Somontano, in the province of Huesca in Aragon, is a wine region you may never have heard of. Why? Because anyone who professes to have more than a passing interest in wine should already be aware that there are more than 60 Denominacion de Origen (DOs) in Spain that have their own special rules and regulations – and La Rioja and Ribera del Duero are but two of them.
What makes the up-and-coming Spanish region of Somontano so newsworthy?
Well, Somontano is different in many ways. Firstly, records show that wine has been made there since 500 BC – so it is definitely Old World by age not just location! More importantly, the Regulatory Body is run by a group of dynamic enthusiasts who really believe in spreading the word, and who work tirelessly to ensure that even if you may not drink the local produce, at least you will not ignore it. In fact, Somontano has been referred to as the Aragonese Rioja.
The name Somontano, or, more correctly Somontano de Barbastro, means at the base of the mountains, located as it is in the foothills of the Pyrenees. The climate is extreme. Summers are hot and winters bring frosts, snow, and week-on-week grey skies more typical of northern
Europe than Spain. Those who live there may abhor it, but the vines are immensely happy, because the vineyards are sheltered from the worst of the bad weather and there are 2,700 hours of sunshine annually. It is a wild, rugged, area, difficult to access except by road but certainly worth a visit: the scenery is stunning, the old villages as picturesque as anywhere, and the restaurants are simply outstanding.
There were only seven bodegas in 1997. That number is now 34, with Enate, Viñas del Vero and Bodegas Pirineos the most important. The traditional grape varieties have largely given way to imported stock. The reds are made using syrah, tempranillo, cabernet sauvignon, merlot and moristel grapes, and the whites chardonnay, macebeo, gewürtztraminer, alcañón and garnacha blanca. A deliberate policy is to limit grape production per vine, invariably a guarantee of a quality product.
It was only in the 1980s that the region woke up to the fact that it was capable of producing superb wines that could be marketed on their own merits. They have certainly made up for lost time. Rioja, Navarra, and Ribera del Duero appear like sleepy backwaters of the Spanish wine trade compared with the buzz that dominates Somontano. Here you have everything: blends, young fresh whites, barrel-aged whites, varietals, young reds, crianzas, reservas, designer wines, organic, wines of alta expresión, all at, if not cheapo prices any more, but certainly superb value for money.
Lamb from Huesca
The wines are suited to local cuisine that includes locally raised lamb, cured pork products, hand-made cheese and wonderfully fresh vegetables from the River Vero basin.
Wineries range from traditional, small, family-run bodegas to modern, architect-designed monsters, but about 80 percent of the region’s production comes from three bodegas: Bodegas Pirineos, Viñas del Vero, and Enate. Bodegas Pirineos, controlled by Andalucian sherry house Barbadillo, currently markets six brands with a spread of 20 different wines. Viñas del Vero is mega. Its vineyards are so big, 550 hectares, that there are different microclimates. The production is a staggering six million bottles annually.
An offshoot of the firm is Blecua, set up to produce a designer wine to be sold at a high price and, if the quality of the vintage is not up to its very high standards, no wine is made under the Blecua label that year. Enate was founded in 1991 and makes 14 wines, easily distinguishable by their designer labels by well-known painters.
Of the smaller bodegas, you will never be disappointed with the wines from Bodegas Borruel, Sierra de Guara, Olvena, Otto Bestué, Monesma, Laus, Mochis, Meler, Lalanne, Irius and Mateu.
The best vintages, indeed, those classed as Excellent, are: 1993, 1994, 1995, 1998, 2001, 2005, 2006, while 1991, 1992, 1996, 1999, 2002, 2003 and 2004 are officially Very Good.
Spoilt for choice I would recommend the following wines as being outstanding examples of the best of Somontano. They have all received high awards from independent wine critics over the years, and are placed in order of distinction:
The Top 6
- Viñas del Vero Chardonnay
- Viñas del Vero Gewürztraminer
- Viñas del Vero Clarión
- Enate Chardonnay Fermentado en Barrica (fermented in oak)
- Enate uno Chardonnay
- Enate Rosado
and the rest …
- Laus Flor de Merlot
- Bestué Chardonnay Blanco
- Enate Reserva Especial
In fact, there is really not enough room to include all the great wines, and there are many that do not deserve to be omitted, such as Osca’s Garnacha Blanca, the only wine made solely of this grape; Viñas del Vero’s single-grape Riesling, again unique; Enate’s Gewürtztraminer, the first to be made in Somontano; Señorío de Lazan Tinto, the first ever Reserva wine from the region. There are even some good cavas…….
Conclusion: In Somontano they really do make wine to New World standards, and it is for this reason that many experts believe the region is headed for a great future. It is a perfect case history of how to turn Old World winemaking practices on their head. In The Wines of Spain, author Julian Jeffs calls Somontano’s wines ‘some of the best in Spain.’
by AJ Linn