The Mystery and Magic of Murcia

One of the mysteries of Murcia, a province in southeastern Spain that is unknown to most North American wine lovers, is how such a hot climate can produce powerful wines with elegance and freshness. And why are they such good values? This column will try to answer those and other questions and give an overview of this exciting upcoming area. Michael Franz will review specific wines in an upcoming column.

Murcia lies south of parts of northern Africa. The landscape looks like portions of the American southwest, with craggy mountains, unique rock formations and sagebrush. The climate varies from hot and dry to dry and hot.

Wine has been made in this part of Spain since Roman times. Ironically, it was the Arabs who developed an irrigation system that allowed agriculture–and winemaking–to flourish during the 700-year Moorish occupation of Spain, despite the Islamic prohibition against alcohol.

Ripe, yet Fresh

Not surprisingly, the grapes ripen well and the resulting wines have concentration and power. What is surprising, given the climate, is how few of the wines have more than 14% alcohol. Almost like magic, they have freshness than comes from natural grape acidity and a touch of elegance, a result of careful winemaking and ripe, not astringent, tannins. Daniel Gimenez, the winemaker at Purisima, a large cooperative in Yecla, says that the elevation, which varies from 1,000 to 3,000 feet, and the resulting cold nighttime temperatures preserves the acidity. In this part of Spain, this wide swing in day-night temperatures, from 95 degrees during the day to 50-55 degrees at night, occurs in a very limited area, according to Gimenez. According to him, closer to the coast or at lower elevations, the wines become jammy and alcoholic and are suitable only for bulk blending.

No Cachet Means Low Prices

To date, the wines from the region lack cachet, even–or especially–among the locals. Even though the wines can be found in the region’s wine shops, there are surprisingly few on local restaurant wine lists. The lack of local support stems from the region’s history of producing vast quantities of bulk wine, transported by gasoline-like tanker trucks and sold throughout Europe and the rest of world. Only recently have producers, both large and small, started to make higher quality, more sophisticated wines. This relative obscurity means that the wines deliver more than expected at every price level, from the under $10 ones to even the most expensive, which run $25 to $40.

The Monastrell Grape

Monastrell grape (aka Mourvèdre in France) is the dominant grape of the region, accounting for at least 80% of the vineyard area. According to the Spaniards, the Monastrell grape originated in Catalonia, where it was cultivated in monasteries (hence it’s name, Monastrell) and spread both south to Murcia and north to Provence and the Rhône, where its name–but not its DNA–was changed to Mourvèdre.

I suspect that much of the success of the wines from Murcia is due to an ideal match between vine and climate. Ideally, tannins should ripen and sugars should develop in the grapes simultaneously. Sadly, winemakers in many parts of the world are forced to leave grapes on the vine because, for whatever reason, tannins don’t ripen as quickly as the sugars. While waiting for tannins to ripen, sugar levels rise, which translates into higher alcohol wine, and acidity falls. But it seems that Monastrell must be perfectly suited to this part of Spain because sugars and tannins ripen in harmony before acidity falls.

The Province’s Three DO’s

Don’t confuse the wines from the region’s three Denominación de Origen or DOs (officially recognized wine producing areas, analogous to the French ‘AOCs’ under the appellation controllée system) Bullas, Yecla and Jumilla, with those of Bandol, the major appellation in France that embraces Mourvèdre. In France, Mourvèdre’s appealing earthy quality is often marred by a slightly tarry, almost stinky, edge, when the grape doesn’t achieve optimum ripeness. As a late budding and late ripening variety, Mourvèdre/Monastrell needs plenty of heat and sun to ripen it adequately and eliminate the unpleasant flavor component. Heat and sun are not in short supply in this part of Spain.

Despite different DO’s, wines from Bullas, Yecla and Jumilla share more similarities than differences. Across the region, the red wines are far more successful than the whites. A few producers are experimenting with Viognier–Casa de la Ermita has had good results–but none have achieved widespread success to rival the reds to this point.

The red wines are similar to the landscape: rugged and intense. But when well made, they have supple tannins that allow for early drinking. In fact, even the best wines are not ones to cellar, but rather to drink within the first two or three years of their life. Winemaker after winemaker told me that Monastrell has a tendency to oxidation and wines made from this grape–at least in Murcia–should be consumed within a few years.

Lots of Experimentation

Along with the discovery of quality Monastrell-based wines from these DO’s, winemakers are experimenting with non-indigenous grapes. Casa de la Ermita, one of the leading producers in Jumilla, planted 35 different varieties, including Malbec, Tannat and Touriga Nacional, in a 10-acre experimental vineyard 15 years ago. They’ve achieved most success with Viognier and Petit Verdot and bottle varietal wines from them. Based on early success with Malbec, they have planted another 7.5 acres, but have not commercialized it yet.

La Purisima has just started making Sauvignon Blanc, which, based on one early sample, shows great promise.

There is little agreement on which varieties might succeed and how to use them. Lorenzo Banos, the export director of Casa de la Ermita, feels that Syrah was superior to Cabernet Sauvignon for blending with Monastrell. Patrick Rabion, a Frenchman who is the winemaker at Finca Omblancas, agrees that Syrah is good for blending, also embraces Cabernet Sauvignon and blends it with Monastrell for their top wine, ‘Seleccion Especial.’ Casa Bleda uses plenty of Tempranillo, while Raboin, across the road, has just pulled out 65 acres of it because he thinks the area is too hot for it. Clearly, there is no one correct answer and it will be fascinating to watch how winemaking and viticulture changes in these DO’s over the next decades.

Wineries such as Bodegas Bleda are working outside of Spanish tradition of labeling wines with designations such as ‘Crianza’ or ‘Reserva’ based on aging prior to release. They avoid any such designation for their top wine, ‘Divas,’ and try–successfully, I think–to walk a line between being modern without losing their geographic roots and being labeled ‘international.’

Organic Viticulture

Producers are embracing the concept of organic viticulture, in part because the hot, dry climate means there is less disease and pest control is easier. Over 300 acres of vines in Yecla (controlled by the La Purisima cooperative) that have never been affected by phylloxera and are still growing on their original roots is testimony to the pest-free environment. Although ‘organic’ may just be a marketing tool to some, Gimenez encourages their growers to become ‘organic,’ because he believes organic vineyards promote diversity of natural yeast, which enhances the complexity of the wine. Banos estimates that 25% of the crop at Casa de la Ermita is organic and they purchased a property in Yecla, Casa de las Especias, in 2003 whose entire production is organic.

Good Quality at Various Prices

There are great values at all prices levels in these wines from Murcia. In the $8 to $10 range, look for the 2006 Altos del Cuco, Finca Omblancas’ 2005 Demay and Purisima’s 2006 Valcorso Syrah or their 2005 Valcorso Monastrell Barrica.

A few more bucks will bring additional rewards. Casa de la Ermita’s 2004 Crianza, Finca Omblancas’ 2005 Delain and Valle de Salinas’ 2004 Crianza, are all excellent buys at under $15. At about $17, you will not be disappointed with either Bodegas Bleda’s 2004 Castillo de Jumilla Crianza or Finca Omblancas’ 2005 Denuño.

Even at the top end of the price pyramid, which is this part of the world is from $25 to $40, Bodegas Bleda’s Divas, Finca Omblancas’ Seleccion Especial and Purisima’s Trapió, are great values.

The world needs precisely what this corner of Spain can produce: robust, but not over done, red wines with real character–not just ‘fruit bombs’–that are ready to drink upon release and are well-priced.

October 23, 2007