If I had been half as interested in history while I was in school as I am now that I study wine, my teachers would have lauded my scholarship. Guess it’s true what they say – context is everything. Stage Six of the Vuelta gives us plenty of that as we head into Valencia province, birthplace of paella and one-time home of Iberians, Romans, Carthaginians, and Moors. It’s a fascinating place with a distinct language and culture, breathtaking beaches, aromatic orange groves, and the mysterious mistela wines.
Both departure and end points for Thursday’s stage bring enough history to fill a book. So let’s start with the finish line and the city of Sagunt/Sagunto (Valencian/Castilian). Sagunt takes its name from the ancient Roman city of Saguntum, whose claim to fame is its role as the backdrop for the opening salvos of the Second Punic War. In 219 BC, Hannibal and the Carthaginian army laid siege to the city, capturing its fort and ejecting the Romans. Many centuries later, much of the fortress remains intact; you can visit the Castillo Sagunto and see for yourself.
By the 8th century, Moorish invaders had captured Sagunt for themselves, annexing it into the Caliphate of Córdoba and ushering in an era of prosperity, diversity, and growth. It remained in their hands until El Cid, an exile from the Castilian court who spent most of his career fighting for one Moorish tribe or another, returned to the service of the crown and conquered all of Valencia, which had been taken over by the Almoravid Berbers. (Yes, it’s complicated; you can read more about all the twists and turns here.) The Almoravids had the last laugh, however. After El Cid’s death, Valencia was ruled by his wife, who eventually ceded the territory back to the Almoravids. Moorish control (in one guise or another) lasted until 1238, when James I of Aragon reclaimed the region for the Spanish crown during the Reconquista.
The departure town of Vila-Real served as James I’s home base as he sought to retake all Muslim territories in Spain. Centuries after the successful Reconquista, Valencia province has developed into an agricultural center, especially for oranges, and is known for its ceramic arts.
Of course there are other delights, especially the culinary kind, awaiting the visitor to Valencia. Widely acknowledged as the birthplace of paella, it also gets high marks for its seafood specialties as well. As for wine, the DO Valencia produces more whites than reds, with most dry specimens made from an obscure grape known as Merseguera. Moscatell is behind the proliferation of fortified dessert wines known as Mistela, common in this part of Spain. If you’ve ever tried Pineau de Charentes from France, you’ll know what to expect.
Red wines here, as with neighboring regions, tend to come from Monastrell/Mourvèdre, and can be a bit on the rustic side. However, there is some interesting Rosado/Rosé made from a black-fleshed grape called Alicante Bouschet, known here as Garnacha Tintorera.
Vin de Mistelle or Mistela, is a naturally sweet mixture of grape must and eau de vie, a clear, distilled spirit, which prevents or stops alcoholic fermentation. Its roots date back to the 17th century when Dutch traders employed this method to create wines capable of withstanding long, hot journeys at sea. Today’s wines vary in style, depending on where they are made, and with which grapes.
I recently attended a seminar on French Vins de Mistelle at the Society of Wine Educators annual conference. We had the chance to taste nine wines, all of which were uniquely refreshing and delicious. Pineau de Charentes is probably the best known example, and I found the white blend of Ugni Blanc, Colombard, Montils, Folle Blanche, Sémillon, and Sauvignon Blanc to be the perfect apéritif.
A few years back I also had the chance to taste a Spanish Mistela. It was my first trip to Spain, three weeks that changed how I thought and felt about pretty much everything. I was meeting my mother and sister at a villa my godparents had rented for the summer. Here’s how it went down, as I left the Málaga airport in search of transport to Nerja:
Fran, the bus driver, served as my introduction to the people of Andalucía: folks who went out of their way to welcome me, always offering tips on places to go, things to do. As I was the only passenger, I sat up front with him, trying out my beginner’s Spanish and deciphering his attempts at English. Somehow we managed. We traveled eastward through rolling hills dotted with olive and almond trees, even a vineyard or two. Fran explained that the local wine based on the Moscatel grape was a signature of the region and something I needed to try.
When we pulled up at the door to the villa, Fran dragged my suitcase from the back of the bus and told me he would be right back. I watched him run down the street to a small market and duck inside. In a flash he was back, carrying a plastic jug full of an amber-colored liquid. “Vino de Frigiliana,” he said proudly, handing the jug to me. Wine made in Frigiliana, one of Andalucía’s famous White Towns. Jug in one hand, suitcase in the other, I climbed up the steps and knocked on the door.
Apparently a dinner party was in the making and, in typical Spanish fashion, guests were expected to arrive at 9:00 pm, with dinner served sometime around 10:00. I loved the idea of making the most of a long, sun-filled summer day, then sitting down to a delicious meal that could last past midnight. My heart, I decided, was Spanish.
My aunt and uncle, who had been vacationing in Nerja for years, had lots of friends in town. Many of them came to dinner that night, bringing with them bottles of wine, platters heaped with paper-thin slices of jamón ibérico and, for later, wonderfully fantastic stories. Our meal stretched into the early hours of the morning and, when we had run out of wine, I ran into the kitchen and brought out my plastic jug of Vino de Frigiliana. I filled small cups for everyone, and we all toasted to our good fortune to be in Spain together. The wine was raisiny and sweet, tasting of sunlight and happiness. Now this was something I needed in my fridge at home. But I was pretty sure it wouldn’t taste the same anywhere else.
I couldn’t offer a better recommendation for watching Stage Six than a Mistela wine. Spanish versions may be difficult to find (unless you’re lucky enough to be in Spain) but Pineau de Charentes is widely available in the States. Don’t be too quick to judge it. Yes, it’s a sweet wine, but let it linger in your mouth a minute; notice the layers of flavors that emerge. It’s not at all like a table wine, in my opinion – the aromas and flavors come from a different part of the spectrum. But, as with many things in life, it’s beautiful to open yourself to something new and unexpected. You never know where it might take you!
Come back tomorrow for a glimpse at Stage Seven – the longest stage in this year’s race. We’ll be heading further south, to the wine regions of Utiel-Requeña and La Mancha.