There's no "party line" or "house style" here at Wine Review Online, where our contributors are quite free to take issue with one another. So it shouldn't surprise you if I note that my colleague Michael Apstein holds a variety of wacky notions and tastes.
I think he's overly slanted toward European wines, and biased against young, straightforwardly fruity reds, and a bit of a dogmatist in his criticism of higher levels of ripeness and alcohol. We're good friends, and can differ without anyone's nose getting out of joint. (I should probably get less credit for this than Apstein, since it is easier for me to be magnanimous, given that I'm correct.)
Against this backdrop, you may perhaps attribute more significance to a strong convergence of opinion when we arrive at one. Which we have: I wholeheartedly endorse Apstein's views on the remarkable Spanish wines of Jumilla, Yecla and Bullas in his column, "The Mystery and Magic of Murcia" from last week's issue of WRO (which you can access--like all archived articles published on this site--by clicking on the "Wine Articles" tab atop this page and scrolling down to the regular contributor or guest columnist who wrote the piece).
The two of us spent several days interviewing vintners and tasting extensively in the three D.O. regions in September. We arrived separately, but with convergent expectations based on the look of the region as we sized it up while flying in and driving around. It is essentially a high desert, and it totally looks the part: parched and austere, it gives you the idea that this is a place where forgetting your sunscreen could be a fatal error.
By extension, our expectations of the wines were not terribly high, since both of us know from our travels that places that look baked tend to produce wines that taste cooked. And though I'm a bit more tolerant than Apstein is of hot-climate reds, that isn't saying much, considering his rather doctrinaire tendencies. We're both quite intolerant of raisiny wines with stewy flavors and a lack of freshness or definition.
Although that was the sort of wine that we feared we might encounter, that is not at all what we actually found. Sure, we tasted a few wines that were a bit too grapey or chunky for our tastes. However, the overwhelming majority of reds we tried from Bullas, Yecla and Jumilla featured terrific fruit that was ripe and deeply flavored but also pure, fresh and stylishly enlivened with acidity.
Monastrell (known as Mourvedre in France, where it is nowhere near as widely planted and, frankly, rarely as good as it gets in Spain) is the star in these D.O.s, and the old, low-yielding vines that produce fruit for the top wines appear to exist in perfect harmony with the climate and soils of the area. Apstein and I were so surprised that the wines could consistently combine power and purity that we continually asked if winemakers had artificially manipulated acidity levels (a standard technique in many hot, sunny regions). The answer, again and again, was a flat, "no, that is never necessary here."
Balanced and packed with deep, satisfying flavors, most of these wines also offer terrific value. There's little doubt that Spain, of all the countries in Europe, is sending us the best bargains in red wine, and the D.O.s around Murcia are right near the top of the Spanish pyramid in their ratio of quality to price.
The only bad news to be reported is that availability in North America is spotty from market to market. Robert Whitley reports that he sees few of these wines in retail stores in California, whereas they are widely available where I live in Washington, D.C. (and where the selection also runs quite deep at retailers like Calvert Woodly and MacArthur Beverages).
So, you may need to do a bit of searching to try these wines, but I believe they are well worth the search. Here's a baker's dozen list of top redsto get you started:
Alceño/Pedro Luis Martinez, Jumilla (Murcia, Spain) Monastrell 2005 ($12, Elite Wine Imports): Although this is designated with only Monastrell on the label, there's a full 15% or Syrah in the blend. Dark and deeply flavored, it features delicious ripe, pleasantly sweet fruit reminiscent of black plums and bing cherries, with an appealingly meaty character. 87
Alceño/Pedro Luis Martinez, Jumilla (Murcia, Spain) Crianza 'Seleccion' 2004 ($16, Wlite Eine Imports): Composed of 50% Monastrell, 40% Syrah and 10% Tempranillo, this is an impressively complex wine. The flavors are complex, with a combination of notes including fresh primary fruit, subtly toasty oak, and light spices. The texture is likewise quite interesting, as it is soft and round on entry, but shows balanced but gutsy tannins in the finish. Very well made from impressive material. 89
Alceño/Pedro Luis Martinez, Jumilla (Murcia, Spain) Syrah 2005 ($25, Elite Eine Imports): This wine is made from a blend of 85% Syrah and 15% Monastrell that exactly reverses the proportions of Alceño's varietal Monastrell. It is a bigger, more muscular wine, with deep, fleshy flavors of blueberries and blackberries backed by toasty oak. The concentrated fruit easily counterbalances any astringency from the oak, and the wine finishes with nice sweet fruit notes and well balanced tannins. 89
