For those searching for identification of terroir, and wines with great depth and character, a tour through Spain’s DOQ Priorat, DO Montsant, DO Conca de Barbera and DO Terra Alta regions of the Tarragona province (Catalonia, Spain) is a must. The cultivation of grape vines in Spain goes back centuries; and throughout these regions exist a wide range of geography, climate and soils, as well as many century old vines. My recent visit to Tarragona uncovered unique and well crafted wines; and the depth, character and “sense of place” shined through brilliantly. Come along and travel vicariously with me through the regions…
Priorat, located in central southern part of the province of Tarragona, has been a wine producing region for several centuries. This region, which has significantly grown in popularity over the past decade, was a Designation of Origin (DO) for years, and gained approval of the higher level Denomination of Origin Qualified (DOQ) in December 2000. The quality of Priorat wines over the centuries have been based on the unique climate and soils. Here, the soil is all about layers and layers of slate. Of volcanic origin, their black, gray, red and brown slate with small particles of mica, is known as llicorella. Several different microclimates exist; summers tend to be long, hot and dry; and winters are quite cold; getting down to zero temperatures at times. Classic old vines here include Carinena and Garnacha.
A good place to start is the Viniteca Mayol Wine Center, located in the middle of the region in Torroja del Priorat. With their temperature controlled wine cellar, in-house laboratory, Wine Club, virtual shop, reference library, tasting/training room, and more, this is a fine place to experience and learn more about the world of Priorat wines. The friendly staff offers services including arranging training courses, visits to cellars and more. From a retail perspective, this charming shop offers fine wines and other products from the region. A number of excellent wines from the D.O.Q. Priorat were unveiled here, including the following favorites:
CellarVall Llach’s stunning 2005 Vall Llach (63% Carinena, 24% Merlot and 13% Cabernet Sauvignon) is a beautifully crafted blend which includes fruit from old vines approaching their 100 year mark, on the slopes of Porrera. Enticing aromas waft from the glass. Dense, rich concentrated dark berry flavors weave artfully with slate and mineral notes gloriously filling the palate. Nicely integrated tannins and oak notes carry through the long, persistent finish.
Genium Celler 2005 Costers Vi De Duarda: 50% Carinena, 20% Garnacha and 10% each Merlot and Syrah make up this harmonious blend. Some of the fruit comes from nearly 100 year old vines planted on intensely steep slopes. This wine opens with alluring spice accented black cherry aromas. Terroir driven minerality is present right up front in this blend that clearly exemplifies the region. The stone notes add complexity to the everlasting dark berry and black cherry flavors, and a pleasing dose of vanilla and spice from 14 months of oak aging add depth and character.
Cellers Ripoll Sans Closa Batllet “2 Vynes” 2005: Gratallops is the home of this old family winery with vineyards up to 90 years old. This 100% Carinena from two different vineyards opens with the essence of earth and minerals on the nose; followed with juicy dark berry and minerality persisting at the core. Aged for 15 months in French oak, this is one striking Carinena delivering balance and pretty tannins throughout.
Celler-Pahi’s 2006 Gaubanca Negre: Grapes in this blend come three different vineyards, 35% Garnacha vines are terraced and planted in 100% llicorella soil, 50% Carinena is planted 30% on terraces and 70% on the plains in calcareous and llicorella soil, and 35% Merlot is terraced and planted in clay and calcareous soil. The resulting wine is equally complex; with delectable chocolate and minerality on the nose; a full chewy mouthful of chocolate covered coconut, juicy black fruit and licorice melding melodiously on the palate, ending opulently with ever so velvety tannins.
A visit to the Vinicola del Priorat in the Gratallops further awakened palates with again the sense of old vine and mineral characteristics. The 2004 Onix Sellecio is 100% Carinena from 80 year old vines which are harvested by hand. Aromatics of spicy mulled wine lead to a nice backbone of ripe berry fruit laced with a cornucopia of cinnamon, clove, pleasing earthy spices and a dash of cedar on the mid palate. A rich and full bodied wine with tannins that are evident but not overpowering.
