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Mountaintop Garnacha

An 11-vintage vertical tasting of Alto Moncayo Aquilon
Photo by: Markel Redondo
Campo de Borja's local wine cooperative aimed high with the creation of the three-tier Alto Moncayo brand.

Posted: Aug 31, 2017 1:00pm ET

Alto Moncayo is a creative winemaking hybrid of tradition and innovation in Spain, and the impressive showing of its top cuvée, Aquilon, in a recent vertical tasting testifies to the productivity of this unusual approach.

Campo de Borja, in north-central Spain, has been growing Garnacha for centuries. Despite losing much of its population and economic activity since the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s, the region still nurtures old, head-trained vines in the rocky soils on and around the mountains of the Sistema Iberico range, of which Moncayo, at 7,592 feet, is the highest peak.

In the 1950s, Campo de Borja growers formed a cooperative winery, which, like so many of its peers, mainly sold bulk wine at low prices for local consumption. The co-op partnered in the 1990s with American importer Jorge Ordonez to bring its Borsao brand to the United States. In 2001, they joined with Australian winemaker Chris Ringland to create a new, much more ambitious wine venture called Alto Moncayo, which debuted with the 2002 vintage.

While Borsao focused on fresh, fruity Garnachas at value prices, Alto Moncayo has aimed for richer wines in a more international style. Grown in the oldest, highest vineyards, the grapes are harvested at low yields, fermented in small, open vats to allow parcel selection, then matured in 100 percent new oak, a mix of mostly French with American barrels. The winery makes three bottlings: a mid-range called Alto Moncayo ($50, 1,500 cases made); a young-vine cuvée called Veraton ($35, 3,000 cases made), and Aquilon, the flagship ($150, 100 cases made).

Markel Redondo
Winemaker Chris Ringland took his experience making Australian Shiraz and Grenache-based blends to Spain.

The wines, all 100 percent Garnacha, are plush and dense, with exuberant, ripe fruit flavors and toasty, coffee-scented oak. Though opulent (with at least 15 percent alcohol), they are balanced by well-integrated tannins and very fresh acidity (typically showing pH levels of 3.4 to 3.5), thanks to the high altitude. With the occasional exception of Veraton, I have consistently given the Alto Moncayo wines scores of 90 points and higher in my official blind tastings.

Recently, I tasted 11 vintages of Aquilon from 2014 to 2002, non-blind, in New York. (2004 was skipped, and none was made in 2003.) The results were impressive. None were over the hill, or even perceptibly mature, with the exception of 2010, the only bottles not sourced from the winery. All were robust, complex and enjoyable.

My favorite in the tasting was the 2005 (also my highest score on release, at 94 points). It was dense, with savory notes of graphite, garrigue and tar framing the core of dense currant and blackberry. Next came the 2009 (92 points on release), plush and rich, with more evident fruit flavors of plum and fig, supported by muscular tannins. The only wine on the downslope was the 2002 (86 on release), now showing more herbal, earthy flavors than fresh fruit.

On release, I suggested a lifespan of eight to 12 years for these wines. Based on this tasting, I would extend that to 12 to 15 years, noting that the fruit, so delicious in its youth, will give way to a more savory character after a decade.

A question frequently asked about bold, international-style reds is whether they have the structure and balance to age well. Based on this tasting, I’m satisfied that Aquilon, at least, does not fall apart, but can mature with harmony and grace.

Follow Thomas Matthews on Twitter at twitter.com/trmatthews.

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