Casa de la Ermita, Jumilla (Murcia, Spain) Crianza 2004 ($14, Opici): A blend of 50% Monastrell, 20% Tempranillo, 20% Cabernet Sauvignon and 10% Petite Verdot, this shows very dark color and excellent concentration, yet no notes indicating any over-ripeness. Impressively complex, it shows both red and black fruit notes, with subtle accents of herbs, spices and roasted meat. Light notes of oak contribute a hint of toast and a bit of extra grip to the finish. 88
Casa de la Ermita, Jumilla (Murcia, Spain) Petit Verdot 2004 ($28, Opici): This producer has chosen a Bordeaux variety rather than the indigenous Monastrell for its flagship wine, and though I'm not enthusiastic about that in principle, I found it impossible not to be enthusiastic about the wine in practice. Made entirely from Petite Verdot, this shows lots of pigment and power, with concentrated fruit recalling black plums. There's plenty of oak influence as well, with a smoky, spicy character, and yet the wood simply supports the fruit without obscuring it. The tannins are abundant but fine in grain, and the overall impression is one of exemplary integration and balance--as well as class. 90
Casa de las Especias, Yecla (Murcia, Spain) Joven 2006 ($14, Grape Expectations): Rounded and soft in feel, but with no stewey, over-ripe notes, this shows superb purity and freshness. The dark cherry fruit notes are supported by plenty of fine-grained tannin and just the right edge of fresh, natural acidity. 87
Casa de las Especias, Yecla (Murcia, Spain) Crianza 2004 ($30, Grape Expectations): Made from Monastrell, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah, this is a completely convincing wine that is imbued with classy character. Toasty and spicy, but very subtly so thanks to the use of high quality oak, this is exceptionally well integrated, with the dark cherry and blackberry fruit notes shining through the wood's influence. Integrated and elegant, this is a clear winner. 91
Castillo de Jumilla/Bodegas Bleda, Jumilla (Murcia, Spain) Crianza 2004 ($12, Calvert Woodley; South River): Made from 90% Monastrell and 10% Tempranillo, this is a surprisingly complex wine for the money. It shows some toasty, spicy notes from oak ageing, with a solid core of dark cherry fruit. 84
Castillo de Jumilla/Bodegas Bleda, Jumilla (Murcia, Spain) 'Divus' 2005 ($25, Calvert Woodley; South River): The top wine from this producer, this makes quite a statement with gorgeous, deeply pigmented color and very expressive aromas and flavors. The grapes are 95% Monastrell and 5% Merlot, and they are picked last in each growing season from the Bodega's oldest vines. Aged for 9 months in new French oak barrels of differing toast levels, the wine still shows plenty of vivid fruit, with notes of blackberry, black plum and dried red cherry holding their own against the wood. 90
Finca Omblancas/Denuño, Jumilla (Murcia, Spain) Monastrell 2005 ($17, MHW, Ltd.; Unique Selections): This wine was aged in oak and bottle for long enough to merit designation as a Crianza, but that does not appear on the label. Concentrated and deeply flavored, it shows impressive dark fruit notes with an appealing meatiness that often marks well-made Monastrell from Murcia. Oak lends a little spice, and fine-grained tannins offer welcome structure without any astringency or dryness. 88
La Purisma, Yecla (Murcia, Spain) Monastrell 'Trapio' 2004 ($30, Marquis Selections): This is the flagship wine of the Cooperativa del Vino de Yecla, which was the largest winery in the world as late as 1972, then kicking out 60 million liters of wine each year. By contrast, only 1,000 cases of this wine are made each year. The fruit is drawn entirely from a select group of vineyards with old, un-grafted Monastrell vines, and the resulting wine shows an impressive combination of concentration and elegance. It is very ripe and quite powerful at 14.5% alcohol, yet the fruit shows exemplary purity. Blackberry and black cherry notes are joined by wonderful accents of cocoa, coffee, spices and smoke. 92
Valle de Salinas, Yecla (Murcia, Spain) Roble 2005 ($12, Weygant-Metzler): This wine is more about guts and flavor impact than subtlety and sophistication, and yet it shows some nice meaty, spicy accents on a foundation of rich black cherry fruit. A blend of 60% Monastrell and 20% each of Syrah and Tempranillo, it is worth every penny of the asking price and more. 86
Valle de Salinas, Yecla (Murcia, Spain) Crianza 2004 ($16, Weygant-Metzler): Crafted from 40% each of Monastrell and Cabernet Sauvignon, along with 20% Syrah, this features pure fruit notes recalling both red and black cherries. It is soft and succulent on the palate despite extended oak ageing, and the fruit retains impressive freshness even in the presence of some complexities that are now emerging from bottle ageing. 90