Half-way between the famed Spanish coastal cities of Malaga in the south and Valencia in the east is a small and oft-forgotten Spanish wine region called Murcia. While today it is of little consequence from a global perspective, Murcia has a colourful and interesting history, and is also one of the only regions on the planet to specialise in Mourvedre (known here as Monastrell)- a variety you may know as the ‘M’ in a GSM blend, apparently introduced to the region by the Phonecians many millennia ago. So let’s get to know Murcia!
Wine has been made in this part of Spain for several thousand years, and is an integral part of the lifestyle of its residents. Murcia’s peak of popularity came at the end of the 19th century, when the Phylloxera louse, brought back from the Americas, ravaged the vineyards of France. Like Rioja, Murcia was one of the closest regions where Phylloxera had not taken hold, and so French Negociants and Co-operatives bought Murcian wine in bulk and shipped it to blend in with their steadily declining-in-volume vintages as their vines died in the fields from some then-unknown blight. The hot, dry and sandy soils of Murcia, with their highly acidic lime subsoil were very unattractive to the pesky Phylloxera bugs, which only made its way into this region in 1989! This was a blessing in disguise however, as after it did hit, it allowed Murcia to replant and focus on a more modern style of wine today.
Officially speaking, Murcia is one of Spain’s 17 autonomous Administrative Regions (kind of like a mix between a council and a state), and within this region are 3 appellations for growing wine; wine is not the major focus of this hot, dry part of Spain, and I will go through these quality growing appellations (known in Spain as DO- Denominación de Origen) a little later. Geographically speaking, the region of Murcia is located in the very south-east corner of Spain. It is bordered by much more famous parts of Spain such as Seville to the north and Andalucia to the south and its capital city is (unsurprisingly) called Murcia. This city was founded in the 9th Century by the Emir of Cordoba, Abd ar-Rahman II, with the Arabic name Mursiya. It is believed that the name of this town originated from the Latin Myrtea or Murtae, which mean ‘myrtle and ‘mulberry’ respectively- both of which flourish throughout this region. Murcia town was setup as a stop for Moorish traders as they travelled along the coast, and grew over the centuries. Today, as with much of the Mediterranean coastline, the majority of the population live alongside the water to take advantage of the cool Mediterranean breezes and abundance of food from the sea- which unfortunately doesn’t leave much space for vineyards. The majority of vineyards therefore are located inland in the more humid and hot sections- not ideal for the grape vine, however in this section of Spain as the landscape transforms from coastline to inland Meseta (tableland) there is a steep incline. Now we all know that vines just love being planted on a hillside, and this increased altitude allows temperatures to drop overnight, and the grapes therefore retain their acidity and freshness.
As I mentioned earlier, the region of Murcia specialises in a variety used as a blending agent in much of the rest of the wine-growing world- its hero grape is Monastrell, which is better known as Mourvedre from Southern France while here in Australia we call it Mataro. Monastrell is a warm-climate specialist, and can be planted on the hottest, sun-drenched slopes due to the fact that it ripens very late in the season, meaning the berries only ripen as the summer is finishing, and there is little chance of them becoming raisins on the vine. No matter how hot the vintage, there will always be some plump fruit flavours and complexity from this variety. Monastrell loves soaking up the sun, which build flavour in its small, thick-skinned berries, which translates into a robust, deeply coloured, warm and densely tannic wine. In fact the skins contain so much natural tannin that in some parts of Southern France it is called Etrangle-Chien- the dog strangler, due to its chokingly dry finish! These tannins are a perfect foil for the warm alcohol (usually 14-17%!) and the robust flavours of blue and black berries alongside meaty notes and a distinct dried oregano and thyme herb aroma.
Murcia is home to 3 Denominación de Origen quality appellations;
Yecla is in the very north of the region, and is the smallest of the 3 DOs. On average only 300mm of rain falls in Yecla, though the altitude of the region (all vineyards are planted between 400-800m above sea level) drops overnight temperatures and assists in managing the 45 degree summer days. This is why 80% of vines here are hot, dry climate specialist Monastrell, and today Yecla is focussed on creating French oak matured, age-worthy and complex dry reds from their local hero.
Jumilla (pronounced hoo-me-a) is considered to be Murcia’s most important DO in terms of both quantity and quality. It is also the region’s oldest, established in 1966. Almost 90% of the vines in this DO are Monastrell, the rest being a hodge-podge of Garnacha (Grenache), Tempranillo, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah, often blended in to give the wines of Jumilla more palate weight and complexity. A bedrock of limestone under this region holds onto the paltry amount of rainfall this region receives every year and adds a mineral tang to the wines which goes well alongside the meaty and herbal notes in most wines.
Bullas is found in the very south of Murcia, and closest to the Mediterranean and its cooling influences. It is the most recent addition to the quality designations list, gaining this DO title in 1994. As a result of its youth and the slightly cooler weather conditions (it only gets to 38 degrees here in the summer!), only 60% of vines here are planted to Monastrell. The rest is planted to more international varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Merlot and Petit Verdot, and there are some white varieties grown here as well, including Chardonnay and even some Sauvignon Blanc! This more international focus is not only an attempt to be more globally attractive, but also because this region was classified after Phylloxera was discovered in the region. These international varieties are so popular in vineyards all over the world not just for their flavours and productivity, but also because they graft onto Phylloxera-resistant rootstock readily!
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