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Monday, June 26, 2006

The poorest soils create the richest fruit
The producer is Finca Luzon.
The appellation is the D.O. of Jumilla, Spain.
This wine is not new news, as it already received a substantial amount of press when it was proclaimed as one of the '100 Best Wines of 2005' by the Wine Spectator. While the wine was recognized, the grape growing region (and winery, for that matter) are hardly household names. I'd like to take a bit of a more intimate look at the appellation, the wine and the surrounding possibilities.
Jumilla, a minute wine growing region tightly tucked away between the provinces of Murcia and Albacete of Southeastern Spain, has long been a tiny speck on a map that is laden w/ much more profound Spanish viticultural regions (Rioja, Priorat and Ribera Del Duero). Several exhaustive volumes of wine text fail to even mention Jumilla at all. The region is characterized by scalding, harsh summer temperatures in the vicinity of 100 degrees plus (coupled w/ chilly winters), arid conditions, with annual rainfall totals in the vicinity of 12 total inches, and limey soils that all set the stage for the local Monastrell grape to thrive. Monastrell, identified as a clone of the Mourvedre grape from Southern Rhone, is the area workhorse group as its plantings occupy over 80% of the total acreage under vine in Jumilla. Most vineyards are located at modestly elevated altitudes, between 1300-2600 feet above sea level, and enjoy over 3,000 hours of sunlight a year. Until the mid 90's, the viticultural methodology was geared towards over-ripening, causing the grapes to shrivel on the vine like raisins. During the fermentation process, the accumulated sugars would be converted to alcohol, w/ alcohol levels pushing 16%. The majority of the overly alcoholic juice was sold off in the European bulk market to cool climate wineries, whose wines lacked color and had insufficient alcohol (the Monastrell juice would be blended for balance). These practices were how the locals felt they could best profit from the rough and tumble grape variety that Monastrell semmed to be. A viticultural and enological revolution occurred during the 90's throughout the country. International markets began to demand higher quality wines, and modern wine-making techniques changed the perception of the Spanish vigneron. In order to prevent excessive sugar accumulation (and therefore, alcohol), harvest dates were moved from mid September to late August. Grapes were to be transported quickly to the winery to be crushed and fermented in stainless steel temperature controlled vats to prevent oxidation. Depending on the vintage characteristics, Jumilla enologists began to practice the Bordeaux 'insurance policy' of blending. Monastrell could be complemented w/ other varietals, such as Garnacha, Cencibel or the staple grape of Spain, Tempranillo. The Jumilla wine council also proved to be dynamic, as they authorized the use of the French varietals Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah. The introduction of aging wines in new oak barrels brought another complementary characteristic to cutting edge wine-making in Jumilla. The vineyards in this small segment of Spain's southeast corridor began to look less like alcoholic grape factories, and more like serious soils that could tame the Monastrell grape into a dazzling beauty. One of the first producers in the area to begin to express this land's potential w/ consistent success has been that of Finca Luzon (sources cited).
The bodega, or estate, of Finca Luzon is nessled between the Jumilla mountains and has been creating excellent quality to price ratio wines since 1999. Their flagship bottling, called Altos de Luzon, contains 50% Monastrell, 25% Cabernet Sauvignon and 25% Tempranillo. Two unique vineyard locations are used for the final blend; the Montesinos Vineyard, at 2,100 feet in elevation, is planted w/ ungrafted Monastrell vines that are over 50 years old. As for the Cabernet Sauvignon and Tempranillo, they come from 20 year old vines located at 1,500 feet in elevation at the Castillo de Luzon vineyard. The soil types in each vineyard are made up of a diverse gravel and chalk mixture. Couple that w/ a harsh climate, which naturally reduces yields to 1.6 tons/acre, and you begin to get a sense an emerging Jumilla terroir. The 2003 vintage was hand harvested and sorted rigorously. Gifted winemakers initially fermented the grapes in stainless steel vats, and then transferred the wine to new French and American oak barrels. A secondary malolactic fermentation would then converts terse, malic acid into a creamy, supple lactic acid in the barrels (think of apple acids transforming to milk acids). The wine was later transferred to bottles after a 12 month aging period in the oak barrels (sources cited).
