It was once the toast of artists and adventurers, but by the middle of the last century the wine of Valdepeñas was being tipped into jugs of cheap sangria for package-holiday tourists. How did it all go so spectacularly wrong? Last year, in a new promotional drive, the denomination adopted the slogan ‘Wines with stories to tell’, and the region’s fall from grace is a story that deserves to be told.
Alfonso has insisted on setting off early for what is only a two-hour journey south of Madrid. His interest seemed to have been piqued when I mentioned that I’d like to write something about his hometown; he knows ‘just the people we should speak to’, and a flurry of phone calls later it has been arranged.
My father-in-law, like most Spaniards, is proud of his roots. I remember a family lunch in which he insisted on ordering a bottle of Valdepeñas. When asked if we’d ‘not prefer something better – like a Rioja or Ribera?’ he politely stood his ground, before muttering ‘¡gilipollas!’(idiot!), as the waiter returned to the kitchens. We might have all laughed at the time, but I sensed that this slight to the Patria had hurt, and there was a score to settle.
Leaving behind Madrid and driving onto the almost perfectly flat plains of La Mancha, I’m initially disappointed that I won’t be able to photograph the dusty scenes that typify the area: after the unprecedented amount of rain that fell in March, Spain’s central meseta presents something more reminiscent of Provence than anything Cervantes described in the tales of his eccentric knight. The disappointment is briefly broken upon spotting a cloth-capped shepherd with a small flock of goats, but we pass by in a blink before I even have time to get the camera out.
With no photo opportunities to be had, I ask Alfonso what it was like growing up in the small town of La Mancha. There are fond memories of family, childhood escapades and old haunts. His grandparents owned land and during the vendimia (harvest) he tells me how he used to ride on the carts that carried the grapes to the wineries. In many ways, it sounds idyllic but these were also tough times, and his family were forced to move to Madrid for work when he was ten.
We have arrived predictably early and, with no sign of our guide, Alfonso decides that there is time to take me to a churrería that he knows. We had already stopped off for a second breakfast in the lovely Plaza of Tembleque, but the importance of eating well cannot be over-stated for my father-in-law: this is a man that actually put on weight whilst walking the Camino de Santiago. On arriving anywhere his attention, almost invariably, turns to ‘Where are we going to eat?’ True to form, when we finally meet up with Juan Megía, it’s the second question that he asks.
Now retired, as an agricultural engineer Juan spent decades working with local growers, as well as working his own land. He witnessed first-hand the workings of the old wineries as well as the rise of the new, and to help explain it all he takes us to the town’s excellent Museum of Wine.
Listening to Juan’s description of the rudimentary methods and workings of the old bodegas, it’s tempting to think that under such conditions a good wine must have been more of a happy accident than a grand design, but a few tweaks aside this was how it had been done for as long as anyone could remember. So either tastes changed dramatically or something catastrophic occurred to cause the region’s fall from grace.
Valdepeñas was already an important government staging post, but when the railway arrived in 1861 it positively boomed. By the 1890’s a daily ‘wine train’ was doing its best to quench the seemingly insatiable thirst of the Spanish capital. Further coastal lines would soon spring up to facilitate exportation to the far-flung reaches of the empire, and so the conquest of the world was assured, or so it must have seemed.
For aside from the poor conditions in which the wine was being transported and stored, not to mention the inevitable deterioration that over-production brings, something much more sinister than the train was about to plough its way into town: phylloxera. This aphid, which had already turned the rest of Europe’s vineyards into vine cemeteries, now turned its attention to Valdepeñas. Ironically though, it wasn’t the destructive power of the little critter, so much as a fatal decision that was taken in the aftermath of the destruction, that would ultimately prove to be the region’s undoing.
In what would prove to be a spectacularly short-sighted act of self-harm, the local growers chose to replant most of their withered vineyards with the more easily grown Airén. Easier to cultivate, hardier and producing almost twice the yield of Tempranillo (known as Cencibel in these parts), the white grape variety would seem to be a smart choice, but for one important detail: it made awful wine!
Modern developments in wine-technology have since made it possible to turn Airén into something very pleasant, but a century ago it was only good for distilling and mixing: watering down the Cencibel to produce, what Hugh Johnson once described as something ‘light and thin, like Beaujolais but with none of the charm’.
