España el Especial (Part 1: Priorat)
Ah Spain. How do I being to summarise my travels in a country that has more of its land covered in vines than anywhere in the world? A country that has been dubbed the sleeping giant of the wine world, just waking up from a self-imposed slumber? All I can do is give you my impressions, based on my 8 packed days visiting 9 winemakers with my dear friend Whitney in some of Spain’s most famous wine regions.
Our route (map courtesy of Whitney Adams)
First of all, to say that Spain is just waking up doesn’t seem accurate to me. I think many winemakers have been awake for quite awhile now, tuned in to their country’s land and the world’s ever-changing palate. There is some exciting stuff going on in Spain at the moment and Whitney and I only scratched the surface. On the flip side of that, there is also a wonderful sense of history and tradition in Spanish winemaking, still being faithfully maintained and respected today.
terraced vines at Clos Mogador
In fact, the overlying theme if our trip seemed to emerge as tradition versus modernity. The ‘old school’ way of doing thing versus the new. This was first revealed to us in the region of Priorat, south of Barcelona, on our visit with René Barbier Jr. of Clos Mogador. René ’s father, René Sr. is one of the founding fathers of Priorat, one of the first to put the region on the map for the rest of the world. His style of winemaking is what won him the adoration (and points) of Robert Parker and his loyal followers. This style involves a lot of manipulation and works to a ‘bigger is better’ theory including 40 days maceration, lots of pump downs and pump overs, strict temperature controls to kick start the fermentation and stabilize the wine, new oak barrels, etc etc. The results, when in the hands of experts like the Barbiers are lovely big, juicy fruity wines, but they’re anything but subtle and fresh.
concrete eggs Rene Barbier Jr. ages some of his white wines in
René Jr. however is an example of the changing mindset of the younger generation. He makes his own wines as well as Clos Magador’s, with his wife Sara Perez of Mas Martinet. He makes no money off these wines, but instead uses them as guinea pigs for the real money makers, Clos Magador. With these wines he practices organic viticulture (although he says all of the vineyards are organic-in Priorat they don’t have big problems with fungus and pests so it’s easy to be organic), experiments with concrete eggs, less barrel ageing, and even with a no-sulphur wine. He is putting the pressure on his father to start to work in this way as well, and has already made some changes to the winemaking. But René Jr. also recognises that although the trend is now for fresher, less oaked, extracted, and alcoholic wines, Clos Magador has made its reputation on a certain style, and it’s still selling extremely well. So perhaps the old saying, if it ain’t broke don’t fix it may apply here. I don’t have an answer, but I do know that for me personally, I prefer the way René Jr. is working.
Anorexic vines in Priorat
In any case, Priorat is a fascinating place. With 8 native white grapes and only two native reds (ironic considering most of the production is red), Priorat’s rugged terraced landscape is ringed by the Montsant mountain range (which look a little like an elongated Table Mountain). It’s anorexic looking bush vines provide tiny yields (which, along with the Parker points, accounts for their hefty price tags) of grapes like cariñena, grenache, syrah, grenache blanc, macabeo, and some pedro ximénez (yep the stuff found in sticky sherries!). Many of the steepest vines need to be worked by mule, and ALL of the Priorat DOC must be worked by hand–machine harvesting is illegal. 30 years ago there were only three producers and one cooperative here. Now there are more than 80 producers.
One of those is Dominik Huber, who together with renowned South African winemaker Eben Sadie, are bucking all Priorat trends. The name, Terroir Al Limit, gives you an idea of their wines. Their focus is on expressing Priorat’s exceptional terroir, and not on making typical Priorat fruit and oak bombs. The business started in 2001 with 2000 bottles and has grown to 20,000 bottles. A big growth, but still a small winery. They work with low yields of old vines mainly comprising of grenache, syrah, and cariñena, and grenache blanc and pedro ximénez for the whites. Although the wines are delicious, for most of us they are not every day drinking wines, being reminiscent in both flavour and price tag of a Grand Cru Bordeaux (with less oak!). They are, however, exceptionally well made and complex, and unlike any traditional Priorat wines out there.
Even more against the grain was the last winemaker we visited in Terra Alta, at the south of Priorat. A winemaker who left the DOC for the freedom to make wines his way. Who is so extremely against any addition of sulphur, he makes a wine that is purposely ‘incorrect’. This winemaker visit was truly unique. But you’ll have to wait until next time to hear about that! Until then I’ll leave you with a few recommendations from the wineries mentioned in this post, one very traditional, one more modern:
Clos Mogador red: A traditional Priorat red. I tried the 2008 which was still a baby but was bursting with ripe blackberries and plum, oakey spice, and tar. It’s got a good acidity and enough tannins to have you reaching for the water, so it’s got a heck of a lot of promise for years to come. Check Wine-Searcher for where to find the ’08 and other vintages in both the UK and the US. Prices start at around £35 a bottle.
Terroir Al Limit ‘Arbossar’: 100% cariñena. A heady, complex wine that reminded Whitney and I of a slightly stubbled, expensive-cologne-wearing, sexy-yet-rustic man. Need I say more? (Interestingly Dominik thought it was more feminine!) A bit trickier to find. No UK importer yet although Dominik tells me there will be next year. In the US, Gordon’s Wine and Spirits have several labels including the Arbossar for a whopping $79.99. The ‘Toroja’ is £20 cheaper and more earthy/herby/chocolatey but also delicious.