now dubbed the Río CulTuria); a growing awareness that Valencian cuisine is among the country’s most distinguished; and that a new wave of wines from Valencia’s three denominaciones de origen (D.O.s)–Alicante, Utiel-Requena and Valencia–are emerging as serious quality contenders. (The importance of wine here is underscored by Verema.com, a locally based wine website with a global following that sponsors a high quality wine conference in Valencia every year).

The influx of money coming into the Comunitat Valenciana has also provided the essential platform to support an important modern cuisine movement–led by Paco Torreblanca, one of the world's greatest pastry chefs, and two of Spain's top young cocina de vanguardia stars, Raúl Aleixandre and Quique Dacosta, as well as some of the most rewarding traditional cuisine restaurants in Spain all of which have drawn attention to Valencian wines in their wake.

Heretofore, only dedicated wine aficionados were aware that this warm Mediterranean region–whose inland higher elevation vineyards are rarely seen by those flocking to the popular beaches of the Costa Blanca–encompasses one of Spain’s largest vineyard areas. La Comunitat Valenciana is located along Spain’s south central coast between Cataluña and Murcia. The vineyards of this region grow on land that rises rapidly inland from the coast to significant elevations. Until recently, the region’s wines had a poor reputation, except those aforementioned moscatel romano-based sweet white wines from Alicante and Valencia and Fondillón, a classic, monastrell-based vino rancio (a purposely oxidized, slightly sweet wine), a once nearly extinct wine.

To understand why the Valencian community is emerging as an area with aspirations to produce quality wines requires some historical context. As recently as twenty years ago, the only wines most wine drinkers outside Spain knew were sherries, table wines from La Rioja, Penedès, and the legendary Vega Sicilia. And, until the turn of this century, most of the wines from the three Valenciana D.O.s were rustic, powerful high volume wines produced for blending or for low-end chain store sales in northern Europe. But, in the late 1980s and 1990s, wine regions such as the Ribera del Duero, Navarra, Priorat, Rueda, Toro, Rías Baíxas Albariño, and single vineyard wines from La Rioja all emerged as worthy of serious consideration by international wine connoisseurs.

On the heels of those successes and in an epoch with a growing international acceptance of dark, ripe rich, higher-octane, new oak-aged wines, producers in the warm country areas of Spain, especially in La Mancha and the Levante (Valencia and Murcia), saw a promising opportunity. In recent years, it has become obvious that with proper vineyard and water management, modern production facilities, and savvy winemakers, a wine fitting the modern international profile can be made just about any place in Spain’s warmer areas. Since Spain has more land planted in vineyards than any other country, if the warm country areas such Australia, South America, South Africa and, indeed, California’s Napa Valley, could produce wines that drew positive, sometimes rave international reviews, why couldn’t similar wines aimed at the new world wine order palate be made in areas such as the Comunitat Valenciana?

On several trips (five in total) since 2003 to La Comunitat Valenciana’s seldom-visited D.O.s, I found a region undergoing dynamic change that happily included quantum leaps in quality in the passage of just three years. Most wineries are now fully modernized and, though many are producing large quantities of wine that is technically correct, if still not totally out of the vino corriente category, several others, while still working their way through the winemaking and viticultural learning curve, are producing reasonably priced good, if not great, wines. I also encountered a number seriously noteworthy producers of both table and dessert wines and a few youth-driven new wineries deserving serious attention.

Established Valencian producers have been rapidly upgrading their winemaking facilities and technology as successful professionals and entrepreneurs, like those in Napa and Sonoma in earlier decades, are building new wineries. Many producers draw on high quality fruit from unirrigated old vines vineyards, many others have planted new vineyards, often with the foreign varieties such as cabernet sauvignon, merlot and syrah trained on wires and equipped with drip irrigation systems. Successful producers from other parts of Spain, such as Juan Carlos López de la Calle, producer of La Rioja’s powerhouse Artadi wines (Grandes Añadas, El Pisón); Galicia’s Agro de Bazán (Gran Bazán Rías Baixas Albariño); and peripatetic winemaker Telmo Rodríguez, originally from Rioja’s Remelluri estate; are now making red wines in Utiel-Requena and Alicante. Consulting enologists such Sara Pérez of Priorat’s Clos Martinet coached fledgling wineries such as Valencia’s promising Celler de Roure. American importers including Stephen Metzler of Classical Wines (Seattle), who recognized the quality of Alicante’s dessert wines early on and begin representing Felipe Gútierrez de la Vega’s Casta Diva some two decades ago, and others like Eric Solomon of European Cellars realized that the region’s concentrated wines are no more powerful than average Napa Valley reds, have made serious commitments in the region.

