Article on Valencian wine in “Counsel” magazine

I may have neglected this website, but I’ve been flying the flag for Valencian wine in some unlikely places. Counsel is, in its own words, “the monthly Journal of the Bar of England and Wales, largely written by and for barristers and also of interest to all lawyers”. Perhaps unfairly, I’ve always associated barristers with burgundy and bordeaux, but I was asked whether I’d care to write something on Valencian wine for the magazine. Always keen to spread the word, I accepted.

"Counsel" magazine article on wines of Valencia region

Here is what I wrote:

Spanish Treasures

I am an unabashed fan of the wines of the three Denominaciones de Origen of the Comunitat Valenciana: Alicante, Utiel-Requena and Valencia. This is partly because I live in Valencia, but it also has to do with the extraordinary range of wines produced in the region; “new wave” and old school red and white wines, plus excellent Cavas, and Alicante’s unique madeirized Fondillón, of which more below.

Alicante is perhaps best known for its red wines made from the Monastrell grape (generally known elsewhere as Mourvèdre, itself derived from the Valencia town of Sagunto, for centuries named Murviedro), and its elegantly drinkable Moscatel white wines, which run the gamut from dry and grapey to luscious sweetness.

Utiel-Requena has its own signature grape, Bobal, with its brilliantly deep red colour, chewy tannins and spicy dark fruitiness alongside a bracing acidity. It is also particularly high in resveratrol that is supposed to makr red wine good for the heart.

To add to the confusion, there is an interesting resurgence of quality wine production taking place in Castellón province to the north, which has achieved official recognition as “Vinos de la Tierra de Castellón”. Finally, one of the classiest bodegas in the Utiel-Requena area, Bodega Mustiguillo, has succeeded in obtaining its very own geographical status as Vino de la Tierra El Terrerazo.

Alicante wine was celebrated in England for centuries. The anonymous satirical verse “Colyn Blowbols Testament” from around 1500 tells

“Of Colyn Blobolle, whan he had dronke a tante
Bothe of Teynt and of wyne Alycaunt,
Till he was drounke as any swyne;”

Blowbol was a term of the time for drunkard. The archaic usage “tent” is an English corruption of the Spanish “tinto” for red wine from Spain. This early reference to Alicante wine is one of many from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries that speaks of the quality of the wines from the southernmost province of the Valencia region on Spain’s eastern seaboard. Parliament decreed in 1660, “That from and after the First Day of September 1661, no Canary Wines, Muscadell, or Alligant, or other Spanish, or Sweet Wines, shall be sold or uttered, by any Person or Persons within his Majesty’s Kingdom of England, Dominion of Wales, and Town of Berwick upon Tweed, by Retail, for above Eighteen-pence the Quart”.

Despite the array of Spanish wines available in Britain centuries ago, today wine merchants despair of the reluctance of their customers to explore further afield than Rioja.

Alongside the time-honoured varieties that have been mentioned, Monastrell, Moscatel, Bobal and the like, the last twenty years have seen the introduction of international varieties. Syrah does particularly well in Utiel-Requena, but there is every imaginable grape variety, from Sauvignon Blanc to Pinot Noir by way of Malbec and Viognier. A multi-course banquet could be accompanied all the way by different Valencian wines.

Here, I’ve opted to concentrate mainly on the established regional varieties. I’ve imagined that banquet, with each dish having a different wine from the Valencia region.

You might kick off with Valencian Cava. Cavas from Dominio de la Vega in Requena (Valencia) have been voted best Spanish Cava at the Spanish professionals’ blind-tasting at Enoforum. Jeroboams (www.jeroboams.co.uk) have their NV Dominio de la Vega Brut (£12.25) and their 2008 Brut Reserva Especial (£18.45). These wines will convince you that there is a lot more to Cava than “two for the price of one” supermarket offers. I’d suggest buying both.

For the whites, I’ve found a beguilingly fruity and good value Moscatel de Alexandria, Marina Alta, from the slick Bocopa cooperative in Alicante (www.bocopa.com). Their Marina Alta 2010 is offered by Vinissimus UK (www.vinissimus.co.uk) at just £4.35. I think it would be intriguing to contrast this very Mediterranean Moscatel with an international variety from the ambitiously perfectionist Bodegas Enrique Mendoza (www.bodegasmendoza.com). The Enrique Mendoza Chardonnay 2009 is available from from Wine&Ham (www.wineandham.com) for 7.10 euros a bottle.

