If I ask you to think about Valencia, you'll probably think of one of 3 things: Paella (the rice dish which originated here), FC Valencia (who were trounced 3-0 by Swansea City in football's Europa League last week) or, if you're a culture vulture, Las Fallas, the local fire festival where giant effigies are burned every March, accompanied by spectacular firework displays and general Spanish merriment. Wine probably doesn't feature very highly on your list of all things Valencian, but, it's time for you to change that...
Wine making in the area stretches back for centuries, with Alicante's specialty, Fondillón, being the star of the world's sweet wine show back in the 19th Century, commanding prices of triple those of vintage Port. Phylloxera (a vine pest) hit and now this unfortified, semi-sweet, and high in alcohol Monastrell-based wine is much harder to come by. It's rarely mentioned among Spain's other world famous or iconic wines. Sadly, we didn't get to try any. We never once saw it on a wine list, but perhaps if you visit Alicante you'll find it easier to access. Fear not though, the wines of this region are much more than just historical relics.
I recently tried the 2005 Sanfir again at Meson Don Felipe and was stunned by just how good it is for the money. And it's available by the glass, making is just right for a pre-theatre tipple if you're ever at The Old Vic.
Sadly, I couldn't find any Sanfir to bring back on my recent visit, though I believe that the 2003 vintage can be purchased online or in store from Flagship Wines in St Albans for £12.25 a bottle.
You may never have heard of Bobal, let alone sampled it, but the good news is, that this grape, which makes its home in DO Utiel-Requena is becoming more available in the UK, from stockists like Marks and Spencer (the Las Falleras is around £5 a bottle), Virgin Wines and even Morrison's.
Around 80% of plantings in Utiel-Requena are Bobal, though other grapes such as Tempranillo, Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon and Garnacha are also found here. These other varieties may be blended together or blended with Bobal, perhaps to give it a name that more customers will recognise, or to provide a flavour or structural dimension which the wine maker is seeking. This DO has one of the harshest climates in Spanish winemaking, with baking hot, drought-ridden summers, and hail storms, frost and temperatures as low as -10 celcius in the winter. It's situated about 70km from the Mediterranean and at an altitude of at least 700m. Luckily, the Bobal grape is well adapted to this kind of climate and the bud burst comes later than with other varieties, protecting it from spring frosts.
On the Purple Teeth index, this grape will certainly let your dentist or your date know you've been drinking it, so keep your whitening toothpaste handy. It provides a full bodied wine, with good flavour complexity, intense colour and a good tannin structure making it suitable for extended aging. The Consejo Regulador of the region also indicates that the Bobal grape skin contains unusually high levels of reservatrol, one of the reputedly "healthy" parts of red wine, with much-touted heart benefits as well as anti-carcinogenic properties. So, if you need an excuse to try a new grape variety, now you can choose health!
As a sacrifice to you, our readers, we made the effort to drink wine by the bottle just to give you a greater insight. No need to thank us, it was our pleasure!
First among the pure Bobals was Membrillera. To be fair to this wine, it followed an afternoon aperitif of Fino sherry, which became several glasses of sherry, and was followed up by a local sweet wine. So, to say it's not memorable may be no reflection on the wine. We also drank it with some of the foods least likely to match a Bobal out there, including Foie Gras mi-cuit served with violet and rose jellies, a mango, avocado and smoked cod salad, and a goat cheese, walnut and spinach salad. I told you there was more to the food here than just paella!
All that aside, we did drink and enjoy the wine, though after realising we weren't giving it a fair tasting, we ordered a plate of Manchego cheese to do it justice. It's aged for 5 months in oak, and comes from 35 year old vines, so it's pretty robust and has a level of fruitiness as well as hints of oak. In Spain, the retail price is around €6.50 so it was nice to see that restaurants aren't going crazy with their wine mark ups with decent wines like this for around €13 a bottle. In fact, the wine prices in bars and restaurants were pretty favourable, and have held their value, whereas the food prices for "tapas" have escalated. In reality, the dishes aren't really tapas sized portions though, they're definitely sharing plates, so be careful of over-ordering... we did this several time!
The Pasíon de Bobal had a better chance of success. We ordered appropriate foods (including an amazing black pudding in filo with chocolate!) and we hadn't killed our palates quite so much with other drinks. This wine inspired Mr Purple Teeth to agree that perhaps we should look at importing and selling it for the Christmas market. However, Virgin Wines got their before us, and I'm not surprised as this little gem is organically farmed and also benefits from malo-lactic fermentation to soften the acids, as well as 6 months in French oak. Black fruits, vanilla, nutmeg and very pleasant drinking again reinforced that Spain's 3rd most planted grape* should not be so little known in the UK.
