Alicante, wine region
Quality, tradition and expertise: Alicante as a wine region
When it comes to quality products, there is no shortage of place-names associated with their origin. Over time, such references, particularly when they related to food and (alcoholic) beverages, even become synonyms for these fine wares themselves. Even if you are not a sommelier, it is likely that you can name at least one or two examples from the Iberian Peninsula. Historically, Alicante as a wine region also belonged to such lists. As I will detail below; this is a recognition Alicante (still and again) deserves.
Quality / That Spain happens to be a wine country; is of course something I need not tell you, but to what degree; might perhaps be of your interest. You can find grapes in the fields and wine producers in each (!) of the 17 autonomous communities, with wines ranging from the light to the potent ones, from the elegant to the sweet. According to data from the Spanish Wine Market Observatory, in 2018, the extension of agricultural land dedicated to this purpose throughout the country was about 960,758 hectares (If you are unfamiliar with the metric system, a hectare is about 2.47 acres). By comparison, in the case of France it was about 835.805 hectares in 2016. The Valencian Community ranks forth in the ranking of Spanish communities, with 61.317 hectares.
In our province, the Regulatory Council of the Protected Designation of Origin represents some 35 producers on both sides of the Vinalopó River. To the north you will find them in Alfaz del Pí, Teulada-Moraira, Calpe and the towns of La Vall de Pop (Castell de Castells, Benigembla, Murla, Parcent, Alcalalí, Xaló, Llíber,Senina, and Benissa). In the south, in Algueña, Monóvar, Novelda, Petrer, Pinoso, Salinas, Sax and Villena. All these vineyards together (and strictly speaking they also include a small extension across the border with Murcia), add up to approximately 10.622 hectares. They amount, therefore, to 1.11% of the national total and 17.32% of the Valencian one.
But do not let these statistics fool you regarding the wines’ quality. The Wine Advocate, one of the world’s most renowned information sources on the subject, has on several occasions named Alicante the top production region of the Mediterranean. In January 2018, for example, no less than 18 local wines received a score of 90 or more (out of 100) on the Parker quality scale. The Peñín Guide, a reference source specialised in Spanish wines, has also crowned Alicante best region in the country on multiple occasions. The list of awards and accolades of international, national and local origin (the “Best Moscatel Wine”, for example) is simply too long to cover and even includes distinctions for the labels’ design. In my opinion, this has even more merit when one considers that the producers are invariably family businesses who have often joined forces through local cooperatives.
Buying a wine from Alicante therefore amounts to acquiring a key piece of our heritage. Describing that history in its entirety would merit an article in its own right, so I will therefore hereafter limit myself to some milestones. Archaeologists estimate the beginning of Spanish grape production somewhere between 4000 and 3000 BC. As enologist Cristina Alcalá describes, the Fenicians introduced wine production on the Mediterranean coast from what today is the El Puerto de Santa María (Cádiz, Andalusia) to Denia. In El Campello an Iberian settlement from the sixth century BC has been found with grape seeds and a wine press . As the large number of amphoras and sunken galleys that have been found before the coast of Denia testitfy, the boom did not really take off until the arrival of the Romans some four hundred years later. References to wine have also been found in the mosaic floors of the famous Baños de la Reina in Calpe.
When Spain was mostly under Islamic rule new hydraulic infrastructure was introduced to improve the production process. The emphasis, however, changed to the production of raisins, although that of wine was not interrupted, as is evident from the praise those from Alicante received from poets. (For those who knew how to read, of course) With the Reconquista the wines’ export began and, after the discovery of the New World it prospered on an intercontinental scale. From 1510 onwards, by Royal Decree of Ferdinand of Aragón, in Alicante only wines of local origin could be distributed, a prohibition that was maintained for 246 years
Meanwhile, the wines from Alicante acquired international fame, especially the Fondillón (which will be described in detail later), even among that era’s great enemies such as France and England, and also in Flanders and the Netherlands. According to The Guardian, Queen Elisabeth preferred the wines of Alicante “above any other”. His successor consumed them so much that he described them to his surgeon as the color of his urine. Apparently, on his deathbed, Sun King Louis the Fourteenth of France only asked for rolls dipped in Alicante red.
