Spain, Calatayud and Manga del Brujo

May 21, 2010

Why do strong men fatigue themselves with dumbbells?
To dig a vineyard is a worthier exercise.
- Marcus Valerius Martialis (Martial) (40 AD - 103 AD)
Spain is a fascinating country. A 19th century travel writer once described it as a 'bundle of units tied together by a rope of sand'. Even if we look at Spain's history, we see how true this statement is.

Ancient settlers, many of whom came from the continent of Africa to Europe once called the country Iberia for its many rivers. 

The Greeks who arrived shortly thereafter named this arid land of solemn deserts, rugged, white mountains and wilderness, Hesperus,  or 'the land of the sunsets'. For the many men and women in the centuries of Homer, Hesiod, Pindar and Plato, the country we know as Spain was once the western border of the known world.

The Carthaginians saw it differently. While exploring this beautiful country of sunsets, they found it inhabited with numerous rabbits so they called it Espana - their word for our furry, carrot crunching  friend. The Romans followed fast - they came, saw and conquered (you know the deal) and took from their defeated enemies this particular name and since then, Espana or Spain has stayed with us. 

So really, after the rivers and the sunsets, the bunny rabbits won out. But not for long...

With the fall of Rome, the Visigoths had their day in the sun and in the region of Spain, the remaining Roman legions simply could not defend the land against the stronger invading barbarians.

The conquerors, however were conquered themselves. 

There is a fascinating legend that one Visigoth king ignored a certain ritual of his predecessors. For many years, a tower was routinely locked. Seven kings had successively put seven locks on the tower door.  The eighth king, Roderick, decided to satisfy his curiosity. He had the locks broken and the door opened. What he found proved surprising.

On the inside walls of the tower were pictures of marauding horseman with strange swords. In the centre of the room, a golden vase with a scroll. The scroll simply read that whosoever broke the locks of the tower would be destroyed by the men depicted on the surroundings walls.

In 711 B.C. a man named al-Tariq lead a vast force of 7000 men across the Strait separating Spain from Africa. The man would lend his name to the rock - Gibralatar or mountain (gebel) of Tariq.

Roderick was defeated in 712. 

For nearly 800 years, the region of Spain and especially south Spain would be known as al-Andalus or 'Land of the Vandals' (i.e. Visigoths). 

The majority of southern Spanish architecture was heavily inspired by the Moorish invaders. The Spanish language too was shaped by the Arabic and for us English speakers, the influence trickles down. Alcove, alabaster, alchemy, alcohol - all come from the Arabic.

In terms of wine, the Moors of al-Anadalus were relatively lax. They allowed the conquered Christians to grow grapes. In those days, the Eucharist was a fundamental ritual in the church. Fun-loving Muslims would  often visit these houses of God the way modern wine drinkers today visit a wine bar.They didn't so much partake of the Eucharist but joyfully sample the goods grown in the vineyards.

If that doesn't suggest their easy relationship with wine one can look at the poetry of the time which is laden with wine references. 

After the Moors came the Christians or really a disjointed but... unified band of Christians. Between 711 and 1492 we find a lot of internal strife and struggle in Muslim Spain. As I mentioned, there was a laxness with the ruling Moors. Those followers of Islam in Africa that objected to the artistic and sometimes decadent culture of Al-Anadalus tried to rectify the situation by crossing over Gibralatar and taking over. There were numerous conflicts of rule within the different factions and the small but determined Christian tribes of the wet north found ways of taking advantage, gaining strength in numbers and pitting their enemies against each other.

In the 15th century, the last of the Moors were ousted from rule and new Spanish leaders took over.  

Speaking of the 15th century, it was apparently the architecture of this time that the winemakers of an excellent Calatayud wine, Manga del Brujo are paying homage to.

Before I go any further, I have to mention that Calatayud is located in north-eastern Spain. It is approximately 100km south of Rioja and is known for its fairly high terrain (800 metres above sea level). The countryside is planted with fruit trees (many of which are peach) and vineyards. Of the wine grapes grown, Garnacha is the mainstay taking up 65% of the vineyard. The vines are low-yielding and old vine. Tempranillo, Syrah and Monastrell are also present but don't command the same space and attention.  

In the time of the Romans, the region boasted a thriving population and acted as a staging post for the legions. The sardonic and sarcastic epigramist Martial was born here. 

But we actually get the name Calatayud from the Moors. It is a corruption of Qualat Ayub or Castle of Ayub (Job). 

So you see how it all comes together...

I love history and I love how it can interweave through our drinking experience. It is one thing to appreciate a wine on the sensory level, I find it more thrilling to take the tasting to a new level by looking at the world it hails from. 

I also love how the winemaker is honoring the history of the region.  The old world, the old buildings, and the old vines all coming together. The wine has a weight, a density that may have inspired winemaker Norrel Robertson MW to find a co-relation with the buildings of Papa Luna. 

The Garnacha used for this wine lends a robust, dark fruit component. I also find a lovely brown-sugar, tobacco compote element on the palate with hints of black pepper. 

The wine is definitely rich, lush and seductive and at $15.95 in your Vintages section at the LCBO, it will become a highlight for dinner conversation.

And if you can bring up the history and connect it the dark liquid in your glass - well, all the better.

Crow, John Armstrong, Spain: The Root and The Flower, Berkley, University of
California Press, 1985.
Johnston, Hugh, The Story of Wine. Mitchell Beazley, London, 2004.
Jeff, Julian, The Wines of Spain. Mitchell Beazley, London, 2006.
Radford, John, The New Spain. Mitchell Beazley, London, 2007.



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About This Blog

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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