Light Reds From A Hot Place
Yes, it's possible. Even from the arid plains of Spain.
It always surprises me how accustomed people have become to jammy, bruising, food-killing, high-alcohol wines. How have wines of 15 percent alcohol by volume (or higher) become completely normalized among the drinking public? Yes, yes I know: Robert Parker, Napa, Boomers, etc. But, seriously, why? This question popped into my head this week, as I tasted a number of monastrell (aka mourvèdre) bottlings from Spain—all above 15 percent alcohol, all “corrected” with additives, and all redolent of stewed plums. Woof, no thanks.
I realize that, at the beginning of 2023, I declared this the Year of the Light Red and so I’m definitely biased. I also realize we are in deep into the climate change era, and certain places are likely too hot to make delicate, lighter-bodied wines. But this isn’t always true, and it can’t be the only reason. I’m far from the only one asking this question.
Within Spanish wine, for instance, there are vigorous discussions over “Atlantic” versus “Mediterranean” styles of wine. For Atlantic wines, the textbook example would be the light reds of the Canary Islands or Ribeira Sacra in Galicia.
By Mediterranean, what’s meant is pretty much the big, oaky classic reds you’ve come to expect from Rioja, Ribera del Duero, or the monastrell from southern Spain. Yet that’s not the only truth. Because you can certainly find “Atlantic” wines from regions like Rioja, especially in places where there is altitude. When it comes to making lighter, more drinkable wines from hot regions, winegrowers can’t just keep doing the same things they’ve always done.
For instance, I tasted a couple of wines this week from Castilla-La Mancha, near the historic city of Toledo, both of which proved once again you can indeed make lighter-bodied red wines in hot places. Even in a place like La Mancha that has a bad reputation for bulk wine. While this region is synonymous with Don Quixote, we see very little wine from Toledo province, which has only only one appellation, Méntrida, north of Toledo city. Wine-Searcher calls the grape-growing conditions in Méntrida “extremely hostile,” as anyone who has been there in the summer heat can attest to. Yet the two wines I tasted were totally light-bodied and gulpable, perfect summer reds.
The first of those wines is A Pie de Tierra ‘A Dos Manos’ 2018, made from garnacha grown on 30- to 40-year-old vines at an altitude of more than 500 meters. Bright, fruity, lots of cherry and strawberry, but there’s also depth and backbone, something more than just glou glou. With a slight chill, it’s perfect pairing for grilled summer meals.
A Pie de Tierra is a relatively new winery, started in 2015 as a collaboration between Madrid sommelier Aitor Paul and winemaker David Villamiel, whose family has 20 hectares in Méntrida. A Dos Manos is a good example of their style, made by spontaneous fermentation, 60 percent whole cluster, and six months aging in a mix of stainless steel and neutral oak. I’m finding it mostly available in California right now, at $25-28 bottle, but the importer now has a New York distributor and so I’m hoping to see more of it on the east coast.
The second wine comes from Bodegas Pinuaga, about an hour east of Toledo. I recently met Esther Pinuaga in New York and was thrilled to taste her Pinuaga La Tierra de Castilla Tinto 2021, made from a blend of garnacha and tempranillo. Juicy, lively, and crisp, with notes of fresh flowers and berries, an underlying herbaceousness, and a finish longer than one might expect from such a young wine. And it’s a great value at around $15.
I like some of Pinuaga’s more aged bottlings as well, but this one (aged only in stainless steel) spoke to me. Ester is president of the Spanish Organic Wine Association, and Pinuaga’s 90 hectares has been certified organic since 2010. Most of their wines are grown at an altitude of 700 to 800 meters. (Are we detecting a theme here?) It’s still tricky to find these wines, and this Tinto 2021 is new to the importer, so keep an eye out.
For my third wine of the week, we move further west in Castilla-La Mancha, moving to the little-known appellation of Manchuela. It’s a relatively new D.O., established about 20 years ago, with reds mostly from bobal and tempranillo. Though it’s closer to the sea, it’s another place that needs altitude for freshness.
The wine I’m recommending is from the rare, indigenous moravia agria grape. This is a Mary Taylor selection—I’m a big fan of Mary Taylor’s wines from Spain and France. Her Manchuela is made by Rus Jimenez, who runs her high-altitude family farm, Finca El Molar, in Albacete.
Mary Taylor Manchuela 2020 is easier to locate in the U.S. and is an absolute steal at around $15. A lovely nose of blueberry and blackberry, that turns peppery and herbal in the mouth, with great juicy acidity and a super finish.
All three of these wines slide over 14 percent abv, but because of their finesse and acidity, you don’t feel the heavy, exhausting punch that you’d normally find from central Spain’s reds. These are all “Atlantic”-leaning wines in a “Mediterranean”-leaning world.