Body: Medium to full
Age: Generally consume within 2 to 4 years of release, but the best wines can improve for 10 years or more.
Aka: Bovale, Nieddera, Requena, Tinto de Requena.
Other: Open an hour before serving.
Bobal (bo-BAHL) is a Spanish grape that is increasingly attracting attention in the wine world. Most people have never heard of Bobal, and yet it is the second most planted red grape variety in Spain, second only to Tempranillo. So, how can this be? The answer is bulk wine production, as Bobal has traditionally been used to beef up the wines of other regions. It was not considered a high quality grape, simply because it was mass-produced without any attempt to develop its innate capabilities. However, a fall in bulk wines prices, combined with increased consumer demand for quality, raised critical questions about the future of Bobal.
This led to a fundamental reassessment of the grape and its potential. At the turn of this century a number of innovative winemakers began to take the grape seriously, with a focus on quality, and produced some stunning wines. Bobal has since gone through something of a renaissance and is now considered one of the best, and certainly one of the most underrated, Spanish red grape varieties.
Bobal is native to the Utiel-Requena (oo-TYEHL reh-KEH-nah) DO in the province of Valencia, which accounts for the vast amount of vines grown. It can also be found in some other DOs, but principally in the neighboring Manchuela (MAN-KOO-ey-la) DO, which is part of the Castilla-La Mancha region. The name Bobal derives from the shape of the grape clusters, which are said to resemble a bull’s head. It has a long presence in this area of Spain, possibly dating back to Roman times, and is documented as far back as the 15th century.
The arrival of Phylloxera in the latter half of the 19th century, which proved to be disastrous for the wine industry, saw a dramatic increase in the planting of Bobal as it proved to be resistant to the disease. Throughout the 19th and much of the 20th century Bobal was a workhorse grape used to make bulk wine for blending. It was very well suited to this task as it is a high yielding, hardy variety, has plenty of tannins due its thick skin, retains excellent acidity in hot, arid conditions and has one of the highest levels of anthocyanin (pigment in red grapes) of any grape, which gives its wines a dark, rich color. On the downside, the berries tend to ripen unevenly, but that is less of an issue in a blending wine. Much of the crop was used, and still is, for the production of Rosé.
One of the methods used in the production of these bulk wines, but not much practiced today, is called doble pasta, which means ‘double pulp’. In this method the grape skins left behind after the production of Rosé are added to a new batch of red wine production, so this new wine is essentially fermented on two batches of grape skins. The resulting wines are very powerful and concentrated. However, at the turn of this century it became increasingly uneconomic to cultivate Bobal for bulk wine production. Another serious threat to the grape came in the form of vine-pull schemes, which encouraged growers to pull up their indigenous Bobal vines (many very old) and replace them with “improving” varieties, such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah and Tempranillo.
In an effort to find alternative options for Bobal some producers began, for the first time, to take a quality orientated approach. They severely pruned the vines to restrict yields, practiced dry-farming (no irrigation), only harvested ripe grapes through careful picking and sorting, and concentrated on old vines, of which there are many. In the winery, they intervened as little as possible in the wine making process and many began to age the wines in oak to add depth and complexity. The wines they made were a revelation and marked the arrival of Bobal as a high quality grape that demanded attention. The ripe fruit flavors and lively acidity of these wines, combined with their tannic frame and the use of oak, give them considerable aging potential.
While some very nice wines are made in a lighter style without the use of oak, it is those with more concentrated fruit flavors and some barrel age that best exemplify the full potential of Bobal. They display aromas of red and black fruits with notes of violet, herbs, vanilla and wood smoke, followed by flavors of cherry, raspberry, blackberry, prunes, fig and cassis, together with hints of toast and spice. As they mature, they can display additional notes of licorice, chocolate, tobacco and exhibit an appealing earthy quality. The body is often medium, sometimes full, but always with a vibrant acidity that brings life to the concentrated fruit flavors. Made in this way, Bobal has so much to offer and also makes an excellent blending partner with grapes such as Garnacha (aka Grenache) and Tempranillo, as it adds color, flavor, body, tannin and acidity.
The best varietal wines can improve for up to 10 years or more, but the jury is still out as this new incarnation of Bobal is such a recent phenomenon. It is best to open these wines an hour before serving, or decant if you prefer, to enable them to open up and reveal their full flavor profile. In addition to varietal examples, be sure to check out blends where Bobal is the main player. These wines are usually softer, but extremely rewarding and quite delicious. Spain has a wonderful habit of bringing a relatively obscure or unknown grape variety to prominence, which adds to the excitement of this great wine country. Bobal is one such grape and well worth adding to your wine wish list.
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