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Text, Photos & Tasting Notes
Slide Show: Spain's Surprising Terroir-Driven Reds: Slate-laced Glories
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Alice Feiring (pronounced “Firing”), in her new book, The Battle for Wine and Love or How I Saved the World From Parkerization, talks about “being firmly in the camp” that Robert Parker “vilifies as a ‘terroir jihadists.’” Despite being a Spain specialist, a country where few wine aficionados would go searching for terroir (or terruño in Spanish), I also have long been firmly in the “terroir jihadist” camp. Before I left the wine trade in America, I cut my wine teeth selling some of France’s best terroir-driven wines from the portfolios of such French-trained palates as Frederick Wildman, Anthony Sarjeant, Henry Cavalier, Gerald Asher and Robert Haas.
For more than 30 years I have roamed Spain, but I found my red wine terroir heaven consistently in only two areas: In northwestern Atlantic-influenced Spain–Ribeira Sacra (Galicia) and Bierzo (Castilla-León, abutting Galicia)–and in Mediterranean Catalunya, in Priorat–and to some degree, Montsant–(Tarragona). Those regions rely primarily on indigenous red varieties grown in mountain vineyards in what appears to be impenetrable slate–called pizarra (Spanish) or licorella (Catalan)–that can be alternately blue-gray and rust-brown (when oxidized by exposure).
Both Ribeira Sacra and Bierzo make surprising red wines from the mencía grape, which tastes very similar to Loire Valley cabernet franc. Bierzo has already begun to receive accolades, in Spain and abroad, primarily because of the wines from Desciendentes de José Palacios, from the family of Álvaro Palacios of Priorat and Rioja Baja fame. Several areas of Bierzo and Ribeira Sacra reminded me of when I first visited Mediterranean Priorat in 1988. I found wines with such distinct terroir, character and undeniably enormous potential that, despite unrefined, rustic winemaking that made terroirista martyrs of them–I wrote that if anyone who really knew how to make wine ever showed up in Priorat, the wine world would be stunned. The “Gang of Five” showed up in 1999 and began the process that led the famous Priorat Clos–Mogador, Dofí, de L’Obac, Martinet and Erasmus–which did indeed stun wine reviewers with their big, but terroir-laced wines.
Spanning nearly ten trips in the past five years and tasting in scores of small bodegas, I became enamored of the mineral-laced terroir-driven red wines from Ribeira Sacra and Bierzo, which show astounding potential and can be as well-balanced and delicious as any in Spain. Even though many of them are still rustic and works-in-progress, they have a distinct character that sets them apart from most other red wines in Spain. Though I was impressed by numerous Ribeira Sacra and Bierzo wines which showed exceptional terroir, my mantra was the same as when I first visited Priorat, “if anyone who really knows how to make wines ever shows up here. . .” But this time the culprit was not crude winemaking and unkempt barrels. Especially in Bierzo, it was trying to make copycat wines with uncharacteristically jammy fruit, low acids, and moonwalking alcohol levels, then commiting new oak infanticide, stifling what should be bright fruit and minerality.
Admittedly, I am enamored of the bright fruit and haunting mineral flavors. And, yes, I still deny that mineral terroir is impossible and will, until someone can tell me why wines made in Atlantic Bierzo and Ribeira Sacra and in Mediterranean Priorat–all grown on pizarra (Spanish) or licorella (Catalan) slate–have that same haunting graphite finish. When that minerality is matched with the raspberry, red currant (mencía) fruit of Bierzo/Ribeira Sacra and the cherry-wild red berry (garnacha) and/or blueberry (cariñena) of Priorat, the result can be unforgettable. In Priorat, where alcohol levels are hard to tame (some are better shared by more than two people), but naturally acidic soils help with balance, the wines can be among the greatest in the world–when judiciously oaked.
The Atlantic Northwest: Ribeira Sacra & Bierzo
Roger Kugler, Wine Director at New York’s tony Suba tapas restaurant, thinks, “Ribeira Sacra is one of the most exciting regions in recent memory. Already the wines have a clear identity; the terrific slate terroir sings out. This could be the next great wine region of the world.”