Alfonso remembers drinking these wines as a young man in Madrid’s taverns. A chato (small glass) cost only one peseta, but don’t expect stories of dusty bottles and fine vintages here: this was wine for men, and even the toughest of them used to add soda to make it drinkable. Thus, the region that had made its name producing fine red wines for the Spanish Cortés was now diluting it and selling it by the wagon load. Sip by sip the good name of Valdepeñas was going down the drain…
Over one of those long Spanish lunches where the food just keeps on coming, Juan tells us that there are only really two types of wine: ‘those that I enjoy drinking and those that I don’t’; luckily for us, the nearly empty bottle sitting on the table clearly comes into the first category.
But what on earth is this? Swilling the deep-hued wine around my glass, I’d forgive you for thinking that everything I had recounted thus far about Valdepeñas was a lie – in fact, you’d probably want to denounce me as a phoney.
Because this full-bodied Tempranillo, with its subtle vanilla tell-tale notes of oak ageing, is so far from the wine that Hugh Johnson described, that it can’t possibly be from the same place.
This is really good. So where on earth does it come from?
As if reading my mind, Juan has organised for us to visit the very place: a local family run bodega, where he buys his wine directly.
On the way there we pass the enormous Los Llanos winery, only identifiable from a sign on a wire fence. All that can actually be seen from the car are tens of giant stainless steel tanks reaching up into the sky, as if a passing extra-terrestrial had decided to plonk his spaceship down in the middle of the plain. If Don Quixote had been riding with us, no doubt he would have charged these invading aliens on the spot.
Thankfully, the small bodega of Miguel Calatayud has a much more welcoming appearance. We are met at the door by Valentín, whose great-grandfather first started making wine in the 1920’s. The current winery was built some forty years later, and as we start to look around it immediately becomes apparent that something is different.
In the little winery, the past and present of Valdepeñas sit lovingly side by side. Thankfully they have chosen to keep the now dormant clay fermentation pots that represent such an important part of the region’s heritage, but they rest next to the new American and French oak casks, used to mature the very Crianza we had been enjoying at lunch.
Valdepeñas came late to the game of new-wave wine-making. I imagine that this was largely due to a certain Castillian bloody-mindedness about cómo se hacen las cosas (how things are done): I’ve long given up attempting D.I.Y with Alfonso, as he flatly refuses to countenance the idea that it can be done in any other way that is not his way. I can perfectly imagine outright hostility being shown to ideas that had come from the new-world. After all, what could those Aussies and Yanks possibly teach us about making wine?
So it must have been with a begrudging realisation that, on sipping on one of those new creations, the truth was finally pronounced: ‘It is…well…better’.
But those very words ushered in a new era and a fresh start for the region. The old clay pots, which had become the very symbol of the town, were slowly replaced by shiny modern equipment, Tempranillo once again began to dominate the landscape, and it wasn’t long before local bodegas like Valentin’s were turning out wine that was winning awards around the world.
If there is a sad note to this resurgence then it is that out of the 200 or so bodegas that existed in the days of the wine train, only a handful have survived. Most were simply not able to afford the massive investment that was required when the revolution came, and production is now dominated by three large corporations – one of which we had passed on the way here.
The errors of the past still weigh heavily. The denomination has a lot to do to recover from almost a century of bad luck, bad decisions… and, it has to be said… bad wine, but today Valdepeñas is producing probably the best value Tempranillo wines in Spain. Whether Crianza, Reserva, or Gran-Reserva, they are often of a quality that is simply unrivaled at their price point and surely the price will soon go up as a new generation of wine-drinkers, without the prejudices of the past, start to discover this under-appreciated region.
On the way back we pull out of town and the past and present converge as the road briefly follows the tracks that the wine train took all those years ago. With a crate of Valentin’s Crianza in the car boot, my father-in-law seems satisfied with our day’s work.
So the next time a waiter asks ‘Rioja or Ribera?’, I might just follow Alfonso’s lead. Valdepeñas does indeed have a story to tell, and those who are prepared to listen will find themselves rightfully rewarded.