Celler Capafons Osso: From their old vines (the most mature of which are 103 years old) in the DOQ Priorat comes their Mas de Masos, from an estate made up of small farmhouses in two valleys where the forest surrounding the vineyards create a unique microclimate influencing the temperatures). The 2000 Mas de Masos is a well built wine full to the brim in both aroma and flavor of wild berries, wild fragrant cherries, and the slate driven minerality that is so prevalent in the Priorat.
It is also here in Priorat you will find the Ferrer Bobet Winery, a shining gem which was created by Sergi Ferrer-Salat and Raul Bobet seven years ago. Some of the vineyards here are up to 100 years old. From the moment it comes into view; the sleek modern architecture, clean contemporary lines, and the immaculately groomed surroundings of both the new gravity fed winery and the extraordinary century old vineyards are very impressive. As we traversed through the attractively terraced vineyards growing throughout the high elevation and steep terrain, Sergi, our host, unfolded the history and passion behind Ferrer Bobet. The facility was clearly put together with plenty of thought and hard work, not to mention the up front investment. When questioned about the cost; Sergi simply said “it took a part of our soul, how much does that cost”? Located in the southern part of Priorat, Ferrer Bobet encompasses 70 hectares with elevation ranging from 400 to 700 meters, and is one of, if not the coolest zone in the region. The vineyards are staggeringly steep, boasting healthy vines that are treated with extreme care. They can irrigate young vines; but the DO regulations specify when you must stop irrigating. Foliage exposure is improved by implementing precise vertical cross over trellising. Very few other regions around the world subscribe to this trellising.
At harvest time the fruit is carefully picked and placed into 10 kilo hand held bins which are filled to 80%. Their uncompromising practice of allowing NO raisin-y berries to pass through the sorting of grapes eliminates over-ripeness. The dual colored bins are stacked in an alternating fashion to protect the precious fruit. The berries are cold soaked to extract color and flavor before fermentation (higher risk of microbial issues if grapes are compressed, explains Sergio); and the cold berries are then crushed. They use 15 and 30 hectoliter fermenting barrels for the Carinena (Carignan), and stainless tanks for fermenting Garnacha (Grenache); with no fining or filtering to purposefully capture the full character of the grape variety.
Across from the vertically trellised vines are 90 to 120 year old weathered, expressive Carignan vines that are head trained, with 8 shoots per vine. These stately vines enjoy the morning sun and yield 14 hectoliters per hectare, just below 1 ton per acre.
They typically harvest 3 weeks later than other wineries in the region, and pick at a time to maintain a good level of acidity; emphasizing their preference of avoiding over-ripeness and volatile acidity. They meticulously remove weeds in the vineyard by hand (four field workers spend four months hand picking the weeds from the vineyard; which is necessary as the weeds compete with the vines for water). The owners and crew are intensely focused and obsessed with biodiversity and organic practices; no herbicides or insecticides are used whatsoever. Even eye appeal in the vineyards is important, as evidenced by the metal stakes painted various slate shades of gray, black and brown for better visual integration into the vineyards.
By law here, they must reach a minimum of 14% alcohol for the D.O; (they simply don’t reach phenolic ripeness below 14%). Ferrer Bobet produces about 20,000 bottles, of which 4,000 are imported to the USA, and they sell out quickly; no surprise!
Some may call the soil schist; but Sergi emphasizes what is here is slate (schist is not as layered as slate). Water takes forever to percolate through the slate, which is fine grained and multi-layered, and breaks apart in your hand with gentle pressure. Below the rocky slate lies decomposed slate with clay. As the rocky soils here retain little water, the vines are stressed and deeply rooted. The vines absorb elements of nitrogen, calcium, phosphorous and potassium; these nutrients have an obvious effect on the genetic profile of the vines. An unmistakable sense of terroir; a true and recognizable sense of place; is very evident at first sip of the wines. The taste of slate and graphite are underlying and clearly permeate through the richness of the berry characteristics.