Historically, the best wines of the Valencian region were semi-sweet to sweet vinos rancios (wines made purposely in oxidative environment) and mistelas (fresh grape must whose fermentation is cut short by the addition of alcohol). Such wines have been made here for centuries—probably since before the epoch of the Moors, among whom there were plenty of Koran-defying imbibers (Spanish Arabic poetry celebrated the virtues of wine and other beverages containing al-quol, an import from the Islamic world). Table wines were another story, however. Valencia and Utiel-Requena, especially, were known producing large quantities of marginal rustic whites and rosé wines for export to northern Europe, but, primarily the region was a major source of bulk wines, much of which were vinos de doble pasta.

Michel Grin, Managing Director of Bodegas Murviedro, who makes wines (95% of which is exported) in Utiel-Requena, Alicante and Valencia D.O.s, says “Vinos de doble pasta are wines made by taking the pasta, or mass of grapeskins, pulp and pips leftover from brief contact with the musts used to make rosés and adding it to the cap already fermenting with red wines, thus doubling up on mass of grapes in a vat. This produces a well-colored, neutral-tasting bulk wine that is ideal for blending with other wines to be sold especially in Nordic markets.”

These bulk wines were shipped from huge warehouses located in Valencia’s historic Grao port area–now completing a major America’s cup makeover to play host to the America’s Cup that includes a marina with more than 600 new berths. But, now most of these shippers have moved out to the hilly Valencia and Utiel-Requena wine-growing areas and made serious investments in new bodegas (winemaking and storage facilities) and vineyards. Among them are Michel Grin’s 1,000,000 case Bodegas Murviedro (formerly known as Schenk) and Vicente Gandía Plá’s Hoya de Cadenas spectacular, new 400,000-plus case bodega in Cuevas de Utiel (Valencia). Andres Proensa, one of Spain’s top wine writers, noted a market-driven change in the basic philosophy of Valencia’s large wine shippers. “They have undergone an important transformation by moving their operations from the port out to the wine country,” Proensa wrote.”

The major thrust of the large producers in the Valencia and Utiel-Requena D.O.s is the production of red wines, including 100% varietal red wines and blends of the native Valencian red varieties monastrell (mourvedre), bobal, and garnacha (usually old vines); Spain’s most important red wine variety, tempranillo; and the foreign grapes cabernet sauvignon, merlot, and, very promising for this warm region, high quality syrah, the great grape of France’s Rhone Valley. They are also producing fresher, cold-fermented white wines from the traditional meserguera, macabeo (viura) and moscatel romano varieties and some chardonnays, albeit not yet distinguished ones. Worth seeking out are the fresh, bright, quaffable rosados, based on the little-known local bobal grape, produced by several Utiel-Requena bodegas.

Bobal, which is the main grape of Utiel-Requena was so little known outside Spain, that as late as 2004, Frank J. Prial wrote in The New York Times in an article on Spanish rosados, “Until someone mentioned it to me recently, I had never heard of it. Bobal is something of a mutt grape. No wine made from it can qualify for Spain's strict denominación de origen rating, which specifies grape varieties and methods of production and exercises other quality controls. So it is unlikely ever to leave Spain. Not legitimately, anyway.”

As it turns out, Bobal is one of only three indigenous red varieties (bobal, tempranillo and garnacha) authorized by the Utiel-Requeña denominación de origen, which is located in Valencia province some 45 miles west of the capital and centered around the long-time wine towns of Utiel and Requena. Utiel-Requeña’s some 75,000 acres of vineyards, which range in altitude from 1,900 to 2,000 feet above sea level, are planted with 80% bobal. In 2001, 60% of Utiel-Requena’s production (more than 4,200,000 gallons) was exported, so wines made from bobal have been leaving Spain “legitimately” in large quantities. The hefty bobal, apart from being used in Utiel-Requeña to make some of Spain’s best and most interesting rosados, is being used by Mustiguillo, one of the new wave heroes from the region, as the basis of several wines that have drawn high praise from reviewers, both in Spain and abroad.

