Viva La Vuelta: Wines to Toast 2019’s Last Grand Tour
By Clive Pursehouse
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As summer comes to a close, the cycling world has turned its collective eye to the Iberian Peninsula. The last Grand Tour of the year, la Vuelta a Espana, rolled out of the Spanish town of Torrevieja with a team time trial on August 24th. The Vuelta parcours began in the province of Alicante, where the TTT held more drama than we would expect and may have lasting implications on the overall GC race. From there, the race ventured north into Valencia. The peloton will make its way through Iberia between quite a few transfers, the first to the culturally and politically autonomous region of Catalunya. Seven mountain stages suggest that this year’s Vuelta may give cycling fans more drama and excitement after the adrenaline high of the most entertaining Tour de France in recent memory.
This year’s Vuelta includes a foray into France, but it will be a classically Spanish affair, returning in the end, to Madrid for the final podium. Madrid is Hemingway’s favorite city in perhaps all the world. He said of Madrid, “I have never been to a city where there is less reason to go to bed…” One of the things that made Hemingway such a huge fan of Spain was its wines, in particular, he had a soft spot for the wines of Valdepenas.
The wines of Spain may be a departure from what you’re used to if you’re used to drinking the grape varieties that found their homes in France and then colonized vineyards around the world, from Napa to Australia to Chile. Spanish wine came from the Phoencians and predates that of much of the rest of their Mediterranean neighbors. Today, Spain makes more wine than any country in the world. Much of it of a very high quality. While the history of wine in Spain may be old, its global reputation beyond the Sherry of Jerez and the classical Riojas, is really just getting warmed up. Fortunately, this year’s Vuelta cuts through some of the country’s greatest wine regions—some that may be new to you, as well as some old favorites. So we present a lucky seven Spanish wine options to toast the winner of La Roja.
Stage 3: Alicante
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.
La Tremenda Monastrell Alicante 2016
This is an insane amount of high quality wine for a tiny price. Enrique Mendoza is known for some of the best wines in Spain. And the La Tremenda, harvested completely by hand and referencing the single vineyard estate, is one of the top-rated wines from the 2016 vintage. The wine comes from 35-year-old Monastrell 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.
Passing through the town of Villena on the way to Alicante, the peloton rode within spitting distance of the Denominación de Origen Yecla, which is within the region of Murcia, a part of Spain with a long and tangled history. From the conquest of Muslims in North Africa and the ensuing centuries-long battles, to the Black Death, earthquakes and cholera, Murcia and its wines have remained a constant in a region that has shifted from a reliance on its importance as a Moorish capital to an agricultural powerhouse and tourist destination. These days the wines express the deep traditions of Murcia that remain a part of the culture.
2014 Vinos Atlantico Gordo DO Yecla
The vineyards are in the Campo Arriba district of Yecla, at 2,339 feet in elevation. Yecla’s higher altitude makes it significantly cooler than neighboring Jumilla, and the resulting wines are more aromatic, with a fresh, easy-to-drink character. The blend of Monastrell and Cabernet is savory and rich, with aromas of herbs, earth and black and blue fruits. The palate shows complexity and layers of fruit, mocha and sage. A fantastic wine for only $14.
Stage 8: Catalunya
As the peloton was welcomed to Catalunya for yesterday’s stage 8, we entered perhaps Spain’s most dynamic region. A region with its own language, culture and some of the entire country’s most interesting wines. Within the Catalan borders we find Priorat, Monsant and Penedes, all three of which the peloton passes closely by in stage eight. Catalunya includes several other sub-regions that, while lesser known, produce fantastic wines. The peloton rolled out of Valls with a large and prestigious breakaway tackling some constant climbing until the seven and a half kilometer, category 2 Puerto de Monserrat climb ensured they would stay away until the finish line.
Priorat is probably the Spanish wine region most in demand over the last ten years. The cachet of the region created by a number of well known Rioja producers looking to push the envelope and go beyond the iconic region and it well established rules and traditions. In Priorat the hot sun and extreme landscape of smashed red and black slate stones (known as licorella) along very steep slopes make some of the most sought after, highly priced wines in all of Spain. The vines here dig deep for water and nutrients and the suffering creates wines of intensity and character.
Finca el Puig Priorat 2010
A tremendously distinctive wine at a very fair price ($35), this blend of garnacha, cabernet and syrah balances power and ripeness with fresh floral character, black fruit and hints of sage, tobacco and rosemary. Priorat was for ages a place where monks retreated to the remote and rugged mountains, but its stony mountain sides these days are home to some of the country’s most talented winemakers and the Finca el Puig shows Priorat’s ability to craft wines of elegance and power.
