As one of the first American wine writers to conduct modern field research in the Utiel-Requena DO, an extreme winegrowing region in central Spain, I found a treasure there that has been hiding in plain sight. Other than having tasted the region’s indigenous grape—Bobal—on rare occasions, I was in the dark about the region’s ancient winegrowing history.
Guided by Nora Favalukus who had visited Utiel-Requena five years earlier, and presented a master class tasting on the region for the Society of Wine Educators, we embarked on a three-day immersion designed to demonstrate the modern range of style afforded by Bobal and the region’s extreme terroir.
Right time for old vines
As the region lies is 45 minutes northwest of Valencia, Utiel-Requena’s primary agricultural crops are oranges and almonds with one wine only recently being recognized as a value-added source of revenue for a winegrowing region that is Spain’s third-largest.
You begin to see vineyards as you approach the city of Requena with the
majority of wineries located here while much of the land under vine stretches towards the town of Utiel to the north.
As a late-ripening variety, Bobal is ideally adapted to the region’s extraordinary climate, one that’s distinctly continental but bears a Mediterranean influence most evident in the landscape’s flora, a
scrubland known as matorral or tomillares.
Utiel-Requena’s climate is marked by a severe diurnal shift during the hottest summer months when daytime high temperatures can reach 40 C and an increasingly short growing season that is being attributed to climate change.
With its winged, tapered bunches, Bobal is said to be named for a bull’s head. Its berries tend to be uneven in size and it can ripen unevenly not unlike Zinfandel. Unlike Tempranillo, the variety isn’t oxidative and it was historically used to top up Rioja barrels that had lost volume during transport to the port of Valencia.
Where vineyard elevations reach heights of 940 meters in the region’s Campo Robles Alta, both altitude and increased exposure to UV help the late-budding Bobal variety retain high levels of acidity and produce thick skins dense with anthocyanin and tannin.
Winds—some hailing from the Mediterranean that lies to the south and the mountains that protect the region from the heat of La Mancha to the north—result in far healthier vineyards enabling growers to achieve organic certifcation. Many of the vineyards here have been farmed for generations without chemical inputs and producers see the value add of certifying those practices.
Bobal was traditionally vinifed as rustic bulk wine and almost exclusively exported to France. Over the last decade it has undergone a transformation, one that takes full advantage of the grape’s versatility and modern winemaking techniques that respect both its varietal character the region’s
It thrives in two primary soil types—ferrous red clay with limestone and Albar, chalky and limestone rich, and stony alluvial soils. The former producing richer, fruitier wines and the later wines that are floral and less structured.
With less than 400 mm of rain annually, Utiel-Requena is one of Spain’s driest and coldest DOs. But due to the water-holding capacity of the soils, dry-farmed, head trained or trellised Bobal vines have survived for centuries with the oldest vines at 80 years and the majority of plantings averaging 40years. As such, yields are generally around 1.5 kilograms per vine or one vine per bottle.
“The answer to success with Bobal lies in the old vines,” said Vicente
García alongside his daughter Rebecca at Pago de Tharsys. This
predominance of old vine material is working in favor of the
winemakers who are vinifying the variety across a broad range of
styles all of which are successful. Garcia is well known as the father
of Bobal-based sparkling from the Utiel Requena DO.
While Bobal isn’t a sugar factory like Garnacha and it’s abundance of
anthocyanins often result in darker rosés that perform well on the
domestic market, it’s a variety ideally suited to rosé produced by
direct press method.
Bobal was first planted at Bodega Sierra Norte in 1914 and according to winemaker Manolo Olmo the winery was among the first in the region to work organically. The winery produces a Bobal rosé from the winery’s Ladera Fuenteseca vineyard at 900 meters, the highest vineyard plots in the Camporrobles. This wine is bright and lively with cherries and strawberries, and utterly pleasing.
Grupo Covinas’ tropically-fruited Aula Rosé shows watermelon and banana and is one of anexpansive portfolio of wines produced by the largest co-operative winery in Utiel-Requena.
In contrast, the Veterum-Vitium which means “old vine” in Latin, is an old vine Bobal that spends about six months in oak showing refined black fruit and savory secondary notes of tobacco and spice.