Mustiguillo, a charming small winery built on the site of a former stable, has become the star of the Utiel-Requena, despite the fact that they sell their wines with non-denominación de origen status. Mustiguillo’s owner, Toni Sarrión, a contractor who builds public works projects, is, as Andrés Proensa points out “of short winemaking tradition,” but he has become a new wave Comunitat Valenciana hero alongside Pablo Calatayud of Valencia’s Celler de Roure and Pepe Mendoza from Alicante’s Bodegas Enrique Mendoza. From their own vines, Mustiguillo makes two small production, high-end wines, Finca Terrazo—a blend of 40 % old vines bobal (planted in 1912), 40% tempranillo and 20% cabernet sauvignon—and Quincha Corral—76% old vines bobal, 20% tempranillo and 4% cabernet sauvignon. These massive, inky, intensely rich, unfined/unfiltered reds tip the scales at 14.5% alcohol. Finca Terrazo is fermented in 3,500- and 5,000-liter Radoux tinajas (wooden upright vats) and spends up to 16 months in 70% French oak and 30% American, all of it either new or second year. Quincha Corral 2000, a wine with a 500-case per year production and a hefty price, also spends 16 months oak, 100% French oak, mostly new. On the palate it shows very rich, sweet, Port-like, ripe black cherry and cassis fruit and baker’s chocolate with a noticeable ration of new oak. Mustiguillo Mestizaje, also labelled vino de al tierra (non DO), comes mostly from young tempranillo, cabernet sauvignon, and syrah grapes blended with some older vines bobal and garnacha. of big highly extracted black fruits, new oak-lashed house style. Mustiguillo eventually plans to produce 10,000 cases of wine.

At their impressive Hoya de Cadenas estate near Cuevas de Utiel, well-regarded Bodegas Gandía (Vicente Gandía Plá, founded in 1885), is making its mark with Hoya de Cadenas Reserva Privada (85% tempranillo/15% cabernet sauvignon) and Ceremonia, (also a tempranillo/cabernet sauvignon blend), whose new oak is balanced with a nice melange of rich blackberry, chocolate and licorice flavors. This bodega gives some nodding consideration in its top-of-the line Vicente Gandía ‘Generación I’ to the native Utiel-Requena grape by using 50% bobal blended with cabernet sauvignon, tempranillo and garnacha, but the focus here is on nearly 450 acres of wire-trained plantings of tempranillo and cabernet sauvignon, along with chardonnay and sauvignon blanc (they market a palatable 35% sauvignon blanc/65% chardonnay blend).

Bodegas Murviedro (formerly Bodegas Schenk), partially Swiss owned, may be a huge winery with New World styled wine ambitions, but it produces some good, serviceable wines including the Las Lomas de Requena 100% bobal rosado and a carbonic maceration bobal tinto joven.. Murviedro’s premium wines include a well-balanced Coronilla bobal crianza with black cherry and cassis flavors and a stylish Coronilla Reserva blend of bobal, cabernet sauvignon and merlot.

Mas de Bazán, owned by the producer of Gran Bazán from Rías Baixas, is another important Utiel-Requena project. The winery, whose epoxy-lined cement fermentation and storage vats are decorated with early 20th-century Valencian ceramics tiles, is unusual and exceptionally attractive. The vineyards carry the stamp of hundreds of other new Spanish winemaking operations with predominately new plantings are trained on wires outfitted with drip Like most new wineries, the flavors of roble nuevo (new oak)–Allier and some American– dominates the red wines, generally blends of bobal (45%), tempranillo (45%) and cabernet sauvignon (10%). Mas de Bazán also makes a refreshing dry bobal rosado with flavors that bring strawberries to mind.

Bodegas Iranzo’s Finca Cañada Honda property has been a wine-growing estate since the 14th Century. The Pérez Duque family says they have been making wines since 1896, but their ownership of the Iranzo property dates to 1940 and the plantation of the non-Valencian varieties, tempranillo, cabernet sauvignon and merlot (they also have Bobal and Graciano), dates to 1984. Among their wines, billed as vinos écologicos (from organically farmed vineyards), are the Finca Cañada Honda tempranillo-cabernet sauvignon based, tinto joven, tinto roble and crianza; the smooth, ripe, tempranillo-based Mi Niña; the round, plummy, spicy Vertus tempranillo crianza; and Bodegas Iranzo Tempranillo Selección.

