Red Blend, 2016
Almansa, Spain, $10.99
14.5 percent alcohol
Laya, a rich, red wine with aromas and flavors of black fruit and berries, is made primarily from an obscure grape grown in a small wine region in high, arid vineyards in southeastern Spain.
It is an excellent wine for sipping on a cool evening or having with grilled meats or stews.
Laya is produced at the Atalaya Winery, which is part of the Gil Family Estates, one of Spain’s oldest and best wine producers.
Juan Gil Jimenez started the Gil Winery 102 years ago in Spain’s Jumilla region. He built his business with a philosophy of producing high-quality wines at affordable prices. In recent years, the family’s fourth generation has continued that thinking and has expanded the business by acquiring small wineries throughout Spain, upgrading technology and producing a diverse collection of award-winning wines from indigenous grapes, the Gil website says.
The company now has 10 wineries and about 3,000 acres of vineyards in nine different Spanish regions. Gil produces more than 650,000 cases annually, according to an article in Shanken News Daily, a spirits industry newsletter.
In the last three years, the company has spent about $33 million on new equipment, infrastructure and vineyards, and is poised for a major expansion into the U.S. market.
“Our philosophy is that by owning our own vineyards and facilities in each region we have control from grape to bottle to maintain quality even in bad vintage years,” Gil General Manager Jordi Flos told Shanken News.
And by controlling the vineyards, the company also keeps the cost of grapes down, which allows the wines to be produced at affordable prices.
That’s all good news for those of us who like good, inexpensive Spanish wines.
The highly rated Laya is a blend of 70 percent Garnacha Tintorera (known elsewhere as Alicante Bouchet) and 30 percent Monastrell (Mourvedre), and is the handiwork of Australia-born winemaker Frank Gonzalez.
Gil acquired the Atalaya (Spanish for watchtower) Winery in Almansa, Spain, in 2002, and started producing Laya there in 2009 when Gonzalez took over as head winemaker.
Those who have traveled coastal Highway 17 in South Carolina might recognize the Atalaya name. A 40,000-square-foot beach house once owned by Archer and Anna Hyatt Huntington is also called Atalaya Castle. It’s named for a not-so-similar Moorish structure not very far from the Atalaya Winery in Spain. The South Carolina house and its 2,500 acres were leased to the state in the 1960s and are now part of Huntington State Park and Brookgreen Gardens, which features Anna Huntington’s sculpture.
Winemaker Gonzalez said in an interview earlier this year with Grape Collective, an online wine magazine, that he’d never heard of Garnacha Tintorera, the main grape variety grown in Almansa, before he started at Atalaya. There were only two or three not very good wines made from the grape on the market at the time in the tiny region, and the rest of the grapes went to a cooperative that used them to blend table wine.
“I started something a little bit different (from the region’s other winemakers),” said Gonzalez, who comes off in the article and accompanying video as an easygoing, understated Aussie with a good sense of humor and the demeanor of a chef.
To make the style interesting, Gonzalez let the fruit ripen longer and then picked it by hand. He also aged the wine for a shorter period of time — four months in French oak barrels.
“I don’t add sugar and stuff like that, and then I just blend it with a couple of things like Monastrell, but predominantly La Tintorera. It gives you an incredible nose and a flavor like nothing else: a lot of black olives and balsamic. They’re quite rich wines.”
About 90 percent of the grapes used in making Laya come from old vines, some as old as 70 years, he said, adding that he spends most of his time in the vineyards.
“So, I think the fruit to me is the most important thing, and tasting the fruit. The rest doesn’t really matter that much. It does, but it doesn’t.”
Gonzalez says he thinks all wines benefit from food, but the Atalaya wines, especially the entry-level ones, such as Laya, are soft and light enough to drink just by themselves.
Laya is becoming widely available in New England. It’s a great buy at $10.99, but I found it recently for $8.99. I’ve tried it a number of times, and it’s become a personal favorite.