This Christmas I visited Bodegas Castaño in Yecla, Murcia, for the first time in more than 20 years. They are in conversion to organic farming. And if I remember right, all wines will soon have the seal, except for some wines where part of the grapes are purchased. One of their slogans is “the art of monastrell”, and through their various lines they showed what can be done with this emblematic grape of the Levante coast.
This week’s pick is one of my favourite monastrell wines. Hécula is an ancient Roman name for the town. The wine is a pure monastrell, and was also featured last year (read here). It can be considered their entry-level monastrell, but it’s not simple. It comes from a 750 meter altitude vineyard on limestone, with an average of 50 year old vines. It’s certified organic, made with spontaneous fermentation and got a few months of oak treatment (mostly French), with malolactic in steel. It’s very Mediterranean and very good.
Hécula Organic 2020 (Bod. Castaño)
Dark cherry red. On the nose it shows ripe berries (morello), plum, aromatic herbs (thyme, rosemary) and a hint of coffee. Full in the mouth with mature tannins, an earthy note and a fine acidity.
Food: All kinds of meat, stews, salads with meat (such as Caesar), murcian paella…
La Gracia is a small and cozy natural wine bar that opened in 2020, when the pandemic was at its height. It’s found in Murcia capital, Spain, in one of the narrow streets behind the city hall and the cathedral in the Santa Eulalia district. They work with artisan producers of wine, cheese and also beer and other products. The owners are Esperanza Pérez Andreo and Cristina Ramos Berna. They have strong ties with local and regional producers from whom they buy directly.
I was there twice at the end of the year, including New Year’s Eve. We sat on the “terrace” (i.e. the plaza behind the first street) near midnight, and then inside the bar around noon. We chose from the cold and the warm tapas menues, and from the by-the-glass wine selection, that counts on around 30 references.
Among the small dishes we chose was a “cured” cheese selection. The first one was a young and fresh, but oh so tasty, cheese from Cartagena, then a 3-4 months cured goat’s cheese soaked in red wine, then a 9 months cured cheese from San Javier called ‘El Abuelo’ (the grandfather) and finally a wonderfully complex cheese from a mountain between Cartagena and Mazarrón. The watermelon marmelade was from coastal San Javier.
The wine list contains established and new natural wine stars from Murcia and elsewhere in Spain. We started with Las Madres 2020(Punta de Flecha), a light skin-contact white from the Madrid area. The grape is malvar, and like many other wines from that variety it is low on acidity but rather textured. Amber coloured and slightly fizzy, it had a nice aroma of flowers and orange peel.
Viña Enebro is rather well-known in Spanish natural wine circles, and you can read about a visit in Bullas here. El Yesar 2020 is a white wine made from the red grape forcallat. Hence it has a little blush of red. It’s round and tasty, and the aroma includes traces of citrus (clementine) and herbs.
At the second day I asked for whatever white wine and was served Doble Plaer 2020 from Vinyes Singulars (with collaboration from Toni Osorio) It turned to be a wonderful wine with a phenomenal acidity, almost electric. It has a good body too. Light orange in colour, and somewhat cloudy, with an aroma of citrus peel (lemon) and flowers over black tea. Long aftertaste where the citric notes linger. The grapes are malvasía de Sitges and parellada.
The two first reds were revelations from the Murcia region. Negrete 2021 from Negrete Blue is a monastrell/garnacha tintorera from no less than 1.373 meters of altitude in the Bullas denomination. It was a fresh and juicy, berry-dominated, young wine, with blackberry and blueberry in front.
Tinaha 2020 comes from the bodega of the same name. It’s found between Molino de Segura and Jumilla to the north of the regional capital. As the name implies they believe in ageing in clay (tinajas). The varieties are a local field blend, and so monastrell should be among the suspects. The wine had red berry notes, but was more dominated by a clay minerality with flowers, and had a juicy taste with a long aftertaste, and especially for the region, good acidity.
