Survival of the fittest: Monastrell’s desert story

Old vines in Jumilla

In Spain’s arid south-eastern terroirs, ancient Monastrell vines survive in the most inhospitable soils. How do they do it, asks Kirsty Woodgate

Paulownia plants line the road to Jumilla. At this time of year their luxuriant purple flowers are in stark contrast to the desert landscape, and they prepare you somehow for the unusual sights to come. Straight and sparse rows of gnarly old vines grow low to the ground. The semi-arid, dusty orange plains are interrupted only by the striking Prebética mountain range in the distance. This is Spain’s answer to the Wild West, but it is what’s happening beneath the surface that tells an even more dramatic story than the landscape itself.

Jumilla in south-eastern Spain is Murcia’s oldest wine region. Evidence of grape growing goes back centuries - Jumilla’s Museo Arqueológico Jerónimo Molina displays a 2,500-year-old pair of golden hoop earrings featuring a small bunch of grapes. Summer temperatures can reach 40 degrees, and with an annual rainfall of scarcely 300mm it takes a hardy crop to grow here without irrigation. For Jumilla this means almonds, olives and grapevines. Situated between 400 - 800 metres above sea level, cool evenings give some respite for the land and its produce.

The drought-tolerant Monastrell grape thrives in these conditions, and its bush-trained vines have flourished here for decades, despite the calcareous and limestone content of the soil.

Jumilla, rich in ancient vines, is now part of the register of the Old Vine Conference, a non-profit organisation dedicated to categorising and preserving old vine wines. ‘Old vines are a beacon for talent, innovation and connection’ says co-founder Sarah Abbot MW.

Over 1,000 hectares in Jumilla are planted on ungrafted rootstocks, remaining anchored to their ancestral origins. Monastrell makes up the majority of these, with small plots of Airén and Alicante Bouschet. This is highly unusual in Europe. In the 1800s phylloxera destroyed some two-thirds of Europe’s vineyards. Since then, EU rules have stipulated plantings be grafted to American rootstocks to prevent this devastation happening again.

Jumilla evaded the Phylloxera crisis. The region’s calcareous soils are inhospitable for the root-destroying phylloxera louse, meaning it never arrived, and the Monastrell vines retain their genetic DNA developed in the region for centuries. Elena Pachego, a third-generation winemaker at Bodegas Elena, says ‘much like an older person with experience, these vines have the wisdom to know what to do in these harsh conditions.’

Pie-Franco, meaning ‘free-footed’, is prominently displayed on many bottles of wine from Jumilla, signalling it has been made from fruit produced by historic ungrafted vines. The wines themselves give powerful flavours of blueberry and cocoa with high tannins. While premium offerings can be 140 euros a bottle, quality wines can be priced astonishingly low (starting at around 7 euros locally) when you consider the labour it takes to make wine from low yielding, hand harvested old vines.

But do old vines, particularly ungrafted vines, have an influence on the quality of the wine?

Miguel Gil, general manager of Bodegas Juan Gil, has a good deal of experience with vines of different ages, particularly in his experiments with ungrafted and grafted Monastrell grown in identical conditions. ‘The main difference is the size of the berries, which are slightly smaller in ungrafted vines, and the concentration (measured on colour index and Total Polyphenols Index (TPI)) is higher’, he notes. ‘This however was secondary when analysing the colour, taste, smell and texture. We had two very different qualities of wine produced. When tasting, the wine from ungrafted vines was better in our opinion.’

Carolina Martinez Origone, general secretary of the Jumilla PDO regulatory council, agrees. ‘When the vine is ungrafted the sap can flow more freely, transporting vital water and nutrients throughout the plant.’

The Old Vine conference works to better understand these old, often ungrafted, vines, helping to safeguard their qualitative, cultural and ecological value. ‘Jumilla’s old vines come from an intersection of place, luck, benign neglect, and struggle. While we can’t say with certainty that the ungrafted characteristic is key to its extraordinary qualities, all of the great producers in Jumilla are working with ungrafted Monastrell,’ Abbott says. ‘Additionally, the old vine heritage of Jumilla can change its image as a “workhorse” region: the Monastrell wines now being made here are profound and perfumed, and not merely robust and hearty. Old vine Monastrell of Jumilla is one of the great specific wine styles of the world, and we are just starting to see its true potential.’

Yet, this fragile ecosystem is under threat from new cash crops such as broccoli and lettuce, the more economically viable almond and olive trees and even solar panels. When old vines are uprooted and replaced with grafted vines the genetic material that has taken centuries to build is lost. Producers in Jumilla are now buying vineyards to secure grape supplies from old vines and protect the plantings.

The terroir of Jumilla was once its saviour. Now, it is the proactivity and strong connection to the land from the people of Jumilla, alongside support from Old Vine Conference and consumers, which are at the forefront of efforts to conserve this unique heritage.

Kirsty Woodgate DipWSET is a communications and wine professional based in the UK. She works as a wine writer, wine judge and regularly hosts tastings.

Photo credit: Consejo Regulador DOP Jumilla, Angela Flores

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