Valdepeñas, which translates to "valley of stones," has been part of Spain's winemaking heritage since at least the 4th century B.C. The area is known not only for its long history of exporting wines but also for its tradition of fermenting wines in huge (1,600 liter) jars called tinajas. In centuries past, winemakers partially buried these large earthenware vessels in the earth, which helped keep the wine cold throughout the fermentation process. Today, of course, the jars have been replaced by modern equipment and production processes; Valdepeñas now sells more wine than any other Spanish DO except Rioja. The Valdepeñas region has long held a reputation for producing quality, value-priced wines.
Valdepeñas Winemaking History
As mentioned, archaeologists have discovered winemaking artifacts dating from the 4th century B.C. in Valdepeñas. The region shares Spain's ties to ancient Roman winemaking tradition. Valdepeñas quickly made a name for itself as wine production expanded during the Middle Ages; the region became one of Spain's top wine-producing areas.
The medieval Caliphate of Toledo gave the wine producers of Valdepeñas special permission to continue making wine while the area was under Muslim control, in spite of the Islamic prohibition against drinking alcoholic beverages. After the Reconquista (retaking of Spanish territory from Muslim rule), Valdepeñas wines were shipped to Madrid and other parts of Spain in ever-increasing quantities.
Valdepeñas' exports continued to grow; by the time railroads arrived in Spain in 1861, the region was ready to take full advantage of this new way to get wines to foreign markets. In fact, the Valdepeñas – Madrid run was called the "Tren de Vino" ("Wine Train") because its main cargo was wine from Valdepeñas. The railroad allowed Valdepeñas to export wine to faraway places, including the Philippine Islands and South America.
Inevitably, phylloxera came to Valdepeñas. The vineyards were decimated in 1911, but growers were prepared because the pests' effects in other parts of Europe were well-documented. As vineyards were replanted, growers concentrated on grape varieties that could handle Valdepeñas' climate, particularly airén and cencibel (tempranillo).
Although the days of earthenware jars are long gone, Valdepeñas is still an important Spanish wine region. Today, wine producers are using modern equipment and incorporating innovative techniques into their winemaking processes.
Geography, Climate and Soils
Valdepeñas is an oasis in the midst of another Spanish wine region, La Mancha. The region is almost completely surrounded by mountains and hills, although the main wine-growing area of Valdepeñas is situated on a plain. The mountains protect Valdepeñas from the effects of the Mediterranean Sea, but also ensure that the DO's climate is completely continental.
Winters in Valdepeñas are cold – temperatures can dip as low as 14 degrees Fahrenheit – and frosts occasionally damage the grapes. Summers are hot and dry. Maximum temperatures can reach over 107 degrees Fahrenheit. Droughts are fairly common. Although hailstorms and high winds are rare, they do occur, sometimes with devastating effects. Rainfall averages vary from about 8 to 15 inches per year, with most rain falling during the spring and autumn months.
The soils of Valdepeñas are stony, as you would expect from the DO's name, and quite poor. The soils have a high percentage of limestone, and topsoils range from stony to chalky or sandy.
Valdepeñas Grape Varieties
Because of Valdepeñas' continental climate, growers have traditionally concentrated on grape varieties that can tolerate heat, drought and occasional frost. While several white wine grape varieties are permitted by DO regulations, airén (sometimes called valdepeñera here) is the most commonly planted. Macabeo, chardonnay, verdejo, sauvignon blanc and moscatel are also planted in Valdepeñas.
Cencibel (the local name for tempranillo) is the most popular red wine grape variety. Cencibel accounts for approximately 86 percent of the red wine grapes planted in Valdepeñas. Cabernet sauvignon, garnacha, syrah, merlot and petit verdot are also planted here.
Among red wine grape varieties, cencibel holds pride of place because of the DO's wine laws. According to these regulations, red wines produced and labeled under the Valdepeñas DO must contain 25 percent cencibel. Reservas and gran reservas must be made entirely from either cabernet sauvignon or cencibel.
The traditional "light reds," or claretes, of Valdepeñas are made from a blend of white and red grape juices. Cencibel grapes are used in the production of Valdepeñas' light red wines, adding to the popularity of this grape variety.
Visiting Valdepeñas Wineries
You may wish to begin your Valdepeñas visit at the Museo del Vino de Valdepeñas, which is located in a converted warehouse in the city of Valdepeñas. Here you can learn about the region's long winemaking tradition and see artifacts from the DO's past.
If you prefer a more hands-on approach to wine tourism, plan to visit Valdepeñas during the first week of September so that you can experience Valdepeñas' annual wine festival (Fiestas del Vino). If this isn't possible, don't worry. Many of Valdepeñas' wineries offer tours and tastings; you'll need to arrange your visit in advance, but you will have many wine tourism options to consider.
Félix Solís, a family-run winery, currently operates Spain's largest air conditioned and automated warehouse for wine. 18 million bottles of wine can be stored in the warehouse, but Félix Solís Avantis, the winery's parent company, plans to expand this capacity to 30 million bottles. The company's local winery is currently run by the four Solís brothers. If you'd like to visit the Valdepeñas winery (the company operates wineries in several Spanish DO's and in foreign countries, including Shanghai, China), you will need to telephone the winery in advance.
Bodegas Real offers tours and tastings. You will need to contact the winery before you visit. Bodegas Real also has a gift shop and restaurant on-site.
Bodegas Arúspide offers not only traditional tours and tastings, but also boasts its own art museum. You can take a simple tour of the winery or sign up for a tour, tasting and tapas experience. The winery has a restaurant, the Manchego Room, on-site; contact the winery for more information.
Bodegas Dionisos is known for its high-quality organic wines. You can tour the winery or reserve a place at a wine tasting or wine course. Bodegas Dionisos also offers lodging at its two casas rurales and in its double-occupancy rooms. Whether or not you plan to stay overnight, you can sign up for Saturday winery tours and lunch, October through July. Contact the winery for more information.
The Future of Valdepeñas
With such a long, distinguished history, you would think that the future of Valdepeñas is already assured. In reality, there are many factors that will affect this DO's fate. The region's extreme climate will always play an important role in its success; growers must carefully choose which grape varieties to plant, given the DO's distinctive soils and climate. The grape varieties that most successfully withstand Valdepeñas' continental climate may not be the varieties best suited to the local terroir. Each year will present a new challenge; no one can control the weather, after all.
Valdepeñas' wine producers are increasingly inclined to focus on quality instead of quantity. With high sales revenue playing such an important role in the region, producers may need to strike a new balance between quality and profit. Valdepeñas' reputation for value is well-established. The new challenge is to maintain this reputation while improving overall quality. Given the region's consistent achievements at wine events (most recently, four silver medals at Les Vinalies Internationales), there is no reason to expect anything but overwhelming success from Valdepeñas.