If you ask wine drinkers to name wine making regions in Spain, you will likely get Rioja as the most frequent response. Some will know Ribera del Duero as well. After that, the answer pot will likely run dry. There are many more significant winemaking regions in Spain, which is the third largest producer by volume in the world (and the country with the largest wine grape acreage). But none have emerged to the top of the international charts thus far, despite the importance of place in consumers’ food and drink purchasing decisions.
One far-sighted region making a serious attempt to do just that is La Mancha, a vast central region that starts about an hour south of the capital, Madrid. Representatives of the wine region, D.O. La Mancha, are touring major markets conducting seminars and tastings in an attempt to get the word out to consumers. They are promoting how good the wines of Spain are becoming. They came into Dallas recently and thanks to Janet Kafka and Associates for the invitation to taste and the thought they put into presenting these wines in a city that, frankly, is not hard up for wine events.
First, they chose the achingly beautiful (but inanely named) space “129 Leslie” in the Dallas Design District. This failed gallery deserves to find new life as an event space. The bare white museum finished walls that once displayed pictures of guys with violin bows through their heads (or somesuch) echoed the sun parched emptiness of the La Mancha vineyards displayed in a tutorial during the tasting. Plus, the runway entrance from the street gives one the feeling of entering into a different world.
Events began with an optional seminar. I was interested to hear speaker Charlie Arturaola. He is knowledgeable and passionate about his subject. He presented a great overview of the region aimed at the beginner. When people asked questions he could not answer he deferred to the head of the D.O. (Denominación de Origen) from Spain who was also was in the audience.
The grapes grown in the area are Airén, Macabeo, Sauvignon Blanc, and Chardonnay for the whites and Tempranillo, Garnacha, Cabernet Sauvignon, Moravia, Merlot, and Syrah for the reds. One answer I could not get was whether non-indigenous varieties are displacing native types. I think La Mancha growers can forget any chance of establishing the region in its own right if they see a commercial imperative to emphasize international varieties. More likely, that will just be joining a contest to see who has the lowest price. Based on the wines offered by the 13 producers exhibiting, Airén, Tempranillo, and Cabernet Sauvignon dominate growers’ preferences.
Airén is interesting. It has the largest grape acreage in Spain but most wine drinkers have never heard of it. I cannot think of a single varietally listed Airén on the list at a single Dallas restaurant. The reason for this obscurity is that it is almost exclusively used for blending. La Mancha producers are bravely making it as a bona fide varietal wine with its name on the label. Based on the examples that I tasted, it is a worthy substitute for Sauvignon Blanc, Albarino and a host of Italian white varieties. It is best with food, on account of its high acidity, and a natural match for seafood or poultry (chicken in white sauce in particular). Expect to pay less than $10 retail. It will be interesting to see if this support for Airén leads to the producers experimenting with further styles of Airén wine (for example, oak aging or blends in which Airén is the major 75%+ player, etc.).
Tempranillo is at the opposite end of the familiarity scale, being the best known Spanish grape. The La Mancha style is similar to that of Rioja, although prices are lower. Surprisingly, the joven wines (no oak) had a surprisingly hard tannic backbone. Presumably, this is a byproduct of the extraction process, but it isn’t awfully pleasant. The wines with significant oak age tended to have softer, lusher tannins. Best wines of the day were Tempranillo Reservas (minimum 12 months oak) and Gran Reservas (minimum 18 months oak). This was less on account of their oak than their age. They tended to be 5-10 years old and therefore at or near full maturity.
You might think that such an ancient region encompasses mainly ancient wineries with hundreds of years of tradition (e.g. “Our winery was founded in 1600 by Colin Quixote, Don’s brother, who thought of the idea of making wine one day when his windmill broke for the second time in a morning…”). Not true, based on the sample of producers present. They are products of the postwar era and appear to be founded in many cases by people from outside the wine industry. The parallel with the Napa Valley in California is tempting.
My take away from this tasting is that I must keep La Mancha on my purchasing radar. Quality is rising, prices are incredibly reasonable, and they are doing some wines that nobody else is doing.