Ribeira Sacra is not only destined for greatness, it is one of the most awsomely beautiful wine regions in the world, with terraced slate-and-schist strewn, impossibly perpendicular vineyards plunging hundreds of feet to the dammed-up canyons of the Sil and Minho rivers. Beyond spectacular, the vistas of the vineyards arrayed along precipitously steep slopes rival the Douro, the Moselle, and Côte Rôtie.
Dry-farmed Mencía grapes grown on Ribeira Sacra’s ancient, awesomely steep, single row-terraced, slate vineyards of are part of a unique wine miracle, where every thing–grapes, Atlantic climate, altitude, soil, vineyard orientation–come together. The wines are often quite delicious with seldom overripe red-and-black raspberry fruit, a fine acidic balance and moderate alcohol levels (12%-13%), which gives them an exceptional affinity for a wide range of food.
Though many of the wines are still rustic, the best show grace and charm, yet have a depth of flavor and a haunting minerality that makes one wish that the bottle would never end. The problem has been the missing element–the right winemakers–but the solution is not Catalan winemakers emulating Priorat, nor American importers’ representatives advising Ribeira Sacra’s regulatory council that to succeed, they should lay on the new oak. Andre Tamers, President of De Maison Selections, the U.S. importer of D. Ventura Viña Caniero, believes fervently in Ribeira Sacra’s future and also laments attempts to “Prioratize” these Atlantic wines. Tamers thinks some wines in Bierzo suffer from the same malady, especially the overzealous use of new oak. Roger Kugler also sees the danger in ill-advised winemaking in this exceptionally promising region, “experimentation has led to some strange, oddly shaped wines. It takes a deft hand to use oak with most of these grapes and few have the ability to pull it off.”
On earlier trips to Ribeira Sacra, I had seen glimpses of future greatness in the meager production of José Manuel Rodríguez’s Décima and promise in such wines as Viña Cazoga, Peza do Rei, Cividade and Os Cipreses. Most were delicious with food, but in general they lacked finesse. But last summer, after remarkable tastings at Décima, Pradio, Alguiera and Pena Das Donas, I saw the future of Ribeira Sacra jell in just two days. Some of the wines had the potential of great Burgundy, others were reminiscent of Loire Valley reds like Chinon. Other very promising wines are now entering the market, such as the aforementioned D. Ventura Viña Caniero, in which Gerardo Méndez of Rías Baixas’s Do Ferreiro Albariño has a hand; the exotic Enológica Thémera (chestnut and cherry wood, not oak!); and Lacima, Lapena and Lalama, a trio from Priorat husband-wife team, Sara Pérez (Clos Martinet) and René Barbier, Jr. Their ‘L’ alliteration is less fearsome than the specter of a plethora of Mediterranean style wines Ribeira Sacra wines with high alcohol levels.
Bierzo (Castilla y León)
Bierzo, until less than a decade ago was barely a blip even on the Spanish wine radar, but recently the region has risen meteorically from obscurity to critical acclaim. Wines such as Descendientes de J. Palacios (Priorat’s Álvaro Palacios and his nephew, Ricardo Pérez) richly flavored wines from old vines vineyards near the village of Corullón; Domino de Tares, until recently made by an ex-Ribera del Duero enologist; and Paixar, from Spain’s most revered winemaker, Mariano García, helped propel the region to prominence. Many others have followed their lead, including Tilenus, Castro Ventoso, Pittacum, Pucho, Peique, Cuatro Pasos, Casar de Burbia and Vega Montán. Tilenus, Castro Ventoso and the new Cabildo de Salas are all made by Raúl Pérez, Bierzo rising star.
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 for making great wines, “From these high altitude, hillside, broken-pizarra vineyards, 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.”
