Last year, Simon predicted we would be offering more incredibly individual Spanish wines than ever before. We are tasting more and more fascinating examples, often from less familiar and fairly underappreciated regions, made by skilled winemakers focused on high quality, terroir-driven expressions who are setting the bar ever higher. I had the pleasure of tasting one such example earlier this week, the 2019 Las Gravas from Casa Castillo, offered here at £185 per 6 bottle case in bond.
Casa Castillo is based in the DO (Denominación de Origen) of Jumilla, which lies within the Murcia region in south-eastern Spain. Like much of Mediterranean Spain, Jumilla focuses on wines based on Monastrell (Mourvèdre in French), a thick-skinned black grape variety well suited to hot, dry climates. Although lying near the coast, much of Jumilla is situated on an elevated central plateau, so the region in fact gets very little cooling influence from the sea. Instead, altitude is an important factor in moderating summer temperatures that can reach 40 degrees Celsius; most of the vineyards can be found lying between 400 and 800 metres above sea level. Jumilla has in the past had a reputation as a source of inexpensive, bulk wines, however, thanks to improvements in viticultural and winemaking techniques, as well as an increase of highly skilled, quality-minded producers, the region is slowly starting to gain recognition for top-class Monastrell. This is where Casa Castillo comes in.
When it was purchased in 1941 by the grandfather of current owner José Maria Vicente, Casa Castillo was comprised of a winery, a cellar and some scattered vineyards planted to international varieties dating from the 1870s, established by French refugees fleeing the plight of phylloxera. In 1985, José Maria and his father began to replant the vineyards with native varieties, focusing on Monastrell. They bottled their first vintage in 1991 and have been improving ever since, with Luis Gutiérrez commenting in 2020 that the estate is making ‘very high quality wines that I consider the best in the region and among the best in Mediterranean Spain, producing world-class Monastrell’.
The 2019 Las Gravas is a blend made up of around 90% Monastrell and 10% Garnacha from vineyards with gravelly top soil over a base of clay and limestone, a soil base that allows for some water retention which helps in particularly dry years. The vines for Las Gravas are planted at an altitude of 750 metres, helping freshness and aromatics to be retained despite high summer temperatures. Practices employed in the vineyard and winery at Casa Castillo demonstrate the estate’s focus on quality; low-yielding bush vines are hand harvested, grapes are foot-trodden and fermented in small underground stone tanks with a high proportion of whole bunches, and indigenous yeasts are used. The wine is then aged for around 16 months in old oak barrels before being bottled.
I was struck by the elegance of the wine; there was a purity to the juicy dark fruit, subtle floral notes of violet and exotic spices, refined tannins, and a chalky mineral vein, all in perfect balance, finishing long and smooth. No critic has tasted the 2019 vintage, so I include my tasting note below, as well as Luis Gutiérrez’s note on the 2018 vintage. 2018 was characterised by cooler than average temperatures and higher rainfall than the norm. The resultant wines are generally a little less structured and more aromatic in style. 2019 by comparison was a very dry year, leading to a reduction in yields and generally wines with more concentration and structure.