Superb examples of oak-aged Bobal were shown at several wineries. At Dominio de la Vega, a vertical of Paraje 2016, 2014 and 2006 sourced from the stony hills of the La Moella, a vineyard revered by winemaker Daniele Exposito as a very old site for Bobal, showed opaque black wines with mulberry, blackberry and plum evolving with bottle age to smokier, leaner aromas of prune, cedar, umami, earth, thyme and ferrous, licorice notes.
At Marqués del Atrio, a Bobal–dominant blend with Tempranillo from the La Guardia vineyard spends 15 months in new French oak for a savory, sapid wine that over-delivers on its modest price while the 2013 Reserva showed dark spices and meaty, chewy tannins. Older vintages including a 2010 were focused and rich with compelling notes of orange zest.
French and American oak aging of the Ladrón de Lunas Exclusive LDL at Bodegas & Viñedos Ladrón de Lunas results in a wine with exotic spice notes, vanilla and red-fruited Bobal from sixth-generation winemaker Fernando Martinez.
An opulent 2017 barrel-fermented Bobal from Bodegas Vibe winemaker Juan Carlos Garcia showed more apparent blue fruit, graphite, star anise, and mocha as a result of battonage during malolactic conversion in barrel. The winery also works with the native white variety Tardana which has plenty of dry extra, beeswax and pear drop notes.
2014 Clos de San Juan is a richly-developed, old vine Bobal from Bodega Cherubino Valsangiacomo with mulberry, plum, leather, earth, and geosmin. Marta Valsangiacomo, fifth-generation family member led our tour.
Iron Age wineries tamed the wild vine of Utiel-Requena
The presence of Bobal in Utiel-Requena was documented in the 15th century in “Espill o llibre de les dones” by Jaume Roig, but evidence that a thriving wine industry existed in Spain’s Utiel-Requena region as early as the fifth century BCE points to the ancient origins of this thoroughly modern region that’s staking its claim with the indigenous grape – Bobal.
Having walked among the well preserved Iron Age ruins of Las Pilillas de Requena, a massive stone winery carved into a remote hillside 80 kilometers due west from Valencia, it’s thrilling to realize the connection between the region’s ancient winemaking heritage and the indigenous Bobal grape. Las Pilillas dates from the sixth century BCE and is considered the oldest industrial winery in the Iberian Peninsula.
Although we rarely hear of their contributions, the Phoenicians are credited with introducing the tradition of wine consumption to the native pre-Roman inhabitants of the Iberian coast. The amphorae used to transport wine by sea arrived in the region in the seventh century at a time when wine was an exotic and prestigious, imported good very likely used for the worship of Dionysus or Bacchus.
The presence of Phoenician amphorae shards which line the modern-day trail leading to Las Pilillas and other sites also points to early commerce between Phoenician settlements in the south and these ancient wineries. By the sixth century, local wine production was established and Phoenician
amphorae were used to store wine. During the fifth century, local amphorae were being produced at pottery kilns or workshops at or nearby the winery sites.
While the Phoenicians brought viticulture and winemaking technology to the native Iberians, DNA evidence suggests[i] that they didn’t introduce cultivated grape varieties but instead relied on local, wild rootstock for their cultivars . The rise in cultivation of indigenous vines which were very likely the precursors of Bobal across the region coincides with the construction of the Phoenician wineries.
So it seems, ancient winemaking flourished in Utiel-Requena as the
result of an abundant natural resource and imported technology. In
addition to vines, olives which can still be seen growing near the
ancient wineries, almonds, figs, and pomegranates were commercial
crops in the Iberian economy from about the fifth century onwards.
As many as ten Iron Age wineries some dating to the seventh century
have been discovered in the region once known as Kelin, the capital
of a 10-hectare site covering much of the sub meseta de Utiel-
Requena. The earliest was excavated at Edeta/Tossal de Sant Miquel
(Llíria, València) in 1934 and indigenous wine production was finally
confirmed in 1989 with the discovery of various presses and
associated amphorae and grape seeds at the site of L’Alt de
Benimaquia (Dénia, Alacant) dating to the end of the seventh
The sites for these wineries were selected along the La Alcantarilla and Los Morenos watercourses (Requena, València), where Las Pilillas de Requena is located. They provided fresh water for irrigation, wine production and possibly a means of transport. The ravines formed by these rivers resulted in a growing region that was warmer and protected from frost creating ideal conditions for ripening grapes.