An exceptionally promising new Utiel-Requena winery, Dominio de Aranleón, is owned by Emiliano García, who is also the proprietor of Casa Montaña (in Valencia’s El Cabanyal district, an urban “bodega” that dates to 1836 and is one of the best wine and tapas bars in the capital. García also owns Casa Montaña wine shop and tasting salon, located across the street. He makes two very high quality, delicious Aranleón 50% tempranillo, 50% cabernet sauvignon blends with an ingenious snail design that spells out the bodega’s creed on the label.

Another of the best wines I tasted from this region is made by a German winemaker, Heiner Sauer from the Pfalz, at Bodegas Palmera and does carry the Utiel-Requena DO. The very ripe, powerful (14.5%), but silky and exotic, cassis-flavored L’Angelet d’Or, tasted over luncheon at the Aleixandre family’s superb Ca Sento restaurant in Valencia, was one of the best wines I tasted in two trips. The luncheon that L’Angelet d’Or accompanied was one of my most memorable and gratifying meals in Spain.

Viñedos y Bodegas Vegalfaro makes one of the better Syrah/Shiraz wines in the region, Pago de los Balagueses, a deep black, rich, delicious, wine laced with dark chocolate; Bodegas Los Marchos Miguelius Tinto Crianza, a rich, very ripe, exotic, is one of the best expressions of the bobal grape in the region; and Vicente García’s Pago de Tharsys outside Requena is making some of the most interesting and palatable wines in the area, including a good Vendemia Nocturna white wine (made from godello and albariño), a very good ‘Selección Bodega’ made with 95% merlot and 5% cabernet franc; and an 80% merlot, 20% cabernet franc (all non-D.O. wines due to the grapes used), and the Utiel-Requena D.O. Carlota Suria, a cabernet sauvignon-tempranillo blend. Pago de Tharsys also makes an excellent Cava from macabeo and chardonnay grapes, then as a label dangles a distinctive, artistic piece of Valencian ceramics from a ribbon attached to the bottle’s neck. (Pago de Tharsys is not the only Comunitat Valenciana winery producing cava. Dominio de la Vega, who is also making some interesting white wines based on macabeo (viura) and chardonnay, plus a very good bobal rosado, also produces some very good reserva especial vintage, vintage brut nature and brut rosado cavas, the last from 100% garnacha grapes. Torre Orio is perhaps the largest producer of Cava in the region with seven different budget priced cuvees.

Chozas Carrascal, which, unusual for this region, produces a barrel fermented chardonnay, macabeo (viura) and sauvignon blanc blend called Las Tres, a Las Cuatro rosado (tempranillo, garnacha, merlot, syrah), the very unique Las Ocho (a blend of eight red grapes, including cabernet franc), a Family Cabernet and a Family Garnacha under the guidance of French enologist, Michel Poudou. Other wineries of note include Casa del Pinar, which produces two good five-red grape blends (bobal, tempranillo, cabernet sauvignon, merlot and syrah), Sanfir crianza and Casa del Pinar Reserva; Finca San Blas, which produces Labor del Almadeque, well-crafted wines that are members of the tempranillo-cabernet sauvignon-merlot-syrah brigade; and Vera de Estenas, which makes barrel fermented Chardonnay and Merlot, a crianza and a reserva. while Bodegas Sebirán, producers of the Coto d’Arcis line, though they sometimes use 15% cabernet sauvignon, rely more on the indigenous varieties including the once-maligned bobal.

Utiel-Requena wines showing promise at a tasting luncheon arranged by the DOs consejo regulador (regulatory council) were several bobal-based (sometimes blended with garnacha) rosados, Bodegas Torroja Cañada Mazán and Valle de Tejo; a fruity, intense, oak-aged Dominio de la Vega, a red blend of bobal, cabernet sauvignon and tempranillo; a surprisingly well-balanced, barrel-fermented Bodegas Torroja Sybarus Bobal Edición Limitada (1250 cases made from 30-year old bobal); and the organically produced Dominio de Arenal Syrah.


