If one word best describes the wines of the Levante, the sun-drenched, mountainous portion of Spain that starts in Valencia and extends south to Murcia, it’s “Mediterranean.”
One could argue that the wines of Catalonia, the South of France, Sardinia and other parts of Italy are also Mediterranean. But with the Levante, we’re talking extreme terroir—the hottest, most severe growing conditions of any wine region that touches the Mediterranean Sea.
“Mediterranean” also applies to the predominance of grapes grown in the Levante’s seven denominated wine regions—tough, thick-skinned varieties that have a track record of making robust wines.
Only stalwart, dark-skinned grapes like Monastrell (Mourvèdre), Syrah, Garnacha, Bobal, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Tempranillo can withstand the region’s blast-furnace sun and lack of irrigation. The Levante is simply too hot for most white grapes to thrive, and the only whites seen here are the indigenous Merseguera and some Viognier.
These Mediterranean grape varieties, when grown on old, dry-farmed bush vines, often yield full-bodied but well-balanced wines. You may find heat on the nose and finish of some Levante wines. In especially hot years, some wines can display baked, raisin-like qualities. Certainly, no one in the Levante apologizes for the strength, color or high alcohol levels of the wines.
But in cool years or exceptional ones with long growing seasons—vintages like 2010, 2011 and, to a lesser extent, 2012 and 2013—the Levante offers an array of dark-hued, lusty, soft-tannin wines that pair well with hearty fare like grilled meats and stews.
What follows is a dive into Alicante, Jumilla, Valencia and Utiel-Requena, the main regions that comprise the Levante. Smaller regions like Yecla, Bullas and Almansa produce similar wines, but few wineries there export to the United States.
“The only things that grow here are olives, almonds and Monastrell…that and goats,” says Jorge Ordoñez, owner of Bodegas Volver, of the Alicante Denominación de Origen (DO).
Indeed, the regional olive oil is superb. If you’ve ever tasted Marcona almonds, then you know they’re delicious. And in terms of growing excellent Monastrell, Alicante has that down, too.
The key to making fine wine in a hot and dry region like Alicante is basic and unwavering: a reliance on old, unirrigated vines (mostly Monastrell) that produce less than 2.2 pounds of fruit per plant. This miserly production creates concentrated yet clean black-fruit flavors in wines like Artadi’s El Sequé, Volver’s Tarima Hill and all of Enrique Mendoza’s wines, including La Tremenda, the winery’s sensational Best Buy.
“We are called ‘El Sequé,’ a word in the Valencian language that means ‘a dry place.’ ” —Vicente Milla Sánchez
For Enrique Mendoza’s high-end Estrecho and Las Quebradas, the 70-year-old vines yield a mere four or five bunches per plant.
“The bunches are the size of tennis balls and weigh less than a half-pound each,” says José “Pepe” Mendoza. One of Enrique’s sons, Pepe manages the vineyards and winery.
“We are called ‘El Sequé,’ a word in the Valencian language that means ‘a dry place,’ ” says Vicente Milla Sánchez, winemaker for this outpost of a bodega co-owned by Juan Carlos López de Lacalle of Artadi, in Rioja. “But the only word you need to know to describe the wines of Alicante is ‘Mediterranean.’ ”
The Best of Alicante
Artadi 2012 El Sequé; $45, 91 points. This Monastrell opens with a magenta color and aromas of wild berries, desert herbs and rubber. The palate feels fleshy, while herbal, earthy blackberry and plum flavors precede a full-force finish with herbal, salty accents. Drink through 2022. Folio Fine Wine Partners.
Volver 2012 Tarima Hill; $17, 91 points. Black cherry and plum aromas are earthy and toasty, with minerality and charred crispness. This is a lively, generous Monastrell with blackberry, spice cake and chocolate flavors coming before a coffee-laden finish that goes the distance. Drink through 2018. Fine Estates From Spain.
Enrique Mendoza 2012 La Tremenda; $12, 90 points. Aromas include crushed stone, leather, black cherry and cough drop. The palate on this Monastrell is narrow, but it packs power. Flavors of toasty oak, black plum and cherry charge across the finish. Drink through 2019. Winebow. Best Buy.