We finally found an interesting little wine bar TintoFino Ultramarino which stocked many wines by the glass, including the Bobal de San Jaun (which theoretically should be available in the UK as it's stocked by trade suppliers Bibendum). This was an unusual place in that it also stocked and sold by the glass several Italian and even Chilean wines. The food was pretty great too! I enjoyed the red fruits, violet and spice in this one, while Mr Purple Teeth enjoyed a 50% blend with Cabernet Sauvignon even more. Once a Cabernet fan, always a Cabernet fan...
Moving away from the Bobals, Hoya de Cadenas Reserva was an attempt to relive my first ever holiday with Mr Purple Teeth. It's a Tempranillo/Cabernet Sauvignon blend with good acidity and fruity flavours, which, even though it's a Reserva, shine through above the oak aging. Some 10 years ago, I dragged my then new boyfriend to Rioja and he dragged me to Right Bank Bordeaux as we tried to convince each other about the merits of these regions' most famous grapes. If only we'd tried this blend then, we might have saved a fortune... Amazingly, this wine is on sale for just £4.99 at www.wineonlineforyou.com along with several Bobals, a Bobal rosé and a Hoya de Cadenas Verdejo for under £4! with free shipping on a 12 bottle order, this seems a wee bit too good to be true - especially if you're a fan of Spanish wine. I've not tried them myself, but if you have, do let me know. Finally, the Juan Gil Silver label (12 meses) we reviewed earlier this year, accompanied an impromptu tasting menu with such delightful dishes as Oxtail, Beef Cheeks and Scallop with Coffee Beans. What a find! The menu was less than 20€ and the Monastrell based wine was delightful as expected. If you happen to go to Valencia, then La Pitanza is worth a try if you're open to something different.
We drank Verdejo by the glass frequently, and when we went for fish based meals, we ordered my favourite fish accompaniment, Albariño, from Rias Baixas in far west of Celtic Spain. By far and away the best one, filled with peach and apricot flavours alongside great minerality, was the Pazo de Villarei. I've not managed to track down a local supplier.
On our last day, and at a beach-side fish restaurant, I finally found a wine list with decent local white wines and got to sample a DO Valencia wine, Brote. This is a 50/50 blend of Viognier and a local grape variety I'd never tried before, called Verdil. They did have a 100% Verdil, but I wasn't brave enough to risk a poor match for my grilled monkfish. Perhaps I should have. Verdil seems to be a grape that's all but dying out and if this Brote is anything to go by, that's sad. It shares with Viognier a pleasing viscosity, providing a lovely mouthfeel. Here the flavours were of white peach, elderflower, along with good minerality. It was a delight to try something new. There are only 50 hectares of this grape variety left, so if maintaining small varieties means anything to you, I urge you to seek this out and give it a try. This should be possible if you live near an Oddbins store or buy from them online. They have one for £8.25 a bottle and liken it to a Sauvignon Blanc but with more pineapple, herbiness and sexy individuality. Sound tempting? I'll be giving it a go.
I'd never heard of Mistela before, but reading up on it, it appears that I've drunk a French one before: Pineau des Charentes. Essentially, Mistela is a blend of unfermented grape juice (in this case from Moscatel) and distilled alcohol, which prevents the fermentation of the grape juice into a traditional wine. This differs from more traditional sweet muscats or Vins Doux Naturels where the grape must is allowed to partially ferment before adding the fortifying spirit. If you fancy trying one, Naked Wines have a 50cl bottle on offer at £7.49 for Angels. That's quite expensive compared to prices in Spain, but then, what price the airfare?! And everything seems expensive when you've been drinking it free. In this photo, the restaurant actually brought the bottle with the glasses to the table and allowed us to serve ourselves till they came to collect our cash. It's clearly not a premium drink, but it's fun, and a little taste of the Valencian sunshine.
We had an amazing week drinking our way round the wines of Valencia, and soaking up sweet September sunshine. Despite the night when we had to endure Swansea fans serenading us with their rendition of Tom Jones' Delilah, I'd recommend Valencia as a city break or week long destination. The food market is one of the biggest in Europe and there are plenty more local delicacies to try than just the wine, including Horchata, a strange milky looking drink made from water, sugar and the Chufa (or Tiger) nut, Agua de Valencia a kind of Buck's Fizz/Mimosa concoction of Cava, Orange Juice, vodka and gin. The tapas were a cut above what I've tasted in many other Spanish cities with far more on offer than the usual tortilla, chorizo and gambas. I think we'll be back, and next time, hopefully we'll try to visit the wineries!