In 2013 Adela Mena presented a dissertation about minority grape varieties in Castilla-La Mancha. She started quoting Virgil: “There is such a significant number of grape varieties as sand grains in the Libyan desert.” But the inspiring metaphor stands in contrast with the stark reality. “The wine heritage of Castilla-La Mancha is relatively unknown and shows a downward trend,” Mora noted after delving into the figures. Her work has led to identify some unknown grapes and to shed light on several offspring relationships (Moravia Dulce and Tempranillo, for instance, have turned out to be progenitors of other local grapes). The 32 varieties that she fully described are now part of Castilla-La Mancha’s vine germ plasm bank.
The dissertation culminates the work started in 2004 by IVICAM (Castilla-La Mancha’s Institute of Vine and Wine) to track old vineyards and identify and recover the region’s vine heritage. Some of their findings have been added to Spain's Register of Commercial Vine Varieties. According to Jesús Martínez Gascueña, researcher at IVICAM, who kindly submitted plenty of data for this article, the latest varieties to enter the register are Churriago, Moribel, Albillo/a Dorado/a, Mizancho, Tinto Fragoso, Montonera del Casar, Blanca del Tollo, Pintada, Azargón and Jarrosuelto. Three of them, Moribel, Albilla and Tinto Fragoso, are now authorised to be planted in Castilla-La Mancha. Other less exotic varieties, which are grown in the region to a certain extent, remain virtually unknown for consumers. This is the case of Malvar (118 hectáreas), Moravia Agria (179 ha), Moravia Dulce (1,155 ha), Tinto Velasco (1,315 ha), Tinto de la Pámpana Blanca (7,147 ha), Pardillo or Marisancho (1,502 ha), or Verdoncho (1.589 hectares)*.
But things could start to change thanks to a handful of small producers committed to their vine heritage and set on finding suitable varieties to fight climate change. Their initiative might be drop in the ocean of wine of this region, but their efforts deserve recognition.
Two of the most active growers are Bodegas Recuero in Villanueva de Alcardete (Toledo) and Bodegas Toledo & Ajenjo (aka Garage Wine), a new producer in Quintanar de la Orden nearby. Both are small havens surrounded by large cooperatives.
For Jesús M. Recuero, varietal wines are the easiest way to work freely, particularly when, as it is his case, geographic indications are avoided –he only certifies vintages and grape varieties. Called Calambur, his natural range of wines includes whites made with Airén, Malvar, Pardillo and Verdoncho and reds made with Moravia and Tinto Velasco as well as a Moravia Clarete rosé. But not all of them are produced every year. Wines are usually fermented in the region’s traditional concrete tinajas and reds are usually aged fully or partially in barrels. Clay vessels are gradually being introduced.
Moravia, which is frequently called Brujidera in the area, stands out among the reds and shows more structure and grip than the lighter Tinto Velasco. Grapes are sourced from a plot planted in the 1970s in the Gigüela valley by a local producer because this was the wine he liked to drink at home. With around 5,000 bottles, this is Recuero’s most widely available cuvée. The 2016 vintage (around €12 in Spain) is expressive and fragrant with fresh herbal notes. Balanced and tasty, it has good acidity and a pleasant finish.
The finest white is probably his Airén, albeit not a minority variety. Aged under lees and set to be released at the end of the summer, the 2018 vintage displays the kind of complexity and presence to make wine lovers look at this grape with new eyes. The 2018 Malvar and Pardillo are a good introduction to each of these varieties. Verdoncho was last produced in the 2015 vintage.
Garage Wine is run by two cousins, each with their own clearly defined roles. Jesús Toledo, the fifth generation of farmers, is the man behind the wine, and consultant Julián Ajenjo is the no-nonsense guy crunching the numbers. They started out in a garage with barely two tanks, two barrels, a destemmer and a crusher to produce their first 500 bottles in the 2015 vintage. In 2016 they made their first Brujidera (Moravia Dulce) to which they refer fondly as "La Mancha pinot". Grapes are sourced from the only Moravia vineyard left in the village, mistakenly thought to be Garnacha. Hadn't they taken care of this and other old plots, they would have likely been uprooted.
With almost 9,000 bottles produced in 2019, the range has expanded to include eight varietal wines, all of which are also single-vineyard wines as shown on the labels. While they have decided to restrain yields to a maximum of 4,000 kg per variety, they are decidedly committed to have new plantings such as their one hectare of Albilla and an experimental vineyard planted to Tinto Fragoso, Malvar and Moscatel Serrano, a grape with high acidity resulting from the cross of Beba and Moscatel de Alejandría, planted with cuttings supplied by IVICAM. Another variety with high acidity that they may use in the future is Blanca del Tollo.
Even if Brujidera is their best-known wine (the fresh and tasty 2019 vintage costs around €18 in Spain), I found the peppery and energetic Tinto Velasco 2019 (€14) outstanding. Verdoncho was the white star -what a pity that they only produced 600 bottles! This variety with high acidity, low alcohol and herbal character is the last one to be harvested. It was made as an orange wine with 60 days of skin contact, something impossible to tell by its colour. It has the structure and the expected wild twist but surprisingly, it feels delicate with elegant bitter nuances on the finish. The Airén is pretty good too and they really want to put an end to its poor reputation. It comes from a vineyard planted in 1940 by their great-grandparents on chalky soils, a feature which really defines the wine. Garage Wine might be the only winery to bottle Tinto de la Pámpana Blanca, a likely mutation of Tinto Velasco with downy leaves. Unfortunately, I couldn’t taste it because it is sold out.
