I doubt you have ever heard of a Spanish grape variety called Bobal (pronounced bow-bal), but I think you might start to hear more about it in time. While it is widely grown in Spain, it is in the Western Mediterranean, maybe 50 to 70 km inland from Valencia, that it finds its true home. There are three appellations (or Denominación de Origen) where Bobal is the principal grape variety, namely Ribera del Júcar, Manchuela and Utiel-Requena – I doubt you will be familiar with these either, I certainly wasn’t until a friend introduced me to an outstanding Bobal from Utiel-Requena, and I wondered why I hadn’t heard more of the region or even the grape variety.
Spain is a fascinating country for wine – there are areas of the country that have a long history of wine production, but they are overshadowed by a handful of well-known regions. Perhaps it is the complexity of Spain’s geography that makes it hard for us to get to grips with it. That aside, there are relatively unknown regions that boast dramatic scenery, outstanding vineyards and a long heritage of wine. Utiel-Requena is one such area; the region is regarded as being the finest of the trio mentioned above for Bobal and this variety can trace its origins here back to the 7th century! It accounts for virtually three quarters of the vines planted here on hillside vineyards that rise to 900 metres in altitude. In the modern era of climate change, the cooler conditions at altitude are hugely beneficial in retaining freshness in the resulting wines. Perhaps this is unsurprising when you consider the history of the region, but over half of the Bobal vines in Utiel-Requena are aged over 40 years and therefore have in some way regulated their yield, producing an intense, if limited, crop. The name ‘Bobal’ is said to have come from the latin ‘bovale’ meaning shaped like the head of bull, and is said to relate to the appearance of the clusters of tightly-packed grapes on the vine. The variety has a thick skin so produces deep, age-worthy wines with bold berry fruit characters, crucially retaining a vibrant acidity.
The estate of Las Mercedes has been cultivated since 1896 and belonged to a Spanish prime minister in the 19th century. It is located in the small village of Villagordo del Cabriel, a name which acknowledges its close proximity to the Cabriel river on the border of the provinces of Valencia and Manchuela. Production is tiny here, just 2,400 bottles of Las Mercedes ‘Bobal al Limit’ are made on average each year, as this is made from the oldest vines on the estate. I have tasted the 2017 and 2018 vintages, and both surprised me. I had tasted some run-of-the-mill, more commercial Bobal before and hadn’t really considered it further, but these two wines bore no representation to the styles I had previously encountered. I was struck by the fruit purity and the finesse of the tannins; too often I find fairly headstrong, bold Spanish wines where the oak seems to accentuate the graininess of the tannins – Las Mercedes’ 2018 vintage couldn’t be further from that description as you will see from my note below.
No critical reviews, no point scores here as you might expect, and that sums up Spain – there is so much to discover here, diverse grape varieties and small artisanal estates. I am sure we will be exploring more such examples in the coming months and years.
2018 Bobal al Limit, Las Mercedes del Cabriel
£150 per 6 bottle case in bond
Aged for nine months in new French oak and then 6 months in one-year old oak, and a further 6 months in bottle before release.
Deep in the glass, the nose offers aromas of black cherry, cassis, as well as more fragrant red berry hints with a touch of spice. Similar ripe berry fruits are apparent on the palate, which shows a seamless quality. The tannins create a really sleek impression here, adding a surprising level of elegance to a rich, deeply fruited Bobal. Hints of redcurrant and lighter red berries add aromatic lift on the palate, as well as vibrant acidity that carries long into the finish. The oak here is so well integrated with mere hints of cinnamon and spice, that it allows the terrific volume of fruit to take centre stage – this is sensitive winemaking. There is just something in the ripeness of the fruit that could lead you to Spain, otherwise this would prove tricky to place blind. It retains that juicy vibrant fruit quality well into the finish and while this could easily be enjoyed now, it will benefit from three to four years in bottle and could probably age for a decade. Very impressive. (SL) 2020-2028.
Please let us know of your interest.
All the best,