Some years ago we were invited to Alicante to visit some family friends, in a small town called Salinas.
We thoroughly enjoyed their hospitality and immersed ourselves, for a short period, in their way of life. We quickly discovered that everything revolved around food and drink, which started with a hearty breakfast, washed down with plenty of strong coffee. Then, just when you thought you were done clearing and cleaning the breakfast dishes, the family started preparing the fire for an appetizer that consisted of sausages cooked over the fire, accompanied by some local cheese and wine. By the time you had politely consumed these offerings, it wasn’t even 11:30 am and lunch was already underway. And you still had to find room for a heavy dinner later on! We felt like we had to keep up with them, but it was practically impossible. Needless to say, we both left Alicante 2 kg heavier as a result of our four-day stay.
The wine was one thing that was always placed on the table, whether you wanted it or not. The fields surrounding the little town of Salinas are replete with vines, and everywhere you look there are also olive trees and almond trees. It came as a bit of a surprise to us that there were so many healthy-looking vines sprouting through the dry, limestone soil. And they weren’t just vines for winemaking, but also for table grapes, and for drying out so that they could eventually be packaged up as sultanas.
The history behind wines from Alicante dates back as far as the Phoenician period (1500 – 300BC) when traders began to visit this eastern region of Spain and most likely brought vines with them. Of course, the Romans were happy to grow vines here too, and some records indicate Arabs were also keen on the quality of the wines from this region. But the most complete records related to winemaking in Alicante date back to the 15th century.
During our short visit to Alicante, we toured some of the wineries. There are wineries of all manner of sizes here. One particular winery uses a hand press and processes all of its wines manually (https://www.fincacollado.com/).
And another winery wouldn’t be out of place in a scene from the 80’s series ‘Falcon Crest’, as it comes complete with its own helipad, a temperature-controlled underground tasting club, and gold leaf wines. (https://www.bodegasfranciscogomez.es/)
These are just two extremes but there really is something for every taste here.
Despite the unnecessary display of wealth at a couple of the wineries, we did find some amazing and ‘pocket-friendly’ wines during our various tours. The dominant grape variety here is Monastrell, also called Mouvedre in France. If you love Provencal pale rosé wines you would have, without a doubt, tasted this grape in the mix.
Alicante is well known for its hearty red wines, but you can also find some decent rosés and a number of surprising whites. The queen of white varieties is the Moscatell grape, but this grape is not just used for sweet wines. Don’t turn your nose up at a wine labelled with Moscatell as they can be a real treat when paired with a lovely plate of seafood.
However, going back to red wines, the style here is dictated by the soil and the very hot conditions that can be found in this Mediterranean coastal area. The mild winters and very hot summers give the red grapes an intense colour, a high sugar level (and therefore alcohol), and strong tannins, so the reds here tend to have lots of ripe fruit flavours, a full-body, and a rich red colour.
A lot of international varieties are allowed to be grown here too, adding complexity to the mix. For instance, the Petit Verdot has adapted really well here and produces some great single varietal and blended wines. Another grape that shouldn’t be overlooked is the Garnacha Tintorera, also known as Alicante Bouschet. This is one of the few grapes with red pulp. Wines that use this grape are rich in colour, with balanced acidity, and a degree of finesse and elegance.
Our real surprise of the trip was when we were introduced to Fondillón. The Alicantinos call it their hidden treasure! It is a complex type of wine with a lot of regulations and a difficult aging process, but the end result is outstanding, to say the least. Essentially, they have to use Monastrell grapes from bush vines that are late harvested and dehydrated. Aging occurs in oak barrels for a minimum of 10 years, and there must be an oxidative process within the barrel, meaning, some air must be let in to add oxidation to the wine, therefore changing and intensifying the flavour. Only 10 wineries are currently allowed to produce this type of wine. They need a special permit and a specific certification from the D.O. in order to produce this very special creation.
Bodegas Monovar is one of the wineries that is allowed to produce Fondillón. Not only do they produce Fondillón in one of the most amazing rooms we have ever seen, (containing oak barrels that are the size of your bedroom), but they also collect the Fondillón barrels from wineries that have since disappeared or that can't look after the product anymore. We were privileged enough to taste a Fondillón as old as 1944, and we saw some that were even older.
The Fondillón we tasted was like raisin syrup with hints of toffee and dry fig, all coated in a delicious oak aftertaste. While tasting the wine some of the drops fell onto my hand. The smell of this particular 1944 Fondillón followed me around for the rest of the day. If I had to define this treasure from Alicante in just a few words, I would say it is a hybrid between a Port and an Oloroso Sherry. It has a sweetness to it that pairs brilliantly with chocolate desserts and even blue cheese.
If you take a chance to taste some Alicante wines, you will be treated to some bold punchy reds, light easy whites, and an unsung hero of our era. So, give them a try and allow yourself to be ‘blown away’ by the diversity on offer.