The Red Wines of Levante: Monastrell
By guest author Susana Molina
Other varieties like Tempranillo may be better known, but Monastrell is one of Spain’s most well-loved red grapes. It has an especially important role in the winemaking culture in the Levante region, and in particular the south-east of the country. Native to Spain, this warm climate variety is known by various different names in other countries: Mourvèdre, for example, in France, or Mataro in parts of the New World like California or Australia.
For wine-lovers familiar with French wines from Rhone or Provence, or the well-known GSM blends (Garnacha, Syrah and Mourvèdre) from the southern Rhone or Australia, the Monastrell-based wines from Levante are an opportunity to discover yet another of the variety’s different flavour profiles. For Syrah fans in the region, give Monastrell a try as both varieties share a similar profile: full-bodied, rich, dark red in colour and laden with black fruit and spice.
You’ll find Monastrell vines planted throughout the Levante region as well as parts of La Mancha, but it’s at its best in the south-east corner of the Iberian Peninsula in the province of Murcia, where Monastrell accounts for 80% of the total vines planted. Wine drinkers will find great examples of Murcian Monastrell from the Denominaciones de Origen of Jumilla, Bullas and Yecla, as well as from neighbouring DOs like Vinos de Alicante and Valencia, or further inland towards Albacete from DO Almansa. That said, it’s also grown and bottled further afield in Castilla-La Mancha and even parts of Catalunya.
As you’ll know if you live there, South-East Spain enjoys a warm climate with high temperatures, low rainfall and the occasional desert-like landscape. This is the ideal setting for a grape variety like Monastrell which is very resistant to summer heat and drought, and manages to produce surprisingly expressive wines from quite nutrient-poor soils. These quite extreme conditions can sometimes be offset with a bit of altitude which is a bonus as it helps make for fresher wines.
The South-East has other advantages for the Monastrell grape. The hot, dry climate keeps certain grapevine diseases at bay, cutting down on the need for more chemical-based treatments and making it easier for growers to make organically-certified wines. Another local advantage is the number of ungrafted, or pie franco vines. The grafting of vines began in response to the dreaded phylloxera disease which swept through European vineyards in the mid-eighteenth century. Growers realised that American vines were more resistant to the disease than European varieties and began grafting European vine cuttings onto American rootstock. Nowadays, when you see the term pie franco on a bottle of Spanish wine, it means that the grapes come from ungrafted, usually quite old rootstock which is considered to be largely resistant, though not impervious to phylloxera. Grape yields from pie franco vines are usually quite low, which tends to mean more concentrated, complex wines.
In terms of the actual Monastrell wine styles on offer, the Levante region offers a lot of variety. Reds wines are the most popular, both young and aged in oak for various lengths of time, with the premium wines rounded off with a good stint of bottle ageing before they are released for sale. But there are also plenty of rosé wines, sweet local wines like Fondillón (a sweet wine made from deliberately over-ripened grapes which is a speciality in DO Alicante), and even some sparkling rosés, normally blended with other grapes, which sell under the Denominación de Origen Cava label (cava being a stylistic rather than geographic term, made in various parts of Spain, not just Catalunya).
A few years back, Monastrell wines were famed for being very full-bodied wines loaded with tannins. These days, more and more producers are setting out to make subtler, more delicately-flavoured wines with generous fruit: more aromatic, balanced wines that are easy to drink and long on the palate to maximise enjoyment.
Pick up a glass of Monastrell, and you can expect delicious aromas of mature black fruit, aromatic herbs, perhaps some liquorice and more spicy notes which will remind you of pepper. If the wine is young, you can expect a more floral profile with lots of fresh fruit, while in older, more aged versions the fruit will tend to take on more jammy characteristics and develop more leathery, animal aromas combined with nicely polished tannins.
So take note wine-lovers, there’s lots and lots for you to discover on the Mediterranean side of the Península Ibérica, whether you’re lucky enough to visit in person or you can transport yourself there for a few moments through a delicious glass of Monastrell wine.
Susana Molina is a Spanish journalist specialised in gastronomy and wine. You can follow her on her Instagram account Espirituosos de la Vida.