The great majority of Spain's vineyards lie on the tableland around the capital Madrid, particularly on the plains of La Mancha, which provide much of the country's basic vino de mesa and raw ingredients for the brandy de Jerez that was traditionally drunk in such quantities by the Spaniards. This was supplied by the relatively characterless dry white made from the Airén grape, once so common here - and planted at such a low vine density in these extremely arid, non-irrigated vineyards - that its total acreage was greater than that of any other single grape variety in the world. However, planting of dark-skinned grapes – including such international varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah – increased so considerably in the late 1990s that by 2005 more than two-thirds of all the wine made in the region was red. La Mancha itself is Europe's largest single demarcated 'quality' region (ie DO), encompassing 160,000 ha (400,000 acres), although very little of its produce is seriously superior and a substantial proportion thereof provides the raw material for Spanish spirits such as brandy de Jerez.
This is inhospitable country, whose name is derived from Manxa or 'parched earth', as it was known by the Moors. In summer it is boiling hot and there is hardly enough rain to sustain a crop. In winter it can be freezing cold for weeks at a time, with frequent frosts. The one advantage of this dry climate is that vine diseases are practically unknown, so no expensive spraying is required. Because most of the vines are grown as low bushes, no careful vine training along wires is needed. This is minimalist vine-growing. Since 2003 irrigation has been allowed theoretically, but most growers cannot afford the installation and running costs.
Since the mid 1980s, modern winemaking has gradually invaded La Mancha, and in particular temperature controls for fermentations, which have resulted in inexpensive fresh, crisp, if fairly characterless reds and dry whites.
Such vineyards not planted to Airén tend to be planted with Cencibel, the local name for the ubiquitous Spanish red Tempranillo. This is a speciality of Valdepeñas, a southern enclave within La Mancha which is a source of some delightfully keenly priced, juicy, sometimes carefully aged reds. So dense is the colour of much of the Tempranillo harvested from the low-yielding vines of La Mancha and Valdepeñas that the wines were traditionally lightened by adding the white grapes of which the region has such a surplus.
As evidence that even the most workaday wine region can today attract ambitious outside investment, La Mancha now has at least two better quality estates, both of them at altitudes of almost 1,000 m (3,000 feet). Baronia and Manuel Manzaneque have, perhaps inevitably, introduced international grape varieties and have been rewarded with rapturous acclaim by Madrid's fashion-conscious wine drinkers. Such is the power of this local market than the Vinos de Madrid zone between La Mancha and the Spanish capital is experiencing a revival. Nearby DOs Ribera del Júcar, Mondéjar and Uclés are well placed to follow suit.
Méntrida to the west (where Jiménez Landi does a fine job), is most famous for the strength of its largely co-operative-made Grenache-based reds. Just to the south, near Toledo, is the dynamic red winemaking estate of Dominio de Valdepusa which, in the ownership of Marqués de Griñón, has been awarded its very own DO Pago. It produces some of Spain's most respectable Cabernet Sauvignon as well as some extremely good Syrah and even some interesting Petit Verdot. Clever canopy management techniques for training the vines in such a dry climate have played an important part here.