Jumilla, like Alicante, is known for burly Monastrells and Monastrell-led blends. Visually speaking, it’s a desert region where cacti share the hillsides with grapevines. Meanwhile, in July and August, the temperatures are fit only for mad dogs and Englishmen, or so the saying goes.
One of the longstanding leaders in the area is Gil Family Estates, which started growing grapes among Jumilla’s pines in 1916. Today, the Gil family’s highly modern winery in the Carche Valley turns out fully ripe, sometimes syrupy-rich wines that include Juan Gil, El Nido and Clio. It’s not that the winery and Technical Director Bartolo Abellán are trying to make big, dark bruisers, it’s what the terroir and 80-year-old vines naturally create, says owner Miguel Gil.
Sharing the Carche Valley with the Gil family is Bodegas y Viñedos Casa de la Ermita, which produces several muscular but nicely balanced wines. For example, the winery’s Crianza from 2010, a blend of Monastrell, Tempranillo and Cabernet Sauvignon, deftly displays both Jumilla’s power and its ability to coax out complexity.
The Best of Jumilla
El Nido 2012 Clio; $45, 93 points. Resiny oak, coconut, fig, prune and blackberry aromas are staunch and heady. Baked black-fruit flavors register at max ripeness, while flavors of coffee, chocolate and toast push the finish on this flamboyant Monastrell blend. Drink through 2020. Opici Wines. Editors’ Choice.
Crápula 2013 Gold 5 Monastrell-Syrah; $35, 92 points. Powerful blackberry aromas are matched by creamy oak. This is a driller with strong tannins and a full body. Oaky flavors of dark-berry fruits and black plum finish with vanilla and lactic notes. Drink through 2021. The Artisan Collection. Editors’ Choice.
Casa de la Ermita 2010 Crianza; $16, 90 points. Rooty aromas of cola, baked berry fruits and blackberry jam set up a flush palate with tannic framework. Blackberry, dark plum and loamy notes end with meaty, roasted flavors. This wine is 60% Monastrell, 25% Tempranillo and 15% Cabernet Sauvignon. The Spanish Acquisition.
The Sweet Science
Felipe Gutiérrez de la Vega learned the finer points of wine as a commander in the Spanish navy, where his main job was procuring high-quality food and drink for officers. In the 1970s, however, he started his own winery in the hills of Alicante, not far inland from the Mediterranean on which he used to sail.
Today, Gutiérrez de la Vega, working closely with his daughter Violeta, is the king of Levante sweet wines. But don’t call them Alicante wines. Like many freethinking winemakers across Spain, Gutiérrez de la Vega recently decided not to abide by the rules of the local DO. The main sticking point was minimum alcohol levels for sweet wines.
“We didn’t want to be forced to make only wines with 15% alcohol or more,” says Violeta.
Regardless of whether the wines say Alicante or “Spain” on the label, these are the finest dessert wines being made in the Levante. Named after arias and operas, the wines are fermented and aged in well-used oak, all the while “listening” to the musical scores they’re named after.
“My dad believes that playing beautiful music in the winery creates beautiful wines,” says Violeta. Given the quality of Gutiérrez de la Vega’s sweet wines, only a fool would disagree.
Gutiérrez de la Vega 2013 Recóndita Armonía Dulce; $35/500 ml, 94 points. This muscular, stout Monastrell sweet wine is all aces. Blackberry, cassis and fine oak aromas precede a sensationally smooth palate that’s full of toffee, chocolate, coffee, pepper, blackberry and cassis flavors. A long, warm, impeccably balanced finish is pure and delicious. Drink through 2025. Editors’ Choice.
Gutiérrez de la Vega 2013 Casta Diva Cosecha de Miel Dulce; $35/500 ml, 93 points. Orange peel, nutmeg and burnt brown-sugar aromas set this sweet Moscatel apart from the masses. Round and creamy but still elegant on the palate, this blends flavors of honey, cinnamon, orange and apricot into a fine whole. A long, integrated finish with honey and caramel flavors is ideal. Drink through 2023. Editors’ Choice.
Until recently, the Valencia DO was virtually unknown. In general, the wines from the region, mostly Monastrell, Bobal and the local Forcallat, were rustic, horsey-smelling and unbalanced. To call them “country-style” wines was an understatement.
