Resurrection (Alicante, Spain)

Alicante just ain’t what it used to be. At one point it boasted one of the most important wines of Europe, found in cellars of royal families, even referenced in books by Alexandre Dumas. Back in these day most wine was being sold in bulk to other parts of Europe to be bottled or blended with other wines, but this changed at the end of the 19th Century. The first enemy was the phylloxera epidemic, and the second was changes in markets and politics domestically and overseas. There are two main areas for viticulture in Alicante, and they each have a major indigenous variety. Closer to the coast where it is lower in altitude and a bit warmer and more humid grows moscatel, used to make sweet wines. Further away from the coast is where you find a bigger range of varieties, most importantly monastrell. I visited two estates in Alicante that represent a resurgence in interest in the region, but one is in a modern and the other a traditional model.
Fireworks over the beach in Alicante

The Enrique Mendoza winery is located on the coast, just outside the town of Alfaz del Pi. The only vineyard they have here is an experimental one that grows muscatel in various viticultural systems to see how they react. This makes the winery site functional in terms of vinification and ageing, but also tourism oriented as there are numerous local and international visitors to the area, a popular part of Spain. Whilst they do make a small amount of muscatel wine from nearby vineyards, the focus is on still table wine made from grapes coming from the eastern part of Alicante, where the wide plains are warm and dry, and the various varieties they work with ripen with impunity. Enrique Mendoza was one of the modern pioneers of the region, as he made the bold decision to bring modern viticulture and winemaking here by planting a wider range of local and introduced varieties. This makes the winery one of the modern styles of which I spoke in the introduction, making wine that appeals to a much broader range of consumers, probably the reason that the vast majority of their wine is sold in export markets.

Hormone replacement in the experimental vineyard of Enrique Mendoza

They use very typical modern techniques in terms of the winemaking, including the use of French and American oak, and are actually one of the most new-world I have encountered in Europe, as they make wines from a lot of different grapes. Before beginning in the wine business they were very successful with one of the best gourmet supermarkets in this part of Spain, which I had the chance to browse through and admire the range of wines in particular. Second-generation Pepe Mendoza now runs the wine business, splitting his time between the winery on the coast and the vineyards about 100 km far away, whilst other members of the family are involved with other projects. His oenologist took me through a tour of the facilities and explained the philosophies of the winery, which are focused on the expression of the terroir and delivering a pure and approachable wine. Tasting wines from the barrel the most interesting and unique wines for me were the monastrell wines, including a wine that has a proportion fermented whole-bunch which gives the wine an incredible structure. After a busy morning showing some of his Spanish distributors around, Pepe joined us to teach me how to make paella in the coastal Alicante fashion, which was great to learn and also delicious. Click here to read my notes on the tasting.

Mmmmmmmmm

After a night in Alicante city watching the fireworks, I adjourned the next day to Monovar, about 40km inland from the coast. Here in this very important historical area for wine in Europe is Bodegas Primitivo Quiles, where I met with Francisco who now runs the business with his brother. They carry on a tradition going back five generations within the family, and many more within the region. They are now one of the oldest still operating wineries here (and possibly in Spain as well), which is a testament to their resilience in all the turmoil Spain and Spanish wine experienced in the last 150 years. Spending several hours with Francisco was a fascinating historical lesson, as at a time the most important wine being made in Spain was Fondillon. This is a red wine made from monastrell that is higher in alcohol and sugar, and ages in barrels oxidatively for decades, and is bottled and topped up each year to continue the barrels. This wine to travelled all around Europe and with Alicante as an important port in those days, the wines were going to various colonies all over the world. Today the wine has fallen out of favour, as all fortified wines have. The oxidative nature of Fondillon like sherry make it a little hard for consumers to understand, as modern wine producers have done a good job educating them that oxidation is a fault.

In front of one of the 1948 Fondillon barrels at Primitivo Quiles

Primitivo Quiles makes a number of other wines, which give them other opportunities in the markets. Some of these are the wines that Alicante is probably most famous for at the moment, which are muscatel wines. These are sweet wines that usually have a spirit added to them to stop the fermentation and allow a high amount of residual sugar to remain in the wine. As Fondillon is made from monastrell it makes sense that there are a number of still wines made from monastrell, including rose. The monastrell wines of Primitivo Quiles are quite different to those of Enrique Mendoza, and this is where things got interesting for me. I can understand the Fondillon wines having an oxidative character, but I didn’t expect it in the dry table wines. I believe it has a lot to do with how the fruit and wine is handled during the vinification process, but it is unusual to see these characters in the modern era of wine. To say that this is a traditional winery is an understatement, but I resent the suggestion that traditional means the wines aren’t as good. They are certainly different and for now can only fill a very niche market, but they are wonderfully unique and that is what wine is all about. Speaking of unique, Francisco took me for lunch I the town of where the paella consists of rice, olive oil, rabbit (every part of it), and snails. According to Ferran Adria, the number one chef in Spain, this is the best type of paella there is. Hard to disagree with that. Click here to read my notes on the tasting.

Mmmmmmmm

Click here to see more photos from my time in Alicante, Spain. Click here to see photos from how to cook paella, and if you would like the recipe and instructions, I’ll make a special post.

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