Spain’s hidden gem

PUBLISHED: 17:27 16 June 2009 | UPDATED: 15:03 20 February 2013

Bobal grapes

Bobal grapes

Phillipe Boucheron warms to one of wine's lesser-known grapes

Phillipe Boucheron warms to one of wine's lesser-known grapes

Bobal - pronounced Bow-Bal is an ancient vine first recorded in the 9th century that, for some obscure reason, is found in one particular part of Spain. A couple of months ago I spent five fascinating days in that relatively unknown part of Spain that lies high up in the hills some 30 miles inland from the Mediterranean.

I visited nine bodegas and tasted my way through some 200 red wines. Two of those days were spent in Utiel-Requna, a wine growing region west of Valencia that has the second harshest climate in Spain, after La Mancha. Here you see endless rows of Bobal bush vines producing a deeply coloured, lean acidic juice with that makes a lower alcohol (11.5% abv) than average. It is ideal for blending with the ever-present Tempranillo and Garnacha that are such a part of the Spanish wine scene. It is a little known fact that in most of Europe you can add up to 15% of another grape to a generic variety without having to add its name to the label.

Utiel-Requena, together with its neighbouring high-altitude wine growing regions of Valencia, Yecla and Alicante - that I also visited - have some of the cleanest, tidiest and best-run vineyards that I have seen for a long time. Long hot summer days kept refreshed by cool Mediterranean breezes and cold nights provide the ideal growing conditions for ripe red grapes. The altitude - often around 600 to 900 metres above sea-level - keeps off many of the parasites and fungi that normally attack the vines. Low rainfall means that most of these vineyards need irrigating, and more often than not this is carried out by computer-controlled systems that delivers just the right amount of water to the vines that need it most, at precisely the right time. I was also mightily impressed by the extensive investment in both refurbished and brand new wineries. All of this costs money, yet the wines from these regions are surprisingly inexpensive.

But back to my new-found friend, the lowly Bobal. It sits close to the ground in a neat bush that can only be tended and harvested by hand. Although much of its fruit ultimately gets blended with juice from more noble grapes, there are some producers who do make wines from this singular variety. Take for example Vincente Gandia Pla - a 150. hectacre family-owned estate dating back to 1885. They make a wide range of wines from their own grapes that includes Generación 1, an elegant, long and beautifully balanced old vine Bobal that is their homage to the founder.

Vincente Garcia has realised his dream At Pago de Tharsys where he has created a winery in the middle of 11 hectacres of vine that produces some quite exquisite wines - and a few odd-balls too! To avoid oxidation he picks his grapes in the cool of the night, which helps create wines packed full of complex fruit character. His Tharsys Unico, a sparkling blanc de negre Cava (white fizz from black grapes), made from 100% Bobal was crisp and refreshing, and a wine that I would be pleased to serve at home to my friends. That is, if I could buy it in England.

At the other extreme is the giant Bordegas Murviedo, founded in 1927 as the Spanish subsidiary of the Swiss Schenk group. Each year they crush over eight million kilos of grapes from Utiel-Requena, Alicante and Valencia, making and maturing the wines in tanks, casks and barrels with a total capacity of around 1.8 million litres, and storing over two million bottles in a fully air-conditioned warehouse. They export 95% of their production that includes a delicious, easy-drinking, fruity Bobal,Coprolilla Crianza, that should be our high street shelves at around £5.00 a bottle. But our supermarket buyers seem to ignore it, why?

The only Bobal that I can find that is widely available over here is a most agreeably approachable and eminently affordable dry, fruity rosé. This is Viña Decana Rosada that you can pick up from any branch of Aldi for £2.99. Now there is a supermarket that knows quality when it sees it, whatever the name of the grape.

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