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\u2019s \u201cMediterranean.\u201d\r\n\r\nOne 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\u2019re talking extreme terroir\u2014the hottest, most severe growing conditions of any wine region that touches the Mediterranean Sea.\r\n\r\n\u201cMediterranean\u201d also applies to the predominance of grapes grown in the Levante\u2019s seven denominated wine regions\u2014tough, thick-skinned \u00advarieties that have a track record of making robust wines.\r\n\r\nOnly stalwart, dark-skinned grapes like Monastrell (Mourv\u00e8dre), Syrah, Garnacha, Bobal, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Tempranillo can withstand the region\u2019s 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.\r\n\r\nThese 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.\r\n\r\nBut in cool years or exceptional ones with long growing seasons\u2014vintages like 2010, 2011 and, to a lesser extent, 2012 and 2013\u2014the Levante offers an array of dark-hued, lusty, soft-tannin wines that pair well with hearty fare like grilled meats and stews.\r\n\r\nWhat 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.\r\n\r\n\r\nAlicante\r\n\u201cThe only things that grow here are olives, almonds and Monastrell\u2026that and goats,\u201d says Jorge Ordo\u00f1ez, owner of Bodegas Volver, of the Alicante Denominaci\u00f3n de Origen (DO).\r\n\r\nIndeed, the regional olive oil is superb. If you\u2019ve ever tasted Marcona almonds, then you know they\u2019re delicious. And in terms of growing excellent Monastrell, Alicante has that down, too.\r\n\r\nThe 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\u2019s El Sequ\u00e9, Volver\u2019s Tarima Hill and all of Enrique Mendoza\u2019s wines, including La Tremenda, the winery\u2019s sensational Best Buy.\r\n\u201cWe are called \u2018El Sequ\u00e9,\u2019 a word in the Valencian language that means \u2018a dry place.\u2019\u2009\u201d \u2014Vicente Milla S\u00e1nchez \u00ad\r\nFor Enrique Mendoza\u2019s high-end Estrecho and Las Quebradas, the 70-year-old vines yield a mere four or five bunches per plant.\r\n\r\n\u201cThe bunches are the size of tennis balls and weigh less than a half-pound each,\u201d says Jos\u00e9 \u201cPepe\u201d Mendoza. One of Enrique\u2019s sons, Pepe manages the vineyards and winery.\r\n\r\n\u201cWe are called \u2018El Sequ\u00e9,\u2019 a word in the Valencian language that means \u2018a dry place,\u2019\u2009\u201d says Vicente Milla S\u00e1nchez, winemaker for this outpost of a bodega co-owned by Juan Carlos L\u00f3pez de Lacalle of Artadi, in Rioja. \u201cBut the only word you need to know to describe the wines of Alicante is \u2018Mediterranean.\u2019\u2009\u201d\r\nThe Best of Alicante\r\nArtadi 2012 El Sequ\u00e9; $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.\r\n\r\nVolver 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.\r\n\r\nEnrique 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.\r\n\r\n\r\nJumilla\r\nJumilla, like Alicante, is known for burly Monastrells and Monastrell-led blends. \u00adVisually speaking, it\u2019s a desert region where cacti share the hillsides with grapevines. \u00adMeanwhile, in July and August, the temperatures are fit only for mad dogs and Englishmen, or so the saying goes.\r\n\r\nOne of the longstanding leaders in the area is Gil Family Estates, which started growing grapes among Jumilla\u2019s pines in 1916. Today, the Gil family\u2019s highly modern winery in the Carche Valley turns out fully ripe, sometimes syrupy-rich wines that include Juan Gil, El Nido and Clio. It\u2019s not that the winery and \u00adTechnical Director Bartolo Abell\u00e1n are trying to make big, dark bruisers, it\u2019s what the terroir and 80-year-old vines naturally create, says \u00adowner Miguel Gil.\r\n\r\nSharing the Carche Valley with the Gil family is Bodegas y Vi\u00f1edos Casa de la Ermita, which produces several muscular but nicely balanced wines. For example, the winery\u2019s Crianza from 2010, a blend of Monastrell, Tempranillo and Cabernet Sauvignon, deftly displays both Jumilla\u2019s power and its ability to coax out complexity.\r\nThe Best of Jumilla\r\nEl 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\u2019 Choice.