Wine review: Bobal is Spain’s hidden gem

In the last five years, Bobal has been revived by a small group of producers

The name Bobal is derived from bovale, or bull, as the bunches of grapes are said to be shaped like a bull’s head

The name Bobal is derived from bovale, or bull, as the bunches of grapes are said to be shaped like a bull’s head

 

At a wine fair recently, a producer asked me to name Spain’s three most popular grape varieties. I got the first two correct; Airen (a white grape and the most widely planted grape variety in the world) followed by Tempranillo. I was fairly sure the third was Garnacha.

He smiled and said no. My next three guesses were also wrong so I admitted defeat and gave up. It turns out the answer is Bobal. Ever heard of Bobal? I didn’t think so. Until a few years ago, very few of the most ardent Spanish wine lovers would have done so.

Planted only in one small corner of Spain, it barely rated a mention in most wine books and even then was dismissed by commentators as a workhorse grape suitable only for bulk wine production. However, over the last five years, Bobal has been revived by a small group of producers and is now attracting a growing band of followers.

Spain has made a habit of unearthing old grape varieties. At times you wonder what is coming next. First there was Carineña, Monastrell and Albariño, followed a few years later by Mencía. Since then we have been introduced to a host of other white and red Spanish varieties from Galicia and other regions, many with fantastic potential.

Spain is fortunate in having a treasure trove of mature indigenous vines, many planted 50-80 years ago. Some were grubbed up in the 1980s and 1990s in the rush to plant international varieties, but many remain.

The name Bobal is derived from bovale, or bull, as the bunches of grapes are said to be shaped like a bull’s head. It has been grown in southeast Spain since the 15th century and possibly longer. The vines survived and prospered in the harsh winters and baking hot summers of the meseta.

In the mid-19th century, Bobal proved resistant to the deadly vine disease Phylloxera and plantings increased dramatically. The vast majority of Bobal vines are to be found in the little known DO (Denominación de Origen) of Utiel Requena.

It is part of the province of Valencia, inland from the coast and the capital city. It is one of the least known Spanish DOs yet there are more than 35,000 hectares of vines and more than 100 wineries here. Behind it lies Manchuela, once part of the massive La Mancha region, but granted its own DO status in 1982. Here you will find most of the remaining Bobal.

In the past, these regions were dominated by a few large companies which used Bobal to make rosé wines or cheap imitation Rioja. The other specialty was doble pasta wines, a unique Spanish practice of adding extra grape skins and pulp to the fermenting crushed grapes and juice.

The result was a wine very high in colour and tannins – much in demand for blending with lighter pale-coloured wines produced elsewhere. The Cien y Pico (€17.99 from independents) is made in this way. If you want to try a Bobal rosé, Aldi has the Toro Loco for €5.99. The beauty of Bobal is that it offers wines with plenty of colour, ripe dark fruits and good acidity. It does tend to have plenty of tannins, too, and to ripen unevenly.

The first wine that made me sit up and take notice was the Clos Lojen from Manchuela. Then I met Spanish sommelier Bruno Murciano at a tasting run by Quintessential Wines.

He presented two Bobals from the same producer in Utiel-Requena – the lovely soft-fruited La Malkerida below and the altogether more serious El Sueno de Bruno, a wonderful structured wine with great intensity.

The last producer I discovered was at a wine fair where I was introduced to María and Paco Sancho. They have just started to supply an excellent Bobal to Dunnes Stores (Aranleón Blés, €9.50) and two wines to O’Briens, the oak- aged Solo Tinto and the Encuentro below. jwilson@irishtimes.com

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