If you were to draw concentric circles on a map with Priorat as the bullseye, the circle immediately outside of Priorat would be the Monsant DO, a region that delivers some of the quality wine (typically from the same varieties) that Priorat has come to be known for, often at a fraction of the price. Wines from Monsant can range from deep and brooding like their more famous neighbors, to fresh and mineral driven.
Capçanes Mas Picosa Organic 2018
A blend of Syrah, Garnatxa (Catalan spelling) and Cabernet along with a blend of a few lesser known native varieties. This wine is a picture of freshness, with bright fruit and floral characters, made from organic grapes and made to drink young. At a $15 pricepoint, the Mas Picosa, or “more spicy,” shows some of it’s fresh red fruit characteristics in the aromatics. The palate showcases the wine’s structure: Ample tannin and layers of black and red fruit flavors, along with notes of spice and herbs. There are hints of turned earth and a balanced acidity.
If Priorat is the new king of Spanish wine, Cava is its long-standing queen. The sparkling wine made in the hills of Penedes just south of Barcelona on the hillsides south of the jagged mountains of Montserrat, Cava vineyards dominate the landscape. Row upon row of vines of the three traditional, native grape varieties that make up Spain’s flagship sparkling wine: Xarel-lo, Parellada and Macabeo. Wine-growing tradition here goes back seemingly forever—to 600 BC. But most of that history revolves around red wines that these days are far less common in Penedès, where Cava is king and queen.
Segura Viudas Reserva Heredad
Segura Viudas makes a lot of wine, millions of bottles of cava per year, so the extra attention and care given to its Reserva Heredad wine, the top-of-the-line bottling at Segura Viudas, is remarkable. These wines line the cellar walls at Segura Viudas in riddling racks, with the necks of the bottles facing downward. Each bottle is hand turned—a process referred to as riddling, or manual remuage—to allow the sediment and spent lees to move into the neck of the bottle for eventual removal, called disgorgement. This process is time consuming, often taking four to six weeks, with each bottle being touched about 25 times, one eighth of a turn at a time.
The Reserva Heredad spends at least 30 months in bottle before it is disgorged. It’s a blend of only two of the traditional Cava varieties: Macabeo and Parellada. The wine is opulent, particularly for a Cava. It has aromas of honeysuckle, smoke and baked bread. The flavors are rich with late-season pear, baked apple, key lime and honey. All of this in a bottle adorned with a pewter base for under $25 is remarkable.
Stage 12: Rioja
Rioja is the region that put Spain on the map as a fine wine producer. While the country grows more wine than anywhere in the world, its reputation has been made on the strength of the Tempranillo wines of the northern region of Rioja. As the peloton makes its way to the cosmopolitan Basque capital of Bilbao, it skirts the classic Spanish region with all its lore and history. Rioja wines are known for their stringent aging requirements for their Reserva and Gran Reserva wines, meaning that new releases are often five to eight years old, allowing mature expressions of Tempranillo to be the region’s signature. Often these wines are quite a bargain.
Marqués de Cáceres Gran Reserva Rioja 2011
The regional flagship and well known Rioja is from thirty five to fifty-year-old vines with some parcels in Rioja Alta that are 65-85 years old. A blend of the flagship grape of the region along with Garnacha and Graciano. The Graciano offers unique character, style, vivacity and color. It’s a darkly hued wine with a hint of brick-red on the edge; complex aromatics with balsamic and coffee bean notes owing to refined oak; and a mouth filling palate with a depth of mature plums, sweet spice and roasted coffee beans. Still fresh and lively eight years on, but offering excellent potential for aging, this wine offers a finish that goes on for a full ten minutes. $35
Stage 17: Ribera del Duero
The stage from Aranda de Duero to Guadaljara will be the longest of the race at 199km, and it should be one for the sprinters. We’ll see if Bora Hansgrohe can deliver another victory for Sam Bennett.
The wines of Ribera del Duero are very similar to their northern neighbors in Rioja. Tempranillo dominates and the Crianza, Reserva and Gran Reserva designations are the same as in Rioja. The Duero River is the dominant feature of the region, flowing onto Portugal where it becomes the famous Douro Valley of the famous Port wines, before heading into the Atlantic Ocean.
2014 Tinto Pesquera Crianza
A beet farmer from the village of Pesquera del Duero went onto become the region’s iconic name in wine, and the wines deliver. This Crianza from Tinto Pesquera would pass for an older, much more expensive wine from Rioja, or frankly Bordeaux if you didn’t know what you were drinking. Elegance in spades with layers of black fruit, herbs and minerality. A hint of funky turned earth makes this wine tremendously impressive. $35