Levant indigenous grapes
There’s a grape here for you — all you need to do is discover it.
Wednesday 08 December 2021
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In beautiful Valencia in the South East of Spain, the sun shines on five major regions: Utiel-Requena, Alto Turia, Valentino, Moscatel de Valencia and Clariano. Grapes have been grown here in what’s sometimes known as the “Levant” since the 7th century thanks to travelling (and settling/colonising Romans), but more recently it has become famous for bulk rather than beauty, producing 5% of Spain’s wine. In the third-largest wine producing country in the world, that’s a lot of wine.
There’s a lot to love about Valencian grapes, however, and not all of it is grown for maximum output. Here in this region of extremes, grapes grow on wide plains and high up mountainsides, in lush surroundings and in sandy coastal desert. There’s a grape here for you — all you need to do is discover it.
Take a look at Bobal, for example, the area’s third-most planted variety. A rich red grape indigenous to the inland Utiel-Requenia region, it grows on slopes up to 900m high, bringing acidity and freshness despite the warm temperatures in which it grows.
Bobal has been a favourite grape here for centuries — it has very few weaknesses, being very resistant to drought and infections, and creates a lot of easy-drinking, highly-versatile juice. It also survived the devastating phylloxera outbreak of the late 1800s, being super-resistant to the insect pest that decimated so many millions of vines across Europe at that time. Popularity, resilience and convenience can be fatal to a grape’s image though, and in Bobal’s case, quality was often seen as lacking due to the vast qualities of bulk wine many producers could squeeze from it.
That’s not Bobal’s fault. We can’t get mad at it for being tough as old boots and eager to please. It can add depth and might to red blends, lighten up heavier grapes like Monastrell or Garnacha, and in the right hands, gives its own wine silky, succulent tannins with flavours of blueberry, currants and black cherry. Thankfully there are winemakers out there creating delicious, luxurious wines with this grape, making sure Bobal is centred where it should be, and treated like the bruiser with a heart of gold that it really is.
Monastrell has intensity and depth of flavour, but its rich tannins soaked from deep black grape skins can overpower if they’re left to run wild. This grape can make a meaty wine, but it can equally create a balanced and beautiful wine full of fruit and herbal aromatics.
Known as “mourvedre” or “mataro” in other regions, Monastrell is native to Valencia, and you’ll most often find this variety in a blend with Bobal, Syrah or Garnacha — or even whipped straight off the skins and blended with Xarel.Lo, Paralleda or Macabeo to make Cava with a touch more acidity, spice or general panache. While Monastrell might pack a flavoursome punch, it can sometimes lack a little flair — but blending works both ways. Strong, confident Monastrell has saved many a limp wine from its own wilting frame, acting as both a complimentary flavour spectrum and a support. The perfect friend to lean on.
Valencian wine seems to do a great job at being widely-drank but under-represented. Tintorera, or Alicante Bouschet as it’s sometimes known, is a rich, almost savoury grape variety giving all kinds of dark chocolate, olive oil and black pepper flavours and aromas, and its flesh, unlike most grape varieties, is a stunning shade of ruby red.
It makes “fruit forward” wines — an annoyingly broad term that signals a touch of acid and maybe even a touch of residual sugar content to give the impression of juicy, fruity wine. Don’t let the term “residual sugar” put you off. The obsession with only asking for bone dry, arid-as-the-desert wine has to stop. Most of your faves aren’t as dusty as you think they are. Let yourself have some sweetness.
If you’re into golden-hued whites with soft tannins and a round, peachy flavour, Malvasia is a Valencian native you’ll love. Actually part of a wide range of related grapes under the name “Malvasia”, these vines originally came over the Mediterranean from Greece and the Balearics many moons ago. Used mostly in blends to create easy-drinking table wines in Valencia, the Malvasia grape is also used to make “malmsey”, Vin Santo or Madeira elsewhere in the world. It also makes a pretty, complex and robust sparkling wine, if you’re ever lucky enough to find some.
Little-known hardworker Merseguera might have a blandish taste and low acidity, but it makes up for its individual quality by blending exceptionally with others — and by producing herculean yields. Planted in relatively small numbers in the Valencia-Alicante region, it is known for growing well in poor soils and in difficult conditions. For the reasons above, though, you probably won’t find Merseguera wines outside of Spain, and so it’s best enjoyed at a beachside bar with a bowl of grilled gambas while wearing a large floppy hat and reading a paperback.
Verdil, on the other hand, is a proper Valencian superstar. Sparky and citrussy, it makes wine that zings with lemon and lime, getting more tropical when allowed to sit sweetly, and becoming grassy and aromatic when it’s made into dryer white wines.
Verdil is not an easy grape to transform into something beautiful, and it takes skill to keep those fruity, zingy flavours fresh, but thanks to a burst in popularity for native grapes and a growing interest in artisanal winemaking, Verdil is making something of a comeback. Not to mention its unique citrussy flavours that turn into something pretty special when they’re in creative hands. Hurray, then, for hardworking Valencian winemakers and their quest to bring their native varietals back to our glasses and into our hearts.
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