Trevor Baker, The Guardian, July 23, 2013
There's something nicely sinister-looking about a really dark red wine. El Sequé, made in Spain's Alicante province, is almost black and, holding it up to the light and swilling it around in the glass, I decide it looks like something that you would drink in front of the fire in a crumbling castle, ideally while wearing a cape and plotting to seduce the local heiress and/or heir.
I'm drinking it, however, in a tapas bar run by one of Alicante's most acclaimed young chefs, the eponymous Gema Penalva (9 Calle Canalejas, Alicante). We're about 10 minutes from the beach. The afternoon sun is shining in through the broad windows and the aristocratically structured El Sequé is just perfect with her slow-cooked beef, so sumptuously tender it falls apart when you so much as wave a fork at it.
According to her sommelier, Javier Fernández, though, even Alicantinos tend not to order the local wines with a meal of the wonderful local cuisine. "They prefer Ribera del Duero [from northern Spain]," he says. "Sometimes – even here – it can be a problem if wine has 'Alicante' on the label."
This is a strange state of affairs when you consider that the word Alicante used to be as synonymous with wine as Rioja is now. France's Sun King, Louis XIV, was said to have asked for a glass of Alicante on his deathbed. Shakespeare makes a pun on "alligant" and "elegant" in the Merry Wives of Windsor. Queen Elizabeth I loved Alicante wine "above any other". Most startlingly, according to the research of Valencia-based wine writer John Maher, her successor to the throne, King James I, once went to his doctor with the complaint, "My urine is as red as Alicante wine."
This is the kind of off-beat marketing that Alicante could do with today. But, with royal medical records better guarded than they used to be, the region has settled for promoting local bodegas with a more conventional ruta del vino through the province's three main wine regions.
As yet, this plan consists of just an unfinished-looking website but, after finishing my beef, I decide to plot my own weekend wine tour. So, the next day, I head west to the almond groves, olive trees and vines of the first region, the Vinalopó valley, about 30 minutes' drive north from the city.
This is the home of big, elegant reds such as El Sequé. It also has, in the small town of Novelda, one of Europe's most celebrated centres of modernist architecture. The knobbly twin towers of the Gaudí-inspired Monastery of Santa María Magdalena, gleaming on a hill-top, are a reference point for miles around.
But my destination seems, at first, much less impressive. Bodega Salvador Poveda (between Monóvar and Salinas, +34 966 960 180) looks like the mildly avant-garde office of an accountancy firm that has materialised, Tardis-style, between two palm trees in the middle of the countryside.
Downstairs in the basement, though, amid barrels much older than the building, owner Rafael Poveda reveals an extraordinary fact. The original Alicante, beloved of kings and scholars for 400 years, is once again being made in the province.
Better known as the semi-sweet Fondillón, the wine is now produced in 11 bodegas, but it was Rafael's father, Salvador, who did the most to bring it back to life. Showing me around a wall of black-and-white photos he explains that, in 1949, when Salvador took over the original bodega, Fondillón had been almost forgotten for over 50 years, wiped out by the wine plague phylloxera and by a rush to produce cheaper, easier wines.
Salvador bought a surviving, 19th-century vineyard and began working on his own version. It would take him almost 30 years. Making Fondillón involves leaving the local, dark monastrell grapes on the vine until they go rancio – overripe and bulging with sugar. After fermentation and at least eight years in the barrel, this produces a strong, semi-sweet wine – somewhere between a sherry and a port but without artificial fortification.
When Rafael pours a glass, it's hard to see why it was ever forgotten. With its decadent, demerara sugar nose and faintly bitter finish it seems particularly designed for the British palate. Perfect, in fact, for the sherry sippers who've colonised parts of the Costa Blanca.
Our next stop, though, El Comtat, is a region of medieval villages (and in winter, snow-capped mountains), that is as far from the expats as you can get in Alicante. After a lunch of deep, dark rabbit-and-snail paella, at one of the province's best restaurants, L'Escaleta (205 Pujada Estacio Nord, Cocentaina, +34 965 591 359), I visit a local bodega recommended by the sommelier, Alberto Redrado.
Based in a town called Muro de Alcoy, in the foothills of the mountains that divide Alicante from Valencia, Celler la Muntanya (Rotonda Quatre Camins, Camí Alquerieta, Muro, +34 607 902 235) is the hub of a co-operative of "micro-vineyards". Co-owner Juan Cascant meets us outside the former glass factory that he has converted into a bodega and takes us on his own, mini ruta del vino. It starts along the broad river Serpis, where we watch herons wade into the water and swifts flit in and out of poplar trees. All kinds of people used to own vineyards near here, he tells me. For the past 10 years, it's been the Celler's mission to persuade the "butchers, poets and housewives" who inherited them to start producing grapes again.
It is currently working with 28 micro-vineyards and, although the project has been held up as a model of economic co-operation and even been discussed at Harvard, it has also produced some impressive wine. The lusciously sticky red, Almoroig 2009, for example, was awarded 90 points by the Wine Advocate and other influential critics.
That evening I leave El Comtat and head back towards the coast and Alicante's third wine region, the Jalon valley, best-known for its sweet whites. After a night spent in an eco-lodge, Refugio Marnes (+34 629 874 489), enveloped by mountains and lulled to sleep by the wind in the trees and the hooting of owls, my final destination is the Bodegas Gutiérrez de la Vega (1 Calle Les Quintanes, Parcent, +34 966 403 871).
Getting there involves heading along the twisty coastal road, rounding sharp bends to sudden flashes of the blue Med and the rocky outcrop of the Peñon de Ifach, before doubling back inland, past white holiday villas and terraced hillsides of olive groves, to the eerily quiet town of Parcent. The first impression of the bodega is of a homely simplicity: a heavy door opening on to a traditional Alicante kitchen with woodburning stove. However, owner Felipe Gutiérrez de la Vega's dessert wines, in particular, are unabashedly luxurious. The honey-toned Casta Diva Cosecha Miel 2002 was served with the dessert at the 2004 Royal Wedding of Prince Felipe and Letizia.
The star, though, has to be his 1996 Fondillón. Sweeter and smoother than that of Salvador Poveda, it's also, to my childish approval, an unabashedly deep red. This, you have to feel, is the wine that made King James give up drinking. For anyone else, though, it's a powerful invitation to start. The real Alicante is not to be found on the crowded beaches. It's hidden inland, just waiting to be poured.
• Accommodation was provided by Refugio Marnes (+34 629 874 489, refugiomarnes.com), which has doubles from €73 a night including breakfast
This article originally appeared on guardian.co.uk