Thursday, May 19, 2011

Jumilla, Spain: 5,000 years of growing grapes and making wine

“Terroir” is a term commonly bandied about by wine experts to refer to the relationship between a wine and the land where it originates, but what does that mean?

I know that carrots grow better in some soils than others, but I really doubt whether I could taste the difference between a carrot that was grown in Regina and one that was grown in Saskatoon.

I gained a much greater appreciation for terroir – the importance of soil, climate and geography – by spending 4 days in Jumilla, Spain, and visiting 6 of its wineries.

Jumilla is located in south eastern Spain. As you drive to Jumilla, either from Valencia on the eastern Mediterranean coast or Murcia in the south, you see fields full of table grapes (draped in netting to protect them from the birds) and fruit trees, particularly oranges, that flourish in a warm, moderate climate with significant rainfall.

But as you get closer to Jumilla, you start climbing and, as the altitude changes, so do the crops. Almond and olive trees, which require less moisture and can handle lower temperatures, now predominate. Table grapes are replaced by vineyards – knobbly elbows of old vines spaced far about in bare, brown fields.

Spanish wines are classified by designations of origin based on geography. Each designation sets standards to ensure the quality of its wines. Jumilla is one of the oldest designations in Spain, with 45 bodegas (wineries) in the 30,000 hectare territory. They harvested 80 million kilos of grapes in 2010.

Grapes have been grown in Jumilla for thousands of years. Archaeologists have discovered grape pips dating back 5,000 years as well as gold earrings decorated with small clusters of grapes from the 4th century BC. Interestingly enough, the earrings would have been worn by a man, who was probably both a warrior and a grape grower.

Climate and Soil
Jumilla is 400-900 feet above sea level, so it does not experience the extreme heat of coastal Spain and winters can be quite cold (I saw photos of vineyards with a light coating of snow). Hot daytime temperatures are matched with cold temperatures at night , so plants must be able to withstand extreme temperature changes.

Jumilla gets very little rain. Fortunately, there is a thick layer of limestone in the soil, which holds moisture and sustains the plants. If you look closely at the photographs, the soil is quite rocky.

But the harsh conditions determine what grapes can be grown here and how they will be grown.

80 per cent of the grapes grown in Jumilla are Monastrell. Monastrell is a grape variety that is native to Mediterranean Spain, and it has evolved and adapted so that it flourishes under the geographic and climatic conditions of Jumilla.

Close kin to Monastrell are the Mourvedre grapes grown in Mediterranean France. Mataro, which is grown in small quantities in the United States and Australia, is also a close relation.

Each year the vines are heavily pruned, and each year they send out fresh shoots. They are grown as bushes and are not trellised because this limits the plants’ exposure to the sun and they don’t lose as much water to evaporation.

The bush vines are spaced relatively far apart (approximately 2 ½ metres between plants) as each plant requires an extensive root system in order to obtain sufficient moisture.

Advantages and Disadvantages
The growing conditions are harsh, and the vines have to struggle to survive. They produce much less fruit than trellised, irrigated vines would produce. (Irrigated vines will produce approximately 7 kilos of grapes per vine. Non-irrigated vines produce only 1 ½ kilos per vine.) But the result is small grapes that are rich in concentrated flavour, producing wine that is full-bodied and high in alcohol.

The winemakers all agreed that the best wine comes from vines that have had to struggle to survive. Several winemakers told me that they grew their best grapes to the north of Jumilla where the altitude is approximately 250 meters higher. As a result, the climate is cooler and harvest is delayed by approximately two weeks compared to vineyards at a lower altitude.

Phylloxera devastated Europe’s vineyards, but it had minimal impact in Jumilla. The climate and the lack of organic content in the soil meant that phylloxera couldn’t survive. As a result, many of the vines are original root stock and have not required grafting onto American grapevines that are resistant to phylloxera.

The dry climate also means that farmers do not have to contend with many pests or fungus and other diseases. Producing organic wines requires very few changes in agricultural practices and are a common product of this region.

Growing Recognition
In the past, the wineries in Jumilla sold most of their wine in bulk to other winemakers who valued its high alcohol content and rich red colour.

Fifteen years ago, winemakers realized that although it was simpler to sell in bulk, they were undervaluing their product, which deserved to be recognized as high-quality wine and not just an add-on to other wines.

Jumilla wines are available in Canada. Quebec and Ontario have the largest selection, but Luzon wines are available in Saskatchewan and Juan Gil wines will be available here very soon.

Visits to Bodegas
The six bodegas that I visited are listed below. I will write separate posts on each of the wineries, but they do share many commonalities so a theme that I discuss in regards to one bodega will often apply to some or all of the others. Each of them, however, was unique and ranged from a tiny artisanal winery to a super-large cooperative.

They all welcomed me with open arms and a generosity that both humbled and delighted me.

     Bodegas Bleda
     Bodegas Juan Gil
     Bodegas Luzon
     Bodegas San Isidro
     Bodegas Silvano Garcia
     Bodegas Vina Campanero

See Also:
     Ruta del Vino de Jumilla
     Vinos de Jumilla

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