Mediterranean Catalunya: 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 in scale as the ancient geological events that created Priorat’s dramatically beautiful landscape. In its massive, ripe, high-alcohol, and terroir-driven wines a talented collection of winemakers found nirvana in an age when power, extraction and new oak were beginning to prized above all.
In Priorat, some stunning wines are made from native garnacha (and small-berry garnacha peluda) and cariñena, often blended with varying percentages of cabernet sauvignon, merlot and syrah. Priorat wines have the power (a problem sometimes) and the glory (the incredible garnacha and cariñena old vineyards fruit and superb licorella terroir). Some Priorat wines need more finesse and elegance and, when winemakers tone down the new oak, these wines are among the greatest in Europe. Such wines as the originals–Clos Mogador, Clos Dofì, Clos de L’Obac and Clos Martinet (sorry I can’t get on board with Clos Erasmus, a sweet, voluptuous, 16% alcohol, Cherry Cola on steroids)–have been consistently rated among the top Spanish wines for years. Now they are joined by such superb wines as Vall Llach, Cims de Porrera, Mas Doix, Torres Perpetual, Lo Givot, Martinet Degustación and the new Ferrer Bobet.
In Priorato, vines are grown on often precipitously steep hillside terraces–some dating to Romans era–and covered with shards or smaller pieces of licorella slate, which impart haunting, persistent mineral flavors to the wines. Some of the native garnacha negra, garnacha peluda and cariñena growing in these non-irrigated, organically poor vineyards dates back a century and 50-60 year old vines are common. Just over a decade ago, planting the foreign varieties was the prevailing wisdom, but now, it is widely recognized that the native garnacha and carinéna may have found their apogee in Priorat, so garnacha and cariñena comprise from 60-100% of most blends.
The Montsant denominación de origen encircles Priorat like a yoke. Once a part of the large Tarragona D.O., Monsant’s main town is Falset, and until 2001, the wines were sold under Tarragona, Falset subzone classification. Enterprising winemakers from Priorat, including René Barbier of Clos Mogador, his son René, Jr. and daughter-in-law Sara Pérez of Clos Martinet; René, Sr.’s partner, Bordeaux-based importer Christopher Canaan of Europvin; and Daphne Glorian/Eric Solomon, wife/husband team of Clos Erasmus have branched out into Montsant to join the family firms such as Joan D’Anguera in Darmós and Capafons-Osso; a few quality oriented cooperatives—at Marça, Capçanes and Masroig—and such operations as Grupo Galiciano (Clos de Codols) in raising the quality bar for Montsant wines.
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 grape varietals, garnacha tinta, garnacha peluda and cariñena with picapol and tempranillo also authorized along with the foreign varietals cabernet sauvignon, merlot and syrah. Montsant’s 2000 hectares of vines surpass Priorat’s 1700 and the climate is similar, but there are significant differences between the two regions. 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 can contribute another distinct element of terroir complexity to the wines, but without the breed shown by the best Priorat. Like Priorat, the minimum permitted alcohol level for Montsant is 13.5%, but allowable yields for red wines are 10,000 Kg. per Hct., much higher than their neighbor.
Montsant is still to quite new and, despite over-inflated claims from the fruit-mad, 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 (and best tasting) wines in the entire region is a kosher wine, Celler de Capçanes Flor de Primavera Peraj Ha’Abib, a wine that only a rabbi, who comes infrequently, can touch. The winery says, “The wine is more virgin.” One presumes because no one has been allowed to violate it! This kosher wine is not a lone aberration. One of the best dessert wines in Priorat, the kosher ‘770' Etim Dolç, is made at Clos Martinet. The inference is that the less winemakers touch the wine the better, a custom one wishes would spread in Spain.
(Author’s note: Alcohol levels are one of the most important things to know about a wine, so I included it.)
Décima 2006 José Manuel Rodríguez (12%) Excellent red fruits and minerals nose; juicy acids balancing delicious sweet raspberry fruit with an an enticing, complex mineral, restrained alcohol and no oak! **** Drink to 2010.