Quality has been a constant throughout. An example are the remains of an 1813 English frigate found in Tarragona with Fondillón on board, which, despite the ravages of time, could still be tasted. This same nineteenth century has been considered as the ‘golden age’ thanks to a concurrent plague of the vineyards in France that facilitated the closing of an advantageous trade treaty with this country. The province’s vineyards covered nine times the surface they occupy today. Unfortunately, over time the plague also arrived in Spain, but fortunately it was defeated.
At the beginning of the last century production fell greatly. But like other wine regions in the country, Alicante created a quality standard for its local wines in the form of its own Protected Designation of Origin (in 1932). After the Civil War, the cooperatives came into being. Modernization only took off in the 1970s and has been an ongoing process ever since, in part thanks to State support and access to European funds from 1986 onwards. Thus, foreign grape varieties have also been planted since the 1990s, how to mitigate climate change is being actively researched, and stainless-steel fermentation tanks have been introduced. New brands and products have also been created (muscatel-based cava, for example), often accompanied by visually attractive packaging and labels (sometimes co-designed by star chefs). And as I have described, the accolades have not stopped coming.
What kind of grapes and wines can you find in Alicante, then? Regarding the raw material, you can find 9 varieties of white and 10 different varieties of red grapes. Among the first are the Muscatel from Alexandria, Airén, Father Subirat, Chardonnay, Macabeo, Merseguera, Pedralba, Sauvignon Blanc, and Verdil. Among the second Monastrell, the Garnacha or Alicante Bouschet, the Bobal, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Petit Verdot, Syrah, and Tempranillo. And as to the types of wine: no less than seven different ones: white, red, pink, sweet, sparkling, licor (mistelas) and Fondillón. I will explain these last two in more detail as they are authentic local specialties.
A mistela is a naturally sweet wine based on grape varieties such as the Muscatel from Alexandria, Pedro Ximénez, Macabeo, Malvasías and Garnacha Blanca. It is made from the paralysis of the fermentation process to add extra wine alcohol. The result is an increase in the alcohol percentage up to 15-16 degrees and sugar content (up to a total of 70 and 125 g/litre) to obtain its characteristic sweet taste.
The already several times aforementioned Fondillón is an intensely coloured red wine made from Monastrell grapes that has to age for at least ten years- some sources say at least sixteen- in mahogany wooden barrels. The grapes themselves are extremely vulnerable to rain and are harvested on purpose only when they are too ripe (between October and November). During the long fermentation process nothing is added, all the sugar comes from the grapes themselves. This wine was about to disappear due to the complexity of this process; fortunately, some entrepreneurs recovered this classic for our enjoyment. Nowadays it is one of the few wines certified by the European Union as legally allowed to bear their own name.
A region rediscovered
Of course, the best way to ensure that from now on you will (again) name Alicante as synonymous with quality wine is to taste them yourself. Different producers offer you the opportunity to take a guided tour of their facilities in small groups. You can often even attend tasting courses there. Digital photographers will also revel in this visit. If you are lucky or arrive at the right time of the year you can even witness the spectacle of the harvest, always with permission, of course!
The Alicante wine route is obviously a great way to get to know that the tows that constitute it and their traditions (even better). In late August you can, for example, attend the Muscatel festivities in Teulada or attend the culinary competition dedicated to this grape in September. And even if you do not drink alcohol, nothing prevents you from enjoying the fruit itself, or any of the other delicacies sold in the wines that take full advantage of these and other local Earth treasures. A medieval treasure, nowadays in disuse; suggested that ‘with bread and wine, the road is made’, that is, performing any action requires adequate sustenance. Enjoy Alicante’s wines to the fullest, but of course, always do so responsibly!
By Alexander Van der Biest