The wineries themselves were ingenious adaptations of the terroir and the use of gravity. They are sited on the higher slopes of the ravines and comprised of one or two upper terraces that were used for foot crushing of grapes and pressing of the skins.
Small channels fed must into lower basins where it was collected in wells carved directly into the rock. Fermentation occurred either in the basins or in amphorae.
Once finished, the wine was transported to the head water of the
ravine in wine skins or amphorae and sold within the region. The floor plans of the wineries and some local houses include storage areas and dedicated cellars for wine amphorae.
These ancient wineries flourished for centuries and the Iberian
merchants who controlled wine production which is estimated at
about 40,000 liters annually per site were certainly affluent.
Not long after Valencia was founded in 138 BCE by retired Roman soldiers,
Romanization ensued and imported wine in Campanian amphorae
flooded the Kelin region. During that time, the hillside wineries were
abandoned as the Romans absorbed the local industry into their
broader production and trade networks.
Today, the curious can walk about one kilometer off the main road to
reach Las Pilillas de Requena and explore it unsupervised. The region
has applied for Unesco heritage status which would help secure the
resources necessary to protect and preserve its fascinating heritage.
Bobal’s characteristics defined
Low in alcohol, generous in tannins and chock full of antioxidants, this perfect combination of characteristics makes Bobal a wine for modern times.
A sensory snapshot of the variety reveals that it has far more complexity than the simple, commercial wines of the past have alluded to. Highly dependent upon the mesoclimate where it’s grown, Bobal shows
red fruits like plum, pomegranate, cherry, blueberry, damson plum and darker black fruits like mulberry, blackberry, and black currant.
After Airen and Tempranillo, the indigenous vitis vinifera grape Bobal, from bovale in reference to the shape of a bull’s head, is the third most-planted grape variety in Spain. Grown predominantly in nine
towns in the Utiel-Requena DO, Bobal is also farmed in significant quantities in nearby Valencia, Cuenca and Albacete.
Like many of Spain’s treasured high-altitude winegrowing regions, Utiel-Requena, located at 70 kilometres (50 miles) from the Mediterranean coast, sits at an altitude of between 700 and 950 meters (1960 and 2950 ft) above sea level where a mixture of Mediterranean and continental climates
result in long, cold winters.
Late frosts in April and May are a hazard for winegrowers here but Bobal is well adapted and protects itself from the frosts by budding late. An extreme diurnal shift, the difference between daytime high and nighttime low temperature variations during the growing season, helps preserve acidity in the grape which benefit from a long growing season and late ripening.
This vigorous variety prefers loose, sandy soils from the region’s alluvial river beds and has to be rigorously pruned to limit canopy and yields for high-quality wine. Typically grown head trained in gobelet (en vaso) and less often on trellises (en espaldera), Bobal is very tolerant of drought and resists both downy and pests including birds possibly due to its low sugar accumulation.
However, it can be susceptible to odium and botrytis and, when grafted to Rupestris root stock, coulure. In the vineyard, Bobal can be recognized by long, loppy shoots, large, juicy blue-black, thick-skinned berries, and light
red leaves after harvest.
In the winery, Bobal doesn’t tend towards oxidation but without
precaution acidity can be lost during fermentation. Naturally low in
alcohol and pH with plenty of natural acidity (5.5 to 6.5 g.l), the wines
have remarkably high levels of resveratrol and generous amounts of
anthocyanin, polyphenols, and terpenes.
Ranging from dark cherry to deep crimson in color, Bobal has notes of
violet, high-toned florals, spices, resinous herbs, and cherry,
raspberry and dark fruits. It’s typically medium to full in body with complex layers and high levels of tannins that range in style.
Considered an ideal blending partner with Monastrell, it develops
additional complexity and gains in quality from barrel aging. Old vine Bobal wines gain a specific designation in the DO as “Bobal Alta Expression.”
These are mono-varietal wines that may or may not be oak aged produced from dry-farmed vineyards 35 years old or older that are held to lower yields. Rosé wines and all styles of 100% Bobal can be designated “Bobal With Specific Mention” of Utiel-Requena.
[i] Arroyo et al. 2002