We tasted two reds from Castilla. Felipe el Caminero 2021(Inma Badillo) is a fresh tempranillo/ juan garcía/bruñal blend from Arribes del Duero, close to the Portuguese border (provinces Zamora and Salamanca). It’s a pure, very juicy and fruity wine with lots of berry character. La Payana 2020 (Cható Gañán) is completely different. Made from garnacha on granite soil in the Sierra de Gredos, it has a more serious air to it. It has some of the etheral character often associated with the Gredos garnachas, and some of the minerality behind the red fruits. The oak shows delicately on the palate.
Since I was back on New Year’s Eve I took the opportunity to round off with a sparkling wine. The choice fell on En Moviment A 2020 (Bàrbara Forés) from Terra Alta, Catalunya, made from the local morenillo grape. The sparkling rosé smells of peach and grapefruit. There is an acidic attack in the mouth, the wine is slim in the middle, but the citrus acidity strikes back and gives it a lift towards the end.
Bendito Vinos y Vinilos (wine and vinyl) is an all natural wine bar in Madrid’s Lavapiés barrio. This hilly neighborhood was earlier a cheap place that attracted many immigrants. (Here is a link to another restaurant, to be published.) Bendito is located inside the multicultural San Fernando market, that looks like a gathering place for the cultures they represent. Lavapiés is now the most international neighborhood in Madrid. Once the Jewish quarter, much later the immigrants actually established many bars here. After Spain’s entry into the EU, there was a new wave of migration. Therefore Bendito is a good place to get to learn about the changes in Spanish culture and gastronomy.
Owner José González selects cheeses and hams from many places. These are served with economic down-to-earth wines chosen by Ilan Saltzman, wine responsible, while the vinyl records spins in the background. By the way, Bar Bendito means the blessed bar, with all the allegories that it is possible to derive from that name.
I was there last Friday and the following Sunday and enjoyed a handful of wines both days, all served with small bites of cheese or charcuterie. This report is mainly based on the first visit.
One of the wines that night was Pampaneo Airén 2020 from Esencia Rural, a very fresh, lemony sparkler from Toledo. Read more about it here.
A delightful habit of the wine bars is when the waiter gives you a couple of sips, before you decide which wine you want in your glass. Here my waiter Ilan poured three samples. One of them Soif du Mal Blanc 2020, a muscat-dominated wine from Les Foulards Rouges, over the French border. I chose to wait until some other time, and go for a Castilian wine. Palote 2020 from Microbodega Rodríguez Morán in the province of Salamanca was made from palomino grapes. It rested one week with skins and stems. Thereafter it was aged in clay, finally bottled unfined, unfiltered and without sulphur. The colour was light orange/amber, slightly turbid; nice aroma of yellow fruit, elderberry, flowers and a touch of figs; good acidity, it plays with bitterness, but it’s restrained. A blue cheese accompaned these first wines, and it went surprisingly well.
Behind Artesano Vintners is Mike Shepherd, who has a past in Australia in two important natural wine houses. Now in Catunya he grows only 2 hectares. Parellatxa 2020 is a clarete: Pale red; vibrant fruit, raspberry; very light delicate touch of tannin. The name is put together by the varieties parellada and garnatxa, but this you have already figured out.
Kikiriki 2018 is made from ull de llebre (tempranillo) and carinyena in a vineyard from 1979, by Manel Aviñó of Clos Lentiscus, Penedès. He works employing biodynamic techniques and ferment the grapes by variety before assembling the wines. Dark cherry colour; blueberry, also lighter fruit (raspberry) and a touch licorice; juicy with light tannin, good acidity, and over all truly fascinating.
Nacho González makes his wines within Valdeorras. But he is not a member of the DO, thus his La Perdida wines carry the designation Vinos de España. A Mallada 2020 is made from sumoll and garnacha tintorera. Fermented in amphora, aged in old oak, bottled without sulphites. It’s dark, quite complex; on the nose it displays something sweet and sour (sweet cherries, acidic berry stones?) and very fresh fruit; there is a young dryness in the mouth, lovely acidity.
