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Jefford on Monday: Montsant – silence and beyond

Andrew Jefford gauges the potential of Tarragona’s other key wine zone...

“Wines of silence” was what the bottle in front of me declared – Vins del Silenci.  In a world of clamorous tasting notes punctuated with the thunderous beat of scores, it was hard not to approve.  This was a wine which wanted you to drink it, and to say nothing afterwards.  Write nothing, either.  Just drink, absorb, think: a wine in the Carthusian (or the Taoist) spirit.

montsant wine garnacha

Credit: Andrew Jefford

Pep Aguilar enlightened me.  There’s a little river which flows along the northern side of the Montsant mountain, and bears its name; the remote valley through which it meanders is called the Valley of Silence, the Vall del Silenci.  This was a red wine from Ulldemolins nearby – so I’m not betraying its trust, after all, if I tell you it was a light, delicate, fresh-faced Grenache perfect for chilling, with lots of acid strike and some tentative meaty fullness behind.  Perfect for a retreat.

Montsant surrounds Priorat like a bangle around a wrist.  Which is to say almost completely; there are just a few kilometres near the Priorat village of Porrera where the circle is not closed.  Since 2008, it’s been hard at work at a zoning project.  That work is now complete, and there are six contrasting areas.

The vast majority of Montsant’s 1,912 ha of vines are found in the two most south-westerly zones, that surrounding the villages of Marçà and Capçanes (845 ha) and that surrounding the villages of El Masroig, Darmós and El Molar (623 ha).  This is where Montsant opens up, via a slew of terraces, to the lower Ebro valley, which is less than 10 km away.  These are also the warmest areas of the Montsant zone (with mean annual temperatures of 16.1˚C and 15.6˚C respectively) and in general the most low-lying (though parts of the former area nonetheless reach 500m).  There are plenty of classic Priorat-like llicorella soils here, but also richer clays and lighter sands and loams.

The other four Montsant zones offer a clear contrast to these two southerners.  Both Cornudella (where you will find the Valley of Silence) and the beautiful, high sited wild garrigue country around La Figuera are in general cooler, and principally boast limestone soils; while the sandy zone around Falset and the steep loamy slopes and wetter conditions of Pradell de la Teixeta offer further contrasts.  Pradell is the most sparsely planted (just 22 ha); the other three minor zones boast between 100 ha and 200 ha.  I had a chance to tour each of these sub-zones in turn back in early November with the enthusiastic Pep Aguilar, a local winemaking consultant and producer (at Celler Comunica), as well as with regional winemaking pioneer and expert Angel Teixidó Llagostera.

The wine which logged Montsant in the global memory bank was the pure-Garnatxa Espectacle, whose first vintage came in 2004.  René Barbier of Clos Mogador heard about a vineyard for sale in la Serra de La Figuera in Montsant.  He went to see it.  It looked like Hermitage (or, come to that, l’Ermita in Priorat), and indeed was close to the local hermitage of San Pau; he knew he couldn’t let it go, but he was also experienced enough not to underestimate the work involved in its cultivation, so the project is a joint venture in which the Barbier family have joined forces with the Cannan family (of Clos Figueres), and with oenologists Fernando Zamora and Marta Conde.  It’s a feather in the cap for this sub-zone of Monstant, but it’s not the only wine worth taking notice of there.

Angel Teixidó was, forty years ago, working for the cooperative of La Figuera when he noticed that Garnatxa growing in the limestones there had a softer, sweeter quality than it did on the other side of Montsant in the Cornudella sector, where it was harder and more vertical. This led him to think about it as the ‘Garnatxa Fina of La Figuera’, and you can still taste that fundamentally appealing quality of fruit in the inexpensive, retro-labelled co-operative wine from the Sindicat La Figuera (though Angel himself has long since moved on; most of his career has been spent at the Celler de Capçanes, and he now works for the Cooperative dels Guaiamets).  Look out, too, for Com Tu from Anderson Barbier, another ‘Garntaxa de la Figuera’ wine.

When I asked René Barbier Junior what he thought marked out Garnatxa from La Figuera, he smiled and said “the results.”  I teased him for more details.  “There’s two types of clay-limestone in La Figuera, red and white – the wines from the red clay are richer and more aromatic, while from the white it’s a little more quiet and serious.  There’s also a lot of variety in some of the Garnatxa massal selections there – and the height is important, 300 to 600 m, with big diurnal temperature variations.”

