The vast, central plains of the Castilla La Mancha region stretch out from all directions south of Madrid and remains today Spain’s largest wine producing area. In fact, it is the largest continuous wine-producing area in the world; approximately 450,000 hectares are under vine. The La Mancha D.O. (appellation) accounts for almost half of all vines grown in Spain and produces half of all Spanish wines, many of which it must be said, could scarcely rise above the level of mediocre. For a long time La Mancha was known as the center of indifferent table wines, rather than quality winemaking. However, the quality has increased leaps and bounds in the last decade and there are some fabulous examples of truly excellent wine estates, offering terrific value for money wines.
A Little History
Historically, grape growing was practiced on these plains by the Romans and it became an important wine-making area under the Moorish rule. After the Christian re-conquest of Spain, interest grew in the intense wines of La Mancha and they were shipped to Madrid to satisfy the demands of its citizens. However, as other, more quality led regions came to the fore the area’s reputation declined in the 20th century and of course suffered from the Phylloxera louse in the late 19th century which devastated Europe’s vineyards.
Today, a visitor to the region will see an arid, expansive plateau, mercifully punctuated by the Guadiana River that flows through the center of the La Mancha D.O. The climate is also one of the most extreme in Spain, ranging from winter temperatures of -12C to 45C in high summer. As expected, drought is a common problem and irrigation is essential in many of the region’s sub-zones to allow the vines to thrive. Under these difficult conditions, it is unsurprising that so many growers were content to produce overripe, coarse wines for blending and early consumption. As with many of Spain’s emerging wine regions though, things are really beginning to change.
Over the past 10 years, a monumental effort has been put into modernization, both in the vineyards and in the wine cellars. Cooler meso-climates have been identified, leading to wines of better balance and finesse and the sheer quality of some of the old bush vine Grenache is finally being harnessed. It appears so far that the best potential for quality reds is to the east of this great expanse nearer the Mediterranean coast, in particular the appellations of Manchuela and Almansa. However, improvements are being seen across the entire region, as winemakers are determined to bury the ‘average table wine’ tag forever.
The region houses over seven D.O.s (wine appellations of protected origin), the largest being the aforementioned La Mancha. This vast area of over 190,000 hectares, 22,000 growers and over 300 wineries has admittedly still some progress to make in attaining the quality levels of its neighboring sub-regions. The harsh climate is accompanied by a generally homogenous terroir of sandy clay soils across the plateau. The most planted varieties are Airen – the most widely planted grape in the world! – And Grenache, which if carefully vinified can produce wines of real class. The investments of recent years are starting to yield results, and well-balanced, oak aged red wines emanate from this once drab appellation.
Valdepeñas and other sub regions
To the south of the La Mancha D.O. we find the Valdepeñas appellation in the province of Ciudad Real. It is entirely located within the La Mancha boundary and yet quality here can be considerably higher. The dry soils encourage low productivity and the climate ensures that ripeness is rarely an issue! International varieties are finding prominence here, including Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Petit Verdot, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. The local grape Cencibel, is also very common and makes soft, fruity reds in the right hands.
Further east is the sub-region of Almansa, the closest in the area to the Valencia border. The predominate grape varieties are the red Monastrell and Grenache and the little known white Merseguera. Despite the region’s proximity to the Mediterranean coast, the climate here is resolutely harsh, characterized by the extremes of temperature found across Castilla La Mancha. However, the exploitation of higher altitude sites at around 700 meters above sea level has allowed for better balanced and lighter wines. Some of the old vine Grenache plantings are yielding wines of real character: intense, spicy, deep reds that are making a name for themselves in markets outside of Spain.
Almansa’s neighbor is the larger region of Manchuela, which does benefit from the fresh Mediterranean winds that help to moderate the similarly harsh climate of the southern Meseta. This high plateau with significant limestone deposits was brought into international fame by the winemaker Finca Sandoval’s blend of Syrah with Monastrell. A wine which won critical appraisal and now sells out quickly after release. Some of the area’s finest, full-bodied reds currently are produced from this sub-zone, the poor soils and cooler meso-climate resulting in powerful, structured wines from Bobal, Tempranillo, Cabernet Sauvignon, Grenache and even Merlot!
Due west of Manchuela is the D.O. Ribera del Jucar, named after the river that runs through the sub-region. It is the youngest appellation in Spain, having been granted D.O. status in 2003. The vineyards (over 9000 hectares) lie on a plateau that enjoys less extreme temperatures than some of its neighbors, with summer temperatures averaging 25C. Only red varieties are planted here, with Tempranillo, Grenache, Syrah and Bobal being the most common. A good hunting ground for lighter reds of real substance, often at very reasonable prices!
Between here and Madrid are the D.O.s of Mentrida and Mondejar and the single vineyard appellation – Dominio de Valdepusa. The former two have been ripe for transformation for years and certainly in Mentrida, this seems to be finally happening. The wines of Mondejar are generally thick and slightly rustic – with some exceptions – and are produced from Cencibel and Cabernet Sauvignon and also Viura, Malvasia and Torrontes. In contrast, the wines of Mentrida are showing real promise: powerful but balanced reds from mainly Tempranillo and old-vine Grenache. The quality has risen considerably over the past decade due to new money and ideas being put to great use. There are also some surprisingly soft Cabernet Sauvignons making a name for themselves.
By far the most innovative vineyards here, however, are the Marques de Grinon’s at the first Denominacion de Origen Pago (D.O. Pago). This designation is reserved for single estate wines of high quality and the Dominio de Valdepusa near Toledo has established itself as one of the finest producers in the region. 42 hectares are planted with mainly international varieties – including Syrah and Petit Verdot – that give powerful, structured, long-lasting wines. Undeniable proof that this region is capable, in the right hands, of fine wine production!
These vineyards south of Madrid have been making rapid progress in the early years of this century and today a wide range of quality wine styles exist to rival the best from Spain’s varied wine regions. And although the country’s gourmets may still prefer the established pedigree of wines from Rioja, Priorat and Ribera Del Duero, there is no longer any excuse for ignoring the diverse and often stylish wines from this exciting, up and coming region.