Bodegas Luzon / Photo Courtesy of Bodegas Luzon
Driving around Jumilla, a rugged wine region wedged between Spain’s Mediterranean coast and the plains of La Mancha, it is impossible to avoid passing the Castillo de Jumilla—an enduring landmark of Jumilla’s storied past. The castle comes into view when entering or leaving the region’s namesake town, regardless of which direction you are driving or which route you take. When my husband and I visited last summer, we joked we were like goldfish in a bowl swimming past the castle every time we passed but continually stunned by its presence, as if noticing it for the first time.
If Jumilla literally exists in the shadow of the castle, it figuratively exists in its own shadow as the producer of inexpensive bulk wines as well as the shadow of more famous wine regions to the north. Here the main grape is Monastrell, a rich, juicy red variety which fans of wines from the Rhône Valley will recognize as Mourvèdre and our Australian friends may know better as Mataro. With a winemaking history stretching back 5,000 years, as evidenced by archeological finds including the oldest vitis vinifera seeds found in Europe; the highest percentage of organic vineyards of any region in the world; and a signature grape variety that produces wines brimming with both power and finesse, you would think that Jumilla would have an easy time making its way in the modern wine world.
When my husband and I ducked out of our coastal town near Malaga to visit Jumilla last summer, our local Spanish friends were incredulous about our plans. They couldn’t understand why we weren’t visiting a more storied appellation, one where the trademark grape is Tempranillo and hotels and wineries are designed with the international tourist trade in mind. What our friends didn’t realize is that while most other regions in Spain sell 60% of their wines internally and 40% to the rest of the world, most of Jumilla’s palate- and wallet friendly wines—a whopping 70%—are sold into the export market. And although the majority of its 47,000 acres of vineyards are home to rustic-looking bush vines, many of Jumilla’s producers are firmly planted in the 21st century with an eye on the future. That said, past and present sit comfortably side by side and contradictions abound.
The Center of It All
The first person in the modern era to recognize the importance of the Castillo de Jumilla as an instrument to sell wine may have been Antonio Bleda, who founded Bodegas Bleda in 1915. Now run by the fourth generation of his family, the winery produces two ranges of wine, one of which is called Castillo de Jumilla. Bleda registered the name in 1960, six years before Jumilla was recognized as a D.O., or Denominacion de Origen. As you might expect, the Castillo de Jumilla line is the winery’s more traditional, Monastrell based tier of wines. As general manager Antonio José Bleda Jiménez, a fourth-generation family member, explained, “Jumilla was known for its wine and the castle. Antonio matched the monument and the wine.” Bleda also produces wines under the Pino Doncel label, named for a type of Mediterranean pine that is prominent in the area. Pino Doncel is described as the more “modern” line, which Bleda elaborated is due to the other French varieties in the blends, including Syrah, Petit Verdot and Merlot.
Grapes and pines are not the only things that grow in Jumilla. The high plateau is also home to oregano, rosemary, thyme and almond trees. A drawing of almond blossoms graces the labels of wines from Silvano Garcia, paying tribute to the natural abundance of the region. Drawn by Fini Vargas, winery partner (and wife of Silvano García Abellán, general manager and third-generation of the family), the illustrations could be confused for Japanese cherry blossoms at first glance. As García Abellán pointed out, “The design on the labels is one of the first things that reaches the consumer,” and adds, “This is also a way of … transmitting the elements and history that are part of each wine.”