Dec 2009 issue

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PAGES (54-59) December 2009

Jumilla and the Mighty Monastrell Holly Leitner

We’re in Don Quixote land. Jumilla is a place where the plains of the Mediterranean coast meet the plains of La Mancha, where the hallucinogenic heat invites sugars and tannins to ripen in unison into an impossible dream of viticulture: the mighty Monastrell.

Monastrell is a sturdy character, able to bear the cold desert nights and emerge with stronger acidity. It relishes its eternal struggle against the highly permeable, sandy soil; with its shallow roots, it takes only what it needs from the earth. Its medium-size, bluish-black berries are thick-skinned, armed by the sun with powerful anthocyanins. Inside this strong shell, the fleshy fruit is packed with big flavor. “It’s hearty, with a high resistance to drought, and it needs a good deal of isolation,” says Maria Tomás Martínez of Bodegas Silvano García.

Monastrell is both a survivor and a nomad. It has won many wars against mold, mildew, and other pests; because of Jumilla’s sandy soils and arid climate, it wasn’t taken down by phylloxera until the late 1980s. Its vines have the boxy, compact physique of a fighter. Known as Mourvèdre in southern France and as Mataro in Catalonia and parts of the New World, it is believed to be indigenous to the Catalan area, where it was grown by monks—hence the name “Monastrell.”

In short, the grape is quixotic—which may be why the winemakers of Jumilla are drawn to it. They continue to adapt modern technology to the old vines, producing an inky blend of elegance and power, robust yet graceful, with notes of fresh black fruit and plum. Monastrell offers a big bang for the buck, consistently topping “Best Value” and “Wines Under $10” lists. It took home several awards at Vinexpo 2008. Even Russia has caught on to this rugged wine: at the country’s first wine competition in 2009, Monastrell bottlings won gold and silver medals. In 2008, Jumilla exported more than 500,000 cases of wine, about a third of it to the United States.

THE REGION

“Monastrell perfectly defines the climate, soil, even the tradition, of Jumilla’s people and history, which has been linked to wine for more than 5,000 years,” says Miguel Gil of Bodegas Hijos de Juan Gil, president of the Denominación de Origen (DO) Consejo Regulador.

Dubbed “La Bella” in the 8th century, the relatively undiscovered city of Jumilla is the capital of one of the three DOs of Murcia (Yecla and Bullas being the other two) and the midpoint of the Ruta del Vino in southern Spain. It’s the third-largest winemaking area in Spain, with total production rising from about 2.7 million to 3.2 million cases over the past decade.

The provinces of Murcia and Valencia are referred to as “The Levant”—where the sun “gets up” on Spain’s southeast coast. The dry Levantine breeze off the Mediterranean makes this a semi-arid land that experiences less than 12 inches of annual rainfall, more than 3,000 hours of sunlight per year, and severe summer heat. Jumilla’s landscape resembles that of New Mexico, with a chalky, dun-colored soil rich in calcium. Most of the 75,000 acres of grapes are grown on a plateau at 1,300-2,600 feet above sea level, surrounded by chiseled mountains.

Although grapes were first planted here centuries ago by the Romans, it was the Moors who developed industrial winemaking techniques, during their 700-year occupation of the Iberian Peninsula, by building complex irrigation systems. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, most Monastrell was sold in bulk. But the rebirth of democracy following the death of Francisco Franco in 1975 sparked a flurry of experimentation and modernization.

After the 1989 phylloxera invasion, growers were forced to start over in many places, adopting up-to-date, sustainable viticultural practices. In addition, wineries like Juan Gil installed temperature-controlled fermentation tanks and cellars and adopted state-of-the-art production processes such as cold maceration. “Our winemakers, with training obtained at Spanish universities, have adapted tradition to actual times,” says Gil, “improving control by using state-of-the-art technology, while always respecting the essence of our tradition of producing Monastrell.”

PRIMARY PRODUCERS

Vintners in the Jumilla desert say they will continue to embrace technology while following the natural rhythms of the place. Key producers include:

Bodegas Finca Luzón: Founded in 1916 by a group of families steeped in winemaking tradition, Finca Luzón modernized its facility after the phylloxera outbreak and now grows organically. Luzón is known particularly for its value labels, including Finca Luzón Verde, a favorite Monastrell priced at around $10.

Bodegas Hijos de Juan Gil: Also established in 1916, Juan Gil is still operated by the Gil Vera family, founder Juan Gil Lencina’s great-grandchildren. While maintaining its historic philosophies, the company has built a completely modern facility, with a cellar capacity of 3,000 barrels, at the highest point of Jumilla.

Bodegas Pedro Luis Martínez: Dating from 1870, Pedro Luis Martínez is one of the oldest wineries in the city of Jumilla. Since 1999, its wines have been bottled under the Alceño label, using traditional winemaking methods. Among its most popular labels is the Selección Crianza, a blend of Monastrell, Syrah, and Tempranillo.

Bodegas Silvano García: This winery, founded in 1925, bottles under the labels Silvano García and Viña Honda. Silvano García, representing the third generation of the family, is the current cellar manager.

Casa de la Ermita: Situated above the town in a stunning natural park, Casa de la Ermita is a newcomer, established only in 1997—although some of its vines are more than 80 years old. The wines are labeled either Casa de la Ermita or Monasterio de Santa Ana. The popular Altos de la Ermita is a low-alcohol (6.5%) refresher made from a blend of Monastrell, Tempranillo, and Petit Verdot.

Finca Omblancas: Also located above the town, this winery is owned by the Rodríguez Albendea family. Historic buildings on the 430-acre property include the late-19th-century winery. Omblancas bottles under the labels Delaín, Demay, Denuño, and Omblancas Selección Especial.

OTHER GRAPES

Monastrell dominates production in Jumilla, but Garnacha Tintorera (Alicante), Garnacha, Cencibel (Tempranillo), Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, and Petit Verdot are used as blending grapes (see box). Among the international varieties, Petit Verdot is a rising star. Like Monastrell, it’s a late ripener—a thick-skinned, black grape that produces grippy tannins and smoky flavors of violets, leather, cigar, and spices.

White grapes are still far behind, accounting for only about 4% of Jumilla’s annual output. Macabeo, more commonly known in Rioja as Viura, is gaining popularity as an acidic white wine, best enjoyed early in life, and for blending with Airén, Malvasía, and Pedro Ximénez. Other permitted varieties are Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, and Moscatel de grano menudo (Muscat blanc à petits grains).

In rosados , the Monastrell grape tends to carry earthier flavors and brighter fruit than in the rosés of southern France. On the sweeter side, the deep mocha and blackberry flavors of Monastrell work well in making a hearty dulce , a fortified dessert wine similar to Banyuls.

FOOD AND WINE

As the winemakers here unanimously agree, you can’t talk about Monastrell without talking about food. When you visit the bodegas, the owners often have platters of artisanal cheeses and cured ham on hand to complement their big wines.

The most famous local plate is gazpacho jumillano (not to be confused with gazpacho andaluz , the chilled blend of tomatoes and other vegetables): a pulled, doughy bread that is finely chopped and mixed with rabbit, partridge, and other game. Other regional favorites include arroz con conejo (rice with rabbit) and baby goat flavored with garlic.

A hearty wine deserves a hearty dish to match; the plummy and earthy notes in Monastrell will balance the big flavors of any earthy wild-game dish or rabbit stew.