Exploring Spanish Wines from Castilla La Mancha

The Castilla La Mancha Region, located in the center of the Iberian Peninsula in Spain (south and east of Madrid),  claims to have the largest area of vineyards in the world, with over 1.2M acres of grapes devoted to wine. In spite of it being such a large producer of wines, and producing over 50% of Spain’s grapes, we knew very little about the region and its wine—although we do know its famous manchego cheese. Most of the little we knew dated back many years when Spain was more known for quantity, not quality.

We recently had an opportunity to attend a tasting of some of the Castilla La Mancha Region wines in San Francisco. Part of our interest in the tasting was  to update our perceptions of Spanish wines. Another part was to familiarize ourselves with Spanish wines in preparation for our upcoming trip to Spain.

Castilla La Mancha  is home to 9 DOCs (Designation of Origin) and over 600 wineries. Its hot and dry climate has large temperature variations between day to night as well as between seasons. The vines have to survive these harsh growing conditions, as well as temperatures that reach over 100 degrees. Some of the red grape varieties that can survive in this environment include:

  • Tempranillo: a black grape with a thick skins that is widely grown to make full-bodies wines with flavors of berries, plum, tobacco, vanilla, leather and herb. Tempranillos are low in acidity and sugar and thus are normally blended with other grapes.
  • Cabernet Sauvignon: grown in almost every wine-producing country, these hardy vines produce thick-skinned grapes that produce full-bodies wines with high tannins and acidity that contribute to the ability to age the wines. In the hotter climates, the wines tends to have over-ripe and “jammy” flavors.
  • Garnacha: since it ripens late, it needs the hot climate of this region. It is generally spicy, berry-flavored (raspberry and strawberry) and soft on the palate with relatively high alcohol.
  • Alicante Bouschet: whose deep color makes it useful in blending with light wines
  • Monastrell or as we know it, Mourvèdre: which tends to produce tannic wines that can be high in alcohol. It usually has earthy notes with soft red fruit flavors
  • Syrah: this dark-skin grape is full-bodied with softer tannin, and is jammy with spice notes of licorice, anise and earthy leather
  • Bobal: mostly used in bulk wine, but some who grow it in higher altitude (above 800 m) are working on higher quality. It is generally fruity, low in alcohol and high in acidity
  • Merlot: dark blue colored grapes
  • Petit Verdot: primarily used as a blending wine, it adds tannin, color and flavor.

The region also produces white wines, including chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, verdejo, and airen (traditionally used for brandy, although some are using this grape to create a crisp, slightly neutral dry white wines that needs to be consumed quickly). Unfortunately, we didn’t taste a lot of the white wines at the tasting. Why? They were being served so cold that the flavors were all masked–at least for our palates.  After trying to warm a few of them up so that we could really taste the wine,  we finally gave up and stayed with the reds.

Although we tasted a few single varietal red wines at the tasting, most were blends. As usual in a tasting, we liked some wines more than others. But the event was an eye opener to us about wines from this region. No longer will we think of Spanish wines of being lower quality wines in general. And, even better, we found some enjoyable wines that retail for under $10.

The next time you visit a wine store, meander over to the Spanish section. Even better, experiment with a few bottles. It won’t cost you a lot and you may find a new favorite. 

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