Velvety ‘Veleta’: A Big Cheese In Tiny Contraviesa-Alpujarra

Q.: What does Veleta have in common with Velveeta?

A.: Neither are made out of cheese.

*

Okay, now that the inevitable and idiotic processed cheese-food reference has been laid to rest, I turn my focus toward a series of very cool, very delicious and very affordable wines being hauled stateside from a boutique winery in the south of Spain owned by the dynamic dyad Juan and Nola Palomar.

La Alpujarra

In the eighties, this energetic, wine-loving couple headed to some family acreage in La Alpujarra (a rocky region on the south slopes of the Spanish Sierra Nevada mountains), proceeded to clear it, plant root stock from native grapes, then hand-carry 14,000 vinifera cuttings from Napa and graft them onto ripárias roots.  All in a day’s work for a couple of old school enólogos trying to scratch out a living in rural Andalusian wine country, right?

Except that at the time, Juan Palomar was a surgeon from Dayton, Ohio.

La Palomars

“Dominio Buenavista was our dream,’ effuses Nola. “Juan is originally from a small southern village called Ugíjar, and first, after he fell in love with the wines of Napa, he noted how similar the climate and geography was to the area where he grew up, and was convinced that a wide variety of noble grapes could be grown on the Palomar family farm in Granada.”

The decision to move back to Ugíjar to make wine (and continue the family business of olive oil) was not merely a chance to chase the vine; both Juan and Nola saw a much deeper significance to it.

Says Juan: “In rural areas of the country, particularly in Andalusia, a reverse selection is occurring: People with means or higher education are leaving the villages and settling in the cities. It is a demographic movement opposite to the one happening in the past, where the less economically favored left the land for the major urban centers.

“In this way, today, the villages are losing their human potential. The ingenuity, the quest for improvement and the motor of prosperity are disappearing.

“An effective way to reverse the trend would be for the ones who migrated to return back to the villages and bring with them their fortune, knowledge and illusion to motivate growth and restore the pride and well-being of their native area.”

Juan Palomar

And So They Did… 

And in style:  Since the last vine was grafted in 1998, the Veleta brand from Bodega Dominio Buenavista has been a consistent prizewinner, with the latest round coming at the 2012 Cincinnati International Wine Festival earlier this month, where the ’08 Cabernet and 2011 Tempranillo Rosé were recognized with bronze.

Bronze Medals From The Bronze Age

Of course, making delectable wines in the Contraviesa of Alpujarra County is a long-standing trend—in fact, Granada is one of the oldest wine-producing regions in Europe.  The earliest inhabitants are credited with domesticating wild vines into something resembling vinifera nearly 4500 years ago, placing the timeline of eno innovations squarely in the Bronze Age. As a point of reference, in 2500 B.C.E., the Egyptians were brainstorming shapes that might work for really, really big buildings and Jesus wasn’t even as much a gleam in the Old Man’s eye.

Throughout the bulk of the area’s history, wine (locally called ‘costa’) was a blend of red and white grapes, and was, as might be expected, closer in color and texture to rosé than either one. It also tended to be ‘rustic’, which is an aristocratic way of saying ‘just this side of drinkable’.  It was, in fact, the Palomars and their perfectly-legal mule op with the cabernet cuttings that introduced Bordeaux varietals to the south slopes of the Sierra Nevada range.

And yet, whereas La Alpujarra may get a financial shot in the arm from these popular grapes, what about the rest of the world?  Do we really need another cabernet sauvignon?  More merlot?  Frankly—perhaps as a nod to those gumptious, phrenetic Phoenicians—of the selections I tried from the Veleta lineup, the one I found the most fascinating was made from the native mountain grape vijiriega, which if you Google, invariably comes up with ‘Veleta’ attached—that’s how unusual it is to release a commercial bottle of this strange, succulent varietal in the United States.  Similar in weight and profile to the equally singular Greek grape moscofilero (resulting in multi-layers of exotic tropical fruits and potently floral aromatics) with an undeniable alliance to the almond-like flavors of pinot grigio, it wouldn’t surprise me if geneticists ultimately determined that the three were kissing cousins.  In Spanish tradition, the wine is barrel-fermented and picks up subtle notes of oak; personally, I’d love to try a version that saw no wood at all.

