Ernest Hemingway had a lifelong affection for Spain—for the way of life, the people, and the landscape. In one of his early short stories, Wine of Wyoming, he wrote: “We were through the town and out on the smooth road beyond, with the stubble of grain-fields on each side and the mountains off to the right. It looked like Spain, but it was Wyoming.”
Flying into Valencia en route to the small southeastern Spanish wine region of Utiel-Requena, the earth is an endless stretch of terra cotta–colored clay soils studded with row after row of gnarled old bush vines. Protective in the distance, snow-covered mountain ranges rise with impeccable posture, and provide an elegant juxtaposition with the rustic simplicity of the flatlands and the occasional low-lying plateau below. It is a wanderer’s landscape of discreet beauty, reminiscent of the plains of America’s Midwest, which inspires deep introspection.
The towns of Utiel and Requena, from which the region takes its name, pop up suddenly and brightly amid the miles of vineyards. The streets are narrow and cobbled, and beneath them lie ancient caves that can be reached by descending several steep sets of stone stairs; wine is still stored there today. Churches adorned with the sculptures of saints stand side by side with long-discarded ruins. The history here dates back to the sixth century BC, as evidenced by Las Pilillas, the oldest archeological site of an industrial winery in the town of Requena, where here and there shards of amphorae used for aging wine can still be found alongside actual aging vessels built into the shrub-dotted mountainside.
This is a wine region on the cusp of discovery, and a growing number of younger generations from winemaking families long working the land are rising to their potential with an affable and contagious alegría de vivir.
A wide variety of white, rosé, and red wines are made in Utiel-Requena, in both sparkling and still styles. While many varietals are grown in the region, the shining star is the native red varietal Bobal, which is cultivated with pride. Thick-skinned, late-ripening, and brooding, the grape is perfectly suited to the terroir and boasts vines between 40 and 70 years old, inherently capable of making wines of great structure and prowess, with solid tannins and ripe flavors of plum, blueberry, and fig. Because of the high altitude of the vineyards, which sit at 2,000-3,000 feet above sea level, Bobal is also capable of elegant, pedigreed wines. The bounty of Mediterranean rosemary, thyme, and clove—which grow wild and plentiful in and around the vineyards—bequeaths a lovely lilt of spiced, herbaceous aromatics, and as the wines age, a hint of savory complexity.
On a whirlwind visit in mid-March, I too was transfixed by the land, and in rapt succession by the people and the wines.
At Winery Pago de Tharsys, sampling wine straight out of the barrel with Vincente and Rebeca Garcia as they debated the readiness of the wine for bottling, as well as tasting a 2007 vintage of sparkling wine made entirely with Bobal—the only one of its kind in the region—with the father and daughter team also tasting the vintage for the first time, is a beautiful reminder that family and tradition are everything. Walking through vineyards covered in mist with Raul Vicente of Bodegas Vibe as the early morning sunrise in Valencian orange gives way to whispery, periwinkle-blue skies, one can’t help but smile. Climbing down and down into a cobweb- and mold-covered cave in the center of Utiel, home to generations of winemaking, to taste the first vintage made by fifth-generation winemaker Fernando Martinez of Winery Ladrón de Lunas, I realize this is where the poetry is.
While the aforementioned wineries have yet to make their way to Massachusetts, the wheels are in motion, and a handful of retailers on the North Shore have begun taking a small selection of Bobal-based wines from Utiel-Requena under their wing—notably, Wine-Sense in Andover, Ipswich Beverage in Ipswich, Haley’s Wine and Spirits in Marblehead, Savour Wine & Cheese in Gloucester, Pamplemousse in Reading, Cellar Door in Ipswich, and Lucille Wine Shop & Tasting Room in Lynn. It is a wonderful opportunity to broaden the palate and time-travel to southeastern Spain.