About the second visit I will report very briefly. It went more or less like the first visit. The two absolutely brilliant wines were Jordi Llorens‘ Ancestral de la Cristina and Oriol Artigas‘ El Rall, both from Catalunya, both from 2019. The former is from the Conca de Barberà area in the province of Tarragona and lived up to normal standard, light yellow with its clean appley and mature lemony easy-going character. The latter I didn’t know. It’s a sumoll (the grape) from DO Alella, north of Barcelona city, and showed a cherry-dominated red fruits side, with a pleasant juicyness in the mouth. The best of the rest, and a surprise too, was Sin Prisa 2018, a forest fruits-coffee-scented monastrell without added sulphites from Bodegas De Fábula, Murcia, near the regional capital.
Below: Only two of the many international cuisine restaurants in the San Fernando market.
I am in Murcia, Spain for Christmas. What could be more appropriate than presenting a regional speciality, sweet monastrell wine. BodegasOlivares has long since been my favourite among the producers of this type. Nowadays there are more serious contenders, but Olivares still stands tall.
Hoya de Santa Ana is a sub-zone of Jumilla, situated in the north-western corner. It has the highest elevation in the DO. Thus the warm days are complemented with temperatures considerably cooler than the rest of the wine area.
For this wine they use the oldest vines of the estate, ungrafted (‘pie franco’ in Spanish). They let the grapes hang on the vine until late autumn. Once the grapes begin to turn into raisins, they reach a great richness, but given the cool nights a certain freshness is still achieved. Around 5-6 years per decade they consider the conditions to be good enough to release this dessert wine.
Partial fermentation is employed, and more than 30 days of maceration with skins. Wood ageing? Zero.
The resulting alcohol is16%. It’s not overtly sweet, at a sugar content 200 gr/l. For those interested in volatile acidity it’s 0,20 gr/l.
Olivares Monastrell Dulce 2016(Bod. Olivares)
Dark red, brownish hint. Complex aroma of blackberry, plums, and dried fruits (dates, figs), a bit raisiny. Concentrated taste with good acidity, some structure and great persistence. Sweet, but not overdone, and relatively speaking, also fresh.
Food: Many desserts, especially when made with chocolate, with blue and aged cheeses. We had it with the local turrón, a sweet contain almonds and honey.
First time I met Pepe Mendoza was at the family firm in L’Alfàs (Alfaz del Pi in castellano). It has taken him a lot of thinking, maturing and experimenting since then, to bring him where he is now. Geographically speaking he has established himself in Llíber (near Xaló, or Jalón) in the eastern part of the Alicante province. But in terms of enology and philosophy he has moved from thinking of France as the original that could be copied anywhere, to a sense of identity, could we say “homeness”, to his native Mediterranean landscape.
As Pepe points out, “I love sauvignon blanc, but why should it be grown here?”. And wandering through the vineyards with his dearly beloved moscatel, giró and monastrell plants, caressing them and saying on behalf of them, “I am home, I like it here” – he tells the tale of so many cabernet sauvignon that felt uncomfortable, “stressed”.
We are in Valle de Pop in Marina Alta, the only valley where the red varieties mature before the white.
It’s not often that you think that the Mediterranean could offer such a freshness. But the ventilation from both sides does it. For Pepe this is perfect; small production, balance, a collaboration with nature: “You give me fruit, and I care for it and promise not to exploit it.”
Upon arrival Pepe served us a perfect opening wine, a light and aromatic moscatel/airén/macabeo blend; moscatel from Marina Alta and the others from highter up the Vinalopó river, mellow, a touch of salt, and gentle as the breeze in the valley. The wine is called Paisaje, but the label only shows his name and the denomination Alicante. Here it was accompanied by some light tapas. “When determining what kind of wines to make I think of what do I like to eat: I like the dishes that my grandmother made, because they are made from local produce, organically grown and cooked slowly.”
Pureza 2019 is a 6 days skin-contact moscatel from coastal Marina Alta, aged in amphoras from master Juan Padilla in Albacete. The wine is light in colour, but has evident peel aromas (orange peel), fresh rose, mint; some volume in the mouth, with an uplifting acidity and a saline and slightly bitter finish. (Read more about this wine here.)
Mares de Luz Monastrell-Giró is a coupage of the two mentioned grapes (monastrell and giró), made with whole bunches. Light cherry; raspberry, mature cherry, some balsamic (laurel), rich with warning alcohol (14%), super acidity, long.
Giró de Abargues 2019 is a varietal giró from a single parcel in the Marina Alta. There is only a total of 90 hectars of giró in the world, so this is quite rare. It stayed one year in a 500 liter barrel. A wonderful light extracted and elegant wine: Light ruby; red fruits, paprika, lightly balsamic (laurel again), lavender; great concentration, evident but delicate tannnins.
Sero-roSé Monastrell Clásico 2016
As it says on the label it has stayed 14 months in lightly toasted 2-3 year old Allier casks. Blood-orange colour, a hint of light amber. Aroma of orange peel, or maybe dried orange, red fruits (raspberry), herbs; quite glyceric, but good acidity.
Gironet Nat ‘ 2020 comes with the subtitle “varieties not sufficiently reknown”. This is the giró, but a clone called gironet from the finca Abargues. It’s wine made with minimal intervention and almost no added sulphites. Red ruby; red fruits, anise, a touch lactic (yoghurt), some greenness, balsamic; very delicate and with a wonderful balance.
El Veneno 2019 is a monastrell wine from further inland, in what Pepe calls “pre-meseta”. We are talking about Alto Vinalopó, near Villena near the border against Murcia and Albacete (Castilla-La Mancha). Here are sandy loam and calcareous soils. This wine, aged one year in 500 liter barrel, is a more heady wine: Dark cherry in colour, aromas of blackberry, but also less evident hints like dried thyme or laurel, and a touch of paprika and spice; generous in the mouth, rounded and with hints of toast and coffee, but also with a lot of freshness, “tension”.
And lastly, a pajarete (a liqueur based on PX wine treated) made by Juan Muñoz at bodega Dimobe in Moclinejo (Málaga province). Not Pepe’s wine, but a wine he adores. This shows that the world is here, it doesn’t need to be French to be great, and also that Pepe Mendoza is a man who is open for everything, always eager to try things from outside to get a deeper insight in what he has at home.
Casa Castillo has for long been considered one of the leading producers of Jumilla wines, today with José María Vicente in charge.
The winery is located to the west of Jumilla town, on the slopes of Sierra del Molar. Here, up to 760 metres, they own a big estate with diverse plantings including pine and almond trees, while 170 hectares are covered with vines. Under José María many of the international varieties have been replaced with monastrell and other Mediterranean grapes, and also garnacha, that is thriving well here.
Much of the soils are limestone, often with sand. Most of the wines are made fermented in steel or concrete, often with some amount of whole bunches, to counterbalance the ripeness in the grapes. Ageing is in concrete, foudre or old 500 liter French oak vats.
This wine is a blend of monastrell, syrah and garnacha.
Viñedos de Altiplano 2018 (Casa Castillo)
Dark cherry. Aroma of black pepper, blackberry, herbs (thyme, anise), and a hint of chocolate. Medium body, mature fruits balanced with a nice acidity and a slight bitterness at the end. Very Mediterranean, very good.
Food: Hearty dishes, stews, most kinds of meat, Murcian paella…
I am in Murcia, Spain. And suddenly the opportunity came to visit the third fair held by magazine Verema this summer. The two first ones were held in Palma de Mallorca and Madrid. There will be more tastings later in summer and autumn too. The location in Murcia was the Royal Casino, an emblematic building in the center. It was built from 1847 on, and shows traces of different styles from that period and somewhat later – now declared monument of historic-artistic interest.
I concentrated on the local wineries, that also were best represented here.
I was invited by Parajes del Valle, a winery I hoped to visit, but we didn’t manage to meet at their place this time. They are part of the bigger García Pérez group. In Jumilla they are for me one of the most interesting wineries. The first reason lies in their name, Parajes shows a sense of place. To obtain this I think that their decision to harvest early (first part of September for the monastrell grape, while most pick later that month or even October) and also the light extraction helps.
Director Gregorio Ruiz Abellán and export responsible Gemma Morcillo brought three vintages of their Parajes del Valle, an unoaked wine that is both fresh and cool, and at the same time very Mediterranean with its herbal fruitiness of the local supergrape. It starts in stainless steel, and is transfered to concrete after a while. I have highlighted both the 2018 and 19. Here is the latter, maybe most relevant. For me this has been a house wine through the winter (the article also has a link to the first one). At this moment I would say that the 20 is a bit lighter, maybe more to the fruity side, while the two others are more mineral. But they all are red fruit-driven and stand in the crossroads between the coolness and the rosemary/thyme-herbal Med-landscape.
The terraje system is described in the blogpost about the vintage 2019. In short it consists of renting the vineyard to the farmers, who take care of the quality of the vines, and then some wine is given back to the farmer. Terraje is also the name of their most “ambitious” wine (I feel the scraping of the sword when writing this, because the Parajes is in its way also a very ambitious one). Organic and dry-farmed, just like the other, this one is from older, ungrafted (“pie franco”) monastrell from defined places (parajes) called La Fuente de las Perdices and La Cañada de Albatana to the north of Jumilla town. This wine is made in a similar way, but aged in wooden “foudres”. Even this wine has low extraction with a cherry red colour. It’s fuller and more complex, but follows the same line in acidity and minerality.
Viña Elena I have known for a long time, and also visited Elena Pacheco once. This time it was her sister María together with José Marín who presented the wines.
Located in Estrecho de Marín, a valley surrounded by low mountains south of Jumilla, they offer a varied range, from a light salmon-coloured rosé through monastrell-variations with cabernet and syrah, even the dark, spicy paprika-flavoured cabernet sauvignon varietal Cuco. Very interesting is their Bruma del Estrecho de Marín, a series of single vineyard wines, almost all from monastrell, some from the vineyards owned by two brothers over in the Albacete province of Castilla-La Mancha. The Parcela Particiones 2020 is a clarete from sandy soils. In Spain clarete means a blend of red and white grapes (whereas in Portugal this is called palhete, and clarete is a light wine from red grapes). It’s an elegant monastrell and airén blend without malolactic fermentation; smells of cherry and other stone-fruits and has quite a bit of tannins. Paraje Marín 2019 from stony soils was fabulous and fresh, with typical Mediterranean herbs and somewhat warm fruit. Paraje Las Chozas 2018 was a bit darker and with young tannins, but still fresh and cool, iodine and salty. Parcela Navajuelos 2018 from sandy soils was light in colour, fresh, fruity and cool with some spice. While Parcela Vereda 2018 was darker, with forest fruits (like blackberry) and some warmth from the clay soils, while the chalky part gives also this wine some saltiness. These fabulous wines and the parcel/paraje concept contribute to make Jumilla a wine region to watch in the years to come.
Bodegas Carchelo I knew well in the times of founder Agapito Rico, one of the great personalities in Jumilla from the early 1980’s. At that time he was quite a revolutionary with his fresh, concentrated, yet good value wines. It was nice to be able to catch up and meet David Ferraje from the team of new owners that took over a little more than ten years ago.
They are located to the east of Jumilla, at the foot of the mountains Sierra del Carche, hence the name. And most of the vineyards are quite near, north-northeast of the town. Today they are 100% organic. I have enjoyed several of their wines, from the young and fresh rosé via the simple and fun Eya Tinto 2020 and the dark fruit-driven Carchelo Roble 2019 (monastrell with cabernet and tempranillo) – to the more ambitious part of their range. Here you find f.ex Canalizo 2014, a monastrell-syrah-tempranillo aged 20 months in barrel. This one had aged beautifully; mature morellos, tea, dried fruits and a nice bitter tone. Muri Veteres 2016, a pie franco monastrell with dark fruits and balsamic notes, was elegant and attractive.
It’s maybe a bit strange to say that one of the surprises was Juan Gil. But the Gil Family Estates has turned into a conglomerate of bodegas across the country. I don’t know the quality of all of them, but the original (bodega founded by Juan Gil Giménez in 1916) was quite good. They are in transition to organic cultivation, with the majority of vineyards northeast towards Yecla.
In short, the young white and rosé were good, but not with much personality. The new project over in Almansa, named Bodegas Atalaya, has potential, but at this point too much oak for me. Here I chose as a representative Juan Gil‘s own Honoro Vera2020, a varietal monastrell, organically farmed, unoaked and vegan certified. This was a quite fresh dry-farmed wine from calcareous and rocky soils, with the usual red and dark berries and balsamic notes.
From neighbouring Yecla, a one-municipality-denomination, I tasted the wines of its leading winery. Bodegas Castaño had good offerings from the unoaked white and rosé to the dense and rich Casa Cisca, and neither have I forgotten that they have one of the best sweet monastrell wines (not brought to this tasting). Among the most interesting wines is an old favourite, now called Hécula Organic in the 2019 vintage. It shows ripe red berries (morello), aromatic herbs and a hint of coffee. Full and quite fresh in the mouth with mature tannins. I will come back to this one in a while.
Let us start with the conclusion this time: This monastrell is a modern, juicy, “gluggable” wine way up the natural road – but at the same time it is the Mediterranean, slightly spicy, Provencal-herbal, hearty and quite recognizeable. I love it, and wrote about the previous vintage here.
This particular wine is made by 30 year old wine maker María Jover (born in nearby Alicante) who has a modern approach. The vines are between 20 and 40 years old, organically grown, in the old system of “terraje”. This concept involves renting the vineyard to the farmers, who take care of the quality of the vines. As a bonus the landowner in this specific project 7% of the production is given back to the farmer. This is a very common practise in Jumilla for old vines.
The producer owns some 80 hectares, mostly monastrell. The grapes for this wine were de-stemmed, lightly pressed and fermented with indigenous yeasts on steel, before malo-lactic fermentation and a short ageing in cement. (Here is a bit more reading, such as a presentation of the previous vintage.)
Parajes del Valle Monastrell 2019 (Parajes del Valle)
Dark colour with a young blueish hint. Aromas of dark and red berries, like blackberry and cherry, aromatic herbs (rosemary, thyme), and a hint of lickorice. Juicy in the mouth, it has a coolness to it, like a fresh, natural acidity, but at the same time a serious southern quality hinting to coffee, or maybe tea leaves.
Food: Light meat dishes, bacalao, Murcian paella, pizza, hard cheeses, and almost everything from the grill
Here is a 100% monastrell from Murcia, certified organic and very good value.
This bodega, led by Alfonso J. García, takes pride in reducing the carbon imprint, a fact that also is shown by the light weight of the bottle. They are found in the center of Bullas town. Of 22 hectares of vine most is monastrell, with some petit verdot and tempranillo, and 3 ha. macabeo from which they elaborate a white wine with the same name as this one.
The grapes were dry-farmed in the Valle del Aceniche between 800 and 900 meters of altitude. It was fermented in inox tank, and has underwent a gentle extraction.
Salto del Usero 2018(Bodega Monastrell)
Bright red with violet hints. Forest fruits (blackberry), lickorice, some balsamic. Juicy, quite fresh and lightly textured in the mouth, a “cool” wine from a warm region.
While being focused on the light, delicate wines of Beaujolais, we throw in a Mediterranean wine that I have had on my list for some time.
And it shares in fact some of their characteristics. For a Jumilla monastrell it’s lightly extracted, focused on fruit and a, should we say, relatively modest 13,5% in alcohol.
Part of the Vinival group, Parajes del Valle is their Jumilla project. Winemaker is the young María Jover Sánchez, who worked for Vega Sicilia for a year, before she returned to her native Levante.
The soil here has a high limestone content, and the monastrell grapes are old. The variety has dark skin, small berries, and in the warm Mediterranean climate the wines are often big with elevated alcohol. Here the farmers are instructed to go for the opposite. The grapes are destemmed, subject to a light pressing and a careful maceration. It’s made mostly in steel, except for malo-lactic fermentation that is carried out in concrete.
Parajes del Valle Monastrell 2018 (Parajes del Valle)
Dark young colour. Quite concentrated berry aroma (raspberry, dark cherry), with aromatic herbs and a touch of lickorice in the background. Juicy, quite cool with smooth tannins.
Food: Stews, Murcian paella, light meat, fried fish