Tempranillo, of course, is Spain’s elegant workhorse, and Veleta’s two-tiered approach to the grape as a monovarietal (crianza and ‘Sierra Sol’) are beautiful prototypes for introductory-priced versions; crianza,meaning that by law, it must have spent a year in an oak cask, is $13 and the lighter, more playful Sierra Sol is $10.  But perhaps the star of

La Velveeta

the portfolio is winemaker Julia del Castillo’s flower and mineral driven blend of tempranillo and cabernet sauvignon.  Called ‘Noladós’,  I’m guessing that the name might be a contraction of Nola (Mrs. Palomar) and dos, meaning ‘two’.  If it isn’t, it should be.

All three are versatile with food, as any self-respecting Spanish red must be.  And yes, they all should pair well with locally-produced grazalema cheese—and double yes, the Palomars and I are still looking for something to drink with Velveeta.

Tasting Notes:

Buenavista-Veleta Vijiriega, Granada, 2010, about $10: Enticing aromas of honeysuckle, green apple, sweet lemonade and jasmine melt into a tropical core filled with melon, papaya and lime.  A touch of vanilla at the end, likely from the barreling.  There’s a 10% infusion of chardonnay, which (whereas I am in no position to second guess Dr. Del Castillo, who has a Ph.D. In Chemistry), I like to try without.  Diluting the native flavors of ‘viji’ with Burgundy’s erudite white strikes me as akin to putting a top hat on a campesino so you can take him to the salón de baile.

Buenavista-Veleta Tempranillo Rosé, Granada, 2010, around $10: Why rosé instead of the traditional Iberian term ‘rosado’ is a question for the Palomars; I’ll aim my concentration on the juicy, strawberry-scented refresher; crisp and dry, nearly as full-bodied as a cool-weather red.  Fairly potent at 13.5% ABV, the wine is an excellent teammate to tapas and shows remarkable cleanliness and clarity.

Buenavista-Veleta ‘Sierra Sol’ Tempranillo, Contraviesa Alpujarra, NV, about $10:  Well-structured for the price point; purple-hued and medium bodied, the wine wears no vintage, nor the term ‘crianza’ although it has in fact fulfilled the one year barrel-age requirement.  Lovely nose of spicy black fruit with a reasonable palate length filled with plum and licorice.

Buenavista-Veleta Tempranillo Crianza, Contraviesa Alpujarra, 2007, about $13:  You can, if you look, find some remarkable Spanish varietals for far less than you’d spend on an average-quality Napanese or Sonomastani red.  Here’s a poster child: Super fragrant with an array of aromas, simultaneously bright and dark.  Very expressive of the breed, with black cherry, damp earth, black currants and tempranillo’s signature savor—licorice.  A velvety, tannin-tinged finish.

Buenavista-Veleta Cabernet Sauvignon, Contraviesa Alpujarra, 2008, about $16:  Enologist Julia del Castillo received her degree at the University of Bordeaux, so as ‘un-native’ as the varietal may be to La Alpujarra, it’s required by formal politesse to see what she can do with cabernet sauvignon.  Interestingly, she remains true to the red roots of the region, offering a dense, mocha and spice aligned wine wrapped in sweet berries, leather and the distinct taste of black tea.

Buenavista-Veleta ‘Noladós’, Contraviesa Alpujarra, 2008, around $16:  My pick for the cock-of-the-walk—40% cabernet sauvignon, 40% cabernet franc, 10% tempranillo.  Beautifully balanced, showing the best face of all three varietals.  Rich, unctuous and eager to please, the wine shows toasted hints, coffee, caramel and cocoa while retaining bright red currant and pepper in the foreground.  These many layers join at the finish line, resulting in long, clean closure.

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