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Wine of the week: Secret wines of Murcia

** APN ADVANCE FOR SUNDAY MAY 11** A man walks during the early hours of the morning through the Casa de la Ermita vineyards in Jumilla, near Murcia, Spain, Wednesday, April 9, 2008. Winemakers in Spain's southeastern Murcia region thought up a way to coax their vines into making a product that retains the character of a classic wine, only with much less alcohol, 6.5 percent by volume, compared to 14 percent or more for many traditionally made Spanish wines.(AP Photo/Fernando Bustamante)

A couple of weeks ago, I was at a wine tasting with several notable sommeliers from around town. As the tasting was winding down, several of us sat down at an empty table and started to play the “Guess where this is from” game.

It’s something that somms and wine geeks — like me — love to do from time to time.

Most of us bring pricier wines from well-known regions, but once in a while, someone throws in a ringer. One wine really caught the attention of the whole group, which is no easy task, I can assure you.

It was a smoky and complex red wine that had loads of fruit, great balance and nice acidity, all wrapped around a velvety frame. I could not place the varietal, much less the country of origin. I was stumped.

When the true identity of the wine was revealed, the group let out a collective gasp, and not just because we were all blown away by the price — a mere $15 — but we were all stunned by its origin. The wine that was responsible for all this oohing and ahh-ING from the group was the wonderful 2015 Castaño Solanera from the Murcia region of Spain.

Haven’t heard of Murcia? You’re not alone. Murcia is an up-and-coming player located in the southeast part of the country. Despite its relatively small size, Murcia has over 24,000 acres devoted to wine production.

One of the best-kept secrets of Murcia is the Monastrell grape, a small, thick-skinned varietal also known as Mourvedre, that seems to thrive in the arid climate and in the capable hands of a new generation of winemakers. The deep blue colored berry produces wines that are dark red in color, with intense flavors of ripe, dark fruit.

Murcia first gained international recognition in 1966, when the first of its three Denominations of Origin, Jumilla, was declared. Given its location in the middle of the region, Jumilla is an equal opportunity producer, catering to white, red and rosé wines.

The Yecla region, founded in 1975 and located just to the north of Jumilla, is known for its well-balanced, forward-style reds. South of Jumilla is the youngest (1994) of the Denominations of Origins, Bullas. While Monastrell is the predominate grape of the region, a new generation of winemakers are experimenting with several different varietals, including cabernet sauvignon and syrah, with an emphasis on producing full-bodied wines.

The wines of Murcia are crafted to complement the celebrated cuisine of the region, which showcases exceptional fresh produce, quality poultry and meats, fresh fish from the Mediterranean and aromatic herbs. And best of all, they are a relative value compared to other quality wines from Spain.

Find a hammock and grab a bottle of 2017 Bodegas Bleda Castillo de Jumilla Rosado Jumilla. A rosé made from 100 percent Monastrell, it is a delicious combination of light and flavorful. This is a fine example of the delicate flavors the Monastrell grape is capable of achieving. The floral and raspberry scents on the nose literally demand a picnic blanket. Lively flavors of red cherries, raspberries and ripe strawberries coat the tongue but avoid being cloying thanks to the abundant acidity that carry this party-in-the-mouth through on the youthful finish. Serve it well chilled for the perfect aperitif. $8

The aforementioned 2015 Bodegas Castaño Solanera Viñas Viejas from the Yecla region is a proprietary blend of Monastrell, cabernet sauvignon and Grenache. A buoyant nose of baked cherry, black licorice and roasted coffee supports the rich dark fruit flavors on a well-balanced frame. Hints of licorice melt in on the tail end of the supple finish. Enjoy with a hearty beef stew. $15

Cabernet Sauvignon is making significant inroads in the Murcia region, and the 2016 La Purisima Valcorso Cabernet Sauvignon is one reason why this varietal is gaining popularity. A day-to-day crowd-pleaser, it shows off notes of cherries, red plums and black raspberries on the nose while flavors of blackberries, ripe blueberries and baked cherry jam coats the palate. Hints of cinnamon emerge on the smooth, medium finish. While this wine can be enjoyed today, the firm structure could only improve this wine with another year or two in the cellar and make it a good match with leg of lamb. $16

If you want a big, red wine to keep you warm this winter, hunt down a bottle of the 2013 Bodegas Bleda Divus from the Jumilla region of Murcia. It spends the first 21 days of fermentation in contact with the Monastrell grape skins in order to extract maximum color and flavor. It’s then aged for nine months in a variety of new French oak casks to emphasize the spicy notes of the varietal. What you get is a wine with a very concentrated nose of red raspberries, Asian spices and smoke and intense flavors of baked blackberry jam upfront with hints of licorice and vanilla on the lengthy, clean finish. I think this would be the perfect complement to a mushroom and cheese tort. $17


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