Many grape varieties grow in the Spanish wine region of Jumilla, but one variety stands above them all: Monastrell (aka Mourvédre). Today, the indigenous grape is known as the Queen of Jumilla, capable of producing single-varietal wines of great finesse and complexity—but it wasn’t always this way.
Like the true royal it is, Monastrell requires a bit of, shall we say, attention prior to being presented to the public. Its berries are tiny, sweet, and thick-skinned (in defense against the region’s intense sunlight and limited rainfall); it flowers and ripens later than other varieties; it’s prone to fungal diseases like powdery mildew; and without proper care and constant pruning, these vines can become too vigorous, resulting in the overproduction of poor-quality fruit. As such, many producers relied on the variety solely for blending.
However, in recent years, winemakers have learned some tricks to tame the unwieldy variety while adapting it to suit consumers’ tastes. Just as there’s more than one way to skin a cat, there’s more than one way to master Monastrell, producing softer, gentler wines with smoother tannins and lighter, brighter flavors.
We spoke with three winemakers who are taming the wildness of Monastrell by embracing different techniques. Read on to learn more.
Early to Harvest
Bodegas Viña Elena is located in the southernmost portion of the appellation at approximately 380 meters above sea level. Monastrell is harvested early at both of the winery’s vineyards—Mandiles and Finca Casa Quemada—in order to yield a finished product that is light and full of bright red fruit.
At the Mandiles vineyard, the grapes are typically harvested in mid-September, by which point the temperature has cooled enough to have a big impact on the fruit. Getting the date right requires vigilance, explains export manager Fernando Pacheco: “In Mandiles … the difference between ripe and overripe berries can be one to two days.”
By comparison, the more northerly Finca Casa Quemada vineyard, located in the shadow of the Sierra la Cinglas Mountains just beyond Jumilla city, has a wider margin for harvest.
In both cases, the berries are harvested earlier to produce the desired red fruits in the wine and preserve the freshness. The 2019 Parcela Mandiles exemplifies how Bodegas Viña Elena’s harvesting early approach correlates to a refreshingly acidic and exquisite wine. The use of 500L neutral oak provides a hint of vanilla along with undertones of spice. The red fruit bursts on the palate and ends with a beautiful minerality.
Vineyard and Cellar Management
The family-run Casa Castillo has a unique approach to farming Monastrell. Since the area sees a mere 300 ml of rain a year, the vines, which cover about 150 of the winery’s 450 hectares, are completely dry farmed, yielding more intensely-flavored grapes.
In what seems to be a unique vineyard management system, the vineyards of Casa Castillo have trellised bush vines—which, according to export manager Jose Luis Hernandez, result in a healthier crop. The setup allows for easier green harvesting while providing ideal sun exposure to the bunches. The end result is a higher quality, brighter Monastrell grape bunches.
But the process doesn’t stop there. After harvest, the wine is separated and processed in three different styles. Approximately 50% sees carbonic maceration, 30% is vinified using the whole cluster and the remaining 20% is de-stemmed prior to processing. Fermentation takes place in open concrete. The wines are then aged separately and blended together to produce the desired final product. When the three fermentation styles are brought together, a more complex finished wine is produced, with lively fruit flavors and pronounced aromas. On the nose, you can smell the rosemary that grows in abundance around the vineyard, while the palate delivers lively blackberry and cola flavors along with a lovely balsamic that is common in the variety.
The Perfect Blend
Run by the fourth generation of the Tomás family, Bodegas Bleda has always emphasized quality over quantity. Eighty percent of the winery’s 250 hectares are dedicated to Monastrell—which is blended with either Spanish native grapes like Tempranillo or French varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot to reach a desired effect. For winemaker Pascual Tomás, these other varieties help soften Monastrell’s edges, bringing out its beautiful aromatics and red fruit flavors, while heightening its softer side.
There may not be a magical equation to create a great wine, but according to Pascual, it all comes down to trusting his palate. Or as he puts it: “I like it so I bottle it.”
The 2020 Castillo de Jumilla is a testament to what adding Tempranillo can do for Monastrell, its high acidity invigorating Monastrell’s palate. The medium-bodied wine has pronounced aromas of red cherry, strawberry and raspberry. The palate continues the love affair of ripe red fruit with violet and black tea.