A barrel taste of 2007 Carinena from southeast facing vineyards already shows enticing aromas and a huge extraction of fruit. Medium toast on the barrel (without toasted heads) promise nicely integrated oak. The berry component is showing plenty of richness and complexity; with the signature minerality shining through. The 2007 Carinena from east facing vines at the highest elevation opens with generous forward aromatics. A lovely purity of concentrated, but not overly jammy fruit dominates on the palate, with spice notes and plenty of the slate driven minerality adding complexity.
Ferrer Bobet’s 2005 Seleccio Especial (85% Carinena, 10% Garnacha, 5 % Syrah) displays gorgeous expressive cocoa and berry aromas and very distinctive mineral notes. Muscular and firm with leather, berry and spice flavors up front; with violet and chocolate nuances adding complexity on mid palate. Focused acidity balances the rich fruit. An elegantly structured wine with power and elegance dancing in perfect harmony.
It’s been said that “Priorat is much more talked about than drunk” but if these wines are any indication, Priorat wines should continue to gain accolades and significantly increase in demand by both casual wine aficionados as well as more serious wine professionals and collectors.
Montsant is a relatively new wine denomination, created in late 2001; although vines were grown here decades ago as part of a sub-zone in the DO Tarragona called Falset. The Montsant DO was created to differentiate this small mountainous area with low yields from the high yielding vines within the sea level plain areas. Head trained vines are primarily found here, some of which are more than 50 years old, with Garnacha and Carinena being the most widely planted varieties grown. The hilly, mountainous areas here, with the Montsant river running through the northern region produce intense, powerful wines. Soils are diverse, from limestone, to pebbles and silt in the river areas, to the mountainous areas which include both rocky granite and shale soils. Red varieties include Carinena, Garnacha negra, Tempranillo, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Macabeu and Merlot; white varieties include Garnacha Blanca, Garnacha Peluda, Monestell, Pansal, and Parellada.
Capcanes, a small village in the Priorat hills inland from Tarragona and southwest of Barcerlona, is home to Celler de Capcanes. Their vineyards range from about 200 meters at the valley floor to almost 650 meters in the highest terraces, where you’ll find the oldest Grenacha vines, some of which were planted early in the last century. Capcanes produces a wide variety of full bodied wines, and is also the first winery in Spain to produce a kosher wine. Early in the 20th century, grapes were picked and delivered to local farmhouses (Masias) for vinification. Equipment and practices were not extravagant and limited the quality and quantity of wine. In the early 1930’s, five village families established a Cooperative, which enhanced the commercialization of wine. The wine was processed and sold in bulk until 1980; when they began to sell grapes prior to fermentation. This continued for 18 years; when in 1998 they decided to process the entire village’s grapes at the Cooperative. The modernization ensued; and was completed in 2001; at which time the official D.O. of Montsant was created. The primary grape here is Garnacha; followed by Carinena as well as Syrah, Tempranillo, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.
The Capcanes 2005 Cabrida, made 100% from Garnacha low yield old vines (up to 95 years old) is an extraordinary example of the Montsant DO. Cherry, wild berry and black raspberry flavors weave a delicious fabric of pure fruit and meld together perfectly with subtle earth and stone notes. Focused, concentrated and brilliantly structured with well integrated tannins.
The 2006 Cabrida Calissa, also pure Garnacha from up to 95 year old vines, is showing jammy ripe fruit and a hint of gaminess in the nose; followed by copious, dense black fruit, accents of limestone and a splash of oak on the palate. Complex with huge firm tannins that suggest plenty of ageability ahead.
