Heaven-sent

WINE
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The Independent Culture
Clad in bright red shirt and jacket over blue jeans, Jesus is looking heavenward with apprehension. The harvest is late and the under- ripe tempranillo grapes are crying out for a miracle, or at least a gap in the ominous clouds. To cheer himself up, Jesus Artajona, Enate's talented winemaker, presses a computer key and a loudspeaker voice booms out in English through one of Spain's most spectacular space-age wineries. Welcome to Enate. Welcome to Somontano.

Enate is one of only eight wineries - three large and five small - in Somontano, 80 kilometres from the French border. Somontano means "under the mountain", and - as you'd expect from a region whose continental climate is influenced by mountains - the Pyrenees provide frost protection and shelter from biting northerly winds.

If its 1,800 hectares of vineyards were planted only with the usual suspects - Spain's ubiquitous tempranillo, garnacha and macabeo - Somontano would no more stand out from the crowd of Spain's 48 other DO (Denominazion de Origen) regions than a kebab at a barbecue. But although the region was only granted DO status in 1985, the early results of major investments in vineyards and state-of-the-art cellars have caught the imagination of consumers in Spain and beyond its Pyrenean border.

Somontano has been widely planted with the internationally popular grapes, cabernet sauvignon and merlot, chardonnay and the aromatic gewurztraminer. But with an eye to tradition, insofar as it exists here, the local moristel and parraleta (red) and alcanon (white) act as a counterpoint to the more glamorous premium varieties.

Bodegas Lalanne, founded in the 19th century when the Lalanne family fled the phylloxera plague, is the oldest wine company. In practice, Somontano's success as Spain's newest wine region lies precisely in the fact that it doesn't labour under the constraints of tradition. So much so that its three main wineries, Enate, Vinas del Vero, and even the modern co- operative Bodegas Pirineos, would look just as at home in Italy or California as in the hills of Upper Aragon.

Within sight of the hilltop monastery of San Marcos, Vinas del Vero was established in 1986 in the Guara National Park with the aim of finding the most suitable grape varieties for the production of world-class wines. Following a five-year research programme on yeasts, irrigation and vineyard development, the rules were adapted to include cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay in 1992. Subsequently, pinot noir and merlot and the aromatic gewurztraminer, a rarity in Spain, were added.

"Spain's always been Rioja, Rioja and then again Rioja," says Javier Santafe, Vinas del Vero's commercial director. "For the serious wine drinker, Somontano is something new." Designed to operate using gravity instead of pumps, the ultra-modern winery is built on vertical lines with a battery of outdoor stainless-steel tanks descending the hillside. Inside, expensive new French oak barrels spew golden bubbles of fermenting chardonnay. The pinot noir, one of the few in Spain, already shows the attractive, strawberry-like fruit flavours of burgundy's red grape variety. And the gewurztraminer is rose petal scented and crisply refreshing.

South of the hilltop village of Alquezar, with its precarious Moorish church and castle, Enate's redbrick winery at first sight resembles a military installation. "When I arrived in 1992 from Torres, there was nothing here," says Jesus. Luckily, the owners, the Nozaleda family, are in the construction industry, so the winery was up and running the following year. Constructed with the practicalities of a modern winery in mind, the restful interior tones and textures are complimented by the striking art labels of Antonia Saura, Jose Manuel Broto, Vctor Mira and Jose Beulas.

Production currently runs at 150,000 cases, with reds that include a blend of tempranillo with cabernet sauvignon, a promising, French oak-matured merlot and a richly oaked, well-structured cabernet sauvignon reserva. Enate makes an appealing rose, an aromatic gewurztraminer, and one of Spain's most deliciously complex barrel-fermented chardonnays.

Not everything about Somontano is New World in style. Riesling, chenin blanc and sauvignon blanc were not authorised, so Enate's experimental sauvignon blanc - and Vinas del Vero's chenin blanc - have to be sold off in bulk until they can decide what to do with their speculative plantings. And, with the lion's share of its production from tempranillo, macabeo and the local moristel, Bodegas Pirineos, the modern co-operative, is more tradition-minded.

The more vociferous Spanish critics of Somontano want to know just how Spanish the new developments are. "It's borderline," says Jesus Artajona. "Critics accuse us of making wine in a New World style. We are international in the presentation of our wines, but the wines are clean without the sulphurous undertones you sometimes get from local varieties. And our vineyard workers like working with cabernet sauvignon and merlot because they're easier to work with and more resistant to fungus."

"The image of Somontano is one of quality," says Artajona. "When people talk about Somontano, its image is good, not cheap. Enate can put the future on the table because we have no tradition to sell." A gap in the clouds appears at this point. Jesus will not after all be called upon to turn water into wine.

Wines of the Week

1995 Somontano Chardonnay (Vinas del Vero), pounds 3.99, Safeway. A small proportion of this crisp, appley chardonnay is fermented in oak for extra body and flavour. 1994 Vinas del Vero Barrel-fermented Chardonnay, pounds 5.99, Oddbins. Smoky from maturation in French oak casks, this is a buttery chardonnay with sweet toffee and vanilla undertones. 1994 Enate Chardonnay, Barrel- Fermented, pounds 9.49, Avery's of Bristol (01275 811100). Cinnamon-spice and textured richness from burgundy-style contact with the grape's lees in barrel make this a complex, flavoursome, dry white. 1995 Camporoccal Tinto, Bodegas Pirineos, pounds 3.25, Waitrose (due in mid-October). A youthful, mulberry and blackcurrant-like blend of tempranillo with the local moristel. 1994 Vinas del Vero Pinot Noir, pounds 4.99, Oddbins. Well-crafted, strawberry-fruity, unfiltered pinot noir with a hint of vanilla oak and appealing mid-palate sweetness. 1993 Enate Tempranillo Cabernet Sauvignon, Crianza, pounds 6.29-49, Oddbins, Co-op, Avery's of Bristol. This liquorice-scented blend is fleshed out with attractively smooth-textured, blackberryish fruitiness.

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