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Food Arts Silver Spoon Award to Gerry Dawes


 Premio Nacional de Gastronomía - - James Beard Foundation Nomination (Best Wine Writing)
Premio Periodistíco Cava

Gerry Dawes's Article Medieval Riches of El Cid's City (About Burgos, Spain)
Front Page, The New York Times Sunday Travel Section

 About Blog Author Gerry Dawes, Premio Nacional de Gastronomía (National Gastronomy Award)




3/15/2012

The Powerful New-Wave Catalan Wines of Old Roman Tarragona


* * * * *

Priorat, Montsant, Terra Alta, Conca de Barberà, Tarragona and Costers del Segre.


by Gerry Dawes
Premio Nacional de Gastronómía 2003
(Spanish National Gastronomy Award)

Not since the six-century Roman occupation of Spain (until the early 5th Century) when Pliny the Elder praised the wines of Tarraconensis, have the wines from Spain’s Tarragona province–the Priorat, Montsant, Terra Alta, Conca de Barberà, a small piece of Costers de Segre and the eponymous Tarragona denominaciónes de origen, or D.O.s–been so highly rated as they are today. Until the recent explosive debut of Priorat wines on the international wine scene, Tarragona, located in Cataluña, about two hours southwest of Barcelona, was best known for its Roman ruins, for romesco (a superb, addictive sauce made with olive oil, garlic, dried peppers, tomatoes and hazelnuts or almonds), and as the birthplace (in Reus) of modernista architect Antoní Guadí.

American wine guru Robert M. Parker, Jr., a considerably more powerful wine writer than Pliny, once predicted that Tarragona’s major D.O. Priorat (Priorato in Spanish) would surpass La Rioja and Ribera del Duero as the top wine region in Spain. However, due to its small size and the geographical limits of Priorat’s licorella, or slate, soil, which accounts for its famous terruño (terroir), coupled with Mr. Parker’s never having stepped foot in Spain as a wine writer in his entire career (until October 2009, when he was paid a reported 100,000 Euros to speak at a wine conference), we seriously questioned that prediction as we have many of his pronunciamentos on Spain. Priorat has just 4000 acres of registered vineyards and its boundaries are now surrounded like a crescent by the new Montsant DO, a division that is partially defined by Montsant’s soils, which have much less slate in their composition. Rioja, by contrast has more than 150,000 acres of vineyards, which, if you count only 10%, or 15,000 acres (a low estimate) as producing top quality wine rated at 90+ points and above, is still nearly four times what Priorat is capable of producing and that’s if all the wine in Priorat had a 90+ point rating, which it does not.

Nevertheless, Robert Parker’s high opinion of the region gives an idea of the esteem in which the wines are held and Christopher Canaan, a man with one of the most experienced and sophisticated palates in Europe and President of Bordeaux-based Europvin--which has one of the top portfolios of Spanish wines (Vega Sicilia, Rioja Alta, Lustau sherries, etc.) and has taken up a significant position in both Priorat and Montsant-- is sold on the area. Canaan, who owns several brands in Priorat and Monstant, concurs with Parker’s assessment of Priorat’s quality, “Indeed, I think that Priorat already ranks with the great wine regions of the Mediterranean.” (It is important to note that the climates of the top Spanish wine regions of La Rioja, Ribera del Duero, Toro, Rias Baixas, Rueda, and Bierzo are primarly influenced by the Atlantic Ocean, not the Mediterranean, and often achieve natural balances of fruit, acid and alcohol seldom seen in warm-country wines such as those of Tarragona.)

This writer, who has made ten trips to the Tarragona region in recent years, also believes that Priorat in particular has the potential to produce some of the greatest wines of the entire Mediterranean, which includes such classic wines as those of the Rhone Valley and all the wines of Italy including Barolo, Barbaresco and the wines of Tuscany. Priorat’s exceptional promise is due to the quality of its indigenous garnacha and cariñena grapes growing on steep slopes; the terroir imparted by the region’s licorella, or slate-strewn vineyards; the maturation of foreign varietals (cabernet sauvignon, merlot and syrah) vineyards planted more than a decade ago; a climate that has warm days, but considerably cooler nights during the growing season.

