Castilla-La Mancha indigenous grapes
From bulk bottles to beauties
Wednesday 27 April 2022
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Moravia Agria, Mizancho, Tinto de la Pámpana Blanca, Albillo Real, Tinta Velasco, Pintaíllo. These are the names of some of the indigenous grape varieties from Castilla-La Mancha that are being recovered by viticulturalists, grape growers and winemakers who want to show another side to this region.
Often viewed as a region that churns out large quantities of low-quality wines from just a handful of varieties, Castilla-La Mancha is looking to the past for a glimpse of its future. Although we are just barely beginning to hear about these varieties outside of Spain, the general trend for wine producers is to reclaim the autochthonous, the indigenous and, yes, the hard to pronounce.
Out with the old (vines), in with Petit Verdot
In a way, Castilla-La Mancha has been both blessed and cursed. It is an ideal place for viticulture, particularly organic, as it is hot, sunny, and dry keeping disease and fungal pressure low, with vines extending as far as the eye can see on the Meseta, the high plains of central Spain. It’s a diverse winemaking landscape, boasting old bush vines, including deep rooted pre-phylloxera vines capable of withstanding extremely dry summers, and also young, trellised vineyards that allow for mechanized work and installed with drip irrigation systems. With more than 450,000 hectares under vines, large estates and cooperatives have been able to take advantage of economies of scale to produce large quantities of wine while keeping production costs low. The major problem, however, is that the region has garnered a reputation for producing cheap wines, over-relying on simple Airén and Cencibel (Tempranillo) based wines, with a bit of Bobal, a sprinkle of Garnacha and a few international varieties that were planted some thirty or forty years ago.
Indeed, the popularity of international varieties such as Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Petit Verdot and Merlot in the late 80s and 90s encouraged many producers to pull out their native varieties in favour of those they believed would be more commercially valuable. In addition, policies and legislations, such as the European Union ‘vine pull’ scheme that was ushered in in 1988 to reduce the so-called ‘wine lake’ of unsellable, over-produced wine in regions across Europe, also affected the number of varieties that remained. A decade later, when irrigation was authorized, another overproduction led to a drop in prices. To remain competitive, grape growers sought volume above all. With this background, many of the Castilla-La Mancha’s native varieties were lost, and some are currently close to extinction.
“The Castellano Manchegos do not want the varieties of La Mancha to become extinct,” says Carolina Collado, wine exporter with Foobespain. “It is more for the love of the land rather than the benefits it can bring us.”
Castilla-La Mancha: Unearthed
Since 2000 the Castilla-La Mancha Vine and Wine Research Centre has worked tirelessly to recover some of these varieties before it’s too late. They have recently added eight new varieties to the national register, five of which can now be planted for commercial purposes. While more and more grape growers are beginning to see the value of indigenous varieties and of quality production over quantity, some are still pulling them out, attracted by the short-term gains of bulk wine production.
“Here, before, it was all bulk, bulk, and bulk,” explains Carolina, pointing out the goal of producing neutral wines that would be bottled in other countries.
“There they’d give it the touch of wood or the distinction that anyone wanted. Not now. Now we have concentrated on bottling [at the estate] and on the quality of the wine.”
Between the authorized and recommended varieties there are a total of 40 different types of grapes in Castilla-La Mancha that can be used for wine production. Quality-minded wine producers have shifted the focus to lesser-known varieties that show great potential and can help curb the effects of climate change and pre-phylloxera vines that, yes, require more work but can make world-class wines. Take Airén for example, the white workhorse grape of the region, often described as a neutral or insipid variety that is mainly used for bulk, blends and distillation. Producers such as Bodegas Verum and Bodegas Cerron have begun breathing new life into this varietal by focusing on specific sites, such as those with limestone soils or at higher altitudes to retain freshness.
“Airén is like the Cinderella of the grape varietals,” winemaker Elias Lopez Montero from Bodegas Verum says. “It is a great challenge to make wines to the best level.
“It looks rustic and boring, but in the right place with the right hands, she can shine incredibly.” Indeed, Las Tinadas Airén Pie Franco - pie franco meaning own-rooted or ungrafted - was listed as a cult wine for the future by none other than wine critic Jancis Robinson in 2021.
Another grape variety that is gaining interest is Moravia Agria, a thin-skinned red grape that accounts for just 179 hectares in the entire region. Agria, meaning bitter or sour, is a suitable name given that it produces wines with distinctively high acidity. As a single varietal wine, the late-ripening, low-yielding vine produces light-coloured, fruity red wines with aromas of flowers, herbs and grasses. However, it is commonly used as a blending partner with Garnacha or Garnacha Tintorera (Alicante Bouschet) such as in Envinate’s super-quaffable Alhambra where it makes up 30% of the blend, to naturally increase acidity levels and balance out high alcohol wines. Bodegas Arrayan in Toledo, who have also carried out extensive work with Castilla-La Mancha Vine and Wine Research Centre to recover lost varieties, have also released a single-varietal Moravia Agria.
The touch of freshness will become more and more necessary as temperatures rise due to climate change. Tinto Velasco is another high acid, red grape variety that also looks promising and shares many similar characteristics with Moravia Agria. With approximately 1300 hectares planted in Castilla-La Mancha, Tinto Velasco is a variety that needs warm temperatures and requires very little water to survive. It produces juicy red wines with aromas of red fruits, herbaceous notes, and peppery touches with soft tannins. Esencia Rural produces a single varietal Tinto Velasco from 150-year-old, pre-phylloxera vines in Quedo, Toledo. Similarly, Tinto Velasco is part of Bodegas Verum’s Ulterior range, wines specifically made with recovered ancestral grape varieties.
A few other varieties to look out for, although production quantities are extremely low and bottlings limited, are Albillo Real, Verdoncho and Malvar.
While the days of Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot are far from over in this part of Spain, it’s clear that Castilla-La Mancha is a diamond in the rough with a very bright future ahead. Bulk wines and high volumes of inexpensive wines will certainly continue, but these few renegade producers have proven to the world that the indigenous varieties of Castilla-La Mancha, even the most boring of the lot, can make quality wines; wines with freshness, elegance and a whole lot of personality.
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