Innovative growers are revitalising the wines of Spain's Costa Blanca and ending the region's cheap and cheerful reputation. GRAEME CHESTERS reports

Innovative growers are revitalising the wines of Spain’s Costa Blanca and ending the region’s cheap and cheerful reputation. GRAEME CHESTERS reports

Southeastern Spain is shaking off its agreeably melodramatic portrayal as an ‘accursed zone’ for the production of wine. This description, the equally impressive ‘zona maldita’ in Spanish, came from the coarse, dark, highly-alcoholic reds which were produced in the area for many years. But times have changed – the Spanish are heaping praise on some of these ‘Levante’ wines, and this in a climate of increased international acceptance of Mediterranean wines.

Languedoc-Roussillon, Greece and Puglia have led the way, and it’s time for this previously unfashionable part of Spain to follow.The region has six Denominaciones de Origen, Spain’s official wine regions: Alicante, Almansa, Jumilla, Utiel-Requena, Valencia and Yecla. Jumilla and, to a lesser extent, Alicante, have the producers currently attracting the most plaudits, but the others are showing signs of progress, and the burgeoning success of the front runners should spur them to greater efforts.

Alicante is probably most commonly associated in the public mind with the Costa Blanca’s unashamed excesses. But it also has an old winemaking tradition, and has long been known for decent Moscatel from the coastal La Marina area, and also for a regional curiosity, Fondillón, a high alcohol, liqueur Monastrell with nutty, toffee flavours. Those wishing to try it are recommended to investigate the Fondillones of Primitivo Quilés, a well-respected, conservative bodega.

Of Alicante’s vineyards, the DOs are mainly concentrated in the area inland of the town of the same name. Its continental climate contrasts with the warm, humid conditions of the coast, and production is increasingly veering towards ‘serious’ foreign grape varieties. There are two outstanding bodegas in the region: Gutiérrez de la Vega and Enrique Mendoza. The former is best known for its Moscatel, but we will concentrate on Mendoza, as it shows what the area is capable of with red wine. Its story is also an attractive one, this family farm being refreshingly different from the faceless cooperatives which are still prevalent in Alicante.

Señor Mendoza started planting vines in 1970 as a diversion from his job as a butcher. It furnished a good excuse to gather his friends together at harvest time for a couple of glasses after picking. At the same time, Mendoza was seriously interested in wine, with family holidays often spent visiting the wine regions of Europe and South America. Lessons learned on these trips were put to good use back in Spain and his confidence and competence increased. He began to hanker after growing the classic French grape varieties, but importing vines was still officially prohibited in Spain; Mendoza therefore did what other Spanish winemakers had done by driving to France to get them himself. Such flagrant and healthy disregard for rules and red tape is as common in the Spanish wine industry as it is in the country as a whole.

Unfortunately, things did not progress smoothly because the vineyard’s coastal site was too humid for the plantings of Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Cabernet Franc. A higher, fresher location was needed and Mendoza found one in 1989 when he acquired Villena Finca, a 65 hectare (ha) site at a comfortable 550m above sea-level. Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Syrah and Chardonnay were then planted on 15-year old rootstocks.

The operation has expanded steadily over the last decade. Mendoza’s three sons have joined the family firm and they now produce half a million litres of wine per annum. The whites are, with the obvious exception of a tasty, well-priced sweet Moscatel made at the coastal site, unremarkable, but the reds have earned the bodega a strong reputation in the competitive Spanish market. It is notable that they are frequently stocked by specialist merchants, and this in a country where the name of Alicante previously lacked kudos. The wines are known for their competitive price-to-quality ratio though, with the knock-on effects across the whole region of Jumilla’s well-publicised success; this may change.

Mendoza’s range includes a chunky Merlot crianza 1996; a fruity Syrah crianza 1997; a spicy, Mediterranean Pinot Noir 1996; a respectable Cabernet Sauvignon crianza 1996; a well-balanced and structured Cabernet Sauvignon reserva 1994; and two flagship reds: Peñón de Ifach Reserva 1994 and Reserva Santa Rosa 1995. The former, a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Pinot Noir, has been gaining plaudits for some years, but it is the latter, a recent release, which may push the bodega to new heights. Comprising 70% Cabernet Sauvignon, 15% Merlot and 15% Syrah, it is attracting tasting scores as high as wines from the top Spanish regions, and could persuade a still-dubious, wider public to associate the region with the quality wines it is obviously capable of producing.To the west of Alicante, Jumilla DO is spread between the provinces of Albacete and Murcia, with parts of the latter a virtual desert and one of the driest regions of Europe. The climate is continental with Mediterranean influences and attracts little rainfall, but the soils of the region have a great water retentive capacity. Vineyards are situated between 400 and 800m above sea-level, and have a tradition of producing quite balanced, tasty white and rosé wines with some body. However, it is the reds which have recently projected Jumilla into the spotlight of success.

