The broad midsection of Spain is a land of extremes. Traditional windmills stand juxtaposed to modern turbines. Frigid winters follow long, parched summers; spring rains are fleeting. Centuries ago, the region’s wines graced the lips of kings. More recently, grapes were earmarked for bulk production. But now quality is on the rise.
Three provinces comprise the arid Iberian midriff: Castilla-La Mancha, the large, elevated plain south of the capital; Madrid, which hugs the city’s beating heart; and Extremadura, situated along the Portuguese border. Within these areas, a growing number of wineries in five denominaciónes de origen (DOs) are producing modern wines with character.
Occupying a huge swath of the Castilian plateau, Castilla-La Mancha is regarded as much for its wines as for its Manchego cheese and Don Quixote references. It contains three DOs: La Mancha, Valdepeñas and Méntrida. Additionally, the region is home to several Vinos de Pago (estate wines), a premium quality category within Spain.
Created in 1976, this DO spans nearly 500,000 acres—making it Europe’s largest appellation. In general, its vineyards cater more to the demands of supermarkets rather than to royalty (think California’s Central Valley).
La Mancha derives from the Moorish al-mansha, or “parched earth.” Summer temperatures regularly soar above 100˚F. Given the excessive heat, the most successful vineyards are planted in soils with water-retaining limestone and chalk.
Most vineyards, a sea of squat vines that stretch across flat plains like cornfields in Iowa, are planted with the workhorse grape Airén. It can withstand the region’s climatic extremes to produce neutral—occasionally fruity—whites or base wine for brandy distillation. Tempranillo (a k a Cencibel) is the most important red, along with Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and indigenous grapes like Graciano, Bobal and Monastrell.
Production falls into three categories: basic jovenes for local consumption; higher-quality wines for export markets; and serious efforts made in small quantities, often with cutting-edge techniques. This last category is garnering the most international attention.
Producers like the Grupo Pesquera of Ribera del Duero, which runs El Vínculo in Ciudad Real, are trying to improve this region’s reputation in the marketplace. Founder Alejandro Fernández has even proved that Airén can develop complexity and texture through oak aging.
Nestled into the southern flank of La Mancha on a plateau ringed by mountains, Valdepeñas earned appellation status in 1932. In Spain, it ranks second in sales behind Rioja.
The region was formerly known for its large clay fermentation vats buried in the ground to control temperature, and for its traditional wine called clarete, a blend of red and white grapes. Nowadays, wineries employ modern technology to turn out simple sippers alongside gran reserva-quality Tempranillo.
In Valdepeñas, Tempranillo is the most important red, followed by Garnacha and classic Bordeaux varieties.
Like La Mancha, Valdepeñas features large tracts of Airén. Other whites here include Macabeo, Chardonnay, Verdejo, Sauvignon Blanc and Moscatel. Tempranillo is the most important red, followed by Garnacha and classic Bordeaux varieties. Styles range from soft and supple to structured and oak-aged. The best vineyards lie in Los Llanos in the west and Las Aberturas in the north.
For centuries, wine has played an important role in the local economy in this region near Toledo.
Garnacha prevails as the prized grape, constituting 80 percent of plantings. The rest consists of Tempranillo, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot for the reds. Whites include Albillo, Macabeo, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. Most vines are goblet-trained, meaning bush vines, although modern vineyards use trellises when irrigation is available.
Wines are mostly rosé or red, primarily from Garnacha, although planting of international varieties has increased. Mavericks hunt down old-vine Garnacha parcels on the granitic slopes of the Sierra de Gredos that skirt Méntrida’s northeast.
Bodegas Jiménez-Landi was a neglected 17th-century estate until 2004, when brothers José and Daniel Jiménez-Landi decided to farm it organically. Influenced by natural winemakers in Burgundy and the Loire, they make fresh, mineral-driven wines.
Firmly in the international camp, Marqués de Griñón makes a number of superb wines. Its work with Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Petit Verdot and Chardonnay earned Vino de Pago recognition for Dominio de Valdepusa.
