The Wines of . . . Madrid?

When you think of Madrid, what pops into your mind?  Vino or Prado?  Prado, of course, one of the world’s most magnificent museums.  But Madrid, not the city proper, but the autonomous region of Madrid–the roughly 3,000 square miles around the city–is home to about 50 wineries who produce a wide range of wines from indigenous as well as international grapes.  They range in price from $10 to over a $100 a bottle.

The region received official recognition only in 1990 when government regulators awarded it the status of a DO (Denominaciones de Origen, analogous to the French Appellation d’Origin Controllée).  At first blush it might seem that the DO was created for marketing reasons, but in fact vines have been planted there since Roman times.

People have taken notice of the region especially since 1999, when Carlos Falco, the Marquis de Grinon, literally put down roots with his winery, El Rincon.  Falco, one of the locomotives of the new Spanish wine industry, is credited with establishing the pago designation within the DO system (a vineyard is awarded DO status) with his Cabernet-focused property, Valdepusa, near Toledo.  He is also credited with introducing Cabernet Sauvignon to the area around Toledo, advocating for quality wines over quantity, and being a fierce advocate for drip irrigation to promote quality.  His focus at El Rincon is making superior wine from Syrah and Garnacha.

An Area in Transition

Like many areas of Spain, the region of Madrid formerly was known for the quantity of its wines, not their quality.  The area contained 150,000 acres of vines at the beginning of the 20th century, but World Wars I and II, phylloxera, and changing demographics all conspired to reduce the vineyard area to its current 20,000 acres–about half the size of Napa Valley–farmed by 2,500 growers.  Moreover, for decades during the 20th century The Franco regime put Spain into relative isolation from the rest of the world, making it difficult for Spanish wine producers to embrace new viticultural and winemaking practices that were evolving elsewhere.

But now the region is blossoming.  Growth since 1990 has been substantial, from 7 wineries then to about 50 currently.  Still, production from the entire area is relatively small by Spanish standards, totaling about 3.5 million bottles annually, equivalent to Roederer Champagne’s annual production.

Until now, most of the wines have been consumed in Madrid and the rest of Spain.  The export trade started only in the mid-1990s, but now accounts for about a third of sales.  Still, the wines are new to the US market, and many good producers are searching for US importers.

Altitude Makes it Possible

The key to Spain’s high quality wines is its altitude–it is the second highest country in Europe after Switzerland.   And the DO of Madrid is no different.  The climate can be summed up in two words–hot and dry.  Hardly any rain falls during the summer, which explains why regulations allow for irrigation.  But the area’s elevation moderates the temperature and results in significant diurnal temperatures swings, from nearly 100 degrees F during the day to 60 degrees F at night.  The lower nighttime temperatures prevent loss of grape acidity and retard ripening, allowing the grapes to stay on the vines longer to develop more complex aromas and flavors.

Sixty percent of the plantings are red, with Garnacha accounting for almost half and Tempranillo another 10 percent.  The international red varieties comprise a very small percentage in the vineyards overall (less than 1%), but play a prominent role for some producers.  Malvar is the predominant white variety and has the potential to produce a well-textured wine–reminiscent of Semillon or Malvasia–without any wood fermentation or aging.  Albillo is another white grape whose name is worth remembering because it too can produce nicely textured, bright white wines without the use of oak.

Experimentation is the Buzzword

With the renaissance of the region came the passion, experimentation and healthy differences of opinion among winemakers.  Since this is an area in evolution, it’s impossible to generalize about the wines.  The controversies and varied approaches just add to the vibrancy of the area and the excitement of tasting the wines.

What to plant is a leading question, with some advocating for inclusion of Cabernet, Merlot and Syrah to beef up the wines and others preferring to stick with indigenous varieties.  The debate is reminiscent of Priorat where winemakers felt the need to include Cabernet in their blend to gain critical acclaim and worldwide attention.  Over time, growers there backed off from international varieties, putting more stock in the native Garnacha and Carignan.  It was the same story in Tuscany in the early 1970s.  Winemakers felt the need to beef up the Sangiovese with Cabernet.  Over the succeeding decades it became clear that the indigenous Sangiovese made fabulous wine by itself if it was planted in the right places and cropped appropriately.  But in the DO of Madrid, even sticking to the indigenous vines is not so easy.  According to Julio Mourelle, winemaker and viticulturist at El Grinon, their Garnacha is really Alicante.

