When it comes to individuality and terroir, there are a handful of regions in Spain that stand out from the crowd, producing incredibly exciting wines, says GERRY DAWES. And they’re not the ones you’d think…
Sarah Jane Evans, in her preceding feature, talks of Robert Parker as a ‘barometer’ of the rising interest in Spain, where his ratings caused serious upheaval to reputations. In Alice Feiring’s new book, The Battle for Wine and Love, or How I Saved the World From Parkerisation, she talks about being in the camp Robert Parker ‘vilifies as a “terroir jihadist”.’
Despite being a specialist on Spain, a country where few wine aficionados go searching for terruño, as the Spanish call it, I also have long been a ‘terroir jihadist’.
For more than 30 years I’ve roamed this country, but found red wine terroir heaven consistently in only two areas: northwestern Atlantic-influenced Spain, in Ribeira Sacra and Bierzo; and Mediterranean Catalunya, through Priorat and Montsant. Forget, for a moment, Rioja and Ribera. For real excitement and character, these are the places to seek out…
Ribera Sacra and Bierzo
Several areas of Bierzo and Ribeira Sacra remind me of my first visit to Priorat, in 1988. Back then, I found wines with such terroir, character and potential that, despite rustic winemaking, made terroirista martyrs of their creators. Then the nowrenowned Gang of Five showed up in 1999 and stunned us all with their big, terroir-laced wines.
In the past five years, I have become similarly enamoured of the minerallaced, terroir-driven reds from Ribeira Sacra and Bierzo, which show astounding potential and can be as balanced and delicious as any in Spain. Even though many of them are still works-in-progress, they have a distinct character that sets them apart from most other Spanish reds.
Initially, I was sceptical, for similar reasons as I had been with Priorat. Bierzo, especially, was trying to make copycat wines with uncharacteristically jammy fruit, low acids, high alcohol levels and lots of new oak, stifling what should be bright fruit and minerality.
Yet we’ve seen how, in Priorat, where alcohol levels are hard to tame but naturally acidic soils help with balance, the wines can be among the greatest in the world – if judiciously oaked.
Ribeira Sacra is not only destined for greatness, it is one of the most striking wine regions in the world: perpendicular, terraced vineyards of dry-farmed Mencía grapes plunging to the dammed-up canyons of the Sil and Minho rivers.
Already the wines have a clear identity; the slate terroir sings out. The wines are still rustic, but often delicious, with a depth of ripe red-and-black berry fruit, fine acidic balance, haunting minerality and moderate alcohol levels (12%-13%), which gives them an exceptional affinity for a wide range of food.
The problem has been the missing element – the right winemakers. The solution is not Catalan winemakers emulating Priorat, nor US importers advising Ribeira Sacra’s regulatory council that to succeed, they should lay on the new oak (a malady also befalling Bierzo).
I had seen glimpses of future greatness in José Manuel Rodríguez’s Décima and such wines as Viña Cazoga, Peza do Rei, Cividade and Os Cipreses, but for the most part they lacked finesse. Then last summer, I saw the future of Ribeira Sacra. Some of the wines had the potential of great Burgundy, others were reminiscent of Loire Valley reds like Chinon.
Now, other very promising wines are entering the market, not least Lacima, Lapena and Lalama, a trio from Priorat husband-wife team, Sara Pérez (Clos Martinet) and René Barbier Jr. Both Ribeira Sacra and Bierzo make surprising reds from the Mencía grape, which tastes similar to Loire Valley Cabernet Franc.
Bierzo, though, has already begun to win accolades, mainly for the wines from Descendientes de José Palacios. Less than a decade ago, Bierzo was barely a blip, even on the Spanish wine radar. But recently the region has risen meteorically from obscurity to critical acclaim.
Wines from Descendientes de J Palacios (Priorat’s celebrated Alvaro Palacios and his nephew, Ricardo Pérez), Domino de Tares (until recently made by an ex-Ribera del Duero winemaker, and Paixar, (from Spain’s most revered winemaker, Mariano García) have helped propel the region to prominence.
