In his famous song, Mediterráneo, Joan Manuel Serrat pays homage to the Mediterranean Sea. He sings in appreciation of the deep dark soul of the sea, the burning red sunsets and the smell and the light of the sea that follows him wherever he goes. It is a song full of praise and love that can easily leave you in tears because of the sheer power of his lyrics. As a true poet, Serrat expresses the feelings of so many. On top of the Sierra del Cid, the 1,127m mountain near Elda, Alicante, my brother-in-law, Roberto, sat in awe at the beauty before him. We had just finished the two hour trek to reach the summit and from that height we could see rows of brownish-green mountains with crops carved into the slopes and on the horizon, the magnificent endless blue sea that Serrat loves. No words were necessary to explain the connection he felt to his place of origin, it was evident in his gaze.
It is understood that if you know geography, you know wine. After all, wine laws and the labelling of wines is based on geography. The country of origin, the region, the vineyard and/or even the specific vineyard site are all components of the appellation (geographic indication) system. While grapes may be nature’s creation, wine is that of men, full of passion, love, and pride. And no labeling term could ever capture these emotions.
When I decided to join my sister’s family in Elda, a small town in the province of Alicante, over the holidays, Roberto went straight to work to make arrangements so that we could try some of the very best wines from the region and visit local wineries. I was gastronomically spoiled: Paella de conejo y carcoles (rabbit and snail paella) paired with Primitivo Quiles Crianza Monastrell 2012, Gazpacho Alicantino with Juan Gil 12 Months Silver Label Monastrell 2010 and Gachamiga (a traditional dish of fried flour dough) with Familia Castaño wines Hécula Monastrell 2013, GSM 2014 and the Castaño Colección Cepas Viejas 2011. The dishes were deliciously hardy yet modest with simple local ingredients. It was a pleasure to experience another kind of Spain: a raw, rustic Spain where the connection to nature forms part of the human experience. One where the land, dry, arid and desolate, tells the story of a people. The concept of terroir can be applied to more than just wine here; the authenticity and uniqueness of the land and its inhabitants, as well as the contagious pride of those that form part of it is what makes this part of Spain so special. It is no wonder then that Rioja winemaker Juan Carlos Lopez de la Calle, owner of Bodegas y Viñedos Artadi, purchased vineyards in Pinoso, Alicante in the late 90s and focused entirely on the Monastrell grape, the native grape of this region. While other winemakers in the area ripped out their vines and replanted popular international varieties or took poor care of this exquisite viticultural area, Juan Carlos recognized the beauty and uniqueness of the grape and the land.
On our visit to El Sequé winery on January 2nd, Liliana Leal, our guide, explained that Juan Carlos’ mission is to respect the land by sticking to organic and sustainable viticulture practice. The resident winemaker, Vicente Milla, manages both the fieldwork and the work in the cellar. The grapes are hand-harvested and put into small containers to ensure they are handled with the utmost care. In the cellar, there is minimal intervention in the winemaking process although the use of modern machinery such as destemmers and temperature-controlled stainless steel tanks help maintain pure varietal fruit flavour. By opting for natural winemaking processes, for example, native yeast fermentation, low-sulfur use, and no chemical use, the wines produced at El Sequé express true terroir. And at the centre of all this is the Monastrell grape, the small, thick-skinned berry with an affinity to hot, dry climates. Unfortunately, its reputation in Spain has suffered from years of mediocre winemaking and unpleasant table wines. It is an undervalued grape varietal, but one with incredible potential to those who can see its charm and know how to handle it correctly.
Only one person out of our group of Alicantinos and Valencianos (Roberto’s friends from nearing towns) had ever visited any of the wineries in the region. Despite the deep vinicultural history in this part of Spain, wines from this region have been overshadowed by the more internationally recognized Spanish wines from La Rioja and Ribera del Duero. Only in the past few years, as El Maqueda (from Monovar) explained, has there been a greater appreciation for local wines. And it was clear from the conversations that fired back and forth in Castellano and Valencià (Valencian) that the visit had sparked an huge interest and enthusiasm to learn about El Sequé, Monastrell and wines from south-east Spain. Our visit ended with a tasting of Monastrell By El Sequé 2014, DO Alicante and El Sequé 2013, DO Alicante (see below for tasting notes). The wines were superb, but our rambunctious group was thirsty for more! We finished off the tasting with ARTADI Viñas de Gain 2012, a stellar Tempranillo from La Rioja. While it was definitely a wonderful wine, the group unanimously agreed that it was no El Sequé 2013. Because El Sequé exposes the beautifully complex Monastrell, a grape and a wine with the heart and soul of the Mediterráneo.
Monastrell By El Sequé 2014, DO Alicante
Monastrell is made from 90% Monastrell (Mouvedre) and 10% Syrah. It’s has a cherry color, medium depth, with aromas of dark and ripe red fruit, notes of sweet spice and a hint of herbs. On the palate it is powerful (14.5% abv) and full-bodied, lots of ripe fruit, firm tannins and balanced acidity. It has a little bit of a bitter finish at the back of the tongue, but enjoyable. Best to pair this wine with hardy dishes such as stews, game, roasted or braised meats, wild rice or a delicious paella de conejo.
El Sequé 2013, DO Alicante
An incredibly memorable wine: gorgeous purple colour with thick tinted legs, delightful aromas of ripe dark berries, plums, and toasted oak were bursting out of the glass. After a few minutes in the glass, the wine had exciting balsamic, earthy and a bit of leathery aromas to it. It is medium (to medium plus) bodied even though it also has 14.5% abv but very well-integrated with silky, velvety tannins. Complex wine with wonderful layers of sweet black fruit, herbs, spice and again the signature balsamic flavour. Although still young, and with potential to develop beautifully, it is ready to drink and great for sipping with green olives from Alicante, cured cheeses, as well as with heavier gamey dishes. This is an outstanding wine!
To Roberto, who now has views of Lac Léman, but the Mediterráneo always in his heart. Thank you… https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_w2WOHs9wG4