– If these vines weren’t here, nothing would grow. I mean nothing. With other varieties, like Syrah and Tempranillo, one needs to nurture and irrigate them or they will die. Monastrell thrives even with barely any water. That’s why local farmers love to work with it. The amount of grapes Monastrell is able to provide is a miracle if the extent of water is considered. It shouldn’t basically happen but every vintage it still does, Joaquin Galvez Bauza of Bodegas Carchelo says and smiles.
The man looks distantly like a rock n’ roll professor on a tour. His body language is full of electricity and he speaks about wine with passion. He’s the type of wine maker you want to finish the bottle with. Originally from Chile, he worked for three years alongside legendary Paul Draper at Ridge Vineyards.
– I learned more in three years than during the whole university, he laughs and tells how he learned to analyze the maturity of grapes by tasting the skins frequently with Draper.
After California he ended up in Madrid and eventually landed in Jumilla. Though Jumilla is ten thousand kilometers away from Chile, when you listen to the man talk about Monastrell, you get the feeling that he is here for good.
– Jumilla is pretty much naturally organic. You don’t need to treat the vines during the season. Conditions are close to perfect. Organic wine is not a big thing in Spain so most wines are uncertified. That doesn’t mean that viticulture in Jumilla would be a walk in the park. About once in five years skies open and hail storms destroy most of the crops. That’s why one needs to have his plots spread wide, Joaquin explains.
I follow the man into the winery, where we’ll taste some tank samples. Crunchy wines. They command you to return with a raw stake. Let’s leave them to mature and open a bottle. Sierva 2009 is juicy and dries your palate. The tannins are hefty in amount but finely grained. Tasting the wine makes me yearn for jamon iberico, though it’s only been an hour since the last portion. The big wine is in nice balance.
Joaquin represents the type of winemaker that was probably not present in Jumilla two decades ago. This is why he embodies the regions transition so well. He is eloquent and speaks perfect English, he made his way from the other side of the globe off the beaten track but didn’t stop creating his own path when arriving into Jumilla.
The region used to be known for bulk wines (that some claim was used to give Rioja colour) but has gone through a transformation. Because of that the traditional rustic wine style has been at many times replaced with smoother style produced in bodegas designed by known architects. Quality wine. The end results are able to surprise even a person inclined towards skepticism like yours truly.
I leave Carchelo and continue my tour around Jumilla. Over the two days I visit more than ten bodegas. The transformation of the area is best spotted in the coops that have modernized their production, but continue to produce bulk wine as well. You can see gigantic yellow tanks in rows, each filled with half a million liters of wine. Impressive sight. Locals still come and buy cheap wine into their plastic containers. On the other hand the one can hear the progress in the fluent English of the marketing directors of the coops and see it in the chic labels designed by studios abroad.
The best coop on my palate is San Dionisio, hands down. They make pure and delicious Monastrells that sell for ex-cellar as little as 1,5 euros. Talk about bang for a buck! In general my favorite producer turned out to be Bodegas Olivares with their wines that take the purity of Monastrell to the next level. The winery is a prime example of how a traditional family company can reinvent itself and jump from bulk production into quality markets with great success.
In Jumilla one has to also mention Juan Gill, successful winery, with Clio and its big brother El Nido fetching praise from well known American publications. Like icon wines from South-America, these wines are packed in heavy glass bottles and contain full bodied and bold wines that are at the same time serious and ‘hedonistic’. They are easy to fall in love with, no doubt. I didn’t, though we did sip a bottle or two during a wonderful tapas dinner. Enjoyed, yes, but fell in love, no. I lost my heart to more affordable style of Monastrell, with less oak and more freshness. Sometimes it definitely pays off to have a simple taste, as proven once again.
Talking about simple pleasures of life, if you ever have the chance to taste Jumilla Monastrells together with local raf-tomatoes, do not hesitate. They are crazy tasty served with local olive oil and a pinch of salt flakes. Combine them with big sips of Monastrell and you are in food heaven my friend, nothing less.
Let’s hope the success of Jumilla wines on international markets will help to spread the cuisine as well. I for one wouldn’t mind buying a case of Monastrell and ten kilos of raf-tomatoes and not leaving home before the deed was properly executed.
Disclaimer: the trip was done in collaboration with the Spanish embassy in Helsinki and the DO