Tasting room at the Zunfthaus zur Saffran in Zurich

Utiel-Requena: Bobal Steps Out of Bulk Wine’s Shadow

Utiel-Requena: Bobal Steps out of the Shadow of Bulk Wine

The scene: southeast Spain, near to the Mediterranean

A scant 70 kilometres (as the crow flies) from the heaving beaches and ancient attractions of València lies the comparatively quiet hinterland home of Utiel-Requena, one of Spain’s Denominación de Origen (DO) wine areas.

You may not have heard of it, seeing as how it does not yet have the prestige of Priorat nor the renown of Rioja, but Utiel-Requena (named for two of the villages that are permitted to make wines for the DO) is an historically very significant part of the Spanish wine landscape, with a native grape variety that is starting to make waves for more than just grape concentrate: Bobal.

Bobal

Freshly harvested Bobal grapes
Bobal grapes – image courtesy of Alfonso Calza and the Consejo Regulador de la Denominación de Origen Utiel-Requena

Believe it or not, Bobal is currently Spain’s second most-planted red grape variety after Tempranillo. I say “believe it or not” because, personally, I was quite surprised, since I felt that most likely Garnacha or even Monastrell would have had that honour (those two grapes are in 3rd and 4th position, respectively). Even Spanish versions of world travellers like Syrah or Cabernet Sauvignon find their way into my glass more often than Bobal.

But I shouldn’t have been surprised. Bobal is a very dark-skinned variety, producing, logically, very dark wines. As such, it enjoys the ignominious pleasure of being employed for the production both of lakes of bulk wine and grape concentrate, which is used to enrich the colour and other qualities of insipid wines made in other countries. These are not characteristics on which a famous wine region builds its reputation.

But Bobal is More than just Colour and Bulk Wine.

Already full of deep, velvety red fruit and fine tannin, if planted at higher elevations the grape can also deliver fresh acidity – something that is by no means a given in such a warm region. Beyond these happy qualities, the grape also reaches lower levels of sugar – and, therefore, lower alcohol – than, for example, Monastrell. Winning qualities, indeed.

The grape has a large bunch and tight cluster, which means that the grapes tend not to ripen evenly. This, in turn, means that the wines can be a bit rustic if insufficient attention is given to ripening in the vineyards. But well-tended vines produce smooth, appealing wines. Rosado (rosé) versions of the grape are both increasingly important and delightfully drinkable, with their enjoyable red fruit and approachability.

Bobal has a long history, clocking in at around 500 years of age. Almost uniquely among vitis vinifera (the species of vine from which all of our fine wine grapes come), Bobal is quite resistant to phylloxera. This single quality, in the 19th century as that vine plague devastated the vineyards of Europe, helped regions like Utiel-Requena to establish themselves as winemaking powerhouses.

But Wait, There’s More!

Bobal belongs to a select group of vines that just might be able to carry humanity’s vinous needs into the future. As the climate changes, winegrowing regions are becoming increasingly warm and water resources increasingly scarce. Grapes that ripen in high heat and with lots of sun tend, also, to reach high levels of sugar and low acidity. Bobal, as I mentioned, is already well-equipped to cope with those two issues.

But Bobal is also very drought-resistant. The parts of Spain where Bobal is found – okay, MOST of Spain, actually – regularly and notoriously suffer from droughts. Rainfall is low, waterways are scarce. And Bobal – bush-trained, non-irrigated and hardy – has already long since adapted to these conditions. For the rest of the world with an eye towards heat tolerance and drought resistance, it is a variety with enormous potential.

In Spain, Bobal is permitted in four different DOs: Valencia, Manchuela, Ribera del Júcar and, of course, Utiel-Requena

Utiel-Requena

Rich in history, peppered with medieval towns and surrounded by highlands and wild areas, DO Utiel-Requena even boasts a winemaking tradition going back thousands of years. Yes, thousands.

The region was granted its DO in 1957, followed shortly thereafter by the creation of its first cooperative cellar (1965). Named for two villages, there are actually nine in the DO that can make wine: Caudete de las Fuentes, Camporrobles, Fuenterrobles, Requena, Siete Aguas, Sinarcas, Utiel, Venta del Moro and Villargordo del Cabriel. Currently, there are over 100 wineries and thousands of growers in the DO.

Utiel-Requena has 34 000 hectares under vine. Although there are plenty of other indigenous and traditional Spanish grapes, as well as international varieties, over 23 000 of those hectares are Bobal, accounting for 72% of the vineyard surface. Over 50% of those Bobal vines are considered “Old Vines”, being over 40 years of age, with a considerable amount of them in excess of 70 years old. That means that even I, with my somewhat caustic opinions about “Old Vines”, have to admit that they are pretty old.

The soils are generally lime-rich, relatively loose and friable – and quite poor in organic material. These are conditions that many viticulturalists will tell you are very positive for the vine. What’s more, the whole region is basically a slope, with vineyard elevations starting at around 600 metres and going up to 900 metres above sea level (towards La Mancha).

There is hardly a region of Spain where the weather is more extreme than in Utiel-Requena. If you are a sun-worshipper, you would be well-served to come here and profit from the 2800 sunlight hours annually that bathe this part of Spain. Located in the climatic transition zone between the blistering summer heat and continental influence found on the inland high plateau of neighbouring La Mancha (source of oceans of wine) and the Mediterranean moderation of the coast, the DO reaches 40°C in the summer – but drops to -10°C in winter. Regular hailstorms pummel the vineyards. Rainfall is extremely low at 450 mm per year – and when it comes, it comes as part of dramatic weather events.