To finish off the tasting; we were treated to their beautiful sweet red dessert wine, the 2004 Pansal del Calas. Inviting aromatics are just the beginning of this potent elixir. What an explosion of flavors on entry with rich, mouth filling chocolate covered sweet berries balanced with wonderful acidity taking center stage. Generous, supple texture with plenty of weight and a long, lingering finish.
Also impressive from this region is Cellar Laurona’s 6 Vinyes 2003. Florality and ripe plumy aromas jump from the glass and lead to a rich, viscous mouthful with layers of black currants and juicy plums, attractive stone and mineral accents and a dash of oak teasing the palate pleasantly.
Another Montsant DO highlight was a visit to Agricola Falset-Marca, which was officially formed in 1999 when cooperatives from two villages, Falset and Marca joined together. They produce a range of wines primarily based on old vine Garnacha and Carinena grapes. Among the top notch wines here include the delightfully bright and clean Etim Rosat, a delicious rose made from old vine Garnacha and Syrah. Intense aromas and flavors scream of fresh raspberries and strawberry pie. Refreshing, clean, and very well balanced.
Castell de Falset 2004: The spicy, woodsy, earthy aromas along with flavors of dark currants and black cherries led me to think there may be some Cabernet Sauvignon here; and there is. A blend of 50% Garnacha, 25% Carinena and 25% Cabernet Sauvignon, this is a nicely balanced wine with a lush texture; creating a wonderful mosaic of berry, cassis and spice flavors that gain complexity on the palate. Full bodied with firm tannins, finishing long with vanilla and oak accents.
And don’t miss their stunning Etim L’Esparver 2005, a deeply hued, herbaceously aromatic blend of 45% Garnacha, 45% Carinena and a bit each of Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon. This wine displays purity of dense fruit on the palate, with gobs of rich blackberries, baked black cherry pie, classic minerality and a delightfully light, toasty oak spice weaving from start to finish. Complex and powerfully built to go the distance.
Interestingly 60% of Falset is part of Priorat and 40% is part of Montsant. Celler Capafons Osso is a family run company producing wines in the DO Montsant and DO Priorat wine regions from vineyards that are many decades old. (Their Mas de Masos from the Priorat was previously highlighted in this article). Never to be forgotten is the jeep tour up the steep incline of Celler Capafons Osso vineyards in the DO Montsant in Falset, that top out at 650 meters. Hanging on for dear life and surviving the adventurous bumpy ride, we appreciated the lay of the land and the passion of the family, along with the few stops along the way to see, smell and feel the essence of the terrior.
The soils in the Montsant vineyards are primarily made of stone, gravel and slate on decomposed granite, offering good drainage, and the climate is influenced by the humid wind from the Mediterranean. Their 2004 Masia Esplanes, a blend of 35% Merlot, 30% Cabernet Sauvignon; 15% Carinena, 10% Garnacha and 10% Syrah, from the DO Montsant opens with earthy aromas and fills the palate with tasty blueberry and wild berry notes, coupled nicely with spicy, earthy accents.
Celler Dosterras: From vines up to 100 year old comes rich and pure 100% Garnacha. The Dosterras 2005 boasts intense aromas of violets and blackberries. Upon entry, the intense berry fruit laced with spicy notes is powerful, yet elegant and smooth as silk. Approachable today but the tannin structure suggests it will age gracefully for a good number of years. The 2006 vintage is a bit more restrained on the nose; but the entry shows more ripeness and a lush, weighty texture, with dark fruit and a hint of earth and licorice adding complexity on mid palate. Nice oak integration and undertones of minerality on the finish cap it off nicely. A complex wine with plenty of tannins promises a long life with this vintage, as well. Beautiful!