“…Here, the beauty is in the land and vineyards.” —Rafael Cambra
Enter Rafael and Vicente Cambra, cousins and saviors rooted in the Valle del Alforins, Valencia’s prime subzone for vineyards. Operating out of an industrial park about 60 miles inland from the city of Valencia, Rafael asks: “Did you know Valencia is the second most mountainous wine region in Spain after Alicante?” No, I answer, thinking of Priorat, or perhaps someplace near the Sierra Cantabria or Pyrenees.
“In Rioja, they build $30 million wineries, but here, the beauty is in the land and vineyards,” he says.
Vicente runs a barebones winery that produces wines under the Angosto label. His 2014 La Tribu, from a vintage he describes as “one of the driest on record in southeast Spain,” is a spunky blend of Monastrell, Garnacha and Syrah. His Almendros wines, meanwhile, feature catchy labels designed by Paula Sanz Caballero, a renowned local artist and fashion illustrator.
The Best of Valencia
Rafael Cambra 2012 Uno; $48, 91 points. Pure, subtle scents of raspberry, cherry and licorice start things up. Next comes a clean palate with bright acidity. Wild berry, herb and carob flavors finish with width and grab. Drink this varietal Monastrell through 2020. Frontier Wine Imports.
Angosto 2014 La Tribu; $17, 89 points. This blend of Garnacha, Monastrell and Syrah is magenta in color, with jumpy aromas of blackberry and boysenberry. A saturated, dense palate offers blackened, peppery berry flavors in front of a toasty, medium-length finish. Drink through 2018. Hidalgo Imports.
Vicente Gandia 2013 El Miracle by Mariscal; $11, 86 points. Punchy raspberry and plum aromas open this Garnacha Tintorera (a k a Alicante Bouschet). An edgy palate offers plum and medicinal flavors along with bright acidity, while mild spice notes mark the finish. Vicente Gandia USA. Best Buy.
Known mostly for producing bulk wine, Utiel-Requena specializes in Bobal, a red grape with thick skin and potentially fierce acidity and tannins.
Prior to spending a day in Utiel-Requena, which borders the Valencia DO, it seemed as if Bobal was not a prime-time player. Most of the varietal Bobals I had tried in the past were either dilute or overdone. Balance was fleeting, and the aromas of the wines suggested too much latex and rubber.
“When the rest of Spain is going to the beach, we are in the vineyard cutting shoots and green harvesting.” —Toni Sarrión
But upon trying a bottle of Bobal made by Toni Sarrión of Bodega Mustiguillo, it was like playing a different ballgame. For starters, Sarrión doesn’t use the Utiel-Requena designation for his wines, even though his vineyards are located well within the DO. Instead, he labels his wines as Vino de Mesa de España (Spanish table wine).
“Bobal has a bad reputation,” says Sarrión. “It’s known for having these big berries and not much character. But like with many grapes, it’s about production control.
“When the rest of Spain is going to the beach, we are in the vineyard cutting shoots and green harvesting,” he says. “I like to let our old vines grow wild, and then cut them back. And I’ll only irrigate new plantings. I vinify 63 parcels separately, blending only after time in barrel.”
The results speak for themselves. Mustiguillo’s wines are eye-openers, and some of the best Bobals I’ve tried.
The Best of Utiel-Requena
Mustiguillo 2012 Finca Terrerazo Vino de Pago; $37, 92 points. This varietal Bobal is loamy, spicy and loaded with black plum and blackberry aromas. A ripe, pure palate deals baked plum, cassis, spice and chocolate flavors, while the finish is chewy and complex. Drink through 2019. Valkyrie Selections.
Finca Casa Lo Alto 2010 Reserva; $28, 90 points. Wild-berry aromas set up a firm, tannic palate. Flavors of blackberry, cassis and prune end with notes of graham cracker and toast. This Syrah-Garnacha-Cabernet Sauvignon blend is tannic and brawny. Drink through 2020. Axial Wines USA.
Mustiguillo 2013 Mestizaje (Spain); $15, 90 points. Lightly medicinal scents of plum and raspberry come with complexities like lemon peel and a dusting of cinnamon. This is crisp, focused and friendly, with ripe plum, blackberry, chocolate and spice flavors. A steady, toasty finish makes this Bobal-led blend a winner. Drink through 2017. Valkyrie Selections. Best Buy.