La Mancha and Valdepeñas, the importance of straightforward, popular wine

Brindis vino popular (fotografía de Kelsey Knight)

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Valdepeñas reaches the Peñín Guide in the midst of uncertainty

Carlos González (@CarlosGuiaPenin) and Javier Luengo (@JavierGuiaPenin)

Today we publish in Guía Peñín 2022 the ratings of more than 240 wines from the producing areas of Mancha (188 wines) and Valdepeñas (55 wines), two areas of great importance in wine production, Mancha for its status as a great vineyard of the World and Valdepeñas for its historical past as a supplier of wines to the capital of Spain. A past that, on the other hand, seems to remain what it was, the past, as Valdepeñas is currently engaged in an internal battle that is undermining the very foundations of the appellation. 

The latest word from Valdepeñas is not very encouraging. The appellation’s producer community made up of the professional agricultural organisations ASAJA, COAG, UPA and the agri-food cooperatives, has announced its intention to withdraw as a whole from the board of directors if no progress is made in the coming months towards greater transparency and traceability of its wines, a declaration of intent in the midst of a long-running dispute.

Castilla La Mancha, the great vineyard of the world

The importance of the autonomous region of Castilla La Mancha as a world wine producer is astonishing. Its vineyard extension, 465,184 hectares (Survey of Surface Areas and Crop Yields - ESYRCE), represents nearly 49% of the Spanish vineyard not used for table grapes (941,154 hectares in 2015). This land has nine designations of origin, 4 PGI's (Geographical Indication of Origin), 12 vineyard estates and even a collective brand, so what happens here, viticulturally speaking, is important both for what is produced and for what is consumed.

Industrialised production

The vast plains that make up a large part of the D.O.'s vineyards, and the large network of aquifers that underlie the subsoil, not only allow the wineries to maintain large extensions of vineyards, but also to mechanise them.

It is precisely this industrialisation that sets the standard for the vast majority of the young wines we have tasted in this edition of the Guide. In the appellation of Mancha, the wineries are highly technified resulting in a certain standardisation of their wines. Mancha is probably the wine-producing area in Spain where the differences between vintages are least noticeable, something that avoids large fluctuations in the scores of the same wine from one year to the next.

What can most affect the differences from one vintage to another is not so much the climatic influence, but the greater or lesser yield of the vines each year, causing their aromas and flavours to be diluted in the wine and making it lighter.

The exaltation of the fruit as a main attraction

The tendency in these wines is usually to enhance the fruit and its more primary aromas, often far removed from the varietal concept that it represents, although there are also wines that, in addition to their youth, show their varietal character.

If the category of young wines in the D.O. Mancha can maintain a qualitative stability, the wines with ageing are just the opposite. It happens to us that the assessment of some wines with short ageing, such as an oak, appear dominated by the barrel and they lose part of that primary and fruity character that, in part, they should maintain. This is because during the ageing process, technology and, therefore, the massive control of the wine are removed. The barrels chosen for ageing are not always the best, as we must remember that many wines are marketed at ridiculously low prices, so the cost of ageing must be as low as possible for the wine to remain profitable. As we extend the ageing times, the wines become more unstable, thus we can see how the ageing of the wine will accelerate exponentially, much more than it should.

The crianzas and reservas show nuances of wines that are supposedly longer-lived than they should be since the grapes used do not manage to withstand the ageing to which they are subjected. However, there are always exceptions, such as Clavis Reserva 2012 from the Finca Antigua winery or Cánfora Pie Franco Reserva 2016 from Bodegas Campos Reales, the two best-scoring wines out of the 189 tasted, which obtained 92 points. Quite graphically, only 3% of the wines tasted reached at least 90 points, a particularly low percentage. We understand that the model chosen by La Mancha producers is a very profitable model and that is why most of them have not considered it necessary to include these more premium wines.

Mancha and bar wine at low prices

The D.O. Mancha has the ability and the strength to be present in each and every one of the counters of a large number of local bars throughout Spain, which has allowed it to massively sell its product at very low prices. 

We wondered how the COVID has had an impact in an area so closely linked to the "street-level" hotel and catering trade. Recently, the Regulatory Council of the Designation of Origin has published its commercial data for 2020, the year of the pandemic. As they report, the impact of the COVID caused an annual drop in sales of 14.34%, despite the fact that the first half of the year was over 25%. The figure does not seem extremely negative considering the circumstances, and the fact is that the D.O. had an ace up its sleeve, which was its sales force in the supermarkets. The increase in domestic consumption at home has been a key factor in preventing the collapse.

Valdepeñas exhausts its historic reputation

If the past and present of the D.O. Mancha follows a consistent and coherent line with its production policy, in Valdepeñas the reading is very different. An area that enjoyed a certain prestige in the past (we invite you to read our reflection published in March 2018) still does not make clear what its intentions are for the future, more uncertain today than ever. The situation in Valdepeñas is dramatic on several levels. The first is the gradual loss of prominence and the second is the complicated internal situation they are going through, with the possibility that the Control Board may even be left without producer representation.  The D.O. was suspected of fraud in the labelling of its Crianza, Reserva and Gran Reserva wines, a fraud that has been brought to court with a final ruling that will allow the application of specific back labels for Reserva and Gran Reserva wines to be brought forward, with the possibility of referring to the vintage on those labels that make no mention of the ageing indications. This situation has revealed the evident power struggle between two giant producers, Félix Solís and García Carrión, capable of changing the course of a D.O. that has been adrift for some time.

All in all, young wines from Valdepeñas have a similar profile to those from neighbouring Mancha. They are technological wines, with a great amount of fruit, which makes them pleasant and easy to drink. These wines are also ideal for beginners and are not expected to have the characteristics of other wines with a more ambitious profile.

In this sector there are as many types of wines as there are consumers, and we should not forget that most wine consumption worldwide is oriented towards a casual and simple tasting. Nobody starts in this world by consuming its big brands. It starts from the base, so the importance of these productions is not a minor issue.


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