CONCA DE BARBERA
Conca de Barbera is a Catalonian region in the northern part of the province of Tarragona. It became a wine Designation of Origin (DO) in November 1985, but it’s wine history dates back many centuries (cultivation of grapevines here became very important in the Middle Ages). The climate is best described as a transition between the coastal, softer climate typical of Tarragona; and the colder more rigid cold winter and hot summer climate typical of the inland Lerida region. Soils are calcareous, with a good deal of limestone and clay and a bedrock of red sandstone. Near the Francoli and Anguera rivers, deeper more fertile soils are found; and slate soil (llicorella) is dominate in the southwest corner of the county. White and rose wines compose a good percentage of the wines produced in this region; including white varieties of Macabeo and Parellada, and also grown are the more recently introduced varieties of Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. The red grape Trepat, a native variety from Conca de Barbera, is a vigorous, thick skinned grape which is grown exclusively in this region. Cava, rose and red wines are made from this indigenous grape. Tempranillo and Garnacha make up the highest percentage of red wine in Conca de Barbera, with Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot also gaining some recognition. Favorites tasted from this region are highlighted below.
Portell Vins & Caves 2007 Trepat Rose displays a crystal clear, pale pink hue, and a pleasantly fruity nose follow by flavors of strawberry nectar and cranberries. Vinified dry, it is very uplifted on the palate, thirst quenching, and refreshing.
The Celler Rosa Maria Torres vineyards here date back 100 years. Their Red Vinya Plans Cabernet Sauvignon, with aromas of wild blackberry and oak in the nose, is powerfully built. The expansive palate, full of dark forest berries, is quite meaty and full bodied. The toasty oak carries through from beginning to end; wonderfully constructed wine.
A spicy red wine made from 50 year old Trepat vines comes from Celler Carles Andreu. Their 2006 vintage Trepat begins with spice-tinged earthy aromas, and surrounding the red cherry fruit on mid palate are a plethora of spice components including anise, cloves and cinnamon. Medium bodied and very nicely balanced, with a clean gratifying finish.
The Miguel Torres family purchased the Castell de Milmanda in the Poblet valley in the late 1970’s (the history of vineyards here go back centuries). A tasting of different vintages of their Milmanda (100% Chardonnay) and Grans Muralles (a blend of Monastrell, Garnacha, Carinena, Garro and Samso) displayed the care and dedication to the vineyards and winemaking practices that are consistent with Torres properties in many regions around the globe.
The 2006 Milmanda showcases aromatics of ripe tropical fruits and oak notes. On the palate the pineapple, melon and coconut flavors flourish, with cinnamon spice and flinty stone undertones and a dash of oak rounding out the rich and generous mouth feel. A well balanced. beautifully made Chardonnay. The 2003 Milmanda with a few more years in the bottle reflected the aging nicely, with honey and sherry-like flavors subtly toning down the more forward, ripe fruit showing in the 2006 vintage.
The 2002 Grans Muralles, made primarily of Garnacha and Monastrell, opens with dark berry fruit aromas which continue seamlessly on the palate; interplaying nice1y with the meatiness and pepper spice, toasty oak notes and minerality (reflecting the llicorella rocky soil) on the palate. An exotic and well built wine with firm tannins. The 2001 displayed similar posture; a bit more expressive right now, quite lush and rich with jammy fruit and spice at the core, surrounded by stone and minerality characteristics.
Celler Mas Foraster, situated in Montblanc, within the DO Conca de Barbera, is an effort that goes back three generations. The Foraster family, who has cultivated vineyards for more than 150 years; just recently released their first white wine; Josep Foraster Blanc Seleccio 2007; and it’s a beauty. Boasting a brilliant hue, and citrus fruit on the nose; this fresh, well crafted wine is made of 40% Garnacha Blanca, 30% Macabeo and 30% Chardonnay. Bright grapefruit and lemon notes on the entry are a pretty complement to the round stone fruit creaminess and dash of oak on mid palate; finishes brightly. The Josep Foraster Seleccio 2004 red wine is a blend of 90% Cabernet Sauvignon and 10% Tempranillo. From the glass wafts spicy aromatics with leather notes, followed by layers of olive, bell pepper, and dark red and black currant flavors at the core. Very nicely balanced, with toasty oak and spice persisting through the long, memorable finish.
