The Spanish Mediterranean: The Levant In-Depth

Nov 30, 2009

Vistas de la Ciudad El Faro
There I’ll enter, letting my soul slip
Into the loving voice of grapes to say,
“Trample my heart, it’s already ripe”
 - Miguel Hernández (1910-1942 – native of Alicante)

There is more to Spain that the wines of Rioja and Ribera del Duero, let alone the fortified wines of Jerez.

In the east, just south of Catalunya is the region where the sun gets up (or levantarse in Spanish), the beaches are bountiful and beautiful and the architecture, exotic and quaint, a melodic mix of Moorish and Latin influences.

Barcelona holds the honor of Spain’s biggest sea port but the city of Valencia is the largest wine port. So big in fact that the local fishermen have complained about being bullied out by the numerous bulk container ships. The result, a nearby harbor was built exclusively for them.

Besides shipping out the majority of Spain’s wine and being the busy “boulevard to the sea”, it is the home of paella, Mediterranean Spain’s gift to seafood cuisine (it also helps that Valencia is the rice capital of the country).

In terms of wine, there are three sub-zones outside of the city: Valentino, Alto Turia (both in the east and northeast) and Clariano in the south.

Valencian vineyard

There are a variety of styles made from the dry to the sweet. The quarter of the varieties produced come from the mundane Merseguera, a staple variety of the Levant. Critically viewed as a bland grape, it does have a refreshing light herbal zing to it. Easy to drink, but not memorable.

Other whites include: Malvasia Riojana (a grape of Greek origin also used for oak-aged white Rioja), Pedro Ximénez (used in Sherry), some Chardonnay and Verdil, a promising grape according to John Radford in his The New Spain.

In terms of red varieties, Garnacha Tinto and Bobal are used in rosados with Monastrell being the main red.

Most wine drinkers know Monastrell as Mourvedre in France and Mataro in Australia, this grape is either made into a varietal wine or a blend with Tempranillo and the international variety, Cabernet Sauvignon in southern Spain. These wines are worth seeking out as they offer connoisseurs more quality. However, because of the incredible heat which contributes to immensely juice grapes, these wines are rarely aged and better off drunk young. Monastrell has been quite popular with Robert Parker's Wine Advocate, many Jumilla and Yecla wines gaining 90+ points. 


In Spain, La Mancha is considered the first 'scorcher' (i.e. hot climate) DO in Spain followed closely by Utiel-Requena.

Bobal makes up 80% of the vineyards with Tempranillo and Garnacha making up the rest. Some wines are fermented here then shipped east and bottled under the Valencia DO.

There are some amazingly rich reds grown in the region made in the doble pasta style. Basically, the grapes are crushed as they normally are then “the wine is run off and another consignment of crushed grapes is put into the same vessel on top of the previous skins and pulp” (The New Spain). The Result: a wine with big power and mucho, mucho colour.

This DO shares the heat of the south and the vines are trained low to the ground. The wines here have traditionally between sweeter-styles but there are emerging pockets of fine red wine producers coming onto the scene with Monastrell leading the pack. The reds I’ve tried from Alicante have tended to be incredibly fruity, packed with a delicious, deep ruby punch of dark cherry. They are rarely expensive and easy to consume. If you can serve these wines slightly chilled to bring out the flavor.

When the Moors conquered the majority of Spain in the 8th century, they brought not only their culture but agriculture. They were able to provide irrigation to the seething hot south. This is the land where a vast majority of our citrus fruits were first introduced to Spain: oranges, bananas and lemons.

Nowadays, you’ll find the Moorish influence has not waned by no means – Mursia (from the Arabic Mursiyah) has become the canning centre of Spain, with apricots and peaches being the main fruits.

Surrounding Mursia in a fan like spread are Bullas, Jumilla and Yecla.
Bullas grows 95% Monastrell with a small amount of Tempranillo and Garnacha. The town itself has a diverse past beginning with the Romans and seeing itself as heavily fortified castle under the Moorish Caliph, Abd-Al Rahman. Finally, during the reconquesta it fell into the hands of King Alfonso the Sage providing protection to the neighboring towns and villages.

Jumilla was largely a bulk wine region, selling everything, satisfying the market. So what happened? Well, in 1989, Phylloxera (that nasty little aphid known for eating European vine rootstocks) showed up a hundred years late. Production plummeted to one-third of what it had previously churned out. The region eventually recovered with winemakers starting over, moving forward, ready with a new approach. Research by the local Oenological Station believed that Monastrell could perform better here.

Yecla is a small inland enclave centered around the town of Yecla in the province of Murcia. It is the only DO in Spain to have the distinction of containing but a single municipality.

The vineyards are situated on gentle hillsides at altitudes of 400-800 metres, surrounded by even higher hills and mountains, providing some excellent views. Archaeological investigation has revealed that wine has been made in the area for nearly 2000 years, most likely by the Phoenicians then the Romans.

This wines in this region are relatively young and fruity. Years ago, Yecla supplied wine for bulk blending and export and for a time, fortified wines. It is a region that is finding its own, producing styles that are extremely appealing to new wine drinkers.

Crow, John Armstrong, Spain: The Root and The Flower, Berkley, University of
California Press, 1985.
Davidson, Alan (ed). Oxford Companion to Food. Oxford University Press: Oxford, 1999.
Grigson, Jane (ed). World Atlas of Food,Mitchell Beaszley:London 1974
Jeff, Julian, The Wines of Spain. Mitchell Beazley, London, 2006.
Radford, John, The New Spain. Mitchell Beazley, London, 2007.


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My focus is mainly on wine culture, history and education. I love the stories behind wine - the people, places and the regional personalities of the wine-countries around the world.

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