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La Mancha is the quintessential Spanish wine region. A vast plateau of arid earth, dotted with historic villages, Moorish towns and Roman cities, it encapsulates the variety of culture, the colour and spice, the spirit of old Spain. It happens to be not only the largest wine region in Spain, but also the largest in Europe, covering almost half of the enormous central Spanish community of Castilla La Mancha. Half a million acres of vineyards, spread across four provinces and one hundred and eighty two municipalities - it’s no wonder this is one of the most interesting and varied wine regions there is.
The Romans were the first ones to cultivate vines in this part of Spain, and since their time, wine production has never really stopped. That isn’t to say this is easy wine-growing country - the extreme dryness and intense heat (daytime temperatures regularly top forty degrees in the summer, and drop dramatically at night) present their own challenges, but the result is small yields of highly characterful grapes which range from classic, native varietals such as Tempranillo and Monastrell, to international blending grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. The local favorite wine is Airen, a dry, fresh red varietal, which is used in bulk production and for brandies.
While the majority of wine production in the region is for the bold, complex reds the country is famous for, there are also some wonderfully fresh and interesting white wines to come out of La Mancha. These include wines made from local varietals such as Verdejo and Torrontes.
With its dark blue colored fruits and high juice content, Merlot varietal grapes have long been a favorite of wine producers around the globe, with it being found in vineyards across Europe, the Americas and elsewhere in the New World. One of the distinguishing features of Merlot grapes is the fact that they have a relatively low tannin content and an exceptionally soft and fleshy character, meaning they are capable of producing incredibly rounded and mellow wines. This mellowness is balanced with plenty of flavor, however, and has made Merlot grapes the varietal of choice for softening other, more astringent and tannin-heavy wines, often resulting in truly exceptional produce. Merlot is regarded as one of the key 'Bordeaux' varietals for precisely this reason; when combined with the drier Cabernet Sauvignon, it is capable of blending beautifully to produce some of the finest wines available in the world.
Ever since the Phoenicians and Romans brought their knowledge of vine cultivation to Spanish soils, the country's culture has grown alongside wine production, with wine being a vital part of Spanish identity and Spanish traditions. Each region of Spain has a wine quite distinct from the others, and it is produced by smallholders and families as much as it is by large companies and established wineries. From the relatively mild and lush regions of La Rioja to the arid plateaus that surround Madrid, grapes are grown in abundance for the now booming Spanish wine industry, and new laws and regulations have recently been put in place to keep the country's standards high. By combining traditional practices with modern technology, Spanish wineries are continuing to produce distinctive wines of great character, flavor and aroma, with the focus shifting in recent decades to quality over quantity.