Did you know that Spain is ranked as the number one country in the world with the most area of cultivated grape vineyards? And when it comes to wine regions and varieties of wine produced here, there is no shortage of topics to write about. Spain is rich in history where wine has played an important role since before 3000 B.C.
Today my focus is Jumilla (pronounced who-ME-ah), a small wine region in southeastern Spain approximately 50 miles inland from the Mediterranean Sea. The area is composed of over 22,700 hectares of vineyards that stretch between the provinces of Murcia and Albacete, of which over 40% are located in the town of Jumilla. And there are over 2000 viticulturists here who diligently care for each vine.
I recently had the opportunity to explore this beautiful area with its breathtaking views, history, and delicious cuisine. And at every twist and turn of the road, one can find acres of olive and almond trees, in addition to wine vineyards. Jumilla DOP oversees and regulates the region’s wine producers, growers, wineries, and co-operatives. It is one of the oldest Designations of Origin in Spain, established in 1966.
While in Jumilla, I met with many winemakers and tasted numerous styles of the expressive wines of the Monastrell grape variety, a specialty of this region. It was a whirlwind trip that included sunset tastings in vineyards, incredible dining, and visiting over fourteen unique wineries. In the coming months, I will introduce and feature these wineries, a few at a time. But for now, regard this article as an introduction to royalty!
Jumilla is considered the birthplace of Monastrell, a hearty and resilient red grape variety (known as Mourvèdre in France). It is this region’s principal grape variety and makes up approximately 80% of the Jumilla DOP vineyard surface. Monastrell is called “Queen of Jumilla” by the winemakers here. Although this title bears no historical or romantic tale, be assured that her reign is supreme, having endured a challenging landscape for centuries. When I asked why this grape was given the title “queen” instead of “king,” the answer was simple.“Grape variety in Spanish is “feminine” – uva or variedad so “queen.” It is easy to see why this grape is considered royalty. Monastrell is a late-ripening grape that thrives in the intense heat of this region. It is a low-yielding thick-skinned, small berry with compact grape clusters. Monastrell has adapted to the hot, arid conditions here, making it a resilient variety with high resistance to drought and most plant diseases, including phylloxera.
The landscape consists of broad valleys, plains, and mountain ranges that weave in and out of this region. Jumilla climate is considered Continental even though it is close to the Mediterranean Sea. It experiences over 3000 sunny hours a year, with frequent dry winds and temperatures reaching 104 degrees in the summer. Vineyards range in altitude from 1,049 ft (considered the valley) to 2952 ft. Vines benefit from the high elevation due to cool evenings, which alleviate them from the scorching heat of the day. Rainfall amount tends to be scant, with approximately nine inches of rain annually but can differ depending on the location. And although one might consider this region desert-like, it is not exempt from frost and torrential downpours that might endanger the vines.
The soil here has good depth and is comprised mainly of limestone and gravel with occasional chalky soil in some areas. The soil has a high capacity to retain water which is conducive to vine-growing. And, as a result, the majority of Jumilla’s vineyards are dry-farmed (irrigation is not necessary). One winegrower said, “Deep roots of these vines are able to find water during droughts.”
For generations, sustainable farming has been in practice here, with 70% of the surface area certified in organic viticulture. Jumilla is also home to Europe’s single largest collection of 90-year-old ungrafted bush vines. (Ungrafted means the original roots). Jumilla DOC said, “The character of the wines from Jumilla make them stand out among products from other areas due to what is known as “terruño,” a magical combination of grape variety, soil composition, the orientation and pruning of vines, and the climate.”
Monastrell wines are purplish in color and run the gamut from light and lively to bold and complex, with intense flavors that vary depending on where the vines grow. One can expect fruit-driven flavors characterized by heightened aromas, powerful tannins, and medium acidity. Generally speaking, Monastrell wines are quite aromatic with ripe red and dark fruit flavors, balsamic, herbs, and spice. From barrel tasting to bottle pours, from new to old vintages, stainless steel to oak/concrete aging methods, and food pairings, I sampled Monastrell in all its finery.
In addition to making a 100% Monastrell wine varietal, this grape also blends well with varieties such as Garnacha, Merlot, and Syrah. These red blends are succulent and full-bodied and leave one’s palate singing. And if you are looking for something a little lighter, Monastrell rosés are a winner. They run from dry to fruity with a pleasant floral bouquet, fresh fruit flavors, and crisp acidity.
Other grape varieties that are permissible in Jumilla DOP are:
Cencibel, Garnacha Tintorera, Garnacha, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah and Petit Verdot
Airen, Macabeo, Pedro Ximénez, Malvasía, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and small grain Moscatel
The cuisine of Jumilla is impressive, and the red wines pair well with everything, even desserts! Some of the traditional food I tasted included Manchego cheese, paella, gachamiga, goat, rabbit, and everyone’s favorite, roasted almonds! Many of the local dishes are salt-cured such as tuna and Ibérico ham. The salt is sourced from Valle del Carche, a local mountain salt mine dating back over 2000 years.
All of the wineries that I visited combine traditional and modern techniques in the vineyard and winery, which I will explore further when I highlight each winery in future articles. However, the common thread among all of the wineries I visited is the apparent pride, enthusiasm, passion, respect, and love for the land that they all have. The expression, “I wear my heart on my sleeve,” comes to mind when I think of everyone I met in Jumilla.
When not sipping wine, there is much to discover here. The Volcano of Cancarix is the only volcano in the Iberian peninsula that is not active because its “chimney” was destroyed by erosion. I stood in the crater where bush-trained Monastrell vines grow in the volcanic and very rocky soil. Take a tour of the Jumilla Archeology Museum, or hike the ancient ruins of Tolmo de Minateda, a 3000-year-old city. The Castle of Jumilla was built in 1461 and is worth the hike to take in the breathtaking views below.
It was indeed an honor to visit the “Queen of Jumilla” and meet all of her protectors! Monastrell is undoubtedly worthy of the title! So be on the lookout for future articles about Jumilla wines and wineries. And in the meantime, treat your palate to a glass of this royal wine, and let me know what you think! Jumilla wines are available throughout the United States and are easy to find.
Until next time…
Feature Photo is of Monastrell. Photo credit: Penny Weiss