Even before I ever set foot in Spain, it was a part of my life. Growing up in multilingual New York City, the sound of Spanish was music to my ears and I would pretend to speak it. The large oil portrait of a handsome matador that hung in my grandmother's foyer fueled many pre-teen daydreams of meeting someone as guapo and dashing. So perhaps it isn't too surprising that I seized the opportunity to study in Barcelona for a year when I was 16. Emboldened by that experience, I found myself back in Spain at the age of 21, as a student in Toledo, where I supplemented my studies of literature and the arts with learning to party until the crack of dawn and still make it to class on time, fueled by churros & chocolate and the endless energy of youth.
Given my lifelong love affair with the country of Picasso and Antonio Banderas, it may surprise you to hear that I had some trepidation when I recently received an invitation to visit Spain. More than 20 years had passed since I had last set foot in Spain. I was afraid that perhaps my memories had become idealized by the passage of time, I did not want anything to sully my precious recollections. But the allure of Somontano proved irresistible and I found myself back in Spain after more than 2 decades, in a region that was completely unfamiliar to me.
Somontano means "beneath the mountain" and the region is south of the Pyrenees on the natural border with France, in northeastern Spain in the province of Huesca in Aragón. A small region with a rich winemaking history, Somontano stands out not only for the quality of the wines and accessible prices but also for the amazing diversity. Not only will you find superb examples of well-known Spanish varieties like Tempranillo and Garnacha, but Somontano has gained a reputation for their finesse with international varieties such as Gewürztraminer, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, and Merlot. The dry climate, cold winters and hot summers, and diversity of soil types make Somontano an ideal location for the cultivation of many grape varieties.
Somontano has been producing wine for centuries but was declared a D.O. (Denominación de Origen/Denomination of Origen) in 1984. At this time, there are about 69 DO's in Spain and when you see DO on the label it indicates that the producers in the region abide by criteria established by the regulating council to ensure that the wines meet quality standards. During my visit to Somontano, I spent a significant amount of time with the DO administration and was impressed by their commitment and passion for their region's wines. There are about 32 wineries in the Somontano DO, 412 grape growers, and the region produces around 14 million bottles per year. Below are brief profiles of five Somontano wineries that I visited, each representing a different aspect of this wonderful region. (Prices are indicated for wines available in the United States, you'll have to book a ticket to Somontano to try the others!)
Somontano is Exceptional: Viñas del Vero and Blecua
If ever there was a winemaker whose wines mirror his personality, it is José Ferrer. Elegant and not flashy, precise but passionate, José crafts exceptional wines for the Gonzalez Byass owned Viñas del Vero and their high-end line of boutique wines, Blecua. Focused on crafting wines that express the terroir, their nuanced white La Miranda Secastilla Garnacha Blanca 2015 ($15) and the luscious & layered red La Miranda Secastilla Garnacha 2014 are great introductions to the wines of Somontano and José's talent.
But for a truly exceptional wine-drinking experience, Blecua is the vino that most poetically expresses the terroir and quality of Somontano. First produced in 1997 and only in the best vintages, José said "with Blecua the aim is to put the best of the region in the bottle." He has absolutely succeeded in this quest.
Like an artist working with a palette, José approaches Blecua creatively and the red blend changes with each vintage. Blecua involves a triple selection process of choosing the best vineyard sites, best grape bunches, and the best barrels. Barrel selection is an integral part of the Blecua process and José experiments with aging the grapes in French and American oak with varying levels of char before making the final selection. The end result is a sophisticated wine with tremendous approachability and aging ability. Blecua wines are not yet available in the US but these superb vinos are worth a visit to Somontano!
Somontano is Traditional: Bodegas Lalanne
Tracing their winemaking heritage back to 1842 in Bordeaux, the Lalanne family's ancestors came to Somontano to escape the Phylloxera epidemic that had ravaged the vines in France. Truly a family business, Bodegas Lalanne has been managed by the family for six generations. Family patriarch, Fernando Lalanne, serves as vice president of the Somontano DO. His daughters have leadership roles in the winery and oversee winemaking, marketing, and other crucial functions. A visit to Lalanne is really a journey through the winemaking history of Somontano and their cellars include an amazing selection of old vintages and Spanish Civil War artifacts.
