Spain's Jumilla Region Steps into the Spotlight | Wine Enthusiast
Wine bottle illustration Displaying 0 results for
Suggested Searches
Articles & Content

Once Underrated, Spain’s Jumilla Wine Region Steps into the Spotlight

Driving around Jumilla, a rugged wine region wedged between Spain’s Mediterranean coast and the plains of La Mancha, it is impossible to avoid passing the Castillo de Jumilla—an enduring landmark of Jumilla’s storied past. The castle comes into view when entering or leaving the region’s namesake town, regardless of which direction you are driving or which route you take. When my husband and I visited last summer, we joked we were like goldfish in a bowl swimming past the castle every time we passed but continually stunned by its presence, as if noticing it for the first time.

If Jumilla literally exists in the shadow of the castle, it figuratively exists in its own shadow as the producer of inexpensive bulk wines as well as the shadow of more famous wine regions to the north. Here the main grape is Monastrell, a rich, juicy red variety which fans of wines from the Rhône Valley will recognize as Mourvèdre and our Australian friends may know better as Mataro. With a winemaking history stretching back 5,000 years, as evidenced by archeological finds including the oldest vitis vinifera seeds found in Europe; the highest percentage of organic vineyards of any region in the world; and a signature grape variety that produces wines brimming with both power and finesse, you would think that Jumilla would have an easy time making its way in the modern wine world.

When my husband and I ducked out of our coastal town near Malaga to visit Jumilla last summer, our local Spanish friends were incredulous about our plans. They couldn’t understand why we weren’t visiting a more storied appellation, one where the trademark grape is Tempranillo and hotels and wineries are designed with the international tourist trade in mind. What our friends didn’t realize is that while most other regions in Spain sell 60% of their wines internally and 40% to the rest of the world, most of Jumilla’s palate- and wallet friendly wines—a whopping 70%—are sold into the export market. And although the majority of its 47,000 acres of vineyards are home to rustic-looking bush vines, many of Jumilla’s producers are firmly planted in the 21st century with an eye on the future. That said, past and present sit comfortably side by side and contradictions abound.

Bodegas Bleda / Photo Courtesy of Bodegas Bleda

The Center of It All

The first person in the modern era to recognize the importance of the Castillo de Jumilla as an instrument to sell wine may have been Antonio Bleda, who founded Bodegas Bleda in 1915. Now run by the fourth generation of his family, the winery produces two ranges of wine, one of which is called Castillo de Jumilla. Bleda registered the name in 1960, six years before Jumilla was recognized as a D.O., or Denominacion de Origen. As you might expect, the Castillo de Jumilla line is the winery’s more traditional, Monastrell based tier of wines. As general manager Antonio José Bleda Jiménez, a fourth-generation family member, explained, “Jumilla was known for its wine and the castle. Antonio matched the monument and the wine.” Bleda also produces wines under the Pino Doncel label, named for a type of Mediterranean pine that is prominent in the area. Pino Doncel is described as the more “modern” line, which Bleda elaborated is due to the other French varieties in the blends, including Syrah, Petit Verdot and Merlot.

Grapes and pines are not the only things that grow in Jumilla. The high plateau is also home to oregano, rosemary, thyme and almond trees. A drawing of almond blossoms graces the labels of wines from Silvano Garcia, paying tribute to the natural abundance of the region. Drawn by Fini Vargas, winery partner (and wife of Silvano García Abellán, general manager and third-generation of the family), the illustrations could be confused for Japanese cherry blossoms at first glance. As García Abellán pointed out, “The design on the labels is one of the first things that reaches the consumer,” and adds, “This is also a way of … transmitting the elements and history that are part of each wine.”

Until about 25 years ago, bottles and labels were not even a thought in Jumilla. Throughout the 20th century, wine from here was sold in bulk throughout the continent, and local producers transitioned to the more familiar style of packaging in the recent past. Some of the most visually exciting labels are found at Ego Bodegas, a newcomer to the scene that was established by Spaniard Santo Ortiz and Romanian born Ioana Paunescu in 2011. The couple describe Ego Bodegas, which also produces wine under the Finca Bacara brand, as a “boutique winery” even though their output is 3,000,000 bottles of Monastrell and red blends per year. They make hundreds of different wines, all with label imagery that is ready made for the age of social media.

The team at Ego seems to function like a close-knit family, and this is evident in the collaboration that brings about their eye-catching graphics. As Ioana told me, “The label design process is more like a team building session … We often just gather everyone around on a cozy Friday afternoon to have a brainstorming session on the concept, name, label and story behind the labels. Sometimes, the best idea could come from a colleague in our finance department or a vineyard hand. You would be surprised by their creativity and observation of current market trends.”

Bodegas Carchelo / Photo courtesy of Bodegas Carchelo

If Walls Could Talk

Another producer with noteworthy contemporary label design is Bodegas Carchelo, whose attractive black and white graphics are echoed in its cozy yet stylish tasting room. Its Muri Veteres wine’s name and optical line graphic pay homage to the surrounding area’s rich history and to its iconic grape variety. The label image depicts a gate of the ancient Sagunto Castle near Valencia, which dates to the second century BCE.

