Among Spanish wine regions, it is the northern names—Rioja, Ribera del Duero, Toro, Bierzo and Rías Baixas, among others—that regularly draw the flashy headlines. However, if big red wines, fortified wines in myriad styles and traditionally crafted sweet wines get your mouth watering, then it’s the south of Spain that merits attention.
From the dry plains of La Mancha east to the sea-kissed Levante and down through historic Andalucía, southern Spain is home to most of the country’s top wines made from lusty varieties like Syrah, Monastrell (Mourvèdre), Garnacha (Grenache), Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. It’s also where one finds Spain’s best fortified and dessert wines: dry Sherries from Jerez, luscious Pedro Ximénez-based wines from Montilla-Moriles and sweet Moscatels from Málaga.
It used to be easy to dismiss southern Spain as a sprawling, sun-baked land responsible for mostly subpar wines with high alcohol, odd or raisiny flavors and poor balance. Although southern Spain’s hot, dry climate still produces many chunky, baked, sometimes wacky-tasting wines, it also yields jewels that boast size, powerful flavors, finely roasted earthy nuances and exquisite balance.
“I don’t accept that the south is overly challenged,” says Xandra Falcó, general manager of her family’s Dominio de Valdepusa, which makes wine under the Marqués de Griñón label from vineyards near Toledo in La Mancha.
“Every region in the world has its good wines and its bad ones,” she says. “If you care for your vines, control your macerations and have a winemaker that understands the grape varieties and the terroir, you can make fine wine. It’s always more a matter of who is behind the wines than where they come from.”
To simplify southern Spain, think of it as being divided into three regions. The biggest and most amorphous subsection is southcentral Spain, which includes La Mancha, Valdepeñas and smaller Denominaciónes de Origen (DOs) like Almansa, Méntrida, Manchula and Utiel-Requena. Mostly, these are wines made from Tempranillo, Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Bobal and Garnacha, either as single-varietal wines or as blends.
To the southeast, in the direction of the Mediterranean, is the Levante, home to regions like Jumilla, Yecla, Bullas, Valencia and my personal favorite, Alicante. In the Levante, Monastrell is king, while international varieties like Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot are the bishops, rooks and knights often used to fill out blended wines.
Finally, Andalucía is the land of sweet and fortified wines made from Moscatel, Palomino and Pedro Ximénez grapes. Sherry, in its myriad forms, is the top dog among Andalucían offerings, given its centuries of history and a dedicated global following. But both Málaga along Spain’s southern coast and inland Montilla-Moriles are noteworthy for their golden-colored dessert wines.
La Mancha alone sports approximately 1.24 million acres of vines, so variation in quality, as you might imagine, is enormous, ranging from downright awful to excellent.
At their best, south-central Spain’s red wines are lush, dark in color, full bodied and loaded with rich, slightly baked and earthy flavors supported by firm tannins and healthy acidity. When pairing with food, go with old standbys like Manchego cheese and roasted or grilled meats.
90 Atalaya 2010 Alaya (Almansa).
This smells of baked black fruits, coconut, vanilla and char. Flavors of blackberry liqueur and cassis are backed by generous oak tones. It’s a robust wine, made from Garnacha Tintorera. Gil Family Estates.
abv: 15.5% Price: $35
90 Marqués de Griñon 2005 Summa Varietalis (Dominio de Valdepusa).
This modern-leaning blend of Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot feels like a padded vise, with demanding tannins and blackberry, toast and coffee flavors. Winebow.
abv: 14.5% Price: $30
87 Anciano 2005 Reserva (Valdepeñas).
Mild red-fruit aromas set up a palate with red plum and raspberry flavors, finishing clean and slightly complex. It’s nice to find a value- priced Tempranillo with five years of aging before release. Well-Oiled Wine Company. Best Buy.
abv: 15% Price: $11
87 Atalaya 2010 Laya (Almansa).
Leathery plum and berry aromas form a nice opening as a minty chocolate note pops up. It feels spunky, with rubbery tannins and flavors of plum, cherry, mint and herb. Mostly Garnacha with some Monastrell. Gil Family Estates. Best Buy.
abv: 14.5% Price: $9
Tucked into the southeast corner of Spain is the Levante, which draws its name from a prevailing easterly wind that begins near the Strait of Gibraltar and grows stronger as it enters the open Mediterranean.
The Levante is Monastrell country—both dry and sweet. But Cabernet Sauvignon, which can handle the region’s warm climate, has been coming on strong in recent decades, primarily as a component in blends. Syrah, too, has found a home in the Levante.
Bodegas Gutiérrez de la Vega’s Casta Diva Fondillón, a sweet Monastrell hailing from old vineyards in the inland Sierra de Salinas area, exemplifies the potential of the variety when grown in this region.
“Fondillón is released with a minimum of 10 years in cask,” says Steve Metzler, an expert in Spanish wines and the wine’s American importer.
