This past December, taking advantage of my trip to Spain for Mom's 90th anniversary, my brothers Juancho, Jose Manuel and I spent a couple of days in Calatayud wine region exploring the area, paying visits to winemakers, walking through vineyards and tasting wines.
This wine region is known for what is called "extreme viticulture". Old vines, at very high-altitude, and desolate dry rocky mountains.
Elevations vary from 500 m (1,500ft) to 1.050 m (4,500ft) and soils also vary from different kinds of slate and stone (see above), limestone and ferrous clay (see below).
Grenache is king with more than half of the planted surface, although there are some parcels with Tempranillo and the white Mazuelo (Viura), and in recent times some Syrah has been planted to blend with the Grenache.
The map below shows the wine Denominación de Origen (D. O.) Calatayud and, with blue rings, the towns with the four wineries we visited:
We travelled on a Sunday and visited Termas Pallarés, an old spring resort in Alhama de Aragón. The small lake had hot water bubbles coming out from the subsoil, which condensed and formed a mist above the surface. The whole place reminded me of The Lamia song from my youth's favorite group Genesis. See link below in case you want to hear it and absorve the atmosphere. It felt as if it was going to happen:
We stopped in Munuébrega to visit Brega winery, but only the shop was open. Brega is part of the Jorge Ordoñez's group and this is a symbol of reliable quality. I have tried and enjoyed their Breca wine. Their more affordable Garnacha de Fuego is pervasive in American wine stores. See their Website: https://www.jorgeordonezselections.com/winery.php?wineryID=8
Once in Calatayud, the hotel rooms were not ready and we decided to explore the town. First thing of all: we visited the arab castle of Qal'at Ayyub that gives its name to the town. This castle, with its two octogonal towers, together with four other around the town, constitute the oldest muslim fortification system in Spain and one of the oldest in the arab world. The whole climb and the views reminded me of Morocco.
We descended to town through the jewish neighborhood with its narrow streets, few openings at street level, and the fachade of an ancient synagogue with a sign proclaming that any sephardic person will be welcome with open arms.
And once downtown we visited the Tourism Office and Vinos Ciria with their friendly and dynamic owner, both in Plaza de España, as well as several churches of mixed moorish and barroque styles.
And if you wonder what's in those jars, it is peaches in preserve, the largest competitor to grapes in the area. Lunch was at Posada del Arco de San Miguel (picture above showing the archway).
We spent the night at Convento Benedictino, downtown Calatayud. The ruins of an old convent gave way to a tasteful small hotel that integrated the old and the new. The rooms and beds were "European" size but it was centrally located, it had some interesting interior architecture, the restaurant was suitable and it had very nice views.
And the next morning, here we went, to the largest operation in the area controlling about 30% of the production; the cooperative Bodegas San Alejandro. I have found their wines in the Pennsylvania wine stores for years, specially Las Rocas and Evodia, declared by Robert Parker as a fruit bomb and an amazing value for the price.
Bodegas San Alejandro has business relationships with importer Eric Solomon and Ernst & Julio Gallo. They seem to have significant influence in the winemaking, marketing and distribution. The installations seemed state-of-the-art to us: modern, ultraclean and well organized. They used very large concrete deposits under and above ground for the fermentation and in many cases for the aging. The whole image of the winery stilled youth and joy as we were guided by Pilar through the facilities. Their Website emphasizes that image https://www.san-alejandro.com/en/
Pilar explained that in the nearby two centuries BC pre-roman archeological site of Segeda amphorae with remnants of Garnacha wine have been found, suggesting that this could have been the birth place for this varietal. I had read that it originated in Sardinia where it is called Cannonau, and the Romans had taken it to Southern France and Eastern Spain, but archeologists are always eager to change our paradigms.
The following two videos show conversations with their enologist Juan Vicente Alcañiz that I recommend you see:
NOTE: To see the close captions in Engligh click Settings in the videos and enable them.
And here are our tasting notes:
Las Rocas 2017 Viñas Viejas: Cherry and red plum aromas with bright minerality. Non-aggressive acidity and tannins. It was a cold day and I would have preferred to taste it a couple of degrees warmer.
Baltasar Gracián 2016: Jose Manuel's second favorite wine from the entire tour. Milder and rounder than Las Rocas. Very nice structure.
Baltasar Limited Edition 2014: Wow! This wine is a very limited edition. It was crafted to celebrate the business GM's birthday by selecting the fruits from an over 100 year old parcel at the highest altitude. The wine was then aged more than usual for this winery. I was lucky to get one of the very few bottles. These are Sally's and my tasting notes: Aromas of raspberry jam, dry cherries, maybe some prune, and certainly lots of mocha. In a second trial, 5 minutes later, I detected cream & berry tart with some hints of leather and clove. In mouth, the first sip was awfully acidic, the second showed the dusty tannins, but the third, ... Oh! That third one, was a wonderful experience confirming the aromas plus chocolate. Solid structure, harmony in the evolution, and lots of retronasal aromas. This was a big wine to have with a beef stew or wild bore. The aftertaste remained with me forever ... I give it 93 pts. which is very hard to get from me.
