Inside the exquisite cellar of Bodegas Alonso Cuesta in Spain's Méntrida wine region

There's magic in the peace and quiet of a small town where wine is made. Midday sun warms you standing next to an unassuming bodega, smiling mindfully because you know there's a barrel cellar beneath your feet. A puppy leaps merrily out the door to great you. Children play in the otherwise quiet streets. Here we stand in the Spanish town La Torre de Esteban Hambrán, a town of less than 2,000 in the Province of Toledo, walking through the door of Bodegas Alonso Cuesta, one of the DO Méntrida region's finest wineries.

Background reading: Our first take on Spain's excellent, compelling Méntrida wine region

Can one be simultaneously a traditionalist and an innovator? We'd give honors to winemaker Juan Alonso, who led us through the the modern production floor and into an exquisite barrel room that appears as though from another time, built into the foundation of his family's centuries-old home near the town square. He'd producing the region's signature Garnacha grape alongside Cabernet Sauvignon, in a combination of old and new French and American oak barrels. Everything here seems part of the storied order of things, from the quiet desk where I know I'd spend hours were it in a cellar beneath my home, to the guest book that stretches back many years. Yet Juan speaks adventurously of exploring new markets and new techniques for his wine, and plans to renovate an unused portion of the cellar that opens onto the street so that he can welcome visitors to a new tasting room. The mood exudes a reverence for roots and an appreciation for the craft's plus ultra (further beyond) that appeals to us.

Our journey through the cellar was a lesson in how different wine develops through aging. Our first taste of Cabernet Sauvignon delivered notes of tobacco and surprisingly powerful (and delicious) green pepper, so different from the Californian or even French editions that most wine drinkers associate with this grape. The Garnacha from new French oak has taken on notes of tobacco and baking spice, while the same Garnacha in new American oak throws us a nose of Haribo gummy peaches, and freshly cut pepper, robust raspberry, and licorice root in the mouth. Step up to the Garnacha from year-old American barrels to move into notes of sugar plum candle, retama, and cassis. At last, the three-year-old American oak is bringing out well balanced red fruit, pepper, and licorice in Meéntrida's favorite grape.

At just thirty minutes from the center of Madrid, it's hard for us to imagine why you'd not make a point of visiting Alonso Cuesta, Méntrida, and the delightful old city of Toledo. Here in this small town, La Torre de Esteban Hambrán, is the first great wine you come to as you venture outside the capital of one of the world's great wine countries.

(More) Background reading: Spanish Wine 101: Understanding regions, grapes, classifications, labels to help you choose the best

2012 Bodegas Alonso Cuesta

This particular bottle blends Garnacha, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Petit Verdot from both French and American oak. We learned from tasting in the barrel cellar that, in this Garnacha, the French tends to impart notes of tobacco and baking spice while the American tends to impart more of a playground medley of candy, pepper, big fruit, licorice, etc. Pouring from the bottle, we discovered a nose that began as red fruit and then quickly transformed into a brilliant blend of baking spice, clove, all spice, a touch of cinnamon, and sugar plum candle. The Petit Verdot asserts itself in the palate, offering acidity and tannin that make the wine a hearty food companion that marches on with its red fruit and, dare we say, a little touch of licorice.

2015 Bodegas Alonso Cuesta "Camaras" Garnacha

The grapes for Alonso Cuesta's varietal Garnacha come from vines that are over fifty years old. One of the more mild Garnachas all around, we discovered qualities of slate, vanilla, mild tea, and yet a little bramble in the nose. The palate is milder still; we think the 2015 edition is still a bit tight in early 2017, so would recommend aging for another year before opening so that some of the more robust qualities of its American oak aging can more fully develop. As evidence, 90 minutes breathing in the glass began to bring out some stone fruit qualities that we feel distinguishes this bottle versus some of the more jammy "blunt instrument" Garnachas you might be familiar with. Nice!