Tarragona was a major Roman colony and the capital city from which the province takes its name is filled with Roman ruins, including a seaside amphitheatre. The Romans–and prior to them, the Greeks–made wine here, but the “modern” winemaking history of the region dates to the 12th-Century and the Carthusian monastery, or priory (priorat in Catalan), from which the Priorat region takes its name. The Scala Dei (Ladder to God) winery, which is still producing wine in Priorat on the grounds of the ruined, once magnificent monastery, was founded in 1973 and for nearly two decades, its rustic, but palatable, wines were the region’s only name known to outside world.

Now because of Tarragona province’s dark, powerful, oak-lashed, new-wave wines from old vines vineyards, international attention is being drawn to this once-slumbering backcountry region. In fact, Priorat and the relatively new Montsant D.O.s (created in 2002)–two of Tarragona province’s wine regions–are now among the sexiest Spanish wines on the market. For the past several years, numerous Spanish and American wine writers have been gushing deep purple-black, gobs of fruit-infused prose about the blockbuster wines of both Priorat and now Montsant (DO). (Can news of the emerging wines from the vast vineyards of the highlands of Terra Alta, a rain-starved D. O. of Tarragona province once known primarily for producing fat, low-acid white garnacha blanca-based wines, be far behind?)

The more slavish admirers of these big, concentrated Tarragona-area wines (some of which can be quite good, with reservations) seem to be particularly in tune to wines with opaque blackberry color, very ripe fruit, high alcohol and loads of new French oak. And many of the somewhat hyperbolic claims that have been made lately about these sometimes massive wines (though they are usually not quite as powerful as many California wines these days) seem designed to inflame the passions of European and American nuevo eno-rico types for whom every newly discovered wine region that emerges—with its attendant new-wave super-hero winemakers—is akin to the second coming. In reality, though some of the wines from Tarragona’s D.O.s do suffer from low-acid, high alcohol and overripe fruit, deficiences often exacerabated by inexperienced wine making, others are starting to come into their own as the more experienced winemakers, especially in Priorat and to some degree in Montsant (often the same winemakers), come of age. There are also flashes of promise in Terra Alta and a few glimmers in the wines of the Tarragona D.O.

What has happened in just 20 years in Tarragona province, especially 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.

“I do not know of any other district that has come from near oblivion to world wide recognition in such a short time,” Christopher Canaan says, “Immense progress has been made in the Tarragona area, especially in Priorat and Montsant, over the past 15 years.”

The surge in the quality of these region’s wines has been building, since a gang of five fledgling producers–René Barbier Meyer, Carles Pastrana, Josep Lluis Perez, Daphne Glorian and Álvaro Palacios–descended upon Priorat in 1989 to make wine together. Canaan says, “The reasons are multiple: The quality revolution led by the winess of the “new wave” Priorat winemakers; recognition by the press of progress being made thanks to a concerted commercial effort by such producers as René Barbier Meyer and Álvaro Palacios; the establishment of the Montsant D.O., from what was originally the Tarragona-Falset subzone; and the world thirst for red wines in particular, especially those of a Mediterranean style that are approachable when young, but also have power and concentration.”

In 1988, when I first visited the wines regions of Tarragona and, in an article that year, singled out Priorato has a region to watch, there were just several cooperatives making primarily bulk wines for blending; Scala Dei; and Masia Barril, which was owned by affable, extremely garrulous Madrid bureaucrat, who brought his old-vine grapes in by burros and whose idea of temperature control was to circulate the wine through a plastic hose submerged in a pool of water next to his rustic winery.

