The Cherry Smash from La Mancha

By Celia Strong
I’m not sure if you remember what a Cherry Smash is. Or even if you come from the right part of the country to know what one is. Maybe they aren’t even the same everywhere. I didn’t grow up with Cherry Smashes, but I married someone who did so I am now indoctrinated into that phenomenon. In case you’re not familiar, a Cherry Smash is a candy, sort of on the large side, a bit smaller than a golf ball, but round, about an inch or so in height, chocolate shell on the outside with pink colored (cherry flavored) soft stuff inside, sort of marshmallow fluff texture.  Never has been my favorite candy, by a long shot truthfully, but the first time I tasted this week’s wine it reminded me of a Cherry Smash. And, good guess! It’s from the La Mancha region of Spain.

So, here we go to Spain. The region of La Mancha is located in central Spain, south of the city of Madrid. Its name probably comes from the Arab word “al-mansha” that means “the dry land” or “wilderness.”  In Spanish, the word “mancha” means “spot, stain or patch.” Like between the two you don’t have a picture in your mind of what it’s like there.  La Mancha is the largest plain in the Iberian Peninsula. It is made up of plateau that averages five to six hundred meters in altitude. Most of it is dry and arid. And agriculture is the mainstay of its economy – wheat, barley, wine grapes and olives. People from La Mancha are known as “Machegos,” which sounds an awful lot like one of my very favorite cheeses.  Most of us, though, associate La Mancha with Miquel de Cervantes’ “Don Quixote de La Mancha.” This famous story of a knight and windmills was really making fun of the region, using the word “mancha” as “stain,” on Don Quixote’s reputation.

But, I like wine class way better than lit class, so that’s enough of that. La Mancha is also a Spanish wine DO (their version of appellation). There are almost 500,000 acres of vines planted in the region. The first written documentation of viticulture in La Mancha dates to the 12th century. But, it is widely believed that the Romans introduced vines to the area much earlier. In the 1940’s, wine production became a big part of the region’s economy and has remained important since then. The climate here is continental, which means long hot summers and cold winters. In some of the micro-climates, drought is common. (Remember the Arab meaning of La Mancha.) There is enough rain usually, though, and the vines get about 3,000 hours of sunlight each year which is a lot. The soil is flat, reddish brown, sandy clay, poor in organic material but rich in lime and chalk. The lime layers are what let the vine roots to stretch downward for nutrients. Red wine grapes grown here are Cencibel, aka Tempranillo, Garnacha (Grenache), Moravia, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah. White varieties are Airen, Macabeo (Viura), Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. La Mancha produces red, white and rose wines, the majority of them, about 80%, being white.

We’re going to look at Tempranillo for our wine this week. And that means a red wine.  This grape is a native of Spain and its name comes from the Spanish word “temprano,” meaning early. The name refers to the grape’s early ripening, about two weeks earlier than other red varieties. Tempranillo has grown in the Iberian Peninsula since the Phoenicians. Its great claim to fame, in the world of wine, is Rioja. Because of the quality of these wines, Tempranillo is sometimes referred to as Spain’s noble grape. During the 20th century, Tempranillo traveled around the world, with much trial and error. However, there are plantings now in most wine producing countries. In the United States, it came in 1905, and received a cool reception — partly because Prohibition was in the near future and partly because it didn’t grow well in hot, dry climates. Later, in the 1980s, with vineyards in higher, cooler elevations, Tempranillo gained success in California.  As Tempranillo grows in availability and popularity, producers are learning that they need a cool climate to get elegance and acidity in their wines, but to get color from the thick skins and higher sugar levels for more flavors and alcohol to support them they need a warm climate.  Pests and diseases are a serious problem for this grape. Then, its roots absorb potassium easily which raises the pH levels in the grapes. Too much and we get salty juice. This grape also expands and contracts in size as its growing conditions change from humid to dry. Too much swelling with moisture dilutes flavors and colors in the wines.  So no wonder good Tempranillo wines can be difficult to make.  Tempranillo wines are ruby red in color, with aromas and flavors that include berries, plums, tobacco, vanilla, leather and herbs. It is more often blended than used alone for wines; because of its low a acidity and sugar levels Garnacha, Carignan, Graciano, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon are good matches for it.

But let’s get back to La Mancha and our Tempranillo for this week. Its name is El Cortijillo. This means little farm in Spanish. It is made by Vinicola de Castilla in Manzanares. This company was founded in 1976 and is a La Mancha pioneer in making fruit-forward style wines that can be drunk young.  It is a privately owned company and all their wines are made from grapes that they grow on their five hundred  acre estate.  And, yes, you can see windmills from their vineyards.  The El Cortijillo is made from 100% Tempranillo, full of red fruit smells and tastes. In particular a mild red cherry, just like in a Cherry Smash. It is a medium, light-bodied wine, perfect for warm weather. And it has a bright acidity which means it can be slightly chilled. Again, perfect for summer sipping.  For food, most summer dinners will work — grilled anything, salads, salsa, Machego cheese, burgers, pizzas, and on and on.

So, even if you don’t remember or know what a Cherry Smash is, now you can sip one. Either way, this wine is going to make some good memories. And get this, it only costs $6.99! Piece of cake, oops, I mean piece of candy. Enjoy.

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