Others have followed their lead, including Pittacum, Pucho, Peique, Cuatro Pasos, Casar de Burbia and Vega Montán. Tilenus, Castro Ventoso and the new Cabildo de Salas are all made by Bierzo rising star Raúl Pérez.
Mariano García, whose sons Alberto and Eduardo are in charge of making the highly rated Paixar from high-altitude vineyards near the Galician border, is enthusiastic about Bierzo’s prospects: ‘We can make wines with great style and personality. There is an explosion of quality wines from emerging Bierzo single vineyard pagos comparable to those of Hermitage and Côte-Rôtie.’
Priorat and Montsant
What has happened in just 20 years in Priorat is nothing short of mind-boggling. The Spanish wine world has been turned upside down in an upheaval every bit as cataclysmic as the ancient geological events that created Priorat’s dramatically beautiful landscape.
In its massive, ripe, highalcohol, terroir-driven wines, a talented collection of winemakers found nirvana in an age when power, extraction and new oak were prized above all. In Priorat, some stunning wines are made from native Garnacha and Cariñena, often blended with Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah. Many need more finesse but, when winemakers tone down the new oak, the results are among Europe’s greatest wines.
The originators of these big, terroir-laced styles were the Gang of Five – Clos Mogador, Clos Dofì, Clos de L’Obac, Clos Martinet and Clos Erasmus – who have now been joined by several others (see recommendations, opposite).
In Priorat, vines are grown on often steep, hillside terraces – some dating back to the Romans – covered with shards or smaller pieces of licorella slate, which impart haunting, persistent mineral flavours to the wines.
Many native grapes growing in these non-irrigated, organically poor vineyards are 100 years old; vines aged 50 or 60 years are common. Just over a decade ago, planting foreign varieties was the prevailing wisdom, but now it is widely recognised that the native Garnacha and Carinéna may have found their apogee in Priorat, where they comprise between 60% and 100% of most reds.
The Montsant DO (denominación de origen) encircles Priorat like a yoke. Once a part of the large Tarragona DO, Monsant’s main town is Falset, and until 2001, the wines were sold under that subzone classification.
Enterprising winemakers from Priorat, including René Barbier of Clos Mogador, his son René Jr, his daughter-in-law Sara Pérez (of Clos Martinet), his partner Christopher Canaan (of Bordeaux-based importer Europvin), and Daphne Glorian and Eric Solomon (the Clos Erasmus husband and wife team) have branched out into Montsant to join family firms, quality oriented coops and others in raising the quality bar here.
The region takes it name from the majestic Montsant escarpment, which juts so abruptly skyward that its existence is surely the result of a single cataclysmic geological event.
Some 45 Montsant bodegas make wines from grapes grown by 750 vineyard owners, who farm the main native red grapes Garnacha Tinta, Garnacha Peluda and Cariñena, with Picapol and Tempranillo also authorised along with the foreign varieties Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah. Montsant’s 2,000ha (hectares) of vines surpass Priorat’s 1,700ha, and the climate is similar, but there are significant differences between the two.
Montsant’s vineyards are at lower elevations on much less mountainous terrain, and while some areas boast licorella slate, others are strewn with codols (pebbles and larger rounded stones), compacted calcareous soil and, around Falset, granitic sand. This greater diversity of soils contributes another distinct element of terroir complexity to the wines, but without the breed shown by the best Priorats.
Like Priorat, the minimum permitted alcohol level for Montsant is 13.5%, but allowable yields for red wines are 10,000kg/ha – much higher than its neighbour. Montsant is still quite young and, despite over-inflated claims from the fruitmad, over-extracted, oak-soup school of wine appreciation, many wines (though they have improved steadily) still have a way to go.
Ironically, one the best in the region is a kosher wine, Celler de Capçanes Flor de Primavera Peraj Ha’Abib, a wine that only a rabbi can touch. Capçanes describes the wine as ‘a virgin’, presumably because no one has been allowed to violate it.
Similarly, one of the best dessert wines in Priorat – 770 Etim Dolç made at Clos Martinet – is also kosher. The inference is that the less winemakers touch wine the better. A custom one wishes would spread to the rest of Spain.
Written by Gerry Dawes