On that trip, I also visited Celler Cecilio, a small winery in Gratallops, one of the main towns of the Priorat, which actually dates to 1954 as a denominacion of origen. The owner, August Vicent i Robert, didn’t bottle his wines at that time, he sold them in bulk to locals out of a picturesque, but extremely rustic and somewhat unkempt cellar in a stone building in the center of the village. The wines were flawed by poor winemaking techniques and were aging in barrels that were less than optimum, to put it charitably. However, in spite of their flaws, the wines of Celler Cecilio were an ephiphany: It was clearly evident that the base wine from these old oak vats and barrels was extraordinary. After my trip to Priorato, I wrote that if anyone who really knew how to make wine ever showed up there, the world would be astounded by the results.

In 1989, the following year, those five gifted winemakers did show up in Gratallops, the most important wine village in the region. Álvaro Palacios, from an old Rioja Baja winemaking family, Palacios Remondo, and now the super star winemaker of L’Ermita fame, came to join René Barbier Meyer (Clos Mogador), Josep Lluís Pérez (Mas Martinet), Carles Pastrana (Clos de L’Obac) and Daphne Glorian (Clos Erasmus). Barbier, who could well be called the godfather of modern Priorat because of the profound influence on the winemaking style there (and in Montsant), had family roots in the Rhône Valley, was related to the original Rene Barbier of Penedès (but has no connection to the winery now owned by Freixenet) and was a former employee of the Palacios winery in La Rioja. Though distinctive, Barbier claims his style is not about making “vinos de autor,” or winemaker signature wines, but “vinos de terroir,” wines characterized by their site specificity and prominent mineral flavors.

Barbier and Palacios formed a cooperative team–which by 1992 had split apart–with Josep Lluís Pérez, who, since 1981 had been director of enological school in Falset and is now one of the most respected enologists and viticulturists of Cataluña; Carles Pastana, until recently was mayor of Gratallops and his wife, Mariona Jarque, founders of Clos de L’Obac; and Daphne Glorian, a French-born, Swiss woman with a sophisticated, commercially-tuned palate that seems to be in nearly perfect pitch with that of Robert Parker, Jr. (Glorian’s Clos Erasmus is the only Spanish wine that he rated 99 points twice; it has since been rated 100 points). Several years ago, Glorian married Eric Solomon, her American importer and the jefe behind European Wine Cellars. They imported the wines from several properties in Priorat and Montsant, many of which are made primarily to their specifications for the American market (posts on the internet have labelled such wines from Spain and elsewhere, the “Ugly American cuvées”. (Among all the important importers of wines from the Tarragona D.O., European Wine Cellars were only ones to deny us samples for this report.)

In Priorat, with its tradition of producing big, ripe, high-alcohol, and terroir-driven wines, this talented collection of winemakers found nirvana in an age when power, extraction and new oak were beginning to prized above all, especially in an era of rapidly proliferating blind-tasting magazine panels and wine tasting clubs. However, in the beginning, as Pérez relates it, “From 1989 until 1993, we were all making our wines in the same facility and striving to make Bordeaux-styled wines. It was René Barbier, who finally articulated the philosophy that is the basis for the modern wines of Priorat. He pointed out that we had to leave the grapes to ripen to full maturity. And we thought we should be trying to make wines primarily with foreign varietals, but it was the native garnacha and cariñena that have proven to be the foundation for the greatest wines of the region. We rediscovered the old vines native varieties, which were planted on steep hillsides and we learned to use the foreign varieties–cabernet sauvignon, merlot and syrah–to give our wines the structure to allow them to age in bottle.”