Evodia 2017 (tasted in the US): Amongst the 10 best-selling wines in the US and top selling Garnacha in Asia. Cherry, red plum, raspberries, blood orange and, ... suddenly, notes of smoke and perhaps carnation. Sally said pomegranate and crasins. Fruitier and more lively than most of their wines although not ase deep. The winemaker defines it as fragrant.
Las Rocas 2017 (tasted in the US): Dark. Aromas of dried red concentrated cherry and plum. Very typical from the Garnachas of this D.O.. In mouth it was relatively smooth but dense, powerful, mineral and pungent. Peppery and bitter. Anti-sweet! This is a wine to have with goulash, spicy iberian chorizo or things like wild bore. Add a bit to the stew while you are cooking it to provide it its energy. I can imagine medieval knights drinking it in a clay jar in an inn.
Marqués de Nombrevilla: Box wine. Most sold wine in Norway and Jose Manuel's favorite from the entire tour, as you can confirm from his expression in the picture below:
We went for lunch to a place where we accepted the waiter's recommendation and had an undefinable stew of cheek peas in lobster sauce and unforgeteable pig's feet in chorizo sauce. And then, crazy of us, we drove to the opposite corner of the denomination to the small town of Villarroya de la Sierra, to visit Bodegas Virgen de la Sierra and meet Manuel Castro. He was described to us as a cool and passionate hippyish winemaker that was beloved by people in the area. Unfortunately he had just left, but Nicklas was there to take care of us, and he did it well.
Nicklas, from Denmark and married to a Spanish young lady, is trying to get established in the area. He lives in a 6-inhabitants town in an inaccessible valley where he has purchased some land. And he works in the bodega to sustain his family and to learn about winemaking. I am sure, at a point in time, we will see his wines showcased in a Danish wine shop. We had a really good time with him and one of the vineyard owners who went to the bodega to load up some wine bottles in preparation for his trip to the Costa del Sol with his young and beautiful Dominican wife.
But, in addition to the "Fiesta", we have to report that we found in their wines true values. Juancho has since been getting their red Albada shipped to his home and has got some friends do the same. Surely the bodega has noticed the surge in demand from Madrid and El Escorial.
These were our tasing notes:
Albada Macabeo 2018: This was a white made with old vine Macabeo grapes (called Viura in Rioja and Rueda). Green apple, pear, fennel, dill. Perfect acidity level. An interesting alternative to Spain's standard question when you order a white wine: "Rueda or Alvariño?" And at a price about €4.
Albada Viñas Viejas 2017: Floral and fruity with notes of raspberry, cherry and red flowers plus hints of blood orange peel. Lively dusty tannins and correct acidity. Economic and with the best quality to price ratio of our trip. About €4.
Albada Parajes were wines made with fruits from very small areas, not exactly from a plot or a parcel but a cluster of a few semicontiguous parcels. Very terroir-specific wines of singular personality. About 2,600 bottles produced of each. La Cañadilla 2016 displayed raspberry jam and ripe cherry aromas with hints of tobacco, red quince paste (membrillo) and licorice. Dry in mounth. 91 pts. Llano Herrera 2016 showed lots of licorice, cherry and a little bit of blackberry with notes of cigar box and spice. When asked, Nicklas said Jamaica pepper. 92 pts.
Their Monastrell was the only one we found in the area. I got bottle 602 out of a production of 644! I did not like the shape of the bottle and the color of the label but I liked the content with aromas of prune, cherry, thyme and laurel. The wine was really interesting and provided a nice break in such an intensive Garnacha experience. Keep it up!
From an 800 gallon steel tank: A 2019. Very young and floral. Vibrant and juicy. They were going to refine it. It reminded me of a "carbonic maceration" from El Bierzo. I liked it as it was.
From another 800 gallon steel tank: This was exceptional. I said it and Nicklas replied with a smile saying: "My boss' special creature".
They are working on their Website. Their phone number is: +34 976 89 90 15
Once in the hotel room we transitioned into a noisy night with this introduction:
The next day we started at Bodegas y Viñedos del Jalón. At first impression, the facilities looked sort of old and not as sharp as San Alejandro's, but I had tried Las Pizarras and Alto Las Pizarras back at home and we had an appointment that I wanted to honor. We were pleasantly surprised when we met Asun Palomares, the enologist, tried their wines, and learnt from Clemente Lorcas about some of their projects. Let's start with these three videos travelling with Asun throughout some of their many wines.
