If you want inexpensive, organic wines from historic, ungrafted, dry-farmed vines – and who doesn’t? – then head to Jumilla in Spain. See our pictorial review of this remarkable place, which needs promoting before it’s too late: Jumilla’s relic vineyards are under threat.
On July 20 I spent a week touring the top producers of Jumilla, a wine region on Spain’s south east coast, not far from Alicante. Landing back in London just 48 hours before Spain was added to the UK’s list of travel quarantine countries, and touring the wine region as coronavirus-related regulations were starting to tighten again in Spain, it was a trip made memorable by its timing, as well as the unique nature of Jumilla.
Making this Spanish wine region remarkable is its extraordinary stock of very old, bush-trained, ungrafted vineyards planted with Monastrell. Of the area’s 16,000 hectares, 1,000ha, or more than 6%, is planted with ungrafted vines, 98% of which are Monastrell – a grape that proves its hardiness by thriving without irrigation in baking, rocky sites, where very little rain falls… around 300mm on average each year.
It’s also notable for being an area of the wine world where vineyards are managed with few inputs, and, as a result, almost the entire region is farmed organically, and 80% is certified.
This is a very special part of the wine world, containing Europe’s single largest collection of ungrafted vines. And, importantly, such relic vineyards aren’t being used to craft extremely pricy wine. In fact, such little value is being placed on these ancient vine survivors, their future is under threat.
So, I’m hopeful that by raising the profile of these organic, historic vineyards, their continued existence can be secured.
My journey started over lunch at Jumilla’s much-loved, wine-focused restaurant, San Agustín, where Covid had put paid to paper menus.
But thankfully not delicious, authentic Spanish food, starting with this gazpacho, which I shared with Carolina Martinez, the general secretary of the Jumilla DO, who outlined her desire to see Jumilla become a powerful regional wine brand based on its old vine Monastrell.
San Augustín’s basement contains a glass-sided wine cellar built to celebrate the best of Jumilla, as the restaurant manager proudly told me, having illuminated some neon lettering.
The first visit was Esencia Wines, which was was formed in 2013 from the merger of two Jumilla producers, Casa de la Ermita and Hacienda del Carche. Two years ago, the combined business built an impressive wine museum at its cellars to attract tourists. Masks are compulsory in Murcia – the political region where Jumilla is mostly located (but not in neighbouring Castilla y León).
While I took a close-up of Jumilla’s soil horizons, Esther González de Paz from DO Jumilla captured the bigger picture (with me in it) – which is this combination: ungrafted bush vines, poor rocky soils, and arid conditions.
According to Fran Guirao Rico, who is export area manager at Esencia Wines, when the older generation visit the museum and see its old agricultural tools, and cucos, which vineyard workers used for shelter, they are moved to tears.
Among the exhibits at the museum were these vessels for carrying wine.
Then it was time to taste through the wines from Esencia with Fran Guirao Rico, which included an impressive 100% Petit Verdot – and I’ll be bringing you my top picks in a later article.
Next it was time to see Jumilla’s best-known producer, Juan Gil, which can trace its origins back to the start of the nineteenth century, as this drain cover shows, dated 1916.
Among the state-of-the-art tools in the Juan Gil winery were these concrete eggs, painted to look as though they are made of terracotta.
Juan Gil’s winery and top vineyards are located on a high point near the Penarubia Mountain – a famous landmark in the region, which translates as the ‘blonde mountain’, due to the light colour of its cliff face.
As the sun set it was time to start tasting, and try some old vine Monastrell, which is “the jewell of Jumilla” according to Juan Gil.
As much as 85% of Juan Gil’s production is based on Monastrell, some from ungrafted vines that are more than 90 years old. Using a winery built three years ago, Juan Gil can now claim to produce all its wines from Jumilla using 100% renewable energy, primarily solar power. It is also one of the largest producers of organic wine in the region, with almost 300 hectares of certified organic vineyards, and more in conversion.
Among the rock types found in Jumilla are those of volcanic origin, such as the vineyards of Cancarix, where Juan Miguel Benitez sources grapes for Bodegas Alceño, where he is head winemaker.
The vineyard beneath the Cancarix volcano contains ungrafted Monastrell from 1975, and an impressively large spider.
Joining us for the visit was Carolina from DO Jumilla, who explained that there were two extinct volcanoes in the region, the other called La Celia, and the region gives its name to a unique mineral salt found in the soil, called Jumillita.
Then it was time to taste the wine made from the six-hectare volcanic vineyard, called ‘Laderas del Volcan’ to reflect the Monastrel’s source on the slopes of the volcano.