The statements by Pérez are illustrative of the ongoing evolution of the wines of Priorat by the top producers. This was echoed in an e-mail to me by the editorial team of Juan Such, Iñaki Blasco, José Contreras and Paco Higón at Verema.com, which has become one of the most visited wine websites on the Internet, “The wines of the most renowned bodegas of the Priorat, the ones that began with the modern epoch in the 1990s–Clos Mogador, Álvaro Palacios L’Ermita and Finca Dofí, Clos de L’Obac, Clos Martinet and Clos Erasmus–are all now undergoing a change in their winemaking philosophy and in winemaking techniques, searching, perhaps, for a greater balance between power and elegance. Predicting what will happen in the next 15 years in this region would just be guessing, but it is easy to pronosticate that the aforementioned wines will undergo a process of evolution, because none of the wineries in question are content to remain static. Álvaro Palacios, for example, is looking for more elegance and refinement in his wines and may create a style of winemaking that will be imitated by other wineries. ”

Though some of the wines of Priorat show excellent promise and some, at least, for lovers of big, terroir-laden wines are superb examples of the genre, veteran wine aficionados are supposed to suspend belief, accept every one of these new miracles of modern winemaking as gospel, and ignore the fact that many of these wines are experiments made by fledgling winemakers often being advised by itinerant wine consultants or coached by their importers (the most egregious kibbitzers being Americans). Not only are many of the wine works-in-progress, many are specifically tailored for the faddish tastes of top-end Spanish and American consumers and the prices are sometimes truly eye-popping. The quality of Álvaro Palacios L’Ermita (at $495 and up), Clos Erasmus ($200), and Dolç de L’Obac Late Harvest (500 ml., $110), coupled with stratospheric reviews from major wine newsletter can at least justify their retail prices to some degree, but many lesser lights are on the market are priced at $50-$100 retail, which makes them even more over-priced on restaurant wine lists. A Madrid wine retailer told me that “too many newbies are trying to sell very ordinary stuff at very high prices indeed” and complained that the sales of these high end wines have slowed dramatically in the Spanish market.

There is also the tendency by some producers to barrel-ferment overripe grapes in new oak barrels (standing upright and open), leave the wines on the lees, which they stir periodically (battonage), and then bottle the wines unfined and unfiltered. The bête noir of these truly noir wines (called vis negres en Catalan, black wines) is the alcohol levels, which usually top 14%, but are often tilting towards 15% (the minimum allowable for the Montsant DO is 13.5%!, not wines for sharing with your significant other on a weeknight unless he is a tackle for the Chicago Bears!)

Easier to cure is the lamentable use of far too high percentages of new French oak (if, indeed the oak comes from France and not from Romania, Bulgaria or Russia), which, in many wines, tends to obliterate the splendid mineral terroir of this region and leave the drinker’s tongue feeling like it has been dragged through a sawmill. Still many winemakers proudly proclaim that, “Si, utilizamos 100% roble nuevo frances.” Allier is the current preference and far too many producers seem to consider wood as important as the grape variety in their wines. It is a shame that many of these wines get such formulaic treatment. Ironically a number of them come from some of the world’s greatest single vineyard sites and have enormous potential.

Many of the wines from Priorat and Montsant are made from superb, legitimate old vines vineyards that grow in exceptional sites rich in the minerals that supply the terroir component that was previously missing in most Spanish wines until recently. Many producers are quick to proclaim the glories of their privileged vineyard sites, then they proceed to smother their wonderful mineral terroir flavors with impenetrable layers of harsh new oak, which oftens falls like a heavy curtain at mid-palate, effectively masking the wine’s aftertaste. But, there are encouraging indications that some winemakers (and wine lovers) are getting fed up with new oak abuse. The Verema.com team reported to me that many winemakers are rethinking the use of new oak, especially with invasive levels of toast and that they are noticing a moderation in the taste of oak by some of the veteran winemakers. Álvaro Palacios claims to be diminishing the use of new oak with each passing year (during one period, he was a barrel salesman). And even a younger winemakers like Diego Durán, who worked at Cims de Porrera with the Pérez Ovejero family of Mas Martinet fame, confessed to me at the Tarragona Garnacha Conference a few years ago that he too was getting sick of new oak.

