It’s ironic to think that you have to despoil the countryside to be green. As the high-speed AVE train scythes a path through between Madrid and Zaragoza, Don Quixote’s windmills of yesteryear have been substituted by today's vast farms of wind turbines. They’re not as beautiful, of course, but they’re not ugly either and it’s hard to begrudge their presence when they’re such a valuable source of much-needed alternative energy. Here, in these undulating rural plains surrounding Zaragoza, lie three of Spain’s least-known wine regions.
Across the flat plateau north of Zaragoza, founded by Caesar Augustus, hence the name, Campo de Borja is a wine region sitting in the shadow of the 2300 metre Moncayo mountain. Protected from Atlantic rains, drenched in bright sunlight and dried by the Cierzo, the north wind, this is classic garnacha grape country. At Bodegas Borsão here, garnacha comes into its own as one of Spain’s best value reds in wines like the strawberryish, peppery 2010 Gran Vega Privado, Garnacha, £3.78, Asda, and the vivid, blackberryish, spice-tinged 2010 Gran Tesoro Garnacha, £4.29, Tesco.
Half an hour from Zaragoza in the valley of the Ebro to the south east, the Campo de Cariñena, a plain enclosed to the south west by the Iberian Range, has been producing wine for 2000 years. 2500 families live off the production of the region, which claims the oldest co-op in Spain, San Valero dating from 1946, along with 35 independent bodegas. With its inhospitable winters and hot summers, rainfall is low and pebbley soils make up three-quarters of the terrain. It’s an arid winescape with a source of more good value reds such as the 2010 Alegria Old Vines Cariñena from the Cooperativa San José de Aguarón, £6.99, Laithwaites, a gluggy, mulberryish blend of cariñena and syrah that’s made for grills and sausages.
An hour to the south west of the city, the high, rocky vineyards of Calatayud lie between the Vicort and Pelada mountain ranges. Nine in 10 wines made are wines are red, with garnacha the main grape and tempranillo important too, albeit in a minor key. Calatayud is an ancient wine region dating from the second century but the economics of making wine in such inhospitable terrain have taken their toll. So much so that although the region expanded to 44,000 hectares in the 19th century following the discovery of phylloxera in France, less than a tenth of that remains today.
Facing north to preserve the wine from the heat, numerous tiny bodegas vye for space in the Calatayud hills, all owned by individual villagers, mostly as ancient as their vines. The vineyards lie on slopes at 550m to 1040 metres, so high in fact that they’re only halfway through harvest here when Cariñena has completed its. The rocky, chalky soils are poor, and so low-yielding that the children of growers show little interest in taking over from their parents.
There is some outside investment in the area but it hardly amounts as yet to a renaissance. Norrel Robertson MW, aka ‘The Flying Scotsman’, is one outsider making powerful, concentrated reds such as the smoky, blackberryish 2009 Papa Luna, £9.99, buy 2 = £7.99, Majestic and the richly concentrated, tarry, spicy 2009 Dos Dedos de Frente, El Escocés Volante, Calatayud, around £22.99, Planet of the Grapes, Imbibros, a Spanish take on Côte Rôtie. There’s good value to be found here as well as high quality, a typical example being the 2010 Cruz de Piedra Garnacha, £5.50, The Wine Society, an enjoyably rustic cherryish garnacha with herby undertones.
Something for the Weekend 23 September
2010 Bordière Nord Syrah Grenache, Vin de Pay d'Oc
Deep coloured, spicy and aromatic, this well-made blackberryish, brambly southern French blend shows a dark fruited, juicy, spicy damsony freshness, with a rustic dry edge to the tannins at an attractive price for an affordable Indian summer's barbecue red. £6.99, buy 2 = £5.99, Majestic.
Under a Tenner
2009 Tesco Finest Sonoma County Chardonnay
There's some attractive sweet toasty oak on the nose of this Calfornia Chardonnay and a rich, almost Burgundian palate combining ripe peachy fruit with the otamealy flavours of the lees and a nutty dry finish. Very well-crafted and full-flavoured, stylish, affordable dry white. £8.99, Tesco
2008 Château Haut Ballet, Fronsac
There’s a light vanilla-scented touch of oak in the aroma of Olivier Decelle’s attractively soft-textured, modern Right Bank claret made from pure merlot in mini-St.Emilion mould, whose ripe black fruits character is nicely tempered by some chunky tannins and forceful acidity. 14.24, Waitrose.