“It’s fermented using whole Monastrell clusters in open-ended barriques, punched down by hand,” he says. “It’s not fortified, but the end product resists oxidation, and its high acid and tannin levels balance the moderate alcohol and high residual sugar. It is the natural expression of the land, in which some raisin character is appropriate.”
Enrique Mendoza’s Santa Rosa Reserva, a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah, highlights just how good international varieties can be in the Levante. The 2006 is not showing any hints of oxidation or overripeness.
“The Santa Rosa Vineyard was planted in 1984 with the intent of making a great wine,” says José “Pepe” Mendoza, winemaker and vineyard manager. “In the Mediterranean, we have to search for sites where the vines won’t shut down [because of extreme heat and sun exposure]. We’ll go as high as 700 meters to get the freshness we seek.”
While the sweet Fondillón goes best with blue cheeses or chocolate, Santa Rosa Reserva can be paired with game—perhaps venison or wild boar served with a berry sauce or wine reduction—grilled beef or bison.
97 Bodegas Gutiérrez de la Vega 1999 Casta Diva Fondillón (Alicante).
Fondillón represents the pinnacle of red Spanish dessert wines. Subtle but expansive on the nose, this has a blend of dark fruit and cinnamon aromas. It delivers excellent balance and flavors of roasted plum, black cherry, nutmeg, raisin and chocolate. Drink now or hold in a good cellar for another decade. 100 cases made. Classical Wines. Editor’s Choice.
abv: 16% Price: $88/500 ml
93 Enrique Mendoza 2006 Santa Rosa Reserva (Alicante).
This smells exotic and smooth, like sandalwood, baked berries and brandied plums. On the palate, it feels firm and secure, with deep flavors of cassis and black cherry. A bullish red to drink now; 70% Cabernet Sauvignon with 15% each of Merlot and Syrah. Winebow. Editor’s Choice.
abv: 14.5% Price: $50
92 El Nido 2009 Clio (Jumilla).
Opaque, with a bouquet sealed tight by toasty oak, tobacco, cola and baked, minty aromas. It’s saturated but not syrupy, with roasted, savory flavors of clove, nutmeg, hickory and blackberry. 70% Monastrell and 30% Cabernet Sauvignon. Gil Family Estates.
abv: 15.5% Price: $45
91 Rafael Cambra 2007 Dos (Valencia).
Aromas of kirsch, licorice, mineral and blackberry introduce a flowing palate with black fruit, spice and chocolate flavors. This 50–50 blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc is easygoing, with a smooth fade to the finish. Frontier Wine Imports.
abv: 14.5% Price: $25
Sherries from the towns of Jerez de la Frontera, Sanlúcar de Barrameda and Puerto de Santa María have, for centuries, been the driving force behind Andalucía’s wine culture. But as the wine world has evolved, the wines have drifted into the “acquired taste” category.
Some people love the briny crispness of a fino or manzanilla, while others reject them as too salty and sharp. That same take-it-or-leaveit attitude generally applies to the richer, fuller styles of Sherry, be they sweet or dry olorosos, amontillados, palo cortados or PXs (Pedro Ximénez).
Aside from Sherry, Andalucía features some outstanding fortified wines from Montilla-Moriles, which sits directly north and inland from Málaga, itself a source for fine sweet wines made from late-picked Moscatel. These are classic dessert wines, aromatic and richly textured but not cloying. Think fruit-based desserts and sharp blue or aged cheeses for potential pairings.
With the dry Sherries, pair salty appetizers, soups and white meats topped with creamy sauces, especially if you are using that particular Sherry to boost your stock or add character to your sauce.
94 Alvear NV Solera 1927 (Montilla-Moriles).
This ranks well above most Pedro Ximénez sweeties, with lush, fresh aromas of raisin and spice that are distinctly not syrupy. Flavors of caramel and chocolate are ideal, and the finish is smooth as silk. Fine Estates from Spain. Editor’s Choice.
abv: 16% Price: $25/375 ml
92 Jorge Ordoñez & Co. 2008 Victoria 2 (Málaga).
A sweet Moscatel that opens with nectarine and apricot aromas along with a hint of petrol. It feels pure and racy, with flavors of pineapple, honey and mango. Delicate on the finish. Fine Estates from Spain.
abv: 13% Price: $26/375 ml
91 Hidalgo NV Marqués de Rodil Palo Cortado (Jerez).
Light in color, with pecan aromas. There’s nothing blowsy about this refined palo cortado; it’s tight in the mouth, with narrowing acidity and tangy flavors of citrus, almond and rancio. Winebow. Editor’s Choice.
abv: 18% Price: $42
90 Bodegas Dios Baco NV Élite Amontillado (Jerez).
This smells nutty and oily, but within normal parameters. It feels fresh, round and comfortable, with nuttiness, sweet toffee and caramel flavors. Finishes with toasted pecan and peanut butter notes. Semidry in style. CIV/USA. Best Buy.
abv: 18% Price: $15