In spite of the tendency towards over-zealous and often inexperienced winemaking in many wineries, there are still plenty of notably good wines from Priorat (and a couple from Montsant), the best of which show a deep, pretty black raspberry color; exhibit sweet, ripe blackberry, black cherry and black currant flavors from old vines garnacha and/or cariñena grapes; are laced with tarry licorice and Valrhona bitter-chocolate flavors: and, especially in Priorat, have a graphite-like mineral presence that comes from vineyards strewn with shards of slate (licorella in Catalan; pizarra in Spanish). The best of these wines have lingering, hauntingly exotic finishes. But, as noted, not every winemaker who handles this precious stuff is good at it and, in the bargain, many potentially very good wines are being sacrificied on the high altar of crass commercialism.

The most important thing to understand about the majority of the wines of Priorat is that they need time, so wine lovers should be looking for any remaining Priorat wines (and there will be plenty at these prices) from earlier vintages, which now have enough time in bottle to soften up to some degree, but will benefit even more with several more years in bottle, when there flavors will be more integrated, the new oak less a factor. The proof of the pudding is in such wines as De Muller’s excellent Lo Cabaló Reserva and some of the wines of Rottlan Torra, which like Rioja reservas and gran reservas, are aged for several years at the bodega, which polishes the wines, rounding them out and ameliorating the effects of new oak. These Priorat wines are delicious and many of the top wines will be also be far more rewarding with a few years in a proper cellar.

In Priorat, the hillsides are often precipitously steep, so most are terraced (some terraces date to the Roman occupation) and covered with shards or even finer pieces of licorella slate, which are scattered across the landscape like the broken remnants of a primeval world. This organically poor, well-drained land can impart haunting, persistent mineral flavors to the wines. Some of the native garnacha negra, garnacha peluda and cariñena growing in some of these non-irrigated vineyards dates back a century and 50-60 year old vines are common. Just over a decade ago, planting the foreign varities cabernet sauvignon, merlot and syrah was the prevailing wisdom, which partly owed a debt to Spain’s national post-Franc inferiority complex, which reasoned that anything foreign and new must be superior to home-grown progeny. Now, it is widely recognized that garnacha and carinéna, both native Spanish grapes, may have found their apogee in the province of Tarragona. (The Slow Food-sponsored III International Conference on Garnacha was held in Tarragona in April, 2003). Although tempranillo (and a tiny bit of pinot noir) exist in Priorat, even the tempranillo is a newcomer and not even listed among authorized varieties for the Priorat D.O. A little white wine is also made in Priorat, mostly from garnacha blanca.

Priorat, which dates to 1954 as a DO, now has some 50 registered bodegas and 4,000 acres under vine, but new plantings and new wineries can be seen all around the region, so, as this area gains in popularity, expect the dept of flavor and sense of terroir to be diluted as many new vineyards, often watered by drip irrigation, begin to produce grapes. The maximum allowable yields by Priorat DO rules are 6,000 kilos of grapes per hectare, but with the best producers yields per vine are often as low as one-to-two kilograms due to sparse-producing old vines. The soils are largely composed of grayish-brown licorella slate, which is poor in organic
material, high in acids, and offers excellent drainage. Rainfall averages 600mm per year in Priorat, which is almost as much rainfall as La Rioja gets, but summers are dry and hot, though nights are often quite cool. Temperatures can fluctuate from 110 degrees in the daytime to 50 degrees at night (Napa Valley, anyone?)

Less than two decades ago, the Tarragona D.O. still had a dubious reputation for producing monster vinos de pasta (some of which reached 18% naturally due to some tough acclimatized native yeasts). These wines were sold in bulk for blending with weaker table wines from more northerly climes. The region also produced some sweet, rustic, but sometimes very exotic and delicious rancio wines, some of which are still made here, along with some exceptional vis dolçs, sweet reds reminscent of Banyuls. The top producer, De Muller, reportedly the largest producer of communion wines for the Catholic church (they actually market a wine called vino de misa, mass wine) and still the only bodega of serious noteis producing some very good, very interesting wines, including a very pleasant, well-made, balanced Cabernet Sauvignon 2000 and a Merlot 2000 in the Tarragona D.O.