Reflective of their Gallic roots, Lalanne's portfolio includes Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Chardonnay. And like their peers in Somontano, they also produce other international varieties like Gewürztraminer. Lalanne produces wines in a very classic style that conveys their heritage and terroir. Recommended wine: Lalanne Cabernet Sauvignon & Merlot Reserva.
Enate winemaker Jesús Artajona
Somontano is Elegant: Enate
Founded in 1992, Enate is a stunning modern estate that elegantly melds artistry with functionality. Even the Enate bottles are portable art pieces and are adorned with labels designed by well-known contemporary artists. But as a winery, the content of the bottles is what matters most and winemaker Jesús Artajona brings artistry and technical prowess to Enate. An environmentally-friendly winery, Enate grows Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Tempranillo, Syrah, Chardonnay, and Gewürztraminer.
Each Enate wine conveys a different aspect of Somontano winemaking but are linked by the purity of fruit, precise winemaking, and expressiveness of the terroir. To get started, I recommend their Chardonnay 234 2016 ($20) and Merlot-Merlot 2011(not a typo, it is such a quintessential and intense Merlot, they named it twice!)
Somontano is Innovative: Bodega Sommos
Looming over the landscape like a gleaming intergalactic space station, the shiny interlaced steel and glass cubes that form the exterior of Bodega Sommos make it clear that something very different is happening at this expansive Somontano estate. A huge undertaking financially and logistically, construction of Sommos began in 2000 and was completed in 2008. The audacity and complexity of the endeavor has not gone unnoticed and The Drinks Business declared Sommos one of "The Top 10 Architectural Wonders of the Wine World." The striking exterior only hints at what lies beneath - the winemaking facilities at Sommos extend 27 meters underground (almost 90 feet). Innovation is the driving force at Sommos and the grapes, must, and wine are transported via gravity to limit damage and stress, pheremones are used in lieu of pesticides to control pests, harvests happen at night to avoid the heat, and their experimental vineyard has more than 70 different grape varieties.
From playful & fresh to complex and aged, the Sommos portfolio is quite diverse. Recommended wines: Sommos Premium 2009 ($40), a big red blend of Tempranillo, Merlot, and Syrah and their refreshing Gewürztraminer 2016.
Somontano is Playful: Bodega Laus
Just across the road from Sommos, Bodega Laus is wooing a younger generation of wine lovers with their easy-drinking yet well-crafted wines. The clean lines of their estate's Zen-inspired architecture were designed to coexist with nature and optimize efficiency. Although their small portfolio of wines is being marketed towards younger consumers and not yet available in the US, the Laus wines offer a pure expression of the grapes that will appeal to all wine lovers. Winemaker Jesús Mur was born and raised in Somontano and grew up among vines, accompanying his wine-grower father on walks in the vineyards. These wines show his strong connection to the land. Recommended wines: Laus Rosado (Syrah & Garnacha) and Laus Tinto Crianza (Merlot & Cabernet Sauvignon)
If you love great wine & food, stunning natural landscapes, and an authentic Spanish experience; I highly recommend a visit to Somontano. The region is just a couple of hours by car from Zaragoza and Barcelona. Barbastro, the capital city of the Somontano region, is a bustling city with charming shops, bars, and restaurants. I recommend accommodations at the centrally-located and comfortably-appointed Hotel San Ramón. Barbastro is also the headquarters of the Somontano DO and they have recently opened a restaurant, tasting room, and wine shop - sip some wine and get some information about the Somontano Wine Route and The Wine Bus. The first weekend of August is the Somontano Wine Festival, a multi-day celebration of wine, food, and culture - a perfect opportunity to sip the wines that are not yet available in the United States.
And you can't visit Somontano without taking an excursion to Alquézar, a medieval village overlooking the Vero River, it is a stunning trip back in time.
My visit to Somontano reminded me of why I fell in love with Spain all those years ago. Wine isn't just an industry in Somontano, it is a way of life that fosters a sense of community. Wine is to be shared with family and friends, it reaffirms bonds and creates an instant connection. I thank everyone in Somontano for sharing their wines, food, stories, smiles, and hugs. Words in Spanish that had been long buried in my brain, bubbled to the surface as I found myself completely immersed in the Somontano experience. I had never been to Somontano before but it felt like I had come back home.