By John Mariani
Aug. 27 (Bloomberg) -- Three years ago I wrote with enthusiasm about an array of inexpensive wines from Spain's Valencia region based on the monastrell grape. I advised readers ``to buy the wines of Valencia and enjoy them while they're bargains. At this quality level, that can't last forever.''
The good news is that more monastrell wines are coming into the U.S. market, and at prices that are still relative bargains. Some of the best are not from Valencia but from Murcia to the south, including the towns of Yecla, Jumilla and Bullas, each with its own denomination of origin.
The best known so far are from Jumilla. The reds are known for their intensity, which comes from deep-rooted vines in a microclimate that gets only about 10 inches of rainfall each year, so the vines have to struggle to produce. The yields from Yecla, north of the regional capital of Murcia, and Bullas, to the west, are lower than in Jumilla, so their supply is limited in the international market.
Monastrell is the fourth-largest varietal planted in Spain, with about 155,000 acres in 2004, and is believed to be Iberian in origin. In France it is known as mourvedre; in Australia, mataro.
After years of decline, some Spanish vintners are trying revive monastrell because it has taken on a new luster as a component of popular Rhone wines and ``Rhone Rangers'' from California. As a dominant varietal, the Spanish make the best monastrell.
When made in large volumes, monastrell can be a dark, highly tannic, even inky wine that might well turn your teeth purple. Yet the fine examples now exported have much of the complexity of Rhone wines, whose reds are dominated by syrah blended with mourvedre. In Spain the blends are reversed, with syrah, tempranillo and cabernet sauvignon in lower ratios to monastrell.
In a tasting of several recent-vintage monastrell-based Murcia wines, they all showed an initial charge of fresh, dark currant flavors, followed by minerality, then a sure shot of tannin. None could be considered a light red.
All can stand some age, though I can't say how much better they may become. At prices from $9 to $29, I'm happy to drink them right now with roasted or grilled red meats. As I found out at a freestyle Latino restaurant named Rayuela in New York, monastrell went very well with pan-seared sweetbreads and crispy potatoes, bacon and arugula, or with the sweet-salty edge of grilled papaya stuffed with duck confit in a sherry sauce.
Among those tasted, Bodegas Bleda 2005 Divus ($22) is 95 percent monastrell and 5 percent merlot, so this is a very pure expression of the varietal's intensity and tannic structure, spending nine months in oak. It's a splendid wine for charred, rare steaks or leg of lamb perfumed with rosemary, and I'm sure it will get better for the next five years. Bleda dates back to 1935 and has been exporting since the '40s.
La Purisima 2004 Trapio ($29) is 100 percent monastrell, and only 100 cases are made each year by this large Yecla winery founded in 1946. At 14 percent alcohol, it's big and bold, with a lot of licorice and chocolate notes, making it ideal for a hearty stew or a Spanish cheese like manchego.
Finca Omblancas is a five-year-old Jumilla winery high up in the hills at 1,600 feet. Its 2004 Delain is 70 percent monastrell, with cabernet and syrah blended in to give it complexity while still expressing the ripeness of cherry and vanilla flavors.
Spice and Tannins
Casa de la Ermita, started only 10 years ago, is one of the most modern wineries in Murcia. Its 2003 Crianza is a beautiful blend of old-vine monastrell and tempranillo, with some cabernet and petit verdot added. It spends nine months in oak, then three years in bottles, allowing the wine to mellow, soften and mature in complexity, with a fine balance of spice and tannins.
Casa de las Especias obtains only very small yields and produces only organic wines, including their 2003 Crianza ($24), which is 40 percent monastrell, with the rest cabernet and syrah, giving it floral notes and a sweet spiciness up front and a lingering peppery spice in the finish.
One of the youngest wineries of the bunch, founded in 2001, is Valle de Salinas, in the heart of the Yecla region. Yet its monastrell vineyards are very old and produce wines of intensity, even without any oak aging, evident in the medium-body 2005 Joven, with plenty of fresh fruity notes and admirable finesse, especially for a wine that retails for only $9. I'd happily drink it with roast chicken or pork.
At a time when many Spanish wineries are trying to get into the saturated market for cabernet and merlot, we should applaud these Murcia producers who fervently believe that their own native varietal can succeed on its own.
(John Mariani writes on wine for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)