The traditional black grape of the region is Monastell, popular in many parts of Spain. It adapts well to most soil types, has good yields by Spanish standards, and is very resistant to disease. The wines it produces used to be dry, meaty, alcoholic and prone to oxidation, but with modern vinification they are increasingly well-structured, tannic and flavoursome. Monastrell now, however, has serious competition in Jumilla, with the region being seen in Spain as producing ‘the most Australian of our wines’, because Syrah is the new ‘queen variety’ of the area. And, with Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon increasingly popular, Jumilla is moving rapidly away from its old image as an area of poor Spanish wine from poor Spanish grapes.The region has not come to this position overnight. Promising wines began to emerge in the 1980s, but the momentum towards better things could not so easily be maintained and many of the quality conscious bodegas closed down.

The bulk producers, some of whom still manage to secure better prices than certain of the bottled wines, continue to urge caution. They worry about excessively rapid progress for those smaller family firms who do well in the bulk market, but who lack the financial muscle to make the necessary alterations for the transition to bottle production. However, change is now afoot, and the region is hoping to end bulk shipments to the likes of Switzerland within the next five years.When Cabernet Sauvignon first arrived in Jumilla in the 1980s, it was met with suspicion at best, and undisguised hostility at worst; attitudes in the Spanish agricultural sector are notoriously anachronistic. But the ubiquitous Bordeaux classic has now been accepted, which should smooth the way for the admittance of the more recently arrived Syrah and Merlot. There is even talk of experimental growths of Viognier and Petit Verdot. The latter is a rarity in Spain, though the maverick Carlos Falco, Marqués de Griñon, is enjoying notable success with it near Toledo, not an area previously renowned for wine.

The prosperity being enjoyed by forward-thinking bodegas in Jumilla should encourage others to embrace change: Bodegas 1890 SA is doing well with its Mayoral range of wines; BSI San Isidro’s reds are improving, and Julia Roche Hijos has the increasingly respected Casa Castillo wines.

But it is Agapito Rico which is really leading the charge with the Carchelo range, characterised by its elegant structure, fruitiness and long, appetising finish. It comprises a juicy, bittersweet young red, a mature 1994 crianza; a much-praised, varietally-characterful 1998 Merlot; an exceptional Merlot crianza 1994, and a mentholly, minerally 1998 Syrah, made using a mixture of carbonic maceration and traditional fermentation. This is a variety much lauded in Spain, a country which has been indifferent to growing the grape until recently. Agapito Rico’s success and international aspirations – 80% of its production is exported – have been instrumental in drawing attention to the Jumilla region. This is exemplified by the fact that, amongst others, both the Marqués de Griñon and Miguel Torres, Spain’s most internationally successful winemaker, are rumoured to be looking at land in the region.

Lack of space precludes more than a quick look at southeastern Spain’s other DOs. Almansa, with all due respect, is the weak link, with only one bottling producer. The first Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, however, were planted three years ago, and more producers are looking to bottle their wines. With its vineyards situated at 700m above sea-level to mitigate the searing summer heat, the region is capable of progress.Utiel-Requena lies in the west of Valencia province, with a continental climate subject to Mediterranean influences, and less torrid summers than the rest of the region. Previously renowned for turning out bulk reds for the export market, sometimes from the rustic Bobal grape, there is now a programme of planting better varieties. The region should therefore begin to fulfil its undoubted potential as a producer of decent, well-priced vines, with the Swiss-owned Bodegas Schenk showing what can be done; its reds display some complexity and elegance; Torre Oria and Vicente Gandía are also making notable progress with their reds. There are plans to revitalise other bodegas by emphasising the pro-duction of fresh, tasty rosés to stimulate interest, rather as happened in Navarra.

For now, the whites are fresh, light and rather uninteresting, though the region is producing increasing amounts of barrel-fermented Chardonnay. Valencia DO is still dominated by cooperatives and has a scarcity of black grapes, but better varieties are being planted and, with vineyards situated at up to 1,000m above sea-level, they are a world away from the sometimes humid Mediterranean climate of the coast. The latter, incidentally, has been described by the World Health Organisation (WHO) as one the healthiest in the world for humans. For now, there are young, fresh whites from the Merseguera grape, some decent dry Moscatels, and a fresh, inoffensive rosé. However, as with the other Levante DOs, the reds hold most interest, and increasing numbers of well-priced, Mediterranean wines are being made from Tempranillo and Cabernet Sauvignon.

Last we come to Yecla, sandwiched between Alicante and Jumilla in the north of the province of Murcia, in a continental climatic region 400 to 700m above sea-level. The whites and rosés are undistinguished, but the reds are once again leading the way and showing signs of improvement, with Castaño producing some excellent, toothsome, Mediterranean wines. So, if you are offered something with Costa Blanca on the back label, please don’t sulk.