On the surface, Stage Eight seems rather tame, with only three categorized climbs to challenge the riders. But this is the Vuelta a España – nothing is easy, least of all the mountain-top finishes! Saturday’s race concludes at the top of the Xorret de Catí, a 3,600-foot monster considered one of cycling’s iconic climbs. Making its Vuelta debut back in 1998, the Xorret de Catí is a stage win coveted by Spain’s cadre of talented climbers.
Men with legs of steel will battle each other through the passes of the Maigmó Mountains, giving nary a thought to the stunning castles along the way. Instead they will be focused on surviving the ever-steepening slopes, some of which reach gradients in excess of 22 percent.
It’s too bad the riders won’t be able to appreciate their surroundings; but that doesn’t mean we spectators can’t take a look. Let’s start in our departure city of Hellín, situated along the Ruta del Volcan, or Route of the Volcanoes. This part of Spain boasts some of the best examples of hardened lava tubes formed more than seven million years ago. Erosion over time has left them exposed to the surface, giving us a peek into the tumultuous yet fascinating geological history of this region. The Volcano of Cancarix, along the race route today, makes a stunning backdrop for the peloton as it pedals by.
Hellín gives the historically-minded traveler other reasons to stroll its streets. Las Pinturas de Minateda, cave paintings discovered in 1914 date to prehistoric times, and make it easy to imagine ancient tribesmen hunting in the local forests. For a better look at the drawings, here’s a video that takes you inside the caves. It’s in Spanish but the paintings tell you all you need to know.
Wines of the Levant
This area of Spain takes its name from the Spanish verb levantarse, which means to get up or rise up. According to local legend, the sun kisses this spot of the Iberian peninsula first, before it climbs into the sky each day. What they forget to mention is that it stays on this part of the peninsula most of the day, especially during summer, making it hot and very dry. At higher elevations, this can be good for wine grapes, as it staves off diseases that come calling in more humid climates. Fertile soils at sea level are less optimal for fine wine grapes, but give a boost to many other agricultural products, notably the famed Valencia oranges and rice. Outside of southeast Asia, there are more rice paddies in Valencia proper than anywhere else in the world. So it should come as no surprise that paella, a dish that millions associate with Spain in general, was born right here in Valencia.
When we talk about wine in the Levant, we’re focused on two states or autonomías: Valencia and Murcia, each of which contains three specific Denominaciones de Origen (DOs.) Since the peloton is making its way through Murcia, that’s where we will head, too.
Founded in the 9th century by Moorish Caliph, Abdu’r Rahman, this swath of the Levant has fertile territory suitable for mass agriculture. Its largest crops are the local oranges, melons, rice, and grapes. Hardly surprising that Murcia is home to a major fruit canning center. The Autonomía boasts three DOs:
A town with Roman origins, Bullas lies in the southwest of Murcia. It is red wine country, relying on the Monastrell (aka Mourvèdre)grape, which clearly loves the hot arid climate here. Some Rosado is also produced.
This DO lies half within Murcia and half within Castilla-LaMancha, and you’re as likely to see almond trees and olive groves as you are vineyards. Jumilla’s hot, dry climate and sandy soils kept it phylloxera-free for almost 100 years after the louse destroyed vineyards across the rest of Europe and much of Spain. When it came time to pull up the decimated vines and replant, local authorities wisely took a long look at traditional viticulture methods and decided to change some things. They selected new clones that were better suited to the terroir and integrated modern vineyard and winemaking techniques to create higher-quality wines. Today, production has shifted away from the doble pasta wines of the past to modern blends incorporating Monastrell, Tempranillo, and Merlot. A good example of the modern style is made by Bodegas Juan Gil, a wine that is readily available in US markets, and at an attractive price point.
Another bastion of red wine production, with Monastrell making up more than 85% of all plantings, Yecla is also home to the largest wine cooperative in all of Spain: La Purísima. That said, there are experimental winemakers forging ahead in Yecla, testing out new blends that include international varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon, Tempranillo, and Merlot. Bodegas Castaño’s wines are well-worth searching out.
Wines from Jumilla and Yecla are easily found in most shops, and make perfect accompaniments to grilled meats and barbecue. Enjoy one last summery weekend on the patio with a glass of wine born from that special place in the Levant, where the sun first kisses Spain each day. Come back tomorrow for a preview of Sunday’s race through the region of Alicante.