Alicante

Grape vines were introduced into Alicante by the Phoenicians, wine was made here by the Romans and the praises of Alicante wines were even sung by the Moors. The Alicante D.O. encompasses 37,000 acres divided into two sub-regions in Alicante province: the Alicante subzone (northwest of the capital, Alicante), whose main growing area is the Vinalopó river valley, and La Marina, just inland from the area’s popular beach towns. The winters are short and the nearly rainless summers are long and hot.

Producers of the widely renowned Casta Diva moscatels, Bodegas Gutiérrez de la Vega, has shown that Alicante can make world-class dessert wines. An affable, well-read Renaissance man who dresses in a blue lab coat and plays opera (the superb Valencian-born, Caruso-contemporary tenor Antonio Cortis and Montserrat Caballé) as he works in his pristine winery in Parcent, Felipe Gútierrez de la Vega, is the owner-winemaker. Made from moscatel de Alejandria (also called moscatel romano) grapes grown in the coastal La Marina subzone, Gútierrez’s Casta Diva Cosecha Miel is a luscious dessert wine that is a great match to such dishes as star Alicante chef Quique Dacosta’s laminas de foie gras (layered foie gras with a fragrant apple compote) at the superb El Poblet in nearby Denia. Gútierrez also produces several other excellent wines including a dry white moscatel romano, a good bobal rosado, and several interesting reds, including Imagine (dedicated to John Lennon), Viña Ulises (James Joyce and Homer), and Rojo y Negro (Nobel prize winner Camilo José Cela), plus a silky, exotic blend of giró (a garnacha relative), monastrell, cabernet sauvignon, tempranillo, and merlot that spends 18 months in oak, only 20% of which is new (a practice one wishes more winemakers would adopt).

Pepe Mendoza, the winemaker at Bodegas Enrique Mendoza, an aficionado of New World wines. Regarded by new-wave aficionados within Spain as the great revelation of Alicante, Mendoza has received rave reviews from Spanish wine writers for his barrel-fermented chardonnays; full-bodied, ripe cabernet sauvignons; his notable Shiraz, now a big attention getter in Spain; a Pinot Noir with real potential; his famous Santa Rosa Reserva 1998 (a powerful, rich, oaky blend of cabernet sauvignon, syrah, and merlot); and the Selección Peñon de Ifach, a good, if unorthodox, blend of cabernet sauvignon, merlot and pinot noir.

Laderas de Pinoso (producers of El Sequé) is an Alicante winery with a built-in immediate appeal. It was founded in 1999 by Juan Carlos López de la Calle of La Rioja’s Bodegas Artadi fame and Agapito Rico, producer of Carchelo, a delicious monastrell-based Jumilla red. The Bordeaux-esque Laderas de El Sequé, a monastrell, tempranillo, cabernet sauvignon and syrah blend that spends fewer than six months in oak; El Sequé, a similar blend (with 50% tempranillo), which is a well-made, richer wine, whose finish is dominated by new oak.. The bodega is located in Pinoso (Alicante), a town famous in Spain for its arroz de conejo y caracoles (rabbit-and-snail paella) at Casa Paco, a restaurant legendary for this dish, and Restaurante Casa Elias, in the nearby village of Xinorlet, which is a lesser-known, but exceptional restaurant choice.

At Casa Elias, accompanied by an excellent plate of assorted cured artisanal sausages, wonderful grilled wild mushrooms and a superb rabbit-and-snail thin-layered arroz en paella cooked over grape vine cuttings and served with authentic all-i-oli, I tasted a lineup of wines with Rafael Poveda from Salvador Poveda, a the family bodega that produces Alicante’s most renowned Fondillón (see below). Poveda’s intense red table wines included a good Poveda Tempranillo; a big, complex, cherry-and carob flavored Borrasca Classic Tinto from their Finca El Pou estate’s 50-year old monastrell vines; and the massive, oak-dominated, 100% monastrell, Borrasco Tinto Selección de Barrica (only 600 bottles made).

Almuvedre, a powerful 100% monastrell tinto joven (young red) made by Telmo Rodríguez, the peripetatic, “flying winemaker,” who began at his family’s Remelluri estate in La Rioja and now makes Compañía de Vinos Telmo Rodríguez wines in the Ribera del Duero, Toro, Málaga and other regions, is another notable Alicante table wine that has recently emerged in recent years.

