Spain has been going through a wine production renaissance. Historically, Jumilla has been one of the many bulk wine regions of Spain. Its altitude, sunny days, cool nights, and scarcity of water are perfect for making simple wines. No one really knew about Jumilla, but it profited and never had a problem selling its wine to the rest of Europe.
Because of its sandy soil, the root eating louse, phylloxera, didn't wipe out its vineyards at the turn of the twentieth century, as it did in the rest of Europe. Even though it held off phylloxera for nearly one hundred years, the bug finally showed up in Jumilla's vineyards in the late 1980s. Phylloxera destroys roots and eventually slows grape cluster growth until the vine dies. When a vineyard is infested with phylloxera the vines must be ripped up and replanted with resistant varieties.
Faced with the realization that all of its vines were going to be replaced, some vineyard owners in Jumilla chose to replant with better quality varieties. Overwhelmingly, they chose monastrell (mourvedre), but vineyards with tempranillo, garnacha (grenache), cabernet sauvignon, and merlot were also included. The new grape varieties allowed Jumilla to step into the new world market, with new world styled wines.
Wines from the Jumilla DO are excellent values. Many bottles fall into the $10 price range and a few examples in the $20-$25 price range are exceptional. Most bottles of red wine from Jumilla are composed of monastrell or a blend thereof, which boasts flavors of blueberry and spice. Many reds are enhanced with a combination of American and French oak, meant for our palates. Jumilla offers fruit forward, new world styled wines, but suggests that it comes from Europe, with its balanced acidity and tannins.
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The Portuguese call alvarinho the 'Queen' of all Portuguese white grapes. A title well deserved for this elegant wine. It is lush with creamy flavors of apricots and peaches and complimented by a marriage of white flowers and minerals. This exotic and perfume-like grape grows in a few obscure areas of Spain and Portugal exclusively. The Spanish call it albariņo. The northern area of Portugal is known for old vines that are 50, 60, and 70+ years old.
Alvarinho (ahl-vah-ree-nho) is a small berried, low yielding grape with a thick skin that is difficult to vinify. When pressed, alvarinho offers small amounts of juice compared to other varieties. For these producers, showcasing alvarinho's luscious quality is more important than following market trends. They are not swayed by the popularity of other varietals and resist the urge to pull up their sluggish old vines for high yield mainstream grapes. Their steadfast devotion to this frustrating, yet superior varietal, is paying off; alvarinho has a small but growing following here in the U.S.
It is believed that alvarinho was brought to the Iberian Peninsula by monks on a religious pilgrimage from France in the twelfth century. Others believe that it evolved from Riesling and was brought to the area by German monks. A third camp believes that alvarinho is an indigenous grape. Regardless of where it came from, its elegant presence has been cherished for hundreds of years.
Its acidity offers a wonderful balance to its freshly sliced peach and apricot flavors. If it has undergone malolactic fermentation, the wine can be drunk while young. If it has not undergone malolactic fermentation the wine can age for a few years developing a floral canvas of flavors. Alvarinho is a wonderful example of the extraordinary and exotic wines that wait for us if we just choose to look for them.