Alto Las Pizarras and Puntos Suspensivos:
NOTE: To see the close captions in Engligh click Settings in the videos and enable them.
Si o Sy, Las Pizarras, Claraval, Alto las Pizarras, Puntos Suspensivos:
Tasting Si o Sy (Shiraz or Syrah):
After all these interesting discussions with Asun, I had a good chat with Clemente. He explained the effects of the European Union policy on the area. The EU has been paying a subsidy of €6,000 per Hectare to the growers that pull out their vines, and many, specially the old ones, with their kids migrated to larger towns, have taken it. In addition, some growers from La Rioja and Ribera del Duero have been offering sums of money for the planting rights. As a result, the planted area in this region has decreased from 4,500 Hectares two decades ago to the present 3,000 Hectares (in round numbers) and the wineries have idle capacity. To combat this situation, Bodegas y Viñedos del Jalón has taken the approach of increasing quality and diversifying the offerings. In recent years they have been experimenting with small batches of wine, creating many brands and offering their space to "flying and boutique winemakers". See picture with Clemente below:
They are part of a project with Master Winemakers's founder Mark Shietekatt, from Belgium, and Carlos Rubén, whose Website refers to as "The Voice of the Garnacha" and former winemaker in this winery. The project seemed to offer crafting of wines on demand.
And these are the tasting notes:
Si o Sy: Tasted with Asun Palomares (see above video). Aroma of just harvested blackberries and raspberries. Notes of smoke, leather and clove. Lively, dusty and dry tannins and fresh acidity. Long and spicy finish.
La Dolores DeLuxe: We did not try this wine with Asun and the label portrayed an old-fashion image. When purchasing the wines I was not focusing on it but another person from the winery encouraged me to get it. I tasted it at my sister's back in Madrid and decided that it was dangerous! I enjoyed the aroma so much that I took a long time to attack it. It showed elegant and deep aromas of ripe cherry, flowers and prune. However, once I started, I could not stop drinking it! In mouth it showed a balanced structure with silky and sweet tannins. Yummy Grenache, Syrah, Tempranillo blend.
Sin Duda: Clemente Lorcas gave me this bottle that I tasted back home in Pittsburgh. Crafted by Carlos Rubén who wanted to create a wine that would be the most recognizable Garnacha. Hence the name: "Without any Doubt”. I enjoyed it at my sister Ana's home noticing its clear cherry and spice nose and mature fruits taste enveloped in a solid structure with a mineral feel. Long aftertaste. 15.5% alcohol. Pretty good.
And for the ones below I have used summaries of the notes from the winery because I just had no time to take my own. I agree with what they say:
Las Pizarras: Garnacha with 1 month in barrel during the malolactic fermentation.
Nose – The nose is very floral (particularly violets and orange blossom) spiced and grassy.
Taste – On the palate there's a good taste of ripe cherry, is full-bodied with balanced tannins and nice aftertaste.
Alto Las Pizarras: Same fruits as Las Pizarras but aging 11 months in barrels.
Nose - Clove, black fruit and toasted coffee followed by soft cherry and ripe fruit aromas. Also, vanilla and butterscotch from the oak blend with the herbs and floral aromas of the Grenache.
Taste: The palate is soft, full-bodied and powerful with a long balance and nice aftertaste.
Claraval: Nose – Intense, ripe fruit, black currant and prune. Complex with minerals and floral notes.
Taste – The palate is tasty, with sweet tannins, full-bodied, soft and structured, with a good aftertaste.
Puntos Suspensivos: Nose – Clove, red fruit and toasted coffee, followed by soft cherry and ripe fruit aromas. Also, vanilla and butterscotch from the oak, blend with the herbs and floral aromas of the Grenache and violets.
Taste – Tasty with good body. Structured with soft tannins and very balanced. Long and pleasant aftertaste.
Their Website is: www.castillodemaluenda.com
And in our way back to Madrid we had lunch in the town of Ateca, in a friendly truckers' type place, and visited Bodegas Ateca where we had an appointment with Roberto Perez, the enologist.
This bodega is part of Juan Gil Estates group, from Jumilla, that has established a network of high quality wineries throughout the Spanish geography. I love their Jumillas, and I have recently enjoyed much their Tridente, a Vino de la Tierra de Castilla y León.
Roberto took us to some of their vineyards where we could see the extreme terroir of high altitude, super-dry slate soils, including the one on the cover sheet of this post and here below:
Many of those vines yield as little as 1/2 Kg (1.1 lb) of fruit!
Bodegas Ateca is in the process of converting vineyards to ecological, with relatively little difficulty, by the way, because the terroir does not facilitate the growth of mold or bugs or weeds or, ... really anything! The biggest problem is the atomization of parcels which makes the establishment of a perimeter complicated.