Forward-looking Bocopa is one of the top wine cooperatives in Spain. Known for its first-rate Fondillón Alone (see below), Bocopa also makes the fresh, delicious, off-dry white wine Marina Alta Blanco Gran Selección moscatel; Laudum, a soft, rich monastrell-based, American oak aged crianza red; and Marqués de Alicante, a palate-pleasing crianza blend of monastrell, tempranillo, cabernet sauvignon, and merlot. Bocopa also makes two spectacular vinos de licor–wines typical of this region in which the fermentation of grape must (mistela) is arrested by the addition of orujo, or grape spirits, resulting in lusciously sweet, fresh tasting dessert wines. Marina Alta is an intense sweet white wine with honeysuckle flavors and the dark, delicious Sol de Alicante Dulce Negra (100% monastrell) tastes of black fruit compote, raisins, and chocolate-laced coffee liqueur.

Three other Alicante wineries drawing attention recently are Bodegas Sanbert, which makes a smooth easy drinking monastrell Camps de Gloria Rodriguillo reserva; Bodegas Bernabé Navarro, whose Beryna is made by Joaquin Galvez, who has worked at California’s famed Ridge Vineyards; and Vins de Comtat, whose non-D.O. Penya Cadiella red from the L’Alcudia-Concentina area, uses five different varieties–including monastrell, merlot, giró, tempranillo and cabernet sauvignon–to achieve a smooth balanced wine with wild berry, plum and dark chocolate flavors.

Valle del Carche, in Alicante province, is a promising 400-acre estate with a preponderance of monastrell vineyards. Situated only eight miles from the town of Jumilla in neighboring Murcia, Valle del Carche, also qualifies to produce Jumilla wines, as well as . Alicante D.O. wines, which are made of either cabernet sauvignon, merlot, syrah, tempranillo or blends of those grapes. The most of impressive Valle del Carche’s wines were the easy-drinking Porta Regia Syrah (tasting of currants and baker’s chocolate) and the dark, smooth Domus Romans Reserva 1998 tempranillo/cabernet sauvignon, merlot blend aged in American oak barrels with French oak ends. These wines went very well with an excellent paella cooked over a wood fire by Tomasa, Valle del Carche’s fine country cook.

Alicante’s classic Fondillón, a red grape-based noble wine and a favorite of France’s Louis XIV (the Sun King) and of Alexandre Dumas pere’s fictional Count of Monte Cristo, is a revelation. A wine with 500 years of written history (supposedly Fondillón was on Magellan’s ill-fated trip around the world), until recently, this semi-sweet, monastrell-based rancio wine, aged for a minimum of eight years and usually more than twenty before being released, was nearly extinct except for a few wines made by small family bodegas.

The centenarian Salvador Poveda bodega in Monóvar is the top producer of Fondillón and largely responsible for the recuperation of this legendary Alicante classic that until recently was all but forgotten. The star of Poveda’s stable is their Salvador Poveda Gran Reserva de Fondillón 1980, a splendid, profound, mahogany-colored jewel that tastes literally like someone mixed a great oloroso sherry with a vintage ports and can justifiably be called one of Spain’s greatest “noble” wines, a category that includes all of Andalucía’s superb Sherries.

Rafael Poveda explains how his fondillón is made: “We use 100% Vinalopó valley monastrell grapes selected during the best harvests. They have a very high concentration of sugar–always higher than 16°Baumé, often 18°. We sometimes put the grapes out on mats in the sun for several days to increase the sugar concentration. The must is left in contact with the skins only until it begins to ferment, so skin contact is very short, therefore the wine is born as soft, fruity and light-colored as a Bordeaux, but without the tannic astringency. When the fermentation is finished, we have a very aromatic, medium-dry wine that we age in old oak barrels, usually in a sherry-like solera. But, in an exceptional vintage like 1980, we age the wine separately without mixing it in the solera to make an authentic vintage Fondillón.”

Felipe Gútierrez de la Vega also makes the excellent Casta Diva Fondillón (dedicated to William Blake). Unlike the Povedas, who do short macerations, Gútierrez macerates his 100% monastrell grapes for 20-30 days. He says the wine can ferment up to two months, which leaves it at 17-18 percent natural alcohol. Made from grapes that are allowed to hang on the vine until they become raisiny–unlike the grapes for many other Fondillóns and sherry Pedro Ximénez grapes, which are picked and sun-dried on mats. After Gútierrezages it for 15 years, the result is a Fondillón that is deep plummy, spicy, very rich and Port-like, but is unfortified, thus natural.