I’m sorry to say that I haven’t been able to find a single rosé from Valencia available in the UK. This is a shame, as there are rosados with real personality that have the body to hold their own with the paellas and other local dishes, while being a cooling balm in the summer heat.

Naturally enough, there is no difficulty in finding red wines. Here are a few worth going on with. Berry Bros. & Rudd (www.bbr.com) offer two Monastrell wines from the same modern winery in Alicante. These are Laderas de El Sequé at £9.15 and its big brother El Sequé 2006 at £22.95.  It might be interesting to compare these with two organic wines from Bodegas Los Frailes (www.bodegaslosfrailes.com), which has been in the Velázquez family since 1771. Their Bilogía 2005 (two grape varieties: 50% Monastrell and 50% Tempranillo, at £124.40 per bottle) and Trilogía 2005 (three varieties – geddit?): 70% Monastrell, 20% Cabernet Sauvignon and 10% Tempranillo, £165.54 for twelve bottles at at easywine.co.uk [the site appears to have vanished, try uvinum.co.uk] are all body and elegance, very Spanish, but utterly different in style to wines from Rioja.

Moving on to Utiel-Requena, I’d like to suggest a wine that is made by an Englishman, Philip Diment. He is the owner of Mesón Don Felipe (www.mesondonfelipe.com) near Waterloo Station, which claims to be London’s “first authentic tapas bar”, but he always dreamed of making his own wine near the Mediterranean. At Casa del Pinar (www.casadelpinar.com) he makes the supple and elegant Sanfir (Bobal, Tempranillo, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah). The 2004 is drinking splendidly and is available from Moreno Wines (www.morenowinedirect.com) for £15.31 – and at Mesón Don Felipe it’s naturally a snip to have with your tapas at £15.30.

Perhaps the red wines ought to be rounded off with a thoroughbred Bobal. Bodega Mustiguillo has its own sui generis appellation, Vino de la Tierra El Terrerazo. There are several UK stockists. Vinissimus UK (www.vinissimus.co.uk) offers all three of their three red wines, the exuberant young Mestizaje 2010 (Bobal, Merlot, Tempranillo, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah, £8.97), their Finca Terrerazo 2007 (Bobal and Tempranillo, 92 Parker points, £21.28) and their Quincha Corral 2007 (100% Bobal, £48.43).

Sweet wines can be confusing. The cheap “Moscatels de Valencia” that you see in supermarkets and are often offered free in Valencian restaurants at the end of your meal are, in fact, unfermented grape juice with added grape spirit, so not really wine at all. For authentic, sophisticated sweet Moscatel wine the past master in the Valencia region is Felipe Gutiérrez de la Vega (www.castadiva.es). His Casta Diva La Báscula Moscatel 2006 is fabulously rich and is offered by Moreno Wines (www.morenowinedirect.com) at £19.99 for a 50cl bottle.

Finally, the pièce de résistance for what the Spanish call the “sobremesa”, the relaxed and often lengthy conversation at table that follows a good meal. Alicante’s unique Fondillón was one of the most prized and expensive wines in the world in the nineteenth-century. It is an amber, oxidized wine made from Monastrell grapes left to overripen on the vine. The sweet wine is then left for a minimum of ten years, and generally far more, in huge casks, during which the colour gradually turns from bright red to amber, and the intense sweetness softens and blends with the sharper complexity accompanying the oxidization or “maderization”. This legendary wine almost disappeared in the twentieth century, but it is a classic, made only in Alicante, that was once a staple of European royal tables and ranks alongside Port, Sherry and Madeira.

I have located only one UK supplier, but they stock a classic. Salvador Poveda (www.salvadorpoveda.com) was one of the wineries most responsible for keeping this style of wine alive, and Winedeal (www.winedeal.co.uk) have the Salvador Poveda Gran Reserva Fondillón 1987 at £45.99 [this appears no longer to be offered, but there is the even more exciting 1964 available from Underwood Wines]. This really is history in a glass.

I recommend starting with these, and then why not hop over to Valencia or Alicante and explore other possibilities that have yet to fight their way into the UK market. There’s life beyond Benidorm.

Counsel article PDF