There is absolutely nothing like sitting down with a cup of coffee on a hazy Saturday morning to the sound of parrots and song birds singing cheerfully outside my terrace to entice me into beginning Chapter 3 of Julian Jeff’s “The Wines of Spain”. After diving head first into Chapter 2, walking a fine line between wanting to write novels about the chapter rather than a brief synopsis, I now find myself in a completely different state of mind. Cloudy days call for calmer moods and more relaxed modes of approaching a task.
As I open the book and read about the history of Aragón, I have vivid flashbacks of reading Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “One Hundred Years of Solitude”. The breadth of information on who conquered, married, killed, courted or screwed over who requires a wall size map and a personal guide. Although, Julian dedicates only a few paragraphs to a topic that should require a book onto itself, he at least gives you the cliff note version of the most important details you most likely remember from your High School European history class – i.e. Ferdinand and Isabella.
Unfortunately, Julian doesn’t get into the major significance as to why the marriage of Ferdinand and Isabella is so critical in forming what we know of Spain today. In the 8th century, well before these two love birds met, Spain was almost entirely conquered by the Bereber Muslims (Moors) except for three small regions in the mountains of northern Spain which managed to cling to their independence: Asturias, Navarra and Aragon. But by the 11th century, the Moors had been fractured into two rivaling kingdoms, one of which was finally taken over by the strength of the Christian states in the north, whereby weakening the strength of the Moorish stronghold on the country.
By the 15th century, when the Moors were permanently expelled from Spain, the country was divided into four main regions: Aragón, Castille, Navarra and Granada. This was a major turning point in Spanish history because when Ferdinand II of Aragón married Isabella of Castille in 1469, it not only “united” the country, but it also founded the name we now know as España, or Spain.
The second piece of Aragón history that Julian mentions only briefly is that of Columbus’s historical “discovery” of America, which was partially funded by Queen Isabella herself. Known as Cristóbal Colón in Spain, Columbus is celebrated here much like he is celebrated in the States with blind ignorance of history. I bite my tongue on giving too much of my opinion on the matter other than to say that we tend to see history through colored lenses. Columbus never “discovered” America, as US history preached throughout my entire childhood, nor did he enjoy a lovely picnic with the Indians filled with some ideal sense of comradery. The sad reality is that Columbus was a nasty guy who makes Hannibal look tame and docile. If your interested in further reading on the topic, I highly suggest reading “Guns, Germs and Steel” by Jared Diamond.
Finally, there is the topic of language. Although not directly wine related, it is a cultural issue that shapes the way each DO approaches their winemaking, whereby being an essential part of a wine book. As we’ve mentioned on Catavino before, Spain is far from being one cultural entity; rather it is comprised of dozens of different cultures that have their own way of relating to one another, their neighboring regions and Spain as a whole. Understandably why I feel each region should be provided with more cultural background to shape our understanding of how each winemaker approaches his/her wine. To give you a better sense of how complex the Spanish culture is, consider the fact that Aragón alone has 3 official languages in an area slightly smaller than the state of Louisiana. Like the rest of Spain, Spanish is spoken throughout the region, but the mother language is called Aragónese, which is spoken in the valleys of the Pyrenees mountains. Along the border of Cataluña you’ll find people speaking Catalan, referred to as La Franja throughout the region. Unofficially, you will also encounter a mix match of dialects that change from one area to another. Therefore, if you travel from one Bodega on the eastern border of the region to a bodega on the western border, you are more than likely going to encounter two very different notions on what traditional winemaking means based on their cultural roots.
It isn’t until Julian starts talking about the history of Aragón’s native grape, Cariñena, when my senses become alive remembering how many times I have heard about this grape but have continually been lost as to its origin. Up until the nineteenth century, Cariñena was said to be one of the best vines in Spain, which later found its way to France where it is known as Carignan. Julian goes on to say that if we went back in time to the 1980’s and took a quick peek at Aragón as a region, you’d feel as if it was left behind as its brethren such as Cataluña rose to economic prosperity. Now, in 2007, it has caught up to the rest of Spain, both economically and viticulturally. I can absolutely buy the idea, but why is Julian pointing out the 1980’s? Did something happen then that I should be aware of? I do know that this region was equally devasted by the Civil War in the 1930’s as were Navarra and Cataluña, but does this account for the economic hardship Julian highlights 50 years later? Maybe this is when he was visiting the region and noticed the desolation and hardship around him? Anyone have a clue?