From the Terra Alta D.O., De Muller also produces a fine old-style Moscatel Añejo vino de licor, a type of wine made by spiking the must of a very sweet, ripe grapes with grape spirits to stop any fermentation. This wine is especially unusual because it is aged like old sherry. The color is like a light oloroso, but the nose and flavor are of honeysuckle, oranges and cloves. And from Priorat, De Muller also makes a stunning, silky, complex, delicious vino rancio dulce, Dom Berenguer Solera 1918 and two dry red table wines that show the benefits of aging Priorat wines before they are released. The aptly named De Muller Legitim Priorat 1998, a blend of garnacha, cariñena and cabernet sauvignon that weighs in at only 13.5% alcohol (the minimum allowed) and is aged in American oak is a sweet, fruity, balanced delicious old school wine. De Muller Lo Cabaló Reserva 1997, a blend of garnacha tinta, cariñena, merlot and syrah that spends 15 months in new French oak, but is aged at the bodega and then released. Both the 1997 and the 1996, tasted and drunk more than two years apart, were wonderfully complex, exotic, delicious and showed sweet fruit and beautifully integrated oak. Both scored above 90 points (see review under Priorat).

Constituted as a D.O. in 1972, Terra Alta has nearly 23,000 acres of vines, but the region is dominated by cooperatives (many of which date to the 1960s) and family wineries, a couple of which date to the 1920s and beyond. Until recently, these wineries were dedicated to producing vinos generosos (fortified wines), vermouth and heady bulk wines, mostly white wines made from garnacha blanca, for blending. Terra Alta is slowly changing because the family bodegas and a few of the cooperatives are increasingly opting for quality wine production with bottled table wines made from blends of garnacha blanca and viognier, for example, and reds made with garnacha, cariñena, a local grape called morenito, and newer plantings of cabernet sauvignon, merlot and syrah. 

A winery beginning to make a niche for itself in this emerging highland region (1300 feet above sea level) is Bàrbara Forés in Gandesa with their very good Garnacha- and Syrah-based Coma d’en Pou red and a fine Garnacha Blanca and Viognier white, El Quintà de Bàrbara Forés. Celler Vinos Pinol (L’Avi Arrufi, Mather Teresina Selección) in Batea is generally making better whites than reds. Vinyes i Celler Clúa, with the flabby Vindemia and Mas d’en Pol Garnacha Blanca whites and sweet, ripe oaky Mas d’en Pol and Mil-lennium garnatxa, cabernet sauvignon and syrah blends, have been highly rated, but did not show well in recent tastings. Altavins Viticultures (Almodí, Tempus), La Germandat (Faristol, Fill de Temps), Villalba dels Arcs (the highly regarded Vall de Berrús blend of garnacha, cariñena and cabernet sauvignon); and Cooperativa Agrícola La Batea (L’Aube Viñas Viejas) show promise.

The newly minted Montsant denominación de origen curves around Priorat like a croissant. Until it was anointed as a DO in 2001, Montsant was a part of the much larger Tarragona DO and its epicenter was Falset. Much of the wines were sold in bulk, but bottled wines were sold under the Tarragona-Falset subzone classification. Enterprising winemakers from Priorat, including René Barbier and his partner, Christopher Canaan (Laurona); Daphne Glorian and Eric Solomon (the cooperative Celler de Capçanes and Cellers Capafons-Osso); and Sara Perez (Orbita Venus “La Universal”) have branched out into Montsant, joining such family bodegas as the high quality-oriented Joan D’Anguera in Darmós, a few important quality oriented cooperatives—at Marça, Masroig and Els Guiamets—and other new operations such as the new Grupo Galiciano Clos de Codols project (guided by Joan Milá, a veteran "flying enologist" based in Penedès) in raising the quality bar for wines from this region.