In the following two videos Roberto explains very well some interesting facts about their terroir:
NOTE: To see the close captions in Engligh click Settings in the videos and enable them.
The winery was very modern. I saw a lot of stainless steel tanks, modern and shiny pumping kits and well laid out metallic platforms and staircases. The workers were wearing personal protection equipment and things looked clean and orderly. It reminded my of some modern industrial facilities I visit through my real job.
Ateca's wine tasting:
Honoro Vera 2017: I have seen it for a long time in the US. They export thousands of cases a year to this country, their best customer. Fascinating label. I used to hate it, until I fell in love with it. I used it to represent Grenache in the Spanish varietals wine tasting I did in Pittsburgh in February. A pungent wine, bitter and mineral. Not round but temperamental. Perfect with spicy chorizo.
Ateca 2017: Aromas of cherry and red plum. Some carnation and pepper. Mineral, pungent and bitter. Very intense in appearance, structure and texture. So much that I performed a test drinking one of the bottles over four days to see whether it would soften up. It stood the test and resisted oxidation heroically.
Ateca Armas 2016: I really loved this one! It came from the best parcel with lower yields. It had longer aging (14 months) and that softened the wine and gave it a lot of oaky and pastry shop type flavors. An intense wine with great structure, really standing out from the rest of wines from this winery and one of the very best in the denomination.
Their Website is: bodegasateca.es
There were other wineries that we could not visit but we purchased their wines at Ciria and tasted them over the Holidays at dinner celebrations. The entire Llovet-Barquero family drank Garnacha to exhaustion!
El Escocés Volante:
Norrel Robertson is a Master of Wine. He came from his native Scottland to create his own wines. And I can confirm that he deserves his Flying Scotsman brand name, because when I contacted him he had just landed in a flight from Chile and the next day he was leaving for the Mediterranean coast. These are the two wines I tried:
Manga del Brujo 2017: Aroma of black and red berries with clove and mocha. Its taste was intense, tannic, mouth filling and with tight acidity. A perfect combination of fruit and barrel aging (5 months). Persistent finish. This was, in my opinion, the most similar wine to a Girondas or Lirac that we tried in our trip. After I got used to the roughness, this wine really captivated me. And it improved with aeration and time. I agree with the 89-93 ratings it is receiving and would flirt with 92 pts. as a reward for producing such quality for about $10 a bottle.
Manda Huevos 2016: This White wine, from a single parcel, was aged 18 months in its own lies and was very different from other wines in the region. The Macabeo varietal characteristics were still there but modified by yeasty, nutty and ripe níspero aromas. In mouth it seemed to me oxidized, salty and with a level of ripeness that felt overpowering. It has received the Gold Baccus award in Spain and 93 pts. by RP, and it commands a relatively high price, but it was just too ripe for me, or maybe the bottle had not been kept in good condition. We’ll give it the benefit of the doubt.
This is the only winery that did not open its doors to us. I bought several bottles of their sparkling wines at Ciria and tried them with my Spanish family at Christmas dinner. They still have a way to go to reach the level of quality from the Penedés region.
Sergio, from Posada Arco de San Miguel, served me a glass of their Reyes de Aragón red. This was fruity with aromas of cherry, raspberry and violets. Velvety tannins and correct acidity that gave the wine a pleasant freshness. A correct wine with a good price but it was unlicky to be served in the same round as the one Juancho got (the one below).
Bodega San Gregorio
Armantes 2016: Tasted by the glass in Sergio's bar at Posada Arco de San Miguel. Garnacha with Shiraz and Tempranillo. Very dark, opaque and gliceric. Intense aromas of raspberry jam and cherry that gave way to chocolate. Very dense in mouth with very lively tannins and acidity. Great structure we could almost chew on. We though it was a powerful wine with great aging potental. A jewel. 92 pts.
Lajas, Finca El Peñiscal 2014: Sergio, from Posada Arco de San Miguel served us this bottle for lunch. We thought it was a very refined version of Garnacha, possibly with some Syrah, and great structure. While writing this post, I am realizing that this may have been an older vintage of "my boss' special creature" that we tasted from a steel deposit at Bodegas Virgen de la Sierra. 92 pts.
Notice, less than 3,000 bottles produced.
I would finally want to mention that there are other wines that we would have wanted to try. Nietro has received very positive reviews, Samitier is ecological, and there are others worth exploring, but our time and drinking capacity reached a limit. We will leave the door open to a Part 2.
So much wine would have been dangerous if we had not purified our spirit and lungs with a walk to the entrance of the Jalón river gorges ...
and kept in contact with reality in Spanish bars. See these two videos that did not need close captions:
We left Calatayud with great feelings about the people we met and a better appreciation of the hidden Garnacha jewel that this region preserves. Special thanks to: