What do you do when your identity, your story, and even your best efforts are only seen through the contextual lens of your more famous cousins?
Besides developing an inferiority complex, I mean? After all, major characters in Greek tragedies were written with this stuff in mind; and it happens to be the defining lucha of Northern Spain’s Somontano wine region. That’s not the entire Somontano story, of course; as it happens, the region just might be the home of your next favorite Garnacha or Cabernet. While the region is probably more familiar to wine students than to American consumers, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot have been grown in Somontano for over one hundred and twenty years.
Somontano is a place that’s relatively high on quality fine wine and winemaking prowess, but low on the items that make for easy feature article material in the wine trade. The area largely produces wines from international varieties, in some cases from vines with significant age on them, done up in styles that are clean, fresh, and modern enough to all but dilute any defining sense of place.
But a sense of place does exist in Somontano, albeit courtesy of more famous wine regions. When the phylloxera epidemic spread throughout France, Somontano’s proximity and favorable climate made it an attractive spot for planting French vitis vinifera; which was later followed by declining demand and the abandonment of vineyard sites that were promising but difficult to farm. Sites like Viñas del Vero‘s “rediscovered” high-elevation plantings.
Situated at the northeastern slopes of the Somontano DO, along the edges of the European plate, these vineyards had dwindled down to 5 hectares by the time that Viñas del Vero rescued them (they’re now up to about 55 hectares). The oldest of the field-blended vines along those 800-meter-high, calcareous hills are in excess of 100 years in age. As Viñas del Vero’s vineyard manager José María Ayuso put it (during a media tour of the region), “you can get maybe one bottle per vine” from those old souls…
The modern-to-vintage and influenced-by-famous-neighbors vibes are strong throughout Somontano, but that mojo is especially fuerte in the DNA of Viñas del Vero’s ultra-premium Blecua Estate line. The boutique winery functions in a formerly dilapidated and abandoned house that was owned by Santiago Gomez, a homeopathic doctor who studied in Florence and brought back the region’s Italian architectural flair when the building was established in the late 1800s. Now, Blecua is named after the last inheritor of the building.
Blecua Estate winemaker José Ferrer has been at the helm for some time, and was coming up on his twenty-fifth harvest when I met him. Blecua isn’t an easy wine to make, accodring to Ferrer. There’s effectively three selection process: from eight vineyards (vinified separately), grapes (no surprises there), and barrels. The barrel selections are the most arduous, as several lots, coopers, and toasting levels are used. The blend ends up being different with each vintage, but Ferrer has no issue with that. “Nature is more intelligent than man,” he told me, “and we want confidence in the quality of the wine [rather than a totally consistent taste profile].”
2012 Viñas del Vero Secastilla Garnacha (Somontano)
Four vineyard sources are used in this red, which is technically a blend of Garnacha, Syrah and Parraleta. Some of the vines might be very old, but the take is thoroughly modern, with dark red & blue fruits, notes of minerals, flowers, and meat, and hefty, spicy, appealing sense of confidence. It’s long, deep, and concentrated.
2015 Viñas del Vero La Miranda de Secastilla Garnacha Blanca (Somontano)
“We found our stride with this wine,” Ferrer noted, and I’m inclined to agree with him. Heady, floral, honeyed, and ripe, here’s a white that’s punching above the weight class of its price. Stone, apple, and tropical fruits all make appearances here, as does a bit of slate and saline. The mouthfeel is round but structured, and it finishes with pith, power, white flowers, lemon curd, and anise. That is a lot of complexity for the price.
2014 Viñas del Vero La Miranda de Secastilla Garnacha (Somontano)
The brother to the Blanca, and also a Garnacha/Syrah/Parraleta blend, the first thing I noticed about this red was that it combined bramble and pepper with more refined notes of violets. There are plenty of fruits to go around, including blackberry, blueberry, and red plums (courtesy of relatively young vines, about seventeen years old). It’s spicy, fleshy, and fresh, finishing with a little bit of grip so that you make sure not to think it’s messing around.
2009 Viñas del Vero Blecua (Somontano, $NA)
Currently, this premium line isn’t available in the USA (importers, I am looking at you). Which is a shame, because it’s worth the rather large price tag with which it would be saddled after it got stateside. The nose alone is incredibly complex; cassis, spices, graphite, balsamic, tobacco. Woody now, it will almost certainly integrate well (if the slightly older but also excellent 2005 vintage that we tasted alongside it is any indication of its aging curve). In this vintage, the blend is almost equal parts Cabernet Sauvignon, Tempranillo, Syrah, and Garnacha. It probably shouldn’t work as well as it does, but when you encounter something this elegant, delicious, vibrant, and inventive (the interplay between the tannic structure and acidic vivacity alone almost steals the show), it doesn’t do you much good to question (what conceivably shouldn’t work on paper certainly works in the glass).