As Helio Abellán, Bodegas Carchelo’s export manager and third-generation family member, elucidated, “The Sagunto’s castle walls were very old and the Romans called them ‘veteran walls,’ or muri veteres, in Latin. Next to the old walls were a lot of vines and the people living there used to make great wine from them. There was no name for those vines, though, so the Romans gave them the popular name of the walls: Muri Veteres.” The castle and town also went by this name in the Middle Ages. It was eventually corrupted to the Latin Morvedre, from which Monastrell’s French name is derived.

Both Bodegas Carchelo and nearby Hacienda del Carche take their names from Sierra del Carche, the local mountain range that is a protected regional park. Hacienda del Carche has one-upped their neighbor on the packaging game with the innovative design of the bottle for its Infiltrado. In a world of tall Bordeaux and slope-shouldered Burgundy bottles, Infiltrado’s unique shape stands out, looking more like a bottle of high-end olive oil or balsamic vinegar than a specially designed decanter to remove sediment from the unfiltered wine within. Export manager Isidoro Pérez de Tudela Guirao told me, “The name is meant as a pun: the Spanish word infiltrado means both ‘unfiltered’ and ‘infiltrator,’ which makes us think of the undercover agents in detective stories.” On the bottle design itself, he said, “Thanks to the decanter design, the wine can be bottled unfiltered, directly from the tank, thus preserving all its original properties when consumed.”

Bodegas Viña Elena / Photo courtesy of Bodegas Viña Elena

Quality Over Quantity

Hacienda del Carche shares production and tasting room space with Casa de la Ermita under the umbrella of Essencia Wines. The tasting facility features a wine museum that offers guided and audio tours. Jumilla lacks a good tourist quality hotel, so per Miriam Soler Abarca, who works in tourism for the winery, when it comes to visitors, “the highest percentage are from the regions of Murcia and Alicante,” nearby areas from which tourists can visit Jumilla for a day.

Visitors from the coast also come for tastings under the trees at Bodegas Viña Elena, named for Elena Pacheco, whose father changed the name of the winery from Vino Pacheco in 1995. The youngest of four sisters, Pacheco revealed that her father “had no choice but to entrust the legacy of the family business to a woman,” because he had no sons. When asked if it was an unusual path to become a winemaker, Pacheco said, “Nowadays it is not difficult but in the ’80s and ’90s it was. It was very rare to find a woman running a business.” She also went on to say that, like many other wineries in the area, “Before, my family made wines to sell in bulk to other wineries in Spain, without selecting grapes. Quantity mattered more than quality.”

Today Viña Elena makes wine from a series of single plots called the Bruma del Estrecho de Marín collection that includes a 100% Monastrell wine named Paraje Marín, a white wine made from Airén named Las Encebras, after the vineyard it’s grown in, and a rosé blended from the two grapes dubbed Parcela Particiones, a reference to a “partitioned” vineyard in which both Monastrell and Airén are cultivated.

Hacienda del Carche / Photo Courtesy of Hacienda del Carche

Two of the better-known local players both in Spain and the international market are Juan Gil and Bodegas Luzon. While each has a reputation for high quality value-priced Monastrell, both wineries have higher end bottlings as well as other small-batch offerings. A bottle of Juan Gil Silver Label Monastrell costs $16, but their El Nido fetches $145 in the U.S. market. Asked what sets El Nido apart from Juan Gil’s other bottlings, Miguel Gil, the fourth-generation owner, explains, “El Nido winery is a completely independent facility designed as a small, well-equipped building near Bodegas Juan Gil, with its own winemaking procedure and proper equipment and tools to produce our exclusive wines in an artisan way.” He added, “In the case of our top wines, they come from much older vineyards with lower yields in comparison to our entry-level wines.”

If the Castillo de Jumilla is the “most representative cultural and historical element of Jumilla,” wine runs an extremely close second. And while the castle sits, unchanged through the ages at the top of the hill, wine from Jumilla is evolving in a variety of ways thanks to the passion, ingenuity and dedication of the families who work the land and bottle its most prominent agricultural product.

Castillo de Jumilla

Castillo Jumilla / Photo by Juan Palao Guarafia Producciones

Adapted from information provided by Dr. Estefanía Gandía Cutillas, Museum and Municipal Archeologist of Jumilla Council.

Towering over the city, the Castillo de Jumilla is the “most representative cultural and historical element of Jumilla”—wine runs an extremely close second. The settlement on Cerro del Castillo (Castle Hill) dates back 3,500 years, to the Bronze Age. Large adobe bricks were added during the Iron Age, and after that, the Romans built part of the wall that is visible.  However, the fortress we know today was built in the 11th century by the Moors in order to defend and control the surrounding territory. It later passed back and forth between the kingdoms of Murcia, Aragon and Castile from the 13th through the 15th centuries. In the 15th century, it became the property of the Marquis of Villena, who added the trefoil tower, and whose family continued to own it for 400 years.

The Castillo is currently the property of the Jumilla City Council. It is one of the most important elements of Jumilla for the development of cultural tourism and is one of the most visited sites in the region due to its architectural and historical importance. Besides guided tours, it is also used for concerts, historical recreations, wine tastings, theater events and wedding celebrations. The castle is the most representative cultural and historical element of Jumilla, witness to the historical evolution of Jumilla and its people.

This article originally appeared in the November 2022 issue of Wine Enthusiast magazine. Click here to subscribe today!