Paco (Francisco) Selva, president of Bodegas Olivares, stands among the many ungrafted bush vines of Monastrell at his plantation at more than 850m above sea level, which, his friends tell him, is the best vineyard in Jumilla.
With the vines surrounded by native woodland, birds tend to leave the tree tops to peck at the bunches, which explains the presence of scarecrows among the vines.
A tasting followed the vineyard tour, ranging from a delicate pale bone dry Monastrell rosé to a richly sweet fortified example, with 200g/l of sugar, and dried figs to go with it.
Thankfully there was some shade from a vast pine tree for this outdoor tasting and discussion.
Pio del Ramo’s winemaker Agustín Miñana stands among the bush vines of an 100 hectare organic estate, which he manages on behalf of the owner, septuagenarian Margarita, who used to run the local cooperative.
While the organic, ungrafted, dry-farmed vines of Margarita’s remarkable estate – which includes fruit and nut trees too – is in prime condition, the Monastrell is not immune to trunk diseases, such as Esca – the cause of this newly-deceased bush vine.
No attempt was made by Margarita to ‘social distance’ as she welcomed us into her house with a warm embrace, before we began tasting the range from Pio del Ramo. With no children of her own she hopes to turn her pristine, organic, mixed-use estate into a foundation. “I don’t leave any kids but a clean piece of land,” she said.
Pio del Ramo have an extensive portfolio with striking labels, including ‘the cat wine’ called Betola.
A huge and indulgent lunch ensued, as I learnt a simple and effective way to taste the authenticity of top Spanish cured ham from Iberian pigs – the fat content should be high enough to ensure it sticks to a tipped plate.
Traditional Jumillan dish arroz con conejo y caracoles (rabbit and snails) followed – just don’t call it paella (that’s Valencian, I was informed).
We finished with fresh fruit from Margarita’s estate.
An exciting sign of fresh, youthful energy was apparent at the biodynamic Bodega Cerron where 26 year-old Carlos Garcia is gradually rescuing wonderful relic vineyards of Jumilla, including historic ungrafted mixed plantings of white varieties as well as very old Monastrell vineyards.
Inside the Cerron winery, we sampled directly from barrel an ungrafted Monastrell planted at almost 1000m above sea level. Carlos has all the trendy winemaking kit, from oval vats to eggs and amphorae, while we tasted from Zalto glassware (of course).
Among the finished wines we tasted was a remarkable barrel-fermented white wine made from 120 year-old ungrafted Airén that had some of the smoky lemony appeal of fine white Burgundy.
Carlos was clear on the challenge for Jumilla, explaining that the region has an incredible stock of unique and historic vineyards, but not the recognition to attract a new generation of winemakers and viticulturists. And, without more awareness, and an associated rise in grape prices for very old vine Monastrell, Jumilla will struggle to safeguard its best asset – ancient, ungrafted, organic vineyards. He told db, “For good Monastrell, a grower might get 50 cents per kilogram, but yields might be just 2000kg/ha – how can you survive on €1,000 per hectare?”
He also drew my attention to the loss of very old vineyards already suffered by Jumilla. “In 2000, Jumilla had 40,000ha in the appellation; now we have 16,000ha. The vineyards are disappearing because they are not economically sustainable, and being replaced by other crops such as fruit trees,” he said.
Continuing, he told me, “But the fruit trees need water, and this is a region without water, so fruit is not the future here.” In contrast, he concluded, “The vineyards, especially Monastrell, don’t need water, but the vineyards are still disappearing, and this will be a disaster for Jumilla.”
Here is my attempt to capture María Jover Sánchez, the 28 year-old winemaker at Parajes del Valle, which is part of the Vinival group – a huge bulk wine producer based in Valencia.
While the parent company makes around 70 million litres of bulk wine annually, Parajes del Valle is focused on fine bottled Monastrell from old vineyard plots in Jumilla, such as this 55 year old ungrafted vineyard.
Maria, who trained at Vega Sicilia, is dedicated to conserving the old vines of Jumilla, fearful that the region is losing so much of its unique heritage vineyards to more profitable crops such as pistachios and almonds, while acknowledging the challenge for growers to make a living out of ancient bush vine Monastrell, which can be so low yielding, she says the best sites are also the least productive vineyards in the world.
She chooses to show her two Monastrell expressions among the vines, which are located at 800m altitude, explaining that her style is focused on freshness – she manages to craft red wines from very old vines in this hot, dry climate that feature plenty of bright, ripe red berry flavours at alcohol levels at or below 13.5%.