In tune with the trends of the 1990s, Arrayán started working with international grapes but moved later to Gredos in order to produce Garnacha and Albillo Real. Changes have been driven by Maite Sánchez, the restless winemaker who is now happy exploring the potential of eight grapes regrafted in a one-hectare vineyard with plant material provided by IVICAM. Since 2017, and in partnership with Pilar Baeza, professor of viticulture at Universidad Politécnica de Madrid, they are conducting a study to assess the agronomic performance of these varieties. "We have looked for late ripening varieties with distinctive acidity", says Maite. The list includes several Garnachas (Blanca, Gris and Peluda); grapes traditionally associated to Castilla y León like Bruñal and Rufete, of which isolated plants were also found in Castilla-La Mancha; and others that are indigenous to this region such as Moravia Agria and Mizancho. Graciano, chosen for its acidity, is also part of the study together with some rows of Merlot used for comparative purposes. Some of the first experimental wines are now available on the winery's website.
I had the chance to compare bottled wines from the 2018 vintage with barrel samples from 2019. The 2019 Rufete, fermented with 30% whole clusters, was light and gentle with herbal and red berry aromas. Earthy, more complex and structured, Bruñal was almost the opposite, yet it felt less tannic than in Arribes, its flagship area in Spain close to the Portuguese border. It is hard to believe that both wines share similar analytical data. In the case of Moravia Agria, 2018 outperformed 2019. Yields were higher in 2018 and the acidity was better integrated in contrast with the sharp, almost citrusy notes of the 2019 that revealed the rusticity of its tannins. The Garnacha Peluda (Garnacha with downy leaves) was so unusually light that Sánchez is considering to make a rosé this year.
Red wines are fermented in small plastic tanks, then aged in seasoned barrels (all were seamless and not at all marked by the oak). Whites also spend some time in oak but can be either directly pressed or undergo a brief skin maceration. The Mizancho stood out for is unctuous palate, with white fruit and chalky notes on the finish. The Garnacha Blanca was fresh, reflecting the earlier harvest date. It works much better blended with 40% of Garnacha Gris in the new, complex Arroyo de Arrayán 2018, an interesting new addition to Arrayán’s range. Another wine that is commercially available is the moreish Graciano (€14.40 €, 1,356 bottles) with good acidity and structure. It can be bought at Lavinia, as it has been exclusively produced for this Madrid wine retailer.
Arrayán is not the only producer interested in late ripening, high acidity grapes that are now common in other areas of the country. In Tomelloso (Ciudad Real), the young winemaker Elías López Montero is successfully working with Graciano, Garnacha and Mazuela (Cariñena) at Verum where he also produces a vibrant, peppery Tinto Velasco and is successfully establishing new quality standards for Airén with the mineral single-vineyard Las Tinadas.
To the west of Castilla-La Mancha, in Cuenca, Ponce has been working for some years now with the white Albilla (Albilla Dorada, according to IVICAM) and a red blend of Moravia Agria with a small amount of Garnacha. Both carry the seal of DO Manchuela. In the same appellation, Bodegas El Molar had previously vinified Moravia Agria as red and rosé, but it has now decided to make the most of the grape’s distinctive high acidity to produce a pet-nat rosé. The name, Moravia La Bella (Beautiful Moravia) highlights the fact that a feature (acidity) that may be difficult to handle can actually turn to be a virtue.
Further east, in Casas Ibáñez, Bodegas Gratias has turned the recovery of indigenous grapes such as Tardana and Pintaíllo into an essential part of its philosophy. Its original approach includes crowdfunding campaigns to develop multi-varietal blends under the brand “¿Y tú de quién eres?” (Who do you belong too?) both in white and red. The Pintaíllo (painted) has distinctive spots on the skin, hence the name. They have bottled it separately as "@". Made in demijohns, the wine is light and earthy, a perfect vin de soif.
In the province of Castilla-La Mancha with less surface under vine, Finca Río Negro has happily assumed the challenge to grow Tinto Fragoso after two plants of this rare variety were found in Cogolludo, the village where the winery is located. Over recent years, they tried to recover the winemaking tradition of this area, perched at an elevation of over 1,000 metres, by focusing on Tempranillo and international grapes. Now Tinto Fragoso has been regrafted on vineyard formerly planted to Gewürztraminer and they will pick their third harvest this year. A small trial was done in 2019, but this year they expect to be able to produce a larger amount and even age the wine in barrel. According to manager Fernando Fuentes, Tinto Fragoso is perfect to balance the pH. “This is a late ripening, high acidity grape with terpenic aromas, which is unusual in reds; it is really different from all the varieties we grow,” he explains. Deep colour, loose bunches and hard skins are other distinctive features.
There are more varieties to come. “We are waiting for the official registration of Moscatel Serrano (a synonym of Muscat d’Istambul) which has been under consideration for five years now. And we have started the process for other three promising varieties: Castellana Blanca (a progenitor of Verdejo), Sanguina and Maquías. There is still a long way ahead for them,” says researcher Jesús Martínez Gascueña, of Castilla-La Mancha’s wine research centre. And lots of names for us wine lovers to learn.
*Surface area in 2019. Source: Ministry of Agriculture.