Prádio Mencia 2007 Xavier Seoane Novelle (12.5%) Pleasant, candied red fruit nose.
Delicious, bright, quaffable, red raspberry-and-currant fruit balanced an unoaked, haunting mineral-laced finish. *** Drink near-term.
D. Ventura Viña Caneiro 2006 Losada Fernández (14%) Rustic, ripe fruit, minerals. Big, rich, fruit-loaded, but very juicy and delicious with a long, intriguing earthy minerality, no oak. **** Drink now to 2010.
Thémera 2004 Enológica Témera (sic) (12.5%; aged in cherry and chestnut wood) Nice subdued red fruits nose with mystifiying cherry and chestnut wood aromas. Rich, but not overblown, juicy fruit, odd, but not off-putting wood, competes with mineral finish. Good with food. *** Drink now to 2010
Algueira Mencía Barrica 2005 (13%) Bright red fruit, graphite, oak not obtrusive. Quite good red raspberry, good balance of fruit, tannin and oak. Algueira 2001 is the greatest Ribeira Sacra red I have tasted.)
Descendientes de J. Palacios Pétalos Mencía 2006 (14%) Ripe black raspberry nose.deep black raspberry and currant fruit laced with graphite-like mineral flavors in a tannic, oaky finish. Reasonable value. **** Drink now to 2011.
Peique Mencía 2006 Bodegas Peique (13.5%) Rich fruit, cloves, licorice and mineral nose. Delicious, luscious, rich, red and black wild berries with cloves, licorice, bitter dark chocolate. Like a good Chinon. Superb bargain. ****½ Drink now to 2010.
Peique Selección Familiar 2004 (13.5%) Harmonious fruit, minerals and oak nose. Rich, silky balance of raspberry and blueberry fruit, dark chocolate, graphite and oak. ****½ Drink now to 2013.
Paixar Mencía 2004 (14%) More new french oak than fruit. Excellent black raspberry
fruit and mineral flavors that despite the liberal oak, experience shows that time and food ameliorate it in this wine. **** Drink now to 2012.
Bodegas Adrià Vega Montán Mencía Roble 2006 (14%) Spicy sweet fruit, slatey minerals and new oak. Well-balanced, sweet ripe fruit, earthy and a bit overoaked, but air and food improve it considerably. Good value. *** Drink now to 2010.
Tilenus (Envejecido en Roble) 2004 Bodegas Estefanía (14%) Earthy slate nose, ripe red fruits, oak. Great balance of rich wild berries, minerals and well integrated oak, this elegant wine will surpass many villages Burgundies. A fine value. **** Drink now to 2012.
Ultreía St. Jacques 2005 (14.2%) Black raspberry, garrigues, mineral nose; great entry, delicious red and black currants, wild herbs, minerals and oak in harmony. **** Drink now to 2014.
Costers de Siurana Clos de L’Obac 2004 (14.5%; in 1999, this wine was 13%). Very pretty, black currant nose and a powerful, warm, ripe wild berries and minerals, all well inegrated and made for ageing. ****1/2 2008-2020
Clos Mogador 2004 (14.5%). Rises above L’Ermita, Dominio de Pingus, etc. May be Spain’s best red wine from one of greatest winemakers, René Barbier (padre). Ripe black currants, licorice, graphite nose. One of Spain’s most, complex and exotic wines with lots of rich, sweet black currants, mineral terroir, and licorice. ***** 2008-2025
Álvaro Palacios Les Terrasses 2006 (14.9%). Ripe black fruits, mineral nose; well-balanced, fresh delicious, cherry black currant, blueberry, dark chocolate and minerals. Good value. **** Drink 2008-2015
Mas Martinet Martinet Degustació 2005 (14.5%) Pure black fruits and licorice nose; delicious, elegant wine with black fruits, dark chocolate and licorice. ****1/2 Drink 2008-2015
Mas Martinet Clos Martinet 2005 (14.5%) Big ripe fruit, licorice, cloves, toast and graphite; heavy, ripe, sweet wild fruits with cola-like flavors, cloves, chocolate fruits and minerals. Should improve with bottle age. **** 2008-2015.