Viña Elena – named after Elena, pictured above – must be home to the world’s stoniest Cabernet vineyard – which, remarkably, survives in this soil without irrigation in the most southerly part of Jumilla, where it can reach 50 degrees Celsius in the summer sun, and annual rainfall rarely surpasses 250mm. The Cabernet was planted in 2007 by Elena against the wishes of her father, admitting it was a rebellious move, and that today she’d choose Monastrell for this chalky hilltop site. Nevertheless, she says, “We’ve managed to Jumilliarise the Cabernet Sauvignon”, which sells out annually.
Like many wineries in Jumilla, Elena’s business was built by selling wine in bulk, but is now increasingly selling fine bottled wines, with the top expressions based on very old bush vine Monastrell, like this 65 year-old one pictured above. Managed organically, but not certified, Elena says the only pests are wild boars that eat the grapes.
Of Vina Elena’s 300 productive hectares of farmland, 100ha are devoted to vines, 100ha to olives and a further 100ha to almonds. As she broke one open for us to taste directly from the tree, she confessed that today the nuts are a more profitable source of business than the vineyards. Jumilla almonds are particularly prized for being especially rich in cardioprotective nutrients as the trees are grown without irrigation or any man-made inputs.
Also working in the business in Elena’s nephew, Fernando, a fourth-generation member of the family, who is focused on growing the export sales for Vina Elena.
The winery has developed a series of single-vineyard expressions of Monastrell to celebrate site differences and champion great old vineyards. Although Elena says she is not searching to acquire any more vines, she feels a responsibility to buy ancient plots purely to safeguard their future – the next generation generally choose not to take them on, leaving them abandoned or removing them to plant something more productive and profitable. Meanwhile, for the old, surviving generation of growers, seeing their grapes turned into wines such as these picture above is motivational – vineyard management ‘is what they live for”, says Elena.
Among the barrels at Vina Elena were a series of demi-johns containing white wine made from Airen that ages under a protective covering of naturally-occurring flor, like a fino sherry. “We want to do something that would add character to the grape while preserving the heritage of the area,” said Elena of the decision to make a wine this way from very old vine Airen – a variety with a fairly neutral character.
Francisco Martínez (pictured) is general manager of Bodegas Luzón, a professional, four-million-bottle strong business, which is part of huge Spanish food group, Grupo Fuertes.
It’s also a specialist in keenly-priced, well-made organic whites, with access to as much as 700 hectares of certified organic vineyards in Jumilla, of which almost half are owned by Luzón.
As lunch came to an end, Francisco poured out a sample of Altos de Luzon Monastrell from 2003, proving the ageing potential of this grape from the top sites in Jumilla.
On my final day in Jumilla I was presented with a lilac, Jumilla-branded face mask, which I was able to sport during a visit to Bodegas Bleda, where export manager Emilio José Esteve Vizcaíno, showed me the 250ha estate from the balcony of the new winery.
Inside, we were joined by Bleda winemaker, Pascual Tomás, who has been at the bodega for 38 years.
And show me some of the winery’s historic labels.
The tasting room overlooks the ageing cellar where Divus, which is Bleda’s top wine, spends one year in new French oak barrels. Pascual has been making the expression, based on 60 year old Monastrell, since 2000, making Divus the region’s pioneering fine wine.
My final visit took me to Jumilla’s vast grower-cooperative, BSI (Bodegas San Isidro), which unites 400 shareholders representing 1,400 hectares of vineyards, including the largest surface area of ungrafted vines in the world, with 450ha of ancient Monastrell. Inside the winery are six ‘streets’ like the one pictured above, containing rows of concrete vats, with 400 still in use today.
A further 20 cylindrical concrete vats are also in use at the winery, which produces the Carta Roja brand of Jumilla wine, as well as an impressive Monastrell for the UK market with no added sulphur, which is also certified organic and vegan friendly.
Among the barrels in the BSI cellar is this computer from 1950. Today, the cooperative is investing €3m in the winery to be able to ferment Monastrell in smaller quantities to isolate and bottle the best old vine expressions from this grape. It’s a means of safeguarding the ungrafted vines from Jumilla, which otherwise would be blended with wines from lesser quality, higher yielding sites. The monies are being spent now as the management at BSI are fearful that Jumilla will lose its key point of difference – its historic Monastrell vines. It’s a vital move: Europe’s largest collection of ungrafted vineyards is under BSI’s care. “We will lose them if we don’t do something,” said the winemaker.