Another good fondillón, Bodegas Bocopa’s Alone (ah-lo-nay), is also a well-made, solera-aged, red monastrell-based dessert wine. Some of these fondillóns are reminiscent of tawny Port, others such as Bodegas Brotons Gran Fondillón Reserva 1964, Primitivo Quilés Fondillón (Hístorico) ‘El Abuelo’ Gran Reserva and Poveda Añejo Seco (made from Vidueño, an old Monastrell clone), are very much like great palo cortado Sherries.

Valencia

The large Valencia D.O. fans out from the great port city of Valencia and, while its current wine scene is not yet as promising as Utiel-Requena or Alicante, there are some notable exceptions in this hot, humid region that has a long-standing history of producing massive quantities of bulk red wines, some rather uninspiring Meserguera-based white wines; and sweet, mostly pedestrian-quality moscatel mistelas. Valencia’s 47,000 acres of vineyards are divided into four subzonas, Clariano (southwest of the city near the Castilla-La Mancha Almansa DO); Valentino and Alto Turia (both northwest of the city); and Moscatel de Valencia (west of the city and devoted wines made from its namesake grape).

Perhaps the Valencia wine with the greatest reputation is Vicente Gandís Plá’s Fusta Nova Moscatel de Alejandría, a luscious sweet wine, whose historic roots probably go all the way back to the epoch when El Cid chased the Moorish rulers out of the Valencia. Bodegas Murviedro, which moved its main base of operations to the new bodega in Requena, makes a parallel line of Valencia DO wines under the Murviedro and Los Monteros brands. The main difference between Murviedro’s Valencia and Utiel-Requena lines is the use of monastrell in the Valencia DO to go along with bobal, tempranillo and sometimes merlot. Murviedro Reserva, a blend of bobal, monastrell, merlot and cabernet sauvignon that spends a year in French and American oak, is the best of the bodega’s Valencia wines.

Celler del Roure, a new winery in Moixent in the Clairano area, has shown the most promise of any Valencia D.O. red table wine. Pablo Calatayud, the young owner, consulted with Sarah Pérez of Priorat’s Clos Martinet, to produce some of the most stylish red wines ever made in Valencia . Celler del Roure’s Maduresa, their top-of-the-line wine is, a big, extracted , but relatively well-balanced, blend of cabernet sauvignon (30%), merlot (30%), tempranillo (20%), syrah (10%) and mandó (10%), an old Valencia area variety. The early efforts were aged a year in 90% new French oak, which dominated the finish. Les Alcusses (named for a ancient Iberian village nearby) is a dark black wine with sweet, ripe fruit which sees only four months in oak. The Alcusses showed very well with Calatayud’s mother’s delicious casserole of arroz con garbanzos and this writer much preferred it to Calatayud’s more prized Maduresa.
I told Pablo Calatayud that I liked the Les Alcusses better than the Maduresa because it had less oak, he said, “That’s what my father says.”

As in most of my extensive wine travels in Spain, in the Comunitat Valenciana, I found that the so-called lesser wines like Les Alcusses, with less extraction for extraction’s sake and judicious use of new oak (if used at all), were far more enjoyable, both in tastings and with food, than many of the bodegas’ more “serious” wines. Given that it is region not known for high quality white wines, I found some promising young wines, but none of exceptional merit so far However, there were some very good bobal-based rosados and were some very drinkable “little wines,” some made from indigenous grapes–especially monastrell and bobal–and a few modern New World-style red wines that could draw serious attention from new-wave wine aficionados in the American market. I did find a number of exceptional wines, including those wonderful dessert moscatels and Fondillóns.

Once again in Spain an area not known for quality wines has shown great potential. I came away from my trips with the feeling that the Comunitat Valenciana, an area known its Moorish heritage; its oranges, almonds, date palms and paellas; for the cities of Valencia and Alicante and their beaches; the famous Valencian Las Fallas Fiestas; and, now the great cultural City of Arts and Sciences and the America’s Cup could soon become an area known for wines, which are showing a marked improvement with every passing year.

-- Gerry Dawes
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