Juan Such of Verema.com sees the wines of Montsant as relative bargains, “One now has to take into account the quality of the wines from Montsant. Although they have less market recognition, they have reached significant quality advances a prices well below those of Priorat. It remains to be see how long this dual price structure will last.”

The grand Montsant escarpment that gives this region its name thrusts so majestically and abruptly skyward that one gets the impression that it owes its existence to a single cataclysmic geological occurrence, something on the order of a land tsunami. Montsant’s 4500 acres make it larger in area than Priorat and, though the escarpment is precipitous, the region’s slopes are rarely as steep as those of Priorat. The vineyards are composed of granitic sand around Falset, compacted calcareous soil in some places, and in others the land is strewn with codols (pebbles and larger rounded stones, sometimes reminscent of Châteaunuef-du-Pape). Some of Montsant’s vineyards also have the broken licorella slate shards that have made Priorat famous, but the region is not nearly as terroir-blessed as its more famous neighbor.

The greater soil diversity in Montsant, coupled with the large number of old vines, can give the wines an element of terrior that adds complexity, but few of the wines to date show quite the breed of the best of Priorat, though the syrah-dominated wines of Joan D’Anguera show some of that promise. Some thirty Montsant bodegas make wines from the main native red grape varietals, garnacha tinta and cariñena with garnacha peluda, picapol and tempranillo also authorized along with the foreign varietals cabernet sauvigon, merlot and syrah. The climate of Montsant is similar to Priorat with about the same amount of annual rainfall. The minimum permitted alcohol level is also 13.5%, but allowable yields for red wines are about 4.5 tons per acre, much higher than Priorat, which is limited to yields of just 2.7 tons per acre.

Montsant is still to very new and, despite over-inflated claims to the contrary, especially by the fruit-mad, over-extracted, oak soup school of wine appreciation, the wines still have a long way to go. Up to this point few wines are truly exceptional, though the wines of Joan D’Anguera, a few of the cooperatives being advised by outsiders, and the Laurona wines being, made by Rene Barbier and owned by Christopher Canaan, whose discerning palate has been honed by three decades of selling fine French, Italian and Spanish wines, are well on their way to proving that Montsant could have an exceptional future alongside Priorat.

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.

Tarragona also has three other regions in the north and northwestern parts of the province: a small portion of Penedès (most of which is Barcelona province), Costers del Segre (all of whose most important wineries are in Lleida province) and Conca de Barberá, which, at 1300 feet above sea level and, in most years, with higher than average rainfall for Tarragona, has shown incredible promise, at least in the hands of Miguel Torres. Two of his Torres’s best and most expensive wines come from Conca de Barberá, Milmanda Chardonnay and Grans Muralles, a red that is a masterful blend of five native Spanish varieties: granacha tinta, monastrell, garró, samsó and cariñena. Torres also has substantial stands of pinot noir vineyards here and Cordorníu is making a pinot noir, Abadía de Poblet, under an agreement with the monks at the 12th Century Monasterio de Poblet, from an old 22-acre vineyard that has been reworked and re-planted with the walls of the monastery, making it an authentic clos in the Burgundian sense.

From the age of Pliny to the epoch of Parker, the wines of the old Roman province of Tarragona have come along way, but in their entire history, few would believe the strides they have made in just the past two decades.

Perhaps Pliny the Elder, who actually visited Tarraconensis (he was procurator there for a time), tasted wines that were the ancestors of those rustic wines that I tasted at Celler Cecilio in 1988 and liked them well enough to write about them. These days, he would probably rate many of the wines of Tarragona at XC+ or better.

– The End –
About the author

Gerry Dawes was awarded Spain's prestigious Premio Nacional de Gastronómía (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.


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on wine, gastronomy, culture and travel in Spain.



Experience Spain With Gerry Dawes: Culinary Trips to Spain & Travel Consulting on Spain


Gerry Dawes can be reached at gerrydawes@aol.com; Alternate e-mail (use only if your e-mail to AOL is rejected): gerrydawes@hotmail.com
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