The bigger areas to the south, though, also have exciting potential.  It’s often Garnatxa which turns heads here, since it produces an almost lip-smacking quality of soft, fleshy fruit; there’s always juicy acidity to back that fruit; and there are plump, no-less-juicy tannins there to lend the wines sobriety and gravity.  Joan-Ignacio Domènech of Vinyes Domènech believes strongly in the potential of this variety; his single-vineyard Teixar is a local reference.  The Celler de Capçanes, too, has done a fine job with its brilliantly packaged range of pure Garnatxa wines grown on different soil types; look out for outstanding wines from the Cellar Masroig, too.

Carinyena is a less showy here than it is in Priorarat, but it can add fruited steel and sinew to blends, and when vinified on its own it can combine something of the drama of Priorat with the comfort of southern Montsant.  As in Priorat, white wines are beginning to rival reds in Montsant, especially on the granite sands near Falset.

“We’re still in the first chapter,” admits Pep Aguilar: “the chapter of definition, of understanding where we can go.  But one thing is obvious – we have a standard of potential which is really very high.  It’s in our hands to do something really beautiful.”  You often hear claims like these in up-and-coming regions, but having tasted extensively during my short visit, I think he’s right: Montsant is special.  Here are some highlights.

Tasting Montsant

White wines

montsant tasting

Pep Aguilar (facing) and Angel Teixidó enjoy an open-air tasting. Credit: Andrew Jefford.

De Calpino, Mas de l’Abudància 2016

From a mixed-soil parcel of Garnatxa Blanca said to be the oldest in the region, planted near Masroig in 1901, this was a pale silver-gold wine with graceful, understated and subtle aromas of tropical fruits and flowers.  After that aromatic finesse, the wine surprises with its weight and presence: textured peach and almond, and lively acidity, too.  This accomplished white wine, according to Pep Aguilar, can age superbly for five or six years.   93 points / 100

Celler Comunica, Mas d’En Cosme, La Pua 2016

This blend of 85% Garnatxa Blanca plus 15% Garnatxa Pelluda vinified as a white wine, grown on a mixture of limey clay, granite sand and llicorella near Falset, combines fennel aromas with just a hint of yellow tropical fruits and is concentrated, vivid and pure, with both freshness and richness. 90

Josep Grau, Granit 2016

A pure Grenache Blanc grown by the Marçà-based Grau in a granite-soiled single vineyard (Les Comes) sited at 450 metres.  Peach and nectarine scents, but less fruity on the palate: vinous, textured, stony, intriguing. 90

Venus La Universal, Venus de Cartoixà 2014

From Sara Pérez and René Barbier Jnr’s home vineyards near Falset comes this strikingly labelled pure Xarel·lo (locally known as Cartoixà).  Scents of wild grass, herbs and dried lemon peel, and then a flavour with striking depth and intensity: serious, chewy, rich white, ideal for decanting. 92

Red wines

Acústic Celler, Braó,  Vinyes Velles 2014

This old-vine blend of Carinyena and Garnatxa, produced near the village of Marçà, has been lightly oaked; the aromas are earthy, dark and savoury, and the palate bright, pungent and long.  Zesty acidity gives the impeccable red and black cherry fruits a wild forest lift; more dark, earthy tones emerge in the tannins.  91

Celler de Capçanes, La Nit de les Garnatxes,  Llicorella 2016

This is one of the Celler de Capçanes’ four single-soil type Garnatxa wines (the three others are Limestone, Clay and Sand), and I recommend them all highly; the nuances between them are subtle but genuinely palpable.  It was, in the end, the depth and meaty savour of the Llicorella (slate) wine that put it in first place for me, but the other three are just a point or two behind.  The wine grown on clay had great purity and clarity of fruit; that on sand is a lighter in style but no less concentrated, with considerable grace and charm.  The limestone wine has the sweetest fruit, but there’s poised acidity and textured depth to keep it lively.  All four wines are brilliantly packaged with elegant labels and a paper wrapper with some of the viticultural background told in cartoon style (in English); all four sum up the poised, juicy yet innately complex appeal of Garnatxa from the Ebro zone of southern Montsant very well.  Wholly recommended.   92

