Although the region of Alicante is more famous for the beaches of the Costa Blanca than its wine, plenty of superlative quality bottles are surprisingly produced in this sunny corner of Spain. This often comes as a surprise to most visitors to the area, who will understandably typically request a glass of Rioja or perhaps a Ribera Del Duero to accompany their delicious local tapas rather than a glass of something closer to home. However, take the time to explore the area’s viticultural past and you’ll discover a fantastic but largely forgotten region, which is once again producing excellent wines.
Vines have been growing in this part of Spain for over two thousand years, ever since the ancient Romans, who named Spain Iberia, conquered this part of Europe. The wines soon gained a favorable reputation, both at home and abroad and by the 16th century, the wines were in high demand from merchants of northern Europe. In fact, to protect this increasingly lucrative industry in 1510 a royal decree was issued, prohibiting merchants from importing wines from outside Spain and restricting exports to the port of Alicante. Legend even records that the French Sun King Louis XIV demanded nothing else but Alicante wine on his deathbed in 1715.
But despite the historically positive legacy of winemaking in Alicante, the region today has not, though, enjoyed the best of reputations over the last few decades. Apart from the celebrated sweet wine known as Fondillón, which was produced from sun-raisened Monastrell, mainly cheap, bulk wines have come out of the region of Alicante. Its image was of poor quality and mass production, something that pioneering winemakers like Juan Cascant, co-owner of Cellar la Muntanya, have tried hard to overturn.
Today, the Alicante D.O. or appellation currently has approximately 14,000 hectares under vine and is located in a province of the same name in the Comunidad Valenciana region of eastern Spain. South of the city of Valencia, the region was legally recognized as an appellation in 1957 and in common with all Spanish D.O.s has a Consejo Regulador oversight body. The wine region is divided into two distinct zones: La Marina, which forms a coastal strip between the towns of Denia and Calpe and the larger sub-region of Vinalopo which is located further inland from the coast.
The terroir and growing conditions of these two sub-regions are quite distinctive, as are the grape varieties planted by growers and subsequent wine styles. The coastal La Marina area enjoys a Mediterranean climate, with hot summers (temperatures average 30 degrees in the summer) and mild winters. Rainfall, however, is reasonably plentiful with on average 500 mm per year. The soils are largely dominated by limestone over sedimentary rock, which allows good drainage.
In contrast, the Vinalopo region, which borders the Yecla district of neighboring Murcia has a fiercer continental climate, with summer temperatures exceeding 35 degrees. Rainfall is sparse and with winter temperatures plummeting to 5 degrees, spring frosts are a constant menace. The predominant soil type is also quite different, with sandy soils covering the dry plains that lack any organic material. Such challenging conditions mean that growers must be very selective with the varieties they plant, as many white varieties for example would struggle to produce high-quality wine in these conditions.
When the Alicante appellation was established in 1957, growers were permitted to work with just four varieties: Alicante Bouschet, Monastrell, Moscatel and Bobal. The Moscatel grape thrives in the La Marina district, producing delicious fortified and dessert wines, the most famous simply being the Moscatel de Alicante. At their best, the wines rival the finest dessert wines of Europe, offering honeyed and tropical fruit flavors balanced out by acidity and freshness. Poor examples are overripe and cloying. Monastrell is the mainstay of the Vinalopo sub-region, which can cope with the intense summers and ripens to produce a rich, fruity alcoholic red. It is also used to produce an excellent fortified wine and a popular rose style, which is still an important cash cow for the area’s growers.
In recent years the 50 or so wine growers in Alicante have planted Chardonnay, Riesling, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Garnacha, Tempranillo and others. Increasingly, a number of export focused and savvy bodegas (wineries) are crafting modern style, powerful and extracted reds which are usually blends of Tempranillo and international varieties. The best of these are superb, and offer real competition to the wines of Penedès further north. But, the real gem in Alicante’s crown is its historical Fondillón wine, a sweet wine which dates back to the 17th century. Produced from overripe Monastrell grapes and with a solera (barrel) age of 10 years, the resulting depth of flavor and complexity in these wines is astounding. They can more than compete with the best of Malaga’s dessert wines, and indeed the finest sweet wines from across the world.
Alicante once had a reputation, other than for its sweet wines, as a region of bulk production and indifferent quality. However, thanks to the efforts of the new generation of winemakers, who now fully understand which international varieties suit their various terroirs, some excellent blends and varietal wines are emerging, in a style more familiar to the world’s wine drinkers. And with a renewed emphasis on producing elegant and fresh reds, and the constant pressure on wineries to modernize their ideas, the respect and renown of this beautiful and surprising region can only grow!