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2013 Spanish Wine
Searching for Identity in Lesser Known Wine Regions

Posted: April 11, 2013

By JT Robertson, Special to BTI

Coke is different than Pepsi. Reebok is not the same as Nike. Barolo is not Bordeaux. A clearly defined identity is as important in the world of wine as it is for mass market consumables. A wine appellation’s terroir, its tradition of style and quality serve as a signpost, not only for the end consumer but for the producers working within the region. Every great painting starts with a sketch and while no two producers in a given appellation may agree on what the finished work should look like, they can begrudgingly concede they all start from the same basic shapes.

In modern Spain, only a handful of wine regions have managed to etch out a firm identity. Not so coincidentally, these are the most famous (Rioja, Priorat, Ribera del Duero). For the rest, the 21st century is proving to be an opportunity to define their traditions, both to the world and themselves.

Jumilla and Costers del Segre are two examples of Spanish appellations coming to grips with the struggle to define their styles, with the former diving head first into specificity while the latter is still busy trying on different hats to see which one fits the best. Both spent most of their existence as bulk producing wine regions with no visible presence on the international wine market but one turned disaster into possibility while the other is still looking for their “Eureka” moment.

Jumilla was one of the French wine industry’s dirty little secrets in the late 19th century. After the outbreak of Phylloxera (which destroyed nearly all the French vineyards) Jumilla was shipped into France by the trainload to provide Paris and its environs with cheap, full bodied reds. Amazingly, Jumilla managed to avoid the vine plague, keeping its vineyards intact while all the rest of Europe replanted. They slid happily through the 20th century making as much solid, generic, red wine as the market would buy. Until 1989, when the rent came due. In the year the Berlin Wall came down, Phylloxera hit, and hit hard. The Jumilla wine industry was devastated. They had to replant everything. They had to rethink their entire tradition, and they obviously didn’t like what they saw because the vast majority of growers not only decided to modernize their wineries and practices but to rip up the native, high yielding grapes of the bulk wine past in favor of the hard to grow but immensely character-filled Monastrell. Called Mourvedre in France, it is a small but highly important varietal in the blends of the Southern Rhone as well as the Provencal appellation of Bandol, both undisputed world-class wine regions. Taking advantage of their continental climate, with its accompanying wild swings in temperature, plus the large variance in altitude and plenty of sunlight hours, the hearty Monastrell/Mourvedre has shown it can exceed the French expression in ripeness and early accessibility though it still trails behind in longevity and refinement. But there can be no doubt the groundwork is laid, the course is set, and there is the very real possibility of Jumilla entering into the wine lexicon as a region of note.

On the other hand is Costers del Segre. Unlike Jumilla, who has hitched its wagon to a single, high-risk, high reward varietal, Costers del Segre allows 22 different varietals, running the gamut from international varietals (Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc) to native grapes (Xarel-Lo, Macabeo, Trepat, Samso). The early 20th century Phylloxera which Jumilla managed to avoid hit Costers del Segre like a hammer, with the handful of massive wine producing companies switching over to French grapes to supply the demand presented on the open market. In the short term, the decision to embrace a wide variety of grapes and styles helped keep money in the pockets of the thousands of small farmers which supply the big producers with their grapes. In the long run, it stunted the growth of appellational identity and, in the 21st century, put Costers del Segre in the unenviable position of creating wines which are familiar and pleasing to a large portion of the global wine audience but without a roadmap to grander achievement or recognition.

It doesn’t help Costers del Segre possesses wildly diverse terroir which defies easy categorization. While there are certain micro-climates which show great promise as producers of cold climate varietals, such as Pinot Noir and Riesling, there are a total of seven sub-zones in Costers del Segre, each with a different temperature range, soil composition, and geological make-up. Ideally, at least three of these sub-zones would be divided into their own appellations (Segria, Urgell, and Artesa de Segre spring to mind as regions which have very definable personalities) but the historical conditions are stacked against it. Despite the preponderance of small growers, which is usually the precondition for a quality revolution, Costers del Segre is still dominated by the large producers and still littered with dozens of grape varietals. While there are more than a few small wineries producing high quality wines worthy of note, there is nothing Costers del Segre is doing, or looks like it will do, in the near future to forge a style separate from the mildly delicious red and white blends it currently produces.

The lesser known wine regions of Spain hold the most untapped potential of any country in the world. They’ve barely begun to scratch the surface in terms of micro-climate terroir (when was the last time you saw a single vineyard Spanish wine?). Most regions, outside of the Big Three (Rioja, Priorat, Ribera del Duero), are still searching for their defining varietals. It will be the next few generations which clear the road for the next great wine region and who amongt us doesn’t wish to watch a legend be born?

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