Com Tu, Garnatxa de la Figuera 2015

The striking wine, with its almost childlike yet hauntingly surreal label, is another find from the Figuera zone, made this time by René Barbier’s brother Anderson. The charming aromatic profile has some subtle strawberry sweetness and a soft, floral lift; on the palate, you’ll find it plush, soft, tender and melting with relatively low acidity and deliciously tender tannins. Gourmand and ultra-easy to drink, yet there’s real finesse here too.   92

Celler Comunica, Mas d’En Cosme, Communica 2015

This wine, grown on granite sands near Falset, aged only in steel and made from a blend of 65% Carinyena with the balance from Garnatxa Peluda is quite a contrast to some of the richer Garnatxa wines of Montsant.  It’s light and clear in colour, with very fresh, lively, lanolin and red-fruit scents and vivid, zesty, darting redcurrent and pomegranate on the palate.  Great purity and finesse, here, in an almost burgundy-like style. 90

Vinyes Domènech, Vinyes Velles de Samsó 2014

A pure, old-vine Carinyena (sometimes labeled Samsó in both Priorat and Montsant) from Joan-Ignacio Domènech’s spectacular vineyards south of Capçanes.  Carinyena can sometimes be a high-wire act in Priorat, with an acidic intensity which divides drinkers; here, by contrast, the variety is in richer mood: concentrated and deep-flavoured but far from austere, with a stony elegance behind the sweet flesh.   91

Vinyes Domènech, Teixar 2014

This wine is pure Garnatxa Peluda from 80-year-old vines grown at 450m on pebbley limestone terraces facing southeast; after a natural yeast fermentation, the wine spends a year in French oak.  It’s dark in colour with a perfumed style: sweet flowers and nutmeg spice.  On the palate, this is elegant, penetrating and persistent, with supple, giving textures.  I also had a chance to taste the 2004 version of this wine, still bright, fresh and vivacious for its age, so this complex and refined Garnatxa is likely to age well.   92

Espectacle 2014

Pure old-vine Garnatxa from this astonishing site, fermented in oak vats and aged in large 4,000-litre oak tuns.  There’s a step change here in terms of complexity and allusiveness compared to most of its Montsant peers: vapoury scents of cherry, smoked strawberry and pine, with a kind of meaty-savoury note more familiar in Grenache from Châteauneuf.  On the palate, the wine is intense, concentrated, full and firm, with further notes of perfumed cherry, leather and herbs.  It doesn’t have the simple, juicy, toothsome and joyously balanced pleasure of much young Montsant Garnatxa-based red; but you can’t fault its grandeur, and it has many years ahead.   94

Celler Masroig, Les Sorts Vinyes Velles 2014

This seamless blend of 85 per cent of old-vine Carinyena with the balance from old-vine Garnatxa is a pure-pleasure wine with ample spicy, warm fruit, a vividbalance and plenty of soft yet textured flesh.   89

Orto 2015

This blend of 55% Carinyena with 30% Garnatxa and the balance principally from Tempranillo is grown on the distinctive red clay limestones around Masroig.  The aromatic spice, liquorice and prune leads you to expect a rich wine.  In fact, though, the palate is refined, elegant, almost understated, with soft tannins, sustained acidity and a faintly saline edge.   90

Sindicat de Figuera, Garnatxa 2016

Garnatxa of simple deliciousness, aged in concrete alone: a little cherry perfume to draw you in, then ample juicy, soft, tender fruit and a little tannin ballast.  Fine value.   88

Venus La Universal, Dido 2015

A blend of Garnatxa with Syrah, Cabernet and Merlot, organically grown on decomposed granites near Falset.  The appeal is less primary and less fleshy than for many of its Montsant peers: calm, fine-drawn plant and stony earth scents with an elegant, layered style, though open-textured and accessible.   91

Vinyes d’en Gabriel, Plan’elle 2014

A pure old-vine Carinyena grown on rolling, reddish clay-limestone soils in Darmós, south of Masroig.  Excitingly sweet, sappy and spicy aromas with rich, pressed plum, damson and mulberry fruit supported by fresh, clean acidity and brisk tannins.  The fact that it is grown at between 125m and 250m gives it a dense, chewy quality you’ll not find in the higher grown Carinenya wines elsewhere in Montsant and Priorat.   91

Read more Andrew Jefford columns on Decanter.com

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