One of the great things about wine is how new areas appear or spring up seemingly overnight--almost like mushrooms after a rain--and wind up producing world class wines. It happens all over the world. The Marlborough region in New Zealand was a cow pasture, but now is producing great Sauvignon Blanc and showing strong potential for Pinot Noir as well. In the United States, it was brave pioneers like David Lett who showed that Oregon’s Willamette Valley was well suited to making high quality Pinot Noir. In Italy, could anyone have predicted that Bolgheri in the Maremma, former marshland on Tuscany’s west coast, would give birth to wines such as Ornellaia and Sassicaia?
All of which brings me to Manchuela, which, in 2000, became Spain’s latest Denominación de Origen or DO. Spain’s DO system is the equivalent of France’s Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC) or Italy’s Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC). In these systems, regulatory agencies proclaim that the wines from a delimited area are unique, deserve official recognition, and must be made according to specific rules to ensure authenticity.
Manchuela lies in southeastern Spain between that vast central wine area of La Mancha and the coastal city of Valencia. In 2000, after a decade of presenting their wines to government officials, regulators agreed the wines were distinctive and unique and allowed the area to break off from La Mancha and form its own DO. It’s a large area--175,000 acres or about 4 times the size of Napa Valley--but only about 10,000 acres currently meet DO standards and qualify for that designation. Total production is small, only about 1.5 million bottles, about 120,000 12-bottle cases.
Since it was--and still is--known for its red wines, growers started planting “international varieties” (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah) in the 1990s. Fortunately, they realized their mistake and even though the DO regulations permit 18 red varieties, growers have focused on the indigenous grapes, Bobal and Tempranillo, known locally as Cencibel. Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot now account for only about two percent of the vineyards. Rafael Orozco, spokesman for the DO, notes, “Anyone can make wine from Cabernet and Merlot, but no one else can make fine wine from Bobal.” Bobal, which accounts for over half of Manchuela’s total plantings, seems to be uniquely suited to the region since it is only found there and in neighboring Utiel-Requena. Since 2000, growers have increased their plantings of Tempranillo, but there are still twice as many acres devoted to Bobal.
Bobal, a prolific grape that produces reasonably intense red wine with mild supple tannins and good acidity, can be a “sponge,” according to Orozco, because of the way it enlarges when it soaks up water. It’s a notoriously large grape that grows in super-sized bunches. The best wines from Bobal come from old vines whose grapes have a better (meaning lower) ratio of juice to skin. Growers are experimenting with clones to find less vigorous vines that produce a better ratio of pulp to skin. It also makes a rosé that is full of character.
In the last decade, the acreage devoted to whites has more than doubled in part because new technology (or, (new at least to this somewhat remote area) such as cold fermentation showed that distinctive and alluring white wine could be made from the Macabeo grape (a.k.a. Viura in Rioja). Some growers use a brief period--four to six hours--of skin contact prior to fermentation of Macabeo, which produces an engaging aromatic profile from this otherwise non-aromatic grape.
Cooperatives account for over half of the 30 producers currently in the region. Although coops can have a reputation for producing poor wines, that’s an overly broad and unjustified generalization. Anyone who has tasted wines from the world’s best co-ops knows that these enterprises can make excellent wines, and cases in point would include La Chablisienne or Cave de Lugny in Burgundy, Italy’s Produttori di Barbaresco or Cantina di Soave, and Spain’s Celler Capçanes in Montsant. Even though co-ops are required to purchase all of the members’ grapes and turn them into wine, they are not required to bottle all of it. The co-ops in Manchuela bottle only about two percent of what they produce as DO wine. A vast amount of the co-ops’ production is not even bottled, reflecting the region’s heritage as a producer of bulk wine, which was often sent elsewhere for blending. Importantly, co-ops also have access to old vines because many of their members are families whose vineyards have been passed down through generations.
“The weather is nine months of winter and three of hell,” according to Orozco. Along with the heat comes a virtual absence of rain between May and October. But the combination of water-holding clay soil and the traditional method of bush training maximizes water retention in the vines and allows the Bobal to thrive. The arid climate year after year forces the roots of the vines to go ever deeper for water while also limiting their vigor.
Elevation and cooling breezes from the Mediterranean to the east allow Manchuela to produce quality wine. The average elevation of the vineyards is 2,500 feet above sea level; the highest ones lie at 3,500 feet. The elevation and near constant breezes result in dramatic temperature swings between night and day. Cool temperatures at night preserve the acidity in grapes, which translates into vibrancy in the wines. The silver lining in the climate is that heat and wind acts as nature’s pesticide, so that rot and other diseases that damage vines and grapes are virtually non-existent.
Although new Bobal plantings remain as bush vines, growers are experimenting with wire training for Tempranillo and other varieties to make work in the vineyards easier and more efficient. Winemakers traditionally ferment the wines in stainless steel and age at least some of the reds in American oak barrels. But as in the rest of Spain, experimentation is rampant, so expect to see some French oak barrels both for aging and fermentation in the future.
Currently, wines from Manchuela are hard to find on retailers’ shelves, but that is likely to change. For now, look for the ones from Realce, a label used by one of the cooperatives. Their 2009 Bobal rosé is particularly attractive. The coop’s talent is apparent with their excellent Bobal Reserva 2003, from a notoriously difficult vintage in Europe.
Will Manchuela be home to the next Ornellaia? My crystal ball is a bit foggy today, so I can’t answer that question. But I can say that it is home to delicious, reasonably priced whites, reds, and rosés--and in this economy--that’s fine with me.
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