Vall Llach 2005 (14.5%) Very ripe black fruits, garrigues herbs, minerals; very pure, fresh, sweet blueberry strains, minerals and wild herbs. A very big, but balanced, complex wine.
***** 2008 - 2015
Clos Abella 2006 (Made by Ester Nin, enologist at Clos Erasmus) (15%). Nice complex nose. Powerful with very ripe, but fresh sweet cherry and blueberry fruit, garrigues herbs and minerals with Syrah backbone and judicious oak. ***1/2 2008-2012
Torres Salmos Perpetual 2005 (14.5%) Fine integrated nose of ripe fruit, licorice, minerals, restrained oak. Silky, delicious, ripe, but not jammy, cherry and blueberry fruit with an elegant with mineral-laced finish. This style is where Priorat should be headed. ***** Drink 2008-2020.
Ferrer Bobet 2005 & 2006; Ferrer Bobet Selecció Especial 2005 (All 14.5%) All three of these wines, from Sergi Ferrer, who also owns the new Barcelona ultra-chic Mon Vinic wine bar, and Raúl Bobet, who is one of the top enologists at Torres, are sensational and not in the blockbuster sense. All four are beautifully balanced, have none of the new oak nasties, are complex and seriously delicious. Because of space, I can’t review them all, but the 2005 and 2006 are ***** (Drink now to 2015+), the Selecció Especial 2005 ****½ (Drink now to 2015+)
Ferrer Bobet Selecció Especial 2006 (14.5%) A staggeringly brilliant wine with a beautiful nose of blueberries, violets, garrigues and graphite, which is repeated on the palate in a gorgeous, complex, perfectly knit ensemble with good acid and a long haunting terroir-laced finish. ***** Drink now to 2020.
Capafons Osso Masia Esplanes 2004 14.5% Spicy, ripe, but not jammy, nose; very well-balanced, delicious wild berry fruit and minerals in a complex, well-knit wine unobtrusive oak. **** Drink now to 2005
Celler de Capçanes Flor de Primavera Peraj Ha’Abib Kosher 2005 (14.7%) Fruity nose; delicious, silky, pure cherry and berry fruit with a reasonable oak tannin and mineral finish. ***½ Drink now to 2012.
Bodegas Acùstic Braò 2006 (14.3%) Nice clean cherry, currant nose, minerals; well structured, balanced and delicious with bright red currant, cherry and blueberry fruit with a mineral finish. ***½ Drink now to 2012+.
Cingles Blaus Octubre 2006 (13.5%) Lovely nose, good fruit, mineral nose; good balance of fruit, oak, acids, tannins and minerals. ***½ Drink now to 2011.
Laurona 2004 (14+%) I honestly don’t understand what two great wine palates, René Barbier (padre) and Christopher Cannan of Europvin, are trying to do here. Laurona wines are powerful garnacha-cariñena-syrah-merlot-cabernet sauvignon blends with quite extracted, sweet cherry-berry fruit compote and lots of new oak. May improve in bottle. *** Drink now to 2012.
Joan d’Anguera El Bugader 2005 (14.5%) This 80% syrah, one of Montsant’s best wines, has a balance of fruit, minerals and oak in the nose and has intense lush black fruits, chocolate, licorice, toast and minerals on the palate. ****½ Drink now to 2015.
About the author
Gerry Dawes was awarded Spain's prestigious Premio Nacional de Gastronomía (National Gastronomy Award) in 2003. He writes and speaks frequently on Spanish wine and gastronomy and leads gastronomy, wine and cultural tours to Spain. He was a finalist for the 2001 James Beard Foundation's Journalism Award for Best Magazine Writing on Wine.
Gerry Dawes can be reached at email@example.com; Alternate e-mail (use only if your e-mail to AOL is rejected): firstname.lastname@example.org