Thursday, March 08, 2012

The Alphabet Soup Project – “J” is for “Jumilla”

I like climate-based cooking. Lighter dishes and salads in spring, cold soups and garden-laced goodness in summer, grilling in autumn, soups and stews in winter – you get the idea. The wacky weather we’ve had has occasionally left me flatfooted. I find it hard to plan a menu when the temperature’s swinging 40 degrees from day to day, paired with the occasional severe thunderstorm. (And no frickin’ snow.)

Unpredictability requires flexibility, which means I have a perfect excuse to open some Spanish reds. I’ve always thought they were great food wines. They’re usually big enough to handle chops and steaks, but they have enough subtlety to go with roasted or spiced chicken and some vegetarian dishes.

Unfortunately, some Spanish winemakers have become victims of their own success – especially in Rioja, the best known of the regions. Don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of good wines from Rioja, but many winemakers have gone the route of California Zinfandels (and many cabernets) in the 90’s and early oughts – high oak, in-your-face extracted flavors with monstrously high levels of alcohol. There’s nothing wrong with wines like that if you’re grilling ribs, but they’re not really for sipping and can overload a lot of foods. Luckily for us, there are plenty of Spanish reds out there which aren’t replications of those kind of fruit bombs. My choice for this stretch of menus is Jumilla.  

Jumilla (pronounced who-MEE-yuh) is a fairly mountainous region in the southeast corner of Spain, overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. Weatherwise, Jumilla can be a blast furnace. The constant winds from the sea do nothing to cool things down. The average high temperature in the summer months is north of 90 degrees (over 110 is not uncommon) with sharply cooler nights and almost no rainfall. This climatic arrangement is a little slice of heaven for wine grapes.

Red wine is Jumilla’s calling card.  Jumilla reds are largely made from the Monastrell grape. Never heard of Monastrell? It’s known more widely as Mourvedre – a grape widely grown in France, especially in the Rhone valley. Also, as in the Rhone, Monastrell is sometimes blended with Garnacha (Grenache). Left to its own devices, Monastrell produces powerfully fruity, tannic, peppery wines, reminiscent of Zinfandel – especially since the alcohol content is usually north of 15%.

Where Jumilla differs from the cinder block-like subtlety of Zinfandel is in how well it pairs with food. Wines this strong aren’t normally considered flexible food wines, but a skilled winemaker can cool some of the harsh, hot edge Monastrell can bring to the table. The basic Naked Vine pairing rule certainly holds in Jumilla – people make wine to go with food they regularly eat. Jumilla is in the Murcia region of Spain, known as the “fruit and vegetable garden of Europe.” Thirteen percent of all vegetables grown in Europe come from Murcia. Pork and chicken are very common meats, and the proximity to the Mediterranean allows for a fair amount of fish. Paellas and stews are extremely common, as are salads and a number of gouda-ish cheeses. With a potential tapas menu that broad, a one-note wine wouldn’t work well.

Speaking of paella – I was in the mood to cobble one together after the Sweet Partner in Crime had a particularly stressful several days. The one I managed to put together, I have to say, was perhaps the best I’ve ever made – featuring chorizo, chicken thighs, and bay scallops spiced, baked and simmered to perfection. I poured the Bodegas Juan Gil 2008 Jumilla ($15) alongside. I was concerned at first sniff. The first taste held a lot of oak and tannins that immediately parched the back of my throat. That sharpness faded quickly, thankfully, leaving a punch-packing but nicely-balanced mix of blackberry, chocolate, and pepper. As a side note, this wine starts much like a Beaujolais – with carbonic maceration (adding yeast to whole clusters of grapes), but the flavor isn’t in the same neighborhood. I was afraid such a big wine would demolish the subtle flavors in the paella, but my worries faded quickly. As muscular as this wine was, it was about as lovely a pairing as I could have imagined for a cool evening.

The next night, we cracked a couple of others:

Bodegas Juan Gil “Wrongo Dongo” 2010 Jumilla ($9) – This is the Juan Gil “second label” wine. They’ve changed the label recently – from a confused-looking man to a geometric pattern that reminds me of a Roach t-shirt iron-on. At first sniff, I would have mistaken it for a cabernet. The wine holds a pronounced note of vanilla on the nose along with some leather and mild fruit. My first sips were intensely tannic, but like its slightly more expensive cousin, it eases back a bit into cherries and leather. The finish is more tannic than the other Juan Gil, also.

Bodegas Luzon 2008 Altos de la Luzon Jumilla ($14) – Although this wine starts you with a Wrongo Dongo-esque vanilla blast, it’s a much more subtle wine all in all. The vanilla is underlain with some floral scents (lavender?) and blackberry. The tannins are much tamer – so much tamer, in fact, the fruit ends up overwhelming the tannin a bit initially. Like the others, it balances out after a little bit of air. As for which is the better wine, it depends on your taste – if you like drier, stronger wines, the Wrongo Dongo is for you. If you want more fruit, go with the Luzon.

That night, we made a scrumptious veal, mushroom, and artichoke stew. The Altos was the better choice here. Its subtlety meshed with the flavors more easily. The Wrongo Dongo was a little overly assertive, so it masked the delicacy of the stew’s flavors.

The following night, we had the remainder of these two wines (it’s true -- we didn’t finish either bottle) with chicken breasts braised in a dried fruit and olive sauce with some saffron rice. The Altos, after a day open, had lost much of its complexity. It wasn’t great on its own and was nondescript with the food. The Wrongo Dongo held onto much of its character (since it was a simpler wine to begin with) and was much tastier with the assembled plate.

Summing up -- Jumilla – it’s wine for people who like big reds but have a varied food palate. I think these are some of the most flexible “big reds” you’ll encounter. Definitely worth a try.

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