Everyone is looking for value in wine, which I define as a wine that delivers more than the price suggests. Using that definition value can be found in Bordeaux where an $80 wine wows you the way a $120 wine does. More commonly though, consumers looking for value wines are searching for the $10 or $15 wine that tastes like it cost twice as much. And these days, those wines are easier to find than you’d suspect, especially if you head for Spain’s Castilla-La Mancha region.
At the high end, the trick is finding an underperforming property or producer who decides it’s time to live up to their potential. Since price depends as much on the reputation of a producer as it does on the wine’s quality, prices of wines from these producers lag behind their quality, sometimes for decades. Château Lagrange in St. Julien and Château d’Issan in Margaux, both included in the exclusive Médoc Classification of 1855, are fine examples. Both chateaux had made mediocre wines for years until Marcel Ducasse and now Bruno Eynard at Lagrange and Emmanuel Cruse at d’Issan, took the reins and changed the focus. Even today, though their wines are better than ever, their prices still lag behind their quality.
Finding less expensive value wines may mean trying wines made from unfamiliar grapes or from places you’ve never heard of. The common theme is to find a locale formerly known exclusively for making bulk wine used for blending that now has producers who aim decidedly higher. For European wines price is often more dependent on the prestige of the appellation than the inherent quality of the wine. It can take years for the price of the top wines from down-market or unknown regions to catch up to their quality. Just look at Ornellaia. When first released from a yet to be identified quality region, Bolgheri in the Maremma, it was actually affordable. Now it’s routinely released at triple digit prices. Sicily, Sardinia, Puglia or most of the south of Italy, the Languedoc in the south of France, and parts of Spain fit this description. In Spain, even the most prestigious wine from the best-known areas--think Rioja Gran Reserva--remain strikingly underpriced.
For the real bargains, though, consumers should head to the heart of Spain, Castilla-La Mancha, an area known for bulk wine in the past, but now a place where quality wines are springing up like mushrooms after a rain.
Pagos or Diamonds in the Rough
Castilla-La Mancha, one of Spain’s 17 administrative regions just south of Madrid, is home to nine Denominación de Origen (Designation of Origin or DO), of which La Mancha is one. The others, none of which are household names, which helps keep the prices down, are Méntrida, Mondéjar, Uclés, Ribera del Júcar, Valdepeñas, Manchuela, Almansa, and part of Jumilla. With about 1.25 million acres of vines, the administrative area of Castilla-La Mancha accounts for about half of Spain’s wine grapes--a quantity equal to the output of Chile and Argentina combined. Of course, most of the wine comes not from the nine DOs. Roughly three-quarters of the area is designated Vinos de la Tierra de Castilla (VDT), the equivalent of what formerly was called Vin de Pays in France.
For those France-oriented consumers, think of Castilla-La Mancha as Spain’s Languedoc with its “wine lake.” Similar to the Languedoc, amid this sea of mediocrity are atolls of excellence. The real paradox of Castilla-La Mancha is the concentration of Spain’s most prestigious single estates, known officially as Pagos, amid the vast expanse of hot, arid unremarkable vineyards.
The Pagos are at the pinnacle of Spain’s wine classification pyramid. These are single estates whose wines are distinctive, unique and of super high quality. Not only was Spain’s first Pago, Dominio de Valdepusa, located in Castilla-La Mancha, but so were the next three. And now it claims eight of the country’s 13 Pagos. (The others are Dehesa del Carrizal, Finca Élez, Pago Calzadilla, Pago Campo de la Guardia, Pago Casa del Blanco, Pago Casa Florentino, and Pago Guijoso.) If a Pago is located in a DO--and they need not be--they are not required to conform to the regulations that apply to the DO. They have ultimate flexibility with varietal blend and vinification practices. The Pago concept runs against traditional European wine regulations and actually encourages experimentation.
Twenty years ago, conventional wisdom held that quality wines could not be made in Castilla-La Mancha because it was too hot. The region has a brutal continental climate, blistering hot in the summer and frigid in the winter, or as Cervantes described it, “nine months of winter and three months of hell.” The area thus was primarily known for exporting high alcohol wine to be blended with thinner wines made in other, more northern, parts of Europe.
But clearly visionaries in Castilla-La Mancha had been making quality wine or they would not have been awarded Pagos designation. As is often the case, these estates were flying under everybody’s radar. Having tasted scores of wines from the region, I assure you that excellent ones--and very well priced ones--are coming from the DOs and under the VDT designation.
Elevation is Key
Fine wine is made in this vast plateau in the heart of Spain, and not just at the Pagos or in the DOs, because of its elevation, from 2,000 to 3,000 feet above sea level. Elevation helps in two important ways. The growing season is longer because it’s cooler, which allows time for the phenolics in the skin to ripen. Grapes that ripen (as measured by sugar content) by August have the correct level of sweetness, but little else. Grapes, however, that achieve ripeness, again measured by sugar content, at the end of the growing season, typically the end of September, not only have the appropriate sweetness, but have a plethora of flavors because they are “physiologically” ripe--the phenolic compounds in the skins and seeds are “ripe.” Additionally, as elevation increases, temperatures drop dramatically at night, which means that grapes grown at high altitudes contain more acidity--and the wines more vibrancy--because they retain more malic acid, which otherwise is broken down at higher temperatures.
Mostly Red Wines
At last count there are about 45 grape varieties planted in Castilla-La Mancha, evenly split between red and white varieties. Although the plantings are evenly split, the vast majority of the wine from the region is red because the most widely planted white grape, Airén, is used primarily for brandy. Today, as growers continue to experiment and seek quality over quantity, they are pulling out Airén and replacing it with both indigenous varieties, such as Albillo or Macabeo (both whites) and Tempranillo (known here as Cencibel), Monastrell (aka Mourvèdre) Bobal and Garnacha, and the so-called international ones, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Petit Verdot, Syrah and Chardonnay.
It’s difficult to generalize about the wines from this region because of boundless experimentation. There’s a bit of everything--mostly red, but some amazing whites and rosés as well. There are light and fruity wines; others clearly have the “Old World” signature with vibrant acidity and earthy flavors, while still others are more extracted and “modern” with identifiable new oak character. Distribution in the US is still spotty. Indeed, inexplicably, many good producers still lack US representation. I’ve been impressed with the wines from Bodegas Arrayán, Dominio de Valdepusa, Finca El Refugio El Vinculo, Bodegas Parra Jimenez, Bodegas Leganza, Osborne, Bodegas Piqueras, Vinicola de Tomelloso and Volteo, to name just a few. A common characteristic is their superb value.
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I am indebted to Master of Wine and Master Sommelier Doug Frost for much of the information in this article, which was conveyed in a seminar and tasting he led in New York City in May 2012.
Email me at Michael.Apstein1@gmail.com and follow me on Twitter @MichaelApstein