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Words: Clive Pursehouse
Images: Bodegas Enrique Mendoza
Alicante has played host to the Vuelta many times over the race’s 80-year history and the province is most known for one of the Vuelta’s relatively short, yet most-feared climbs, the Xorret de Catí. This year the parcours will avoid the dreaded climb and its 22-percent gradients, with stage 9 seeing a mostly flat day that concludes with two ascents of the Cumbre del Sol peak, which includes just an 18-percent grade.
As host to the Vuelta, the region has seen stage winners from Spanish sprinter Miguel Poblet back in 1956 to French climber David Moncoutié in 2010. The variance of topography throughout Alicante has allowed Spain’s great race to showcase sprint finishes in coastal cities as well as atop steep climbs. And this topographic variety has set the stage for a variety of microclimates that have aided the growth of a vibrant wine region in the Denominación d’Origen Protegida Alicante. Much of Spain is heralded for fruit-forward wines: the garnacha, the tempranillo from Rioja and, a contemporary darling, the Priorat region that makes powerful wines from a variety of grapes. In contrast, Alicante is all about monastrell, a wine grape more commonly called mourvèdre—which is best known as a major component of red blends from the Rhône region in France and the primary wine variety in the Bandol area of Provence.
Alicante’s wines are produced from two main and distinctly different sub-regions, Vinalopó and La Marina. Vinalopó is a southern, inland region named for the river of the same name, which flows from the mountains of Alicante to the Mediterranean. The region is so hot that the monastrell vines are bush-trained very low to the ground to keep the heat from shriveling the grapes, and the canopies are grown out to prevent the sun’s rays from reflecting up from the limestone soils. The newly designated La Marina region sits to the north, abutting the coast, and is known for Alicante’s white wines, which tend toward a sweeter style, made from the moscatel grape.
Alicante has produced wine for centuries. The region’s reputation was at its height in the 16th and 17th centuries when the region’s wines were exported to northern Europe and the British Isles. The region’s reputation was built largely on the oxidized sweet wine Fondillón made from, of course, monastrell. More recent history has seen Alicante’s star fade a bit from its wine-producing heyday and until quite recently the modern reputation of Alicante wines has been built around the production of bulk wine.
The province remains wildly popular with both overseas tourists and inland Spaniards as a coastal escape. Alicante and the broader region of Valencia are a Mediterranean paradise and the birthplace of paella. Its wine reputation is now seeing a rising tide—a combined recognition of the importance of the region’s ancient tradition as well as some newly established, talented bodegas.
BODEGAS ENRIQUE MENDOZA
The Enrique Mendoza label represents a fresh face in the Alicante province, getting its start in 1989, and has quickly made a name for itself. The Mendoza family has balanced a dedication to place and tradition with the use of modern technology in an effort to create the best Alicante wines to date. They’re using a 300-year-old Roman-style wine press hand in hand with computerized sensors in the vineyard to monitor moisture levels and control irrigation.
Bodegas Mendoza has been inducted into Spain’s Grandes Pagos de España—a recognition of its commitment to quality in vineyard practices as well as the ability of the wines to reflect the site from which they come. In addition to monastrell, this bodega is experimenting with cabernet sauvignon, merlot and syrah. The results speak for themselves. At Bodegas Mendoza, the winemakers believe that the expression of both monastrell and the terroir of Alicante is a result of the grapes suffering in the arid, harsh stony landscape. Suffering builds character, and character builds fantastic wines.
2012 La Tremenda Monastrell
Alicante Mendoza’s entry-level monastrell offers a high bang for the buck and emphasis on bright, fresh fruit flavors and aromas. The wine comes from 30-year-old vines at an elevation of 2,000 feet. The wine spends six months in neutral American oak barrels (used two to three times) and the resulting wine offers aromas of cola, baking spice and dusty-ripe raspberry. The palate is lively, fresh and loaded with red fruit, tobacco and cocoa nibs. $12
2011 Estrecho Monastrell, Alicante
One-hundred-percent monastrell from the El Estrecho de Pipa vineyard, this wine balances fruit intensity with wet-stone minerality. Sixty-year-old vines, ample elevation and a sandy soil lend character and complexity as well as outstanding structure. Aromas of white pepper, wet stone and late-season raspberry. The palate is loaded with depth and a core of black fruit. $42
2011 Santa Rosa Reserva, Alicante
If you were looking for a wine to make a case for either the producer or the region, this wine will do just that. With stunning structure, elegance and depth, this is a wine that makes you understand why people fuss over this fermented grape juice. Harvested and selected in the vineyard by hand, only the finest bunches are destined for this special blend of cabernet, merlot and syrah that’s named for the grandmother of Enrique Mendoza, Rosa Cortes Devesa. It is aromatically elegant with notes of dried violets, fennel, stone and blackberry. The palate is structured, layered with black fruit and clove, pepper and tobacco. $42
Fondillón is an appellation name for Alicante’s greatest historical contribution to the world of wine, and in the region’s heyday it was as important from a commodity standpoint as the famous seagoing wines like Port, sherry or Madeira. Fondillón is in many ways similar to those long-aged and oxidized wines, and simultaneously completely unique. It is made from the region’s signature monastrell, picked very late in the growing season when the grapes have begun to over-ripen and begin to raisin. The wine is then placed in large barrels for a minimum of 10 years, and in many cases, much, much longer. Over that time the wine oxidizes slowly in the oak barrels, a process called maderization. Unlike its enological peers, however, Fondillón is never fortified with the grape spirits that might be added to Port or Madeira. Even so, its longevity rivals that of those fortified wines.
These days, Primitivo Quiles makes perhaps the best-known Fondillón in the world and, along with a select few other producers, preserves an important part of Spanish wine history. The Primitivo Quiles Fondillón is produced in a solera style. Solera-style wines blend together barrels from different years with wines from a variety of vintages over a given time period. Younger wines blend with older wines, a process most associated with sherry from the Spanish region of Jerez. The wine done in this style is a piece of history and it gives you a sense of the place that the wines of Monóvar once held in the world.
PEPE AND JULIAN MENDOZA.
The Quiles family’s roots in the wines of Alicante date to 1780. Their label is classically Spanish in style and communicates a tradition of both the bodega and the region itself. Primitivo Quiles creates a variety of wines in the tradition of Alicante, red and rosado from monastrell and white wines from moscatel.
PRIMITIVO QUILES FONDILLÓN SOLERA 1948
It isn’t every day, even in wine, that you get to try something so inextricably linked with one place in the world, so uniquely Spanish, nor is it commonplace to be tasting wine that reaches back nearly 70 years. The age and barrel maturation has lent this once very ripe and richly red monastrell a deep-amber-colored hue. The aromatics are intensely nutty, alongside aromas of honey, fig and candied ginger. The aromas are rich because this is a wine that has been aging forever, and it’s high in alcohol, in the neighborhood of 16 percent; however, its fragrance never turns toward boozy because this wine is unfortified. The palate is mouth-coating and warm but loaded with depth, sweet notes of honeycomb, almond and dates. Perfect for after dinner, or sipped alone. A rare treat. $70
Pursehouse on Twitter: @clivity