The '03 Altos de Luzon is immediately impressive in the glass, marked by a deep ruby color and brilliantly clear. The nose is initially tight, but opens beautifully w/ exposure to air as aromas of melted licorice, rich cassis and violet fill the air. Underneath the superficial layers in the nose, you can detect a bed of wet stone minerality, with just a slight hint of raisin. In the mouth, the texture is unctuous, with slightly toasty black raspberries, blueberry and boysenberry fruit character saturating the palate. Powdered cocoa smoothly glides into a finish, which ends w/ a slightly briar tone, marked by notes of green olive and soft fruits. The tannins are ripely woven into nicely integrated oak. I would give it a unanimously outstanding rating, at 92 points. The wine spectator agreed, as it was named number 43 on their top 100 list of 2005. The Jumilla terroir speaks clearly in this wine, showing how unique a Monastrell blend can taste from Spanish soils. Altos de Luzon is also an incredible value, at roughly 15$ per bottle. Wines like this are tailor made to buy in bulk; try one each year to see how Luzon's old, ungrafted Monastrell vines evolve in the bottle. Experimentation like this is generally cost-prohibitive, but at 15 bucks a bottle we can afford to quench our curiosity. Needless to say, another beauty of an up and coming wine region is that it does not yet have the reputation or audacity to charge you 3 figures a bottle. Jumilla shows that all it needed was a little care and attention to coax its mature vineyards into a penetrating and depth laiden expression of terroir.
The region combines the essence of Chateauneuf du Pape's rugged soils and blistering dry heat (not to mention the Garnacha, Monastrell and Syrah Rhone varietals), w/ Bordeaux's Cabernet Sauvignon and Spanish hallmark, Tempranillo. There are even more possibilities for rich wines to evolve from poor Spanish soils. For example Rias Baixas, with its trademark Albarino grape, is another seemingly obscure D.O. of Spain. Alba...who? Yes, I've tasted several and the Albarino varietal has a fantastic ability to transmit it's terroir in a variety of ways (while most bottles are still available at price ranges in the single digits). Who needs an overpriced oak bomb mouthful of Chardonnay when you can sip a fascinatingly unique glass of stony mineral laced citrus that modestly priced Albarinos can deliver. There is also a section of Cataluna called Montsant, a red-headed step child of Priorat that has the ability to produce wines of similar Priorat character at a third of the Priorat price. Then there is Penedes, home to over 90% of Spanish Cava (sparking wine). I still have yet to see a Spanish sparkler for over 20 dollars and I've never been disappointed with the refreshing quality of each bottle. One of the ultimate value brands, Cristalino, consistently produces non-vintage brut sparklers of Champagne quality for 6.99 a bottle. Sometimes pleasure can be so much more....pleasurable, when you don't have to break the bank for it.
These times are exciting, as energetic 'flying wine makers' flock to areas ripe w/ potential that just need a bit more attention. One of the newest, possibly most obscure of Spanish appellations is that of the Costers Del Segre (meaning 'the banks of the river Segre'). Some of the most personal and eccentric Spanish wines have emerged recently from this appellation. The 2003 Cervoles comes to mind as I am quickly reminded of it's sumptuous bouqet of blueberry liqueur, gorgeously interwoven w/ a sinewy mid-palate spice. So oddly delicious I couldn't help but think in paralells to my early experiences of the 'garrigue,' or 'barnyard' nose of a mature Chateauneuf du Pape ultimately giving way to gushingly ripe, stewed fruits. Spain is full of areas like this, with anxious and obscure enologists clamoring to grasp a cleverly placed parcel of land and the century old vines that occupy it. It's a buyers market for the educated consumer that chooses to do a bit of research. There are still several distinct ways to grab a bottle that can wonderfully transmit its sense of place. You don't have to fly there, nor do you have to spend thousands on Bordeaux's first growth table scraps. I suggest you start w/ may, at the least, show you that all 10 dollar wines aren't the same. In fact, some can be provocative enough to inspire an amateur, like myself, to write about it.


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