After deciding what to plant comes the question of how to plant it.  The traditional bush planting (or head pruning) is popular because it helps the plant retain precious water, but working with vines in this way is backbreaking.  The modern system of training the shoots on wires had advocates because vines planted that way are easier to tend.  During harvest, grapes can be brought into the winery faster, minimizing pre-fermentation oxidation and damage.

To irrigate or not to irrigate–that is the question.  Many prefer not to irrigate because dry farming, while extremely risky early in the plant’s life, rewards the grower as the vine ages because its roots go deeper extracting more flavor and fine a more constant water table, a big plus during drought years.  But the heat and dryness of the area makes judicious use of irrigation very appealing.

Some Producers to Watch

Bodegas Ricardo Benito (no US importer):  With his wine “Divo,” Benito demonstrates vividly that Tempranillo alone can produce sensational wine. He has a 2.5 acre vineyard in the middle of nowhere with gnarled old (pre-phylloxera, he says) bush vines from which he makes only 1,200 bottles (100 cases) a year, almost all of which is sold in Madrid for about $150 a bottle.

El Rincon (Moet-Hennessey USA):  Falco and Mourelle are fanatics about scientifically delivered drip irrigation.  They have an elaborate monitoring system in the vineyard that allows them to measure water in the soil, roots and trunk of the vine.  The sensor attached to the trunk monitors its diameter.  Changes reflect water movement, which Mourelle says is different during the day and night.  They combine that information with measuring water content at different depths of the soil to determine how much and when to irrigate. Something is working to produce stellar wines, like their 2004 El Rincon, a blend of mostly Syrah with a little Garnacha (Alicante), which has a glossy elegance and plenty of power without being overdone.

Viños Jeromin (Olé Imports):  The largest producer in the region, Viños Jeromin is responsible for about one-third of the entire DO and has about 40% of the export market.  Despite their size (they still only bottle 80,000 cases total), this family-owned company produces an impressive range of reds and whites.  Their 2005 Crianza “Grego,” a blend of Tempranillo, Syrah and Garnacha, is particularly notable for its finesse that complements its concentration.

Bodegas Licinia (Olé Imports):  The modern Matisse-like cutout label accurately predicts a modern style of wine.  A blend of Syrah (40%), Cabernet Sauvignon (30%) and Tempranillo, the 2007 Licinia is powerful (14.5% stated alcohol), polished and lush.   Its complexity and elegance emerges with aeration in the glass.

Finca el Regajal (Eurpoean Cellars):  Daniel Garcia-Pita, the owner of Regajal is enthusiastic about Cabernet Sauvignon in the region.  And tastings his wines is convincing evidence that Cabernet Sauvignon can make a distinctive wine. It clearly depends on where it is planted, who is making the wine, and the age of the vines.

Tagonius (Well Oiled Wine Company):  Founded only in 2000, this large producer embraces modern technology with wire-trained vines and mechanical harvesting, which allows them to get the grapes to the winery quickly, minimizing oxidation.  Their winemaker, Luis Güemenes, is an enthusiastic advocate of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah, noting, “It (Cabernet Sauvignon) is one of the best varietals in the world. It is adaptable, gives great tannins and structure for barrel-aging.”  Their wines are powerful and concentrated with a New Worldish intensity and style.


This small, young area remains a “work in progress” with producers finding their way as they experiment with both international and indigenous grapes.  There’s a wide range of styles–and prices–which means that generalizations are not helpful.  Tasting is essential.  It will be an exciting area to watch because most of the vineyards are young.  Expect even more complexity from the wines as the vines gain maturity.

November 17, 2009.