Articles Tagged Somontano

Northern Spain’s “Small California” (Spotlight On Somontano)

Vinted on November 7, 2018 binned in on the road, wine review

[ Editor’s note: Following is a piece that a wrote for a magazine, but after waiting over a year for them to publish it and pay me, I’m giving up and putting it here so that it can see the light of day and you can get some insight into a region that doesn’t see a lot of media play. Enjoy! ]

Northern Spain’s “Small California”

Why your next favorite Cab, Merlot, or Gewürztraminer might just be coming from Somontano

Take a second or two, and think about your favorite Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot, your go-to Chardonnay, even your last Gewürztraminer.

What region was emblazoned on the labels of those tasty wine? Paso Robles? Washington? Chile?

Chances are very good that the word “Somontano” was not the area printed on the label. And yet, chances are also very good that this relatively small northern Spanish Denominación de Origen has been growing those same fine wine grapes longer than the more famous regions that produce your favorite versions of those same wines.

Alquézar

Somontano’s ancient Alquézar

Like most of the wine regions in Western Europe, viticulture in Somontano was probably established by the Romans, and also probable predates reliable written history, extending back to the second century BC. That it took the region until 1984 to become an officially recognized  Denominación de Origen (DO) is, in a way, indicative of the minor identity crisis that defines the modern Somontano. At a time when “uniqueness” is the marketing battle cry of most luxury fine wine regions, Somontano is the odd man out.

Of the grapes officially permitted in the DO, only three (the white Alcañón, and reds Moristel and Parraleta) are indigenous. A few others (such as Garnacha and Tempranillo) are Spanish in origin but not native to Somontano. The rest are a hodgepodge of some of the wine world’s most famous – and decidedly not Spanish – grapes: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, Pinot noir, Chardonnay, and Gewürztraminer.

What makes Somontano such an awkwardly difficult topic in marketing meetings is the same thing that makes many of its wines so good: the place has a great climate growing famous international grape varieties. As winemaker Jesús Artajona Serrano, from Enate (one of the founders of the Somontano DO) puts it, “we are in a small California…”

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Complex, With A Complex (Vinas del Vero Somontano Recent Releases)

Old Vines Somontano

What do you do when your identity, your story, and even your best efforts are only seen through the contextual lens of your more famous cousins?

Besides developing an inferiority complex, I mean? After all, major characters in Greek tragedies were written with this stuff in mind; and it happens to be the defining lucha of Northern Spain’s Somontano wine region. That’s not the entire Somontano story, of course; as it happens, the region just might be the home of your next favorite Garnacha or Cabernet. While the DO is probably more familiar to WSET students than to American consumers, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot have been grown in Somontano for over one hundred and twenty years.

Viñas del Vero old vines

Viñas del Vero’s old hillside vines

Somontano is a place that’s relatively high on quality fine wine and winemaking prowess, but low on the ohhhhh-producing items (think indigenous grapes, or trendy stylistic techniques) that make for easy feature article material in the wine trade. The area largely produces wines from international varieties, in some cases from vines with significant age on them, done up in styles that are clean, fresh, and modern enough to all but dilute any defining sense of place.

But a sense of place does exist in Somontano, albeit courtesy of more famous wine regions. When the phylloxera epidemic spread throughout France, Somontano’s proximity and favorable climate made it an attractive spot for planting French vitis vinifera; which was later followed by declining demand and the abandonment of vineyard sites that were promising but difficult to farm. Sites like Viñas del Vero‘s “rediscovered” high-elevation plantings.

Situated at the northeastern slopes of the Somontano DO, along the edges of the European plate, these vineyards had dwindled down to 5 hectares by the time that Viñas del Vero rescued them (they’re now up to about 55 hectares). The oldest of the field-blended vines along those 800-meter-high, calcareous hills are in excess of 100 years in age. As Viñas del Vero’s vineyard manager José María Ayuso put it (during a media tour of the region), “you can get maybe one bottle per vine” from those old souls…

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