\r\n\r\nCr\u00e1pula 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\u2019 Choice.\r\n\r\nCasa 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.\r\nThe Sweet Science\r\nFelipe Guti\u00e9rrez 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.\r\n\r\nToday, Guti\u00e9rrez de la Vega, working closely with his daughter Violeta, is the king of Levante sweet wines. But don\u2019t call them Alicante wines. Like many freethinking winemakers across Spain, Guti\u00e9rrez 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.\r\n\r\n\u201cWe didn\u2019t want to be forced to make only wines with 15% alcohol or more,\u201d says Violeta.\r\n\r\nRegardless of whether the wines say Alicante or \u201cSpain\u201d 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 \u201clistening\u201d to the musical scores they\u2019re named after.\r\n\r\n\u201cMy dad believes that playing beautiful music in the winery creates beautiful wines,\u201d says Violeta. Given the quality of Guti\u00e9rrez de la Vega\u2019s sweet wines, only a fool would disagree.\r\n\r\nGuti\u00e9rrez de la Vega 2013 Rec\u00f3ndita Armon\u00eda 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\u2019 Choice.\r\n\r\nGuti\u00e9rrez 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\u2019 Choice.\r\n\r\n\r\nValencia\r\nUntil 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 \u201ccountry-style\u201d wines was an understatement.\r\n\u201c...Here, the beauty is in the land and vineyards.\u201d \u2014Rafael Cambra\u00a0\r\nEnter Rafael and Vicente Cambra, cousins and saviors rooted in the Valle del Alforins, Valencia\u2019s prime subzone for vineyards. Operating out of an industrial park about 60 miles inland from the city of Valencia, Rafael asks: \u201cDid you know Valencia is the second most mountainous wine region in Spain after Alicante?\u201d No, I answer, thinking of Priorat, or perhaps someplace near the Sierra Cantabria or Pyrenees.\r\n\r\n\u201cIn Rioja, they build $30 million wineries, but here, the beauty is in the land and vineyards,\u201d he says.\r\n\r\nVicente runs a barebones winery that produces wines under the Angosto label. His 2014 La Tribu, from a vintage he describes as \u201cone of the driest on record in southeast Spain,\u201d is a spunky blend of Monastrell, Garnacha and Syrah. His\u00a0 Almendros wines, meanwhile, feature catchy labels designed by Paula Sanz Caballero, a renowned local artist and fashion illustrator.\r\nThe Best of Valencia\r\nRafael 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.\r\n\r\nAngosto 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.\r\n\r\nVicente 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.\r\n\r\n\r\nUtiel-Requena\r\nKnown mostly for producing bulk wine, Utiel-Requena specializes in Bobal, a red grape with thick skin and potentially fierce acidity and tannins.\r\n\r\nPrior 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.\r\n\u201cWhen the rest of Spain is going to the beach, we are in the vineyard cutting shoots and green harvesting.\u201d \u2014Toni Sarri\u00f3n\r\nBut upon trying a bottle of Bobal made by Toni Sarri\u00f3n of Bodega Mustiguillo, it was like playing a different ballgame. For starters, Sarri\u00f3n doesn\u2019t 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 Espa\u00f1a (Spanish table wine).\r\n\r\n\u201cBobal has a bad reputation,\u201d says Sarri\u00f3n. \u201cIt\u2019s known for having these big berries and not much character. But like with many grapes, it\u2019s about production control.\r\n\r\n\u201cWhen the rest of Spain is going to the beach, we are in the vineyard cutting shoots and green harvesting,\u201d he says. \u201cI like to let our old vines grow wild, and then cut them back. And I\u2019ll only irrigate new plantings. I vinify 63 parcels separately, blending only after time in barrel.\u201d\r\n\r\nThe results speak for themselves. Mustiguillo\u2019s wines are eye-openers, and some of the best Bobals I\u2019ve tried.\r\nThe Best of Utiel-Requena\r\nMustiguillo 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.\r\n\r\nFinca 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.\r\n\r\nMustiguillo 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.