Bodegas Concavins in Montblanc originally gained notoriety in international markets but is now becoming a more locally know winery of the DO Conca de Barbera. Their Clos Mont-Blanc Xipella Blanc 2006, a blend of 60% Macabeo and 40% Parellada shows off a gleaming pale yellow-green hue, and plenty of minerality in the nose. The crisp, tantalizing citrus notes expand on the palate, displaying mouth watering zesty tangerine and lemon-lime flavors and a soft hint of earthiness. Fresh, clean finish too.
Their Clos Mont-Blanc Masia Les Comes 2002 is a savory blend of 70% Cabernet Sauvignon and 30% Merlot. On the nose, forest floor and herbal notes are prominent. The palate is full of Asian spice and dried currants, with an intriguing thread of oak and smokiness adding complexity.
Winemaking in the DO Terra Alta goes back thousands of years, but the recognition as a designation of origin came in 1972, and the first regulation along with its Regulator Council was passed in 1982. This is the furthest southwestern wine producing region in Catalonia. Clay, loam and sandy soils exist here, which are poor in organic content and retain water very well. The climate in Terra Alta ranges from quite hot and dry in the summer, to extremely cold in the winter. Red Wine varieties include Garnacha Negra, Garnacha Peluda, Syrah, Tempranillo, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon; and white varietals include Garnacha Blanca, Macabeo, Moscatell and Parellada. Nice examples representative of this region include:
Hereus Caterra 2007 Garnacha Blanca: Fresh aromas full of florality and citrus fruit greet the nose; and focused lemon, lime and grapefruit flavors are more than moderate on the palate. The relatively high alcohol at 15.5% adds to the intensity; and tannins are broad and full. This wine is unoaked, preserving the fresh fruity characteristics of the variety.
Celler Batea Vallmajor 2007: This playfully expressive blend of Garnacha Blanca and Moscatell opens with aromas of minerality alongside floral notes. It has a pretty mouth feel and is nicely balanced on the palate with citrus and lime peel at the core. Clearly the pleasing fruit is the center of attention here and it’s delightfully quaffable. Their L’Aube 2005 blend of Merlot, Syrah, Tempranillo, Cabernet Sauvignon Grenache releases aromas of blueberry and wild cherry that pull you right into the glass; and it sings on the palate with striking components of chocolate, cherry, raspberry and a whiff of tobacco. Firm tannins and just the right amount of oak lead to a long, lingering finish.
Celler Xavier Clua Coma: A large part of their vineyards are relatively old vines (30-40 years), which result in good depth of flavors like their well crafted Millenium 2005, a blend of Garnacha Negra, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Merlot. Ripe dark fruit aromas soar from the glass, dense dark fruit sprinkled with anise and spice continues on the palate. Good oak integration and tannins galore. This wine should age well, with tannins relaxing and softening through the years. Also impressive is their Mas d’en Pol 2007: a blend of 65% Garnacha Blanca, 20% Chardonnay, 10% Sauvignon Blanc and 5% Muscatell. A charming elixir that captures fresh, fruity aromas of the variety and grows more complex with layers of citrus and herbal notes expanding on the palate. Smooth textured and artfully balanced.
Aricola Sant Josep’s Llagrimes de Tardor Seleccio 2004: A full throttle Samso (Carinena) from vineyards that were planted more than 80 years ago. Inviting chocolate and ripe berries on the nose lead to a complex, nicely constructed wine. Smooth and well orchestrated on the palate with layers of wild berry, cocoa, and anise spice. Pure and clean with firm, velvety tannins; another good wine to age a few years; if you can wait!
The expressive century old vines and terroir in Tarragona mesh together like a finely tuned orchestra, wonderfully reflecting intensity, quality, and a “spot on” sense of place. In the glass, these factors culminate in remarkable wines that not only deserve notice, but are worthy of being praised among the best.