By Iza Święcicka
The Monastrell variety is considered a native grape of Spanish Levante. And although it has its origin in the Mediterranean catchment area, its exact origin is unknown. “Mesopotamia is the cradle of the vine and from there the vine moved westward, but it is almost imposible to determine where the crossing of a wild vine with one, that could be named as the origin of the Monastrell happened,” Encarna Gómez Plaza, professor of Food Technology, Nutrition and Food Science at the University of Murcia, explains.
The first evidences of the presence of the Monastrell in Spanish Mediterranean areas are from the XIV and XV century. “It seems that the name Monastrell was mentioned for the first time by Francesc Eiximenis from Empordá (Catalonia) and it has been mentioned along with Bobal, among the most important grape varieties of the Kingdom of Valencia in 1460 in the Espill of Jaume Roig,” winemarker Ángel Ivorra Chorro explains.
Currently, according to the data of the Agriculture, Fishery, Food and Environment Ministry from 2013, the three communities with the largest area planted with Monastrell are Murcia with 22,032 hectars, Castilla-La Mancha with 18,211 and Valencia, 7,480; the Alicante province being the largest surface dedicated to the Monastrell in this region, with nearly 6,000 hectars. Monastrell is the fifth most cultivated variety in Spain with a total of 48,116 hectars. Outside Spain, the main Monastrell vineyards are spread mainly between France, the United States (California) and Australia.
From an agricultural point of view, the variety is well adapted to the conditions of the dry climate of southeast Spain, with quite hot weather in the summer and cold in the winter in the interior zone, Adrián Martínez Cutillas, director of Murcia Institute of Agricultural and Food Research and Development (IMIDA) and researcher at the Viticulture Department, highlights. Monastrell is able to endure very hard years which are very hard because of the lack of rain as when it suffers great hydrological stress, the leaves begin to dry, which is the place where the plant loses water, to reduce the evaporation surface. “Those years the grape doesn´t ripen well, but the plant survives,” the researcher says.
Monastrell is also a variety of a long maturity cycle. As Rafael Poveda, the winemaker of Bodegas Salvador Poveda in Monóvar, expresses, this grape is the latest to be elaborated in Europe. The time from which it shoots until it matures, is almost 6 months. “It depends on the climate, but in the Levantine conditions it matures between 10 or 15 days after Shiraz, 10 after Cabernet Sauvignon and 15 or more after Tempranillo. Therefore, it is a variety that requires more hours of heat than Merlot or Pinot Noir,” the director of IMIDA says.
As for their chemical composition, as the professor Encarna Gómez Plaza highlights, “broadly speaking there is nothing that differentiates Tempranillo or Cabernet Sauvignon grapes which are quite similar, but in each of them there is a number of compounds that appear in different amounts making them different.”
As for its physical appearance, the Monastrell grain is a little bit larger than Cabernet Sauvignon, the profesor emphasizes. It has a pretty tough skin, which protects it from the external inclemency, so sometimes you have to work it in a special way to make the color, which is in this skin, come out easily in the must and, therefore, in the wine, Encarna Gómez Plaza stresses.
Phenolic compounds, found in the grape skin, are responsible, on one hand, for the red color of the wine and, on the other hand, for its astringency, bitterness and body. The wine would not be such a thing without them, the profesor says. The Monastrell variety as a young wine gives a good polyphenolic load without working it too much, but if the wines are going to be aging, and “if we want high phenolic content, it is true that some practices such as cold maceration or using enzymes of fermentation usually help to get rid of the phenolic compounds from the skin,” Encarna Gómez explains.
Regarding the aromas, the researcher stresses that “the Monastrell, despite not being a very aromatic variety, has aromas which contribute very fruity values to wines and confer typicity to this variety.” At fruit level, the aromatic range depends on the degree of maturity achieved in the grapes. “Aromas of black fruits such as blueberries, blackcurrants and plums predominate in the early vintage and grapes obtained from later vintages have more mature aromas like plum type raisins, fig jam, dried figs, candied and dried fruit, Andrés Carull, winemaker of Vinessens winery in Villena, explains.
Monastrell is also characterized by a range of aromas related to the Mediterranean forest. “Aromas of pine forest, pine resin, aromatic herbs from our mountains such as thyme, rosemary and some balsamic plants like eucalyptus. Also licorice aroma is quite common in Monastrell wines,” the winemaker of Villena says.
In addition, because grape varieties express their potential differently depending on weather conditions, soil and age of the vineyard, the Monastrell is no exception. Regarding to the weather factor, Sébastien Boudon, the winemarker from the Chapó winery, highlights, differences of climate because of the altitude. “The Monastrell from Bullas at 900 meters is generally cooler than one of Jumilla which is between 500 and 600, the winemaker quotes as an example.
The other physical characteristics that differ Monastrell from other varieties are the shape of the leaves and bunch, the branches and ápex, the last form “is the point of renewal of the plant, the last part of the growth of the branch, which is flat, and where the division is made. This point has a different shape for each variety,” Stéphane Point, winemaker of Ibérica Bruno Prats winery, says. The science that investigates the differences of the varieties is called ampelography. “It’s so very complicated that I can only recognize the main varieties that I have worked,” Point confesses.
The grower and winemaker Sébastien Boudon provides another typical feature of the Monastrell variety, “grandfather´s cane.” The tendrils of Monastrell are the only ones that engage with other branches and make a kind of knot that regarding to a French anecdote from the Rhone zone in France, where this variety is also cultivated, is called “grandfather´s cane,” the winemaker explains.
The history of Monastrell, like all European varieties, is marked by the appearance of phylloxera in Europe in the late nineteenth century, a plague that almost destroyed all European vineyards. And although the Monastrell has left its mark in the Spanish Levante area, their ancestors are still unknown. “We don´t have enough genetic markers to investigate what they are. Currently, a genetic study of Monastrell is being done, but it is too soon to anticipate anything,” Adrian Martinez Cutillas, the director of IMIDA, says. Moreover, the have been attempts to obtain new varieties from the Monastrell in this center since 1999.
In the past, Monastrell spread the name of `Alicante´ all over the world thanks to Fondillón, a wine made exclusively from this variety. Every year the wines made from this variety conquer new markets due to changes in viticulture and the efforts of the new generation of winemakers. In addition, the fame of the Monastrell attracts winemakers from other parts of Spain and the world.
“The comercial life of these wines is just the tip of the iceberg and that, in the future, the wines made from this variety will have a much larger gap due to their great personality and quality, where the Spanish southeast will be their most important reference,” Miguel Gil Vera, co-owner of Bodegas Juan Gil Group, augurs. Again the Monastrell opens the Levante doors to the world. Hopefully it will be for a long time.