So how was Spain?

Saturday, June 29, 2013

View from Bodegas El Nido in Jumilla
I've just spent a week in Murcia, Spain where wines made from the Monastrell grape are produced in a bold fruit forward style. Murcia is in the southeastern part of the country and although it's not far from the sea, it is hot and dry during growing season. 

The terrain reminded me of Arizona - specifically the Verde Valley area near Sedona where the desert gives way to scrub vegetation accompanied by a sprinkling of trees. The Murcia region is by no means lush. However, the rocky vineyards with limestone and clay soils stress the vines into producing grapes which can result in outstanding wines with intense color and flavor.

Along with 7 fellow US bloggers (find them on Twitter here) on a trip sponsored by the commerce department of the local government, I visited the Denomination of Origins of Yecla (yeck-luh), Jumilla (who-meal-uh), and Bullas (boo-ya!s), visited ten producers and tasted through dozens of wines to get a feel for what this area has to offer.

A Region on the Rise

What I found was a region continuing to emerge as a value driven producer of fine wines. I came into the trip looking to gain broader exposure to the styles of wines being made and discover new producers. Prior to the trip I enjoyed what I'd tasted in the $6-$12/bottle range and I wanted to get a sense for what their more expensive wines were like. What does a $25 Monastrell taste like? A $40 one?

Murcia has not-so-long-ago completed a transition from being primarily a bulk producer of wine (sold to other regions to embolden wines) to producing bottled fine wines. The market is still there for bulk wine, but most bodegas (Spanish for wineries) now use dedicated parts of their facilities for bottled production. The challenge for most producers, now that they've established themselves as a great source for a delicious, bold and juicy $10 red, is to take their wines to the next level.

We visited benchmark producers in the region like Juan Gil, Luzon, Barahonda, and Castano. Others that have a more classic feel like Casa de la Ermita, Olivares, and Bleda. A couple cooperatives: Bodegas del Rosario and La Purisima. And a couple blazing a trail in a more modern direction: Carchelo and Hacienda del Carche.

Bodegas Rosario vineyards in Bullas

A Traditional Grape, a New Direction

The area is infused with talented winemakers who've trained in other regions like Bordeaux, Burgundy, and Napa. Most are locals who've returned to combine international winemaking experience with local knowledge of how well the Monastrell grape performs in the region. Although it regularly hits 110F in the vineyards in the summer, and the region gets about as much rain as Los Angeles in a year (not much) most Monastrell thrives in Murcia without irrigation.

Older Monastrell production techniques often left the wines tasting overly rustic with dour personalities. Newer sensibilities, when successful, produce fresh wines from this warm climate. New world style from an old world country. Respectful of their past while moving towards the future.

For $6-$12 you can get an amazingly good bottle of red wine from Jumilla, Yecla, or Bullas. The reds have an appealing lusciousness and freshness to them even though they're quite full bodied with alcohol levels regularly north of 14.5%. Especially considering that their core flavor profile is similar to the popular but often spendy Californian wines we enjoy in the US, this is a region savvy US consumers are buying from.

Reserve level wines, differentiated by the amount of time they spend in oak and in the bottle prior to release, were less consistent. I felt some were poorly integrated with surprisingly rough edges and overwhelming tannins. In some cases, the effects of a substantial oak regiment was overbearing and the core flavor profile took off in an unappealing raisiny direction especially when made with grapes from old vines. In many cases, going from $8 to $18 takes the wine in an undesirable direction for what I'm looking for.

However, a few wineries absolutely succeeded in taking it to the next level. Higher end wines from Juan Gil, El Nido, Barahonda, and Castaño were especially outstanding.

Bodegas Barahonda in Yecla


The area's biggest weakness is perhaps their biggest strength for value hunting consumers: For the most part they're not particularly good at marketing. And this has resulted in prices which are low even when compared to similar quality wines from value regions like Chile, Argentina, and Australia.

It's tough for a region like Murcia to stand out in a crowded wine market. For as long as wine publications have beaten the drum about Spain as a value region, Murcia is just one boat in the sea of value producing countries. Even within Spain they compete for attention with the likes of Rioja, Ribera del Duoro, Priorat, and Toro.

With US retailers devoting just 10% or 20% of their shelves to Spain, wines from Jumilla, Yecla, and Bullas can be somewhat hard to find.

But beyond marketing the region as a whole, I find the way their wines are marketed confusing. As an American consumer, brands are extremely important to me. Once I discover something I like, I want to explore other products in a brand's portfolio and see whether offerings at other price points deliver similar value. BMW does a great job with this: Their entry level products provide a representative window into the brand then they walk consumers up through their offerings over time.

With many (but not all) of the bodegas in Murcia it was hard to make these connections. I visited wineries I'd never heard of only to discover I'd tried their wines before under a different label. This is a big problem if they're looking at taking customers from $8 to $15, from $15 to $25 and from $25 to $40.

Winemakers and export managers I spoke with differed in their opinion about these marketing challenges, but most of them alluded to the importers driving the branding direction. And who can argue with results? Some of these labels (many of which are produced exclusively for retailers like Total Wine, Costco, and Whole Foods) have been very successful in the US.

Visiting the region helped my understanding tremendously and I'm looking very forward to exploring the category further once I'm home. But I've got to think I'm not alone in being confused when navigating this space.

Looking Forward

Exploring the wine world is about making connections between wines you like and others like it for one reason or another: Similar style, same region, same vineyard, same winemaker, same producer, etc. Everyone's journey is different and that's what makes it special.

I'm looking forward to sharing stories about the connections I made on the trip.

Almost all of the producers we visited have distribution in the US so I'll share some immediately actionable value plays. I'll try to pinpoint where I think peak value occurs. I'll go deeper into who I thought were the top producers in the region (one of which my infatuation took on comically epic proportions). I'll write about a couple of producers I have a feeling will help shape the future direction of the region. And they've got some great rosés - I'll mention a few of those as well.

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