The dollar's value has been taking a wicked pounding from the euro until very recently, making it seem impossible that anyplace in Europe could currently rival the world's greatest sources for high-value wine. Yet the Levant region in southeastern Spain is sending us a surprising slew of remarkable reds that are packed with flavor and value.
My recent tastings turned up 18 wines that I'll recommend to back up this claim. Only two of them top the $20 mark, and 10 will ring up for $12 or less, so we're dealing with wines in a popular price range. However, I'd wager that few readers are familiar with more than one or two of them, so we're also dealing with wines that offer the pleasure of discovery along with all that flavor and value.
The wine-growing portion of the Levant is a relatively large area served by the Mediterranean port cities of Alicante and Valencia. Most of southeastern Spain is wickedly hot during the growing season, but some of the prime portions of the Levant enjoy cooling from the nearby sea or from the effects of altitude. The growing regions of Jumilla, Bullas, Yecla and Utiel-Requena include vineyards reaching heights from 2,000 feet to nearly 3,000 feet above sea level and are consequently capable of producing wines marked not only by ripeness but also by real complexity and class.
Winemaking in the Levant extends back to Roman times, but consistent quality wasn't achieved until temperature-controlled fermentation technology was widely adopted during the past two decades. Technical progress made the wines reliable, but they became salable here only in the past few years, as American consumers began displaying openness to Spanish reds other than famed Riojas. This has encouraged importers to begin working with Levantine wines, and though Utiel-Requena isn't likely to become a household word anytime soon, you'll probably be able to track down several of the top wines with a couple of calls to retailers.
Recommended wines are listed in order of preference, with regions of origin, approximate prices, importers and Washington distributors indicated in parentheses:
Coronilla (Utiel-Requena) Reserva 2000 ($24, Tasman Imports/Wine Partners): The Bobal grape is even more obscure than the Utiel-Requena region, but this wine suggests that both should be taken seriously. Made entirely from 60-year-old Bobal vines, it shows dark color and impressive density, with dark berry fruit and interesting accents of roasted meat, smoke and spices. Ready to drink but still capable of further development.
Vina Honda (Jumilla) 2001 "Allier-Finesse" 2001 ($17, Grapes of Spain/Elite): A blend of 85 percent Monastrell (known as mourvedre in France) and 15 percent Tempranillo, this is mature enough to show excellent softness and integration of flavors but also young enough to feature fresh black cherry fruit. Full-bodied and deeply flavored, it is nevertheless soft and smooth in texture.
Casa Castillo "Valtosca" (Jumilla) Syrah 2002 ($22, Jorge Ordonez/Henry Wine Group): Traditionalists may frown at a wine made from a French grape on Spanish soil, but their disapproval will likely wilt after a single sip of this. The dark, dense blackberry fruit is intense but drinkable, and so concentrated that it has already soaked up a serious dose of spicy oak, resulting in a bold but balanced profile.
Alceo (Jumilla) 2001 ($17, Grapes of Spain/Elite): A heady blend of 50 percent Monastrell, 25 percent Tempranillo and 25 percent syrah, this displays intense aromas and flavors of ultra-ripe plums, dried black cherries, roasted nuts, black licorice and wood smoke. Full-bodied and deeply flavored, this is ill-suited to cocktail-style sipping, yet grilled meats should tame it sufficiently for near-term enjoyment.
Castano "Solanera" (Yecla) Vinas Viejas 2002 ($15, European Cellars/Henry): Dense, deliciously ripe fruit from old vines is the prime attraction here, and the winemaker has wisely let it stay in the forefront by eschewing fining [a clarification technique that can lessen flavor impact as it removes suspended particles from wine], filtration or excessive oak aging. Powerful but pure.
Rozaleme (Utiel-Requena) Bobal/Tempranillo 2003 ($16, De Maison/Bacchus): Complete and convincing, this features complex fruit flavors recalling dark berries and red cherries. Admirably balanced between ripe richness and bright freshness, it shows well-proportioned accents of oak and culminates in a long, symmetrical finish.
Casa de las Especias (Yecla) "Forte del Valle" 2004 ($17, De Maison/Bacchus): Impressive and tasty if still a bit raw and undeveloped, this powerhouse would benefit from a protracted timeout. However, if paired with robust meat dishes, its intense blackberry flavors will win many admirers.
Dominio del Arenal (Utiel-Requena) Crianza 1998 ($10, Country Vintner/Country Vintner): I've tasted this wine several times over the past couple of years, and whereas it sometimes seemed to be overly oaky, it has now matured into a well-balanced beauty offering outstanding value. A blend of 50 percent Tempranillo and 50 percent syrah, it shows alluring scents of ripe berries, wood smoke, vanilla and roasted meat.
Casa Castillo (Jumilla) Monastrell 2002 ($12, Jorge Ordonez/Henry): With substance, elegance and symmetry, this is an exemplary rendition of Monastrell and an achievement at this price level. Given a little time to aerate and unwind after opening, it shows medium-bodied fruit that is expressive and generous without seeming chunky or obvious. Strong but soft, this is a steal.
Alceno (Jumilla) Tinto 2003 ($12, Grapes of Spain/Elite): Fruity and fun but hardly frivolous, this shows dark, concentrated blackberry fruit that is delightfully expressive, thanks to a light touch of oak. The fresh fruit can take a light chilling for use with grilled meats throughout the summer.
Coronilla (Utiel-Requena) Crianza 2002 ($13, Tasman Imports/Wine Partners): Another winner crafted from the Bobal grape, this features vivid flavors of dark berries and cherries, and reserved accents of smoke and spices.
Wrongo Dongo (Jumilla) 2003 ($9, Jorge Ordonez/Henry): Generous to a fault, this is a bit chunky for a Spanish wine, yet it remains far less obvious than most California zinfandels. Ripe and juicy, it will work well with almost any sort of barbecued meat.
ALSO RECOMMENDED: Finca Luzon (Jumilla) 2003 ($10, Jorge Ordonez/Henry); Castillo del Baron (Yecla) Monastrell 2003 ($9, Europvin/Bacchus); Travitana (Alicante) Old Vines Monastrell 2003 ($11, Tasman Imports/Wine Partners); Los Monteros (Valencia) 2004 ($10, Tasman Imports/Wine Partners); Carchelo (Jumilla) Monastrell 2004 ($10, Classical Wines/Henry); Agarena (Utiel-Requena) 2003 ($7, Tasman Imports/Wine Partners).