Tempranillo, Garnacha, Monastrell – arguably the trio of Spain’s noble red grape varieties which make complex, outstanding, age-worthy wines. However, in the last few years, a fourth variety – the relatively unknown Bobal – has been staking its claim to join this elite group thanks to its increased quality, potential, and overall reputation.
Bobal has also slowly become a darling among Spanish sommeliers and professionals, and it’s been recently singled out by several Masters of Wine such as David Forer and Pedro Ballesteros as one of the Spanish varieties to watch out for.
Bobal is the second most planted grape variety in Spain (62,000 hectares) behind Tempranillo (203,000 ha). Native to Utiel-Requena in the autonomous community of Valencia, Bobal is a very vigorous, productive, and drought-resistant variety that makes dark-colored, full-bodied wines with bright acidity, powerful tannins, and typical notes of fresh wild herbs, and red and blue fruit.
From nearly forgotten to newly found fame
In the past, Bobal didn’t enjoy a strong reputation and was valued mostly for its dark pigmentation and alcohol potential, both useful when using it as a blending partner to other Spanish (and French) grapes.
The grape tends to suffer from uneven ripening, can produce bunches of different sizes on the same vine, and is prone to uneven ripening even within the same cluster. As a result, most wines had a rustic character and an unpleasant bitter finish. Conversely, it can produce very high yields even in hot and dry conditions, which is one of the main reasons many old vines have survived to this day.
Plantings have nearly halved from 1990s levels as the Spanish Department of Agriculture encouraged growers to pull up Bobal vineyards and replace them with more “fashionable” varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Tempranillo.
Improved viticulture – including careful sorting in the vineyard and at the winery – and the introduction of modern winemaking techniques such as gentler extractions and judicious use of oak, have contributed to taming the grape’s characteristic rusticity, resulting in more balanced, elegant, and ageworthy wines.
The Kingdom of Bobal
Most Bobal plantings are found in the country’s warm, southeast corner (the “Levante”), at high elevations sheltered from Mediterranean influences – ideal conditions to reach full ripeness given the grape’s medium-to-long growing cycle. Bobal finds its top expression in the red ferrous clays around the villages of Utiel and Requena, about an hour’s drive from the city of Valencia, and in Manchuela, just across the border in the region of Castilla La Mancha.
Despite the short distance from the Valencian coast, the vineyards of Utiel-Requena’s are found at high elevations (600-900m). Nearly half its vines are over 40 years old, with many dating back to the early 1900s.
Until 30 years ago, most Bobals in Utiel-Requena were sold in bulk. Pioneer wineries in the area, like Dominio de la Vega, led the way toward estate bottlings.
According to Daniel Expósito, head winemaker at Dominio de la Vega, now is the best time the region has enjoyed in terms of the quality and variety of its wines. He believes, however, that there’s plenty of room to grow in furthering the understanding of the different local terroirs and expressing them in the wines.
“In the last few years, we’ve been working with single-vineyard Bobals, and we continue to look for older vines with lots of personality,” he adds as we stroll down the red clay and limestone soils of the Losilla vineyard. They’re also leading the efforts in researching the impact of climate change in the area and are also part of ValoraBobal, a project in Utiel-Requena to develop and adapt particular clones of Bobal.
Recommended Wines and Producers
Dominio de la Vega, Finca la Beata
The winery’s flagship wine, Finca La Beata is an intense, old-vine, single-vineyard Bobal from head-pruned, centenary vines. Made with a 30-day maceration and aged in oak for 18 months.
Deep black fruit well supported toast and sweet spice aromas. Very polished texture that complements the savory dark fruit and meaty, rustic finish. Outstanding.
Finca Terrerazo, Vino de Pago
Finca Terrerazo, which obtained the Vino de Pago classification in 2010 is led by Toni Sarrion, one of the champions of Bobal in Spain. 100% Bobal, hand harvested, with long post-fermentation maceration and 14 months aging in French oak. Refined and concentrated, with ripe black fruit, bright acidity, and loads of Mediterranean herbs. Very good.
Bodegas Murviedro, Utiel Requena
Sericis Cepas Viejas Bobal. Sourced from 70-year-old vines yielding less than 1.5 kg/vine. Aged for eight months in French oak barrels. Approachable and easy to drink, with lots of sweet fruit, spices, chocolate and vanilla notes. A balanced, modern-style wine with juicy acidity – a great introduction to the region.
Dussart-Pedron, Utiel Requena
Hand-harvested, fermented with native yeasts, and matured seven months in oak and clay amphorae. A lively, medium-bodied wine with bright red-cherry and blackberry flavors and well-defined, polished tannins. A fresh, fruit-driven take on Bobal. Very good.
Las Mercedes del Cabriel
80-year-old Bobal planted at 800 m elevation and matured in oak for 18 months. A classical approach to Bobal with a dominating oak presence and lots of baking spicy notes, herbs, and ripe black fruit. Soft and velvety on the palate with an elegant finish.
There are currently many projects aimed at preserving the long historical traditions of the Territorio Bobal. The Valencian Institute of Conservation of Cultural Heritage has also been working with UNESCO to designate the area a cultural landscape of Europe («El Vino en Iberia»). This achievement would be another valuable step towards recognizing this rich viticultural region and its leading variety, Bobal.
There is still a long road ahead, but Bobal is today a very welcome reality with an even more promising future in the fine wine world.
For other lesser-known Spanish grape varieties, please check out my previous post: https://vinointeriano.wordpress.com/2020/11/07/discovering-spains-lesser-known-red-grapes/