Ribera Del Guadiana
One of Spain’s newest appellations (established in the late 1990s), Ribera del Guadiana sits near the Portuguese frontier in Extremadura. An enormous DO, it encompasses six subzones. Tierra de Barros leads in quality and holds 80 percent of the area’s vineyards.
Although this is historically a white-grape region providing base wines for brandy, the climate begs for robust reds. Producers have answered the call, planting Tempranillo and Garnacha suited for the toasty summers. Irrigation comes from the Guadiana River and its tributaries. Fertile valleys contrast with rocky outcrops of limestone at higher elevations.
The area would seem to have potential for modern, fruity wines and heartier expressions akin to the reds of the Alentejo across the border in Portugal. Investment from new wineries, established brands and intrepid independents seeking opportunities for creativity—bundled with good-value prices—make Ribera del Guadiana a region to watch.
Dominio de Valdepusa
Marqués de Griñón 2011 Single Vineyard Petit Verdot; $40, 92 points. Black in color, this Petit Verdot smells of iodine, black currant, road tar and leather. The palate is saturated, with a burst of acidity creating zest and balance. Oaky, powerful blackberry flavors shorten up on a muscular, tannic finish. Drink through 2021. Winebow. Cellar Selection. —M.S.
Pata Negra 2005 Gran Reserva Tempranillo; $11, 86 points. This mature Tempranillo shows aromas of fig and Sherry vinegar along with raisin. A ripe yet pinched palate deals aged flavors of raisin, caramel and toffee, while a chocolaty finish is low on vital fruit. CIV/USA. Best Buy. —M.S.
Casa del Valle 2011 Orquestal Reserva Cabernet Sauvignon; $28, 90 points. Berry, plum and earthy aromas come in front of a rugged, tight palate with depth. Plum, tomato and herbal flavors finish with good structure. Overall, this La Mancha Cabernet Sauvignon is well knit. Drink through 2021. W. Direct. —M.S.
Ribera Del Guadiana
Bodegas Luis Gurpegui Muga 2013 Tempranillo-Cabernet Sauvignon ; $15, 87 points. Punchy cherry and berry aromas are a bit volatile, with an offset of buttery oak. This blend feels firm, with direct plum and cherry flavors that come with a slight herbal green note. Rubbery tannins and saucy berry flavors control the finish. 4Front Imports, LLC. —M.S.
Vinos de Madrid
Madrid has its own appellation, awarded in 1990, although viticulture here dates back to the 8th century. After the phylloxera plague hit in the early 20th century, vineyards were replanted with a focus on quantity over quality. Nevertheless, this bulk-production zone languished until the 1970s, when savvy winemakers seized on the concept of selling wines to Madrid from its own backyard.
They began modernizing equipment and improving quality.
Three subregions hug the metropolis along its southwestern and southeastern sprawl. San Martín Valdeiglesias has garnered the most attention because of a band of winemakers who share a common ethos: rescue derelict, high-elevation vineyards with granitic soils; farm them using sustainable or organic techniques; and produce lively, site-expressive, Burgundian-styled Garnacha. They also make interesting wines from the local white grape Albillo.
San Martín Valdeiglesias has garnered attention because of a band of winemakers who rescue derelict vineyards and farm them using sustainable or organic techniques.
Friends and winemakers Fernando García (Bodega Marañones), Daniel Jiménez-Landi (Jiménez-Landi) and Marc Isart founded the Comando G brand (Isart later left to work on his similarly styled Bernabeleva label) with the intent of making serious wines. Tiny label Maldivinas also produces aromatic, elegant Garnacha from organic fruit.
Located 28 miles south of Madrid, Finca Valquejigoso fetches luxury prices by mixing indigenous and international grapes. The winery farms meticulously divided plots and blends the best from each vintage into wines meant for long-term cellaring.
Tagonius 2011 Tinto Roble; $23, 90 points. Ripe aromas start with raisin, while tobacco notes and baked berry warmth reel you in. This blend of Tempranillo, Syrah, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon feels layered and welcoming. Earthy cherry, plum and baking spice flavors finish long, complex and slightly toasty. Drink through 2018. Vinamericas Selections. —M.S.