It isn’t ALL Bobal

In spite of all my talk of Bobal – and certainly, it is the most important and most planted grape by far – there are many other varieties that can be found in Utiel-Requena. Tempranillo is, perhaps unsurprisingly, one of the most significant of the indigenous Spanish grapes – and it can be truly lovely here as well! Even more interesting for me, however, is Macabeo, which is the principle grape used for whites – and, in my opinion, is far more interesting than what is being done with international varieties.

The Tasting

Tasting room at the Zunfthaus zur Saffran in Zurich
The Zunfthaus zur Saffran had a lovely room for the tasting.

Okay, unfortunately I wasn’t in Utiel-Requena to taste. But Utiel-Requena came to the Zunfthaus zur Saffran in Zurich to showcase wines and producers from all over the region and from all levels of the quality pyramid. The wines were generally very clean and straightforward, sometimes with an overabundance of oak barrels for ageing, but the quality was quite good, overall.

Großer Zunftsaal in the Zunfthaus zur Saffran in Zurich
… in the “Großer Zunftsaal” (Large Guildhall) no less…

The Producers

There was much to enjoy, but here are a few of the standouts.

Bodegas Proexa (Venta del Moro)

This producer’s collection was one of the highlights of the tasting for me. They’ve been organic for 22 years, and the focus here is on Tempranillo – but of course there is Bobal in the program as well. The wines were very well-made across the board, without a hint of defects or off aromas, and the export prices were very good. They have 40 hectares of vines, 15 of them Bobal.

  • Vega Valterra Bobal Selección 2017 – their unsulphured entry-level Bobal was fruity, smooth, clean and delicious – but not lacking in structure. Lively and fresh, without a hint of heaviness, which I often find in successful sulphur-free wines. What a delight!
  • Aldabones 2015 (Tempranillo) – this was simply beautiful. The wine spent 14 months in French oak barrels, but the wood was in no way overdone. Intense and concentrated, yet with wonderful balance of flavour, acidity and tannin. Full of ripe berry fruit, long and with a sophisticated finish.
  • Vega Valterra Crianza 2013 (Tempranillo) – spent six months in French oak barrels. Superb concentration and berry fruit, very reminiscent of a good Toro but without being over-extracted and heavy. Lighter, fine, supple tannin and a lovely finish.

Dagón Bodegas (Los Marcos) 

Miguel Jesús Márquez presents his wines in Zurich.
Miguel Jesús Márquez presents his wines in Zurich.

Miguel Jesús Márquez thinks so far outside of the box that he’s in a different warehouse. The estate was begun in 1990, the man himself learned his craft in the French Jura before returning to the family vineyards and beginning to create the wines that inspire him.

Macabeo, Bobal and Tempranillo were all on hand – but the wines were completely unsulphured and most had been aged for years in barriques. The wines were generally oxidative (note: not oxidised, necessarily) and completely, totally different than anything else at the tasting – and most of them are late-harvest, so they were not dry. The wines presented went back as far as 2002, and in some cases the current vintage was already more than ten years old. Macabeo was the star, and wow, did it shine! Theses wines in particular often had significant residual sugar, oxidative notes – and alcohol up to 16% abv. But this was natural alcohol, apparently, and no spirit was added (like in fortified wine production). The wines were an incomparable experience.

Vines here range from 70 to 100 years old, and there are 30 hectares under vine. Production is completely organic. In fact, the estate is a member of Spain’s “natural wine” association: Asociación de Productores de Vinos Naturales.

  • Bibiss (Vintages 2016, 2013, 2004) (Macabeu) – these were astonishing wines. Honeyed and quite floral, with refreshing orange zest and spice as they aged. Quite sweet as a result of the very late harvest, they nevertheless manage to also have quite high alcohol – 16% abv, on average – but they carry it without a problem. Fascinating and mysterious.
  • Dagon 2004 (Bobal) – the second-oldest vintage of Bobal I’ve tried to date, the wine was full of toffee and cinnamon, roasted hazelnut and honey. Full, long and intriguing, with plenty of colour.

Vera de Estenes (Utiel)

Though the estate has been run by the family for generations, it wasn’t until 1981 that the focus shifted from bulk wines to an emphasis on quality estate bottling. There are plenty of international varieties, but there is also fine Bobal and Macabeu. Their 45 hectares are tended “ecologically”, with vines up to 100 years old. And Felix Martinez Roda – current head of the estate and heir of the founding family – had two(!) of my favourite Bobal wines from the entire tasting.

  • El Bobal de Estenas 2016 (Bobal) – this wine spent four months in amphora instead of barrels or steel tanks. Beautifully smooth and fine tannins, with lots of red berry fruit and a very good length. This is not a fruit bomb, but an elegant, fine wine that shows how aspects of tradition can craft wines for the future. Absolutely clean.
  • Casa Don Angel Tinto 2014 (Bobal) – my favourite Bobal of the entire day, coming from the oldest vines on the property. It spends 18 months in French oak barrels, and shows wonderful, spicy depth, fullness and fine, dark fruit. Balance is exquisite, and it has plenty of length. Exuberant where it needs to be, but elegance is the byword.

Visit the website for the DO Utiel-Requena here!

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