At the end of the introduction of Aragón, Julian begins breaking down each DO within the political region of Aragón by its various characteristics that influence their wines. If you remember from Chapter 2, I make it clear that this book is wonderful for reference, but that I wouldn’t pick it up to read if it wasn’t for the occasional juicy story Julian throws at me to tease me into doing further research. This, however, was the first time I was taunted into learning about soil structure when I began his description on DO Calatayud. Calatayud is located in the province of Zaragoza, south of DO Campo de Borja and west of its bordering neighbor, DO Carineña. What suddenly intrigued me about the soil structure is based on a discussion we’ve had on our site on several occasions, Ryan’s perpetual desire to lick rocks – a peculiar inherited behavior on his father’s side. From his family’s account, one can actually taste the difference between rocks. Logically, I can see this if there is no external influence from salt water, pollution or other potential flavor disrupters, but I’ve never really taken this heart until I thought about wine. There are times when I can taste a mineral, but I generally place it in the “slate” basket because I don’t have another term or adjective to describe it. When looking at the soil structure of DO Catalayud, I am struck by Julian’s description.
Brown, loose, and stony limestone and loam over gypsum, with marl in the north and slate in the south.
What is marl? What does it taste like? Do I want to know? Is it the same or different from slate? When I say that I am tasting slate, am I actually tasting marl, or maybe gypsum? Maybe I need to go north and start licking some soil to find out? I am now officially curious as to what minerals taste like and if the conversation about soil is not only to have reference as to which grapes can grow in which soil types, but also to have a sense of flavor in a wine. I can no longer say that it I taste slate, because that is obviously a false descriptor. I may have to use the general umbrella adjective of “mineral” to express my experience, but slate just can’t cut it anymore.
I was also intrigued upon looking at the different grape varietals allowed by the DO including:
Red: Garnacha (locally known as Garnacha Tinta del Monte); Tempranillo; Mazuelo: Merlot: Cabernet Sauvignon; Syrah; and Monastrell
White: Viura (Macabeo); Malvasía; Chardonnay; Garnacha Blanca; and Moscatel
Old Vineyards: Cariñena, Juan Ibáñez (additionally known as Miquel de Arco) and Robal
First of all, I think it is important to know that Julian doesn’t give us a background on the grape Cariñena until I get to his description of DO Cariñena, which is unfortunate because I would love to know more information from the get go considering that this DO is the second largest producer of the grape next to DO Cariñena. Additionally, he makes no mention of Juan Ibáñez and Robal. With varietal names like these, I at least want a good story about who Juan is and why a grape was named after him. Hence, I did a bit of research. Evidently, Juan Ibáñez is not only known as Miquel Arco, but also Concejón, Miquel de Arcos and Moristel in Somontano. Unfortunately, I found zero on the origens of the grape other than wondering if it wasn’t named after the famous Mexican film producer, writer, actor and director, Ibáñez Diez Gutiérrez who had co-produced several films here in Spain. What I do know is that this grape is grown only in this region and is typically blended with other varietals.
Cariñena (Carignane in American English; Carignano in Italian, Carignan in French, and Carinyena in Catalan) has a wealth of information on it and has been said to elaborate some fantastic and interestine wines. According to Julian, traditionally it made rather sweet and very high in both alcohol and color as a result of its late harvest, but now that bodegas have caught up to speed in stainless steel technology, wines have become more refined, elegant and remain a great value at all price points.
In regards to the three other DOs: Campo de Borja, Cariñena and Somotano, their international reputation is on the rise as young winemakers have begun to carve out a niche in their unique styled wines that are both well balanced and affordable. Personally, I would have to agree with him. Bodegas such as Bodegas Pirineos, Bodega Ignacio Marín (not available in the US), Bodega Enate, Bodegas Borsao and Cordoníu‘s new property called, Bodegas Nuviana (not available in the US), have all been well regarded and worth looking into.
Although this Chapter was rather lean at best, I found it fascinating considering that I can have read and heard of several stories of the civil war based on the region, but have never had the opportunity get deeper into the medieval times. Plus, I had the chance to ponder the savory details of a rock, reconsider the formation of Spain, get a little riled up on undeserved fame of Columbus, learn about a few new grapes and consider whether the DOs other than Somotano will reach the status and prestige of Rioja in Spain.