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In northern Croatia, a younger generation of wine growers is pushing the boundaries with innovative interpretations of their indigenous variety of Malvasia, a versatile and diverse wine.
Malvasia is a highly original grape variety, but also a very confusing one, as it is also the synonym for numerous other quite unrelated grape varieties. In the index of that authorative tome, “Wine Grapes,” by Jancis Robinson, Julia Harding and José Vouillamoz, there are no less than 77 entries for Malvasia, and that is not including Malvasije, or Malvoisie! But true Malvasia, Malvazija Itarksa or Malvasia Istriana, depending on whether you are speaking Croat or Italian, really comes into its own in Istria, in northern Croatia.
My first introduction to Malvasia Istriana was over lunch in the attractive hilltop town of Motovun, fresh off the plane from London, and accompanying a plate of wild asparagus risotto with Istrian ham. It was a delicious combination and the wine demanded further investigation, so a few days later we tracked down Albert Benvenuti in the nearby village of Kaldir. He asserted firmly that their Malvasia is not related to any other Malvasia. His simplest wine is fermented in a stainless steel vat, with selected yeast, and given a little lees stirring, but no skin contact. It was fresh and fragrant with herbal notes, and a touch of minerality on the finish.
In contrast, Anno Domini comes from 70-year-old vines, and is only made in the best vintages, most recently 2013. The juice is given 15 days of skin contact and is fermented and then aged in large Slavonic oak barrels for two years. It was much more intense, with body and structure and an underlying richness with some dry honey, combined with some firm saline notes. The grapes are picked slightly later for this wine, with a lower yield, and fermented with indigenous yeast. The contrast was palpable, and both were delicious. Benvenuti’s family, although they have been grape growers for three generations, really only started making and bottling their own wine in 2003. Albert observed that bottling wine in Istria is a relatively recent development, only in the last 25 years.
A perfect climate
More insights into Malvasia Istriana were provided by Marino Markežič and Marko Bartovič at Kabola outside the village of Momjan. Marino talked about the climate; the sea is close by and they feel the sea breezes during the day and the mountain air at night, so the diurnal difference can be as much as 18 degrees. Annual rainfall can also vary considerably. He makes a sparkling wine that is a blend of Malvasia with 10 percent Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, so that it is fresh and lightly herbal.
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Markežič talked about the versatility of Malvasia with food. Malvasia is considered to be a semi-aromatic grape variety, and Markežič’s simplest Malvasia is fresh and floral, with a refreshing sapidity on the finish. Malvasia l’Unico is more serious. It is given two to three days’ skin contact before pressing and a fermentation in wood, and then spends a minimum of 12 months on the lees in Slavonic oak barrels. The oak is well integrated, and the wine is rich, textured and characterful. Finally, there is Malvasia Amfora. The grapes, with skins but no stalks, spend six months in amphora before pressing and then a further 12 to 18 months in large barrels. The color is orange amber and the flavors rich and honeyed, balanced with some tannin, and texture and considerable length. They were three highly individual wines.
Aged in acacia
At nearby Koslovic, with its stylish cellar and tasting area, Antonella Koslovic added further insights. Some of their wines are given skin contact and lees stirring, depending on the vintage, and maybe aging in large wood, but they do not want their wines to be too heavy. Their oldest vines, from the Santa Lucia vineyard, were planted in 1962 and they make a special selection in the best years, with some oak aging, after five days of skin contact. The Akacia cuvée is just that, Malvasia aged in acacia for eight months, for acacia barrels are produced in Croatia. There is a long maceration, which makes for an intense amber color, and the palate is rich and buttery with dry honeyed notes, balanced with acidity.
Antonella added that her husband, Gianfranco had written his university thesis on acacia barrels. Other nuances can be achieved by blending both later and earlier picked grapes, or indeed a wholly late harvest at the end of September rather than late August. Antonella proved conclusively that Malvasia will age in bottle by showing us 2006 Santa Lucia. The wine had spent six months in wood, both 300 hectolitre barrels and 225 litres barriques. It was amber gold, with a dry honeyed nose, while the palate was an intriguing combination of herbal fruit and firm acidity, with notes of maturity and a wonderful intensity. It made a perfect finale to the discovery of Malvasia.
Main photo: Benvenuti winery is located in the quiet Istrian village of Kaldir, where the Benvenuti family grows three grape varieties, including Malvasia. Credit: Courtesy of Benvenuti winery
It is not often that I visit a wine region that has grape varieties I have never heard of. But that happened in Gaillac, a small appellation in southwest France, near the city of Albi, that is best known for its associations with the artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and its dramatic red brick cathedral that looks more like a fortified castle. The wines of Gaillac are extraordinarily diverse, with a wealth of grape varieties peculiar to that region.
A range of styles
The wine styles range from the firmly dry, as well as sparkling, to the intensely rich and sweet, with rosé and lighter or richer reds, according to the blend of grapes. Most red Gaillac is based on Braucol, a grape variety not found elsewhere in the southwest, where it can also be called Fer Servadou or Mansois. It has some wonderfully fragrant fruit, with perfume as well as tannin. Duras is another important variety and is rich and sturdy, and has absolutely nothing to do with the nearby Côtes de Duras. You might also encounter Syrah, Gamay and Cabernet, but completely new to me was Prunelart.
For white wines, Gaillac Mauzac is the most important variety, but there is not just one Mauzac. The Plageoles family have seven different variations in their vineyards. In addition, they have Ondenc, another old traditional variety of the appellation, as well as Len de l’El and Muscadelle. There also is Verdanel, another original variety, which they are working hard to revive.
The charms of Gaillac, for the countryside is stunningly beautifully with gentle undulating hills and little villages, has attracted outsiders. An English couple, Margaret and Jack Reckitt, were looking for a vineyard — they had tried the Languedoc and were en route to Bergerac — when they stopped in Gaillac and found Clos Rocailleux, a 17-acre property planted with Mauzac and Len de l’El for whites and Duras, Syrah and Braucol for reds. Their first vintage was 2012 and they have quickly established a convincing range of wines. Their Mauzac Vieilles Vignes from 65-year-old vines grown on a rocky limestone plateau portrays all the character of Mauzac, with intense saline flavors and a firm sappy note. As Margaret explained, white Gaillac may be a pure varietal, but red Gaillac must always be a blend, so their reserve red comes from Syrah, Braucol and Duras, with firm peppery flavours.
Four generations of Plageoles
In contrast, the Plageoles have been in Gaillac for at least four generations. We met Florent; his father, Bernard, is approaching retirement and his grandfather, Robert, is generally considered to be the great pioneer of Gaillac, reviving many lost grape varieties and wine styles. The range of the Plageoles’ wines amply illustrates that. Altogether, they have 86 acres of vines in 50 different plots. Our tasting began with the wine that accounts for a quarter of their production, Mauzac Nature, which is lightly sparkling and gently sweet. The initial fermentation is stopped, leaving some residual sugar, and the wine is filtered à manches, an ancient technique. It is almost impossible to describe; Florent demonstrated it, showing us a piece of material that looked like heavy cotton baggy sleeves through which the wine is wrung. The wine is then bottled, but the fermentation starts again in the spring. The wine is not disgorged, so there is always a light sediment. And the taste is soft and honeyed.
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Verdanel is an old variety, for which their first vintage was 2001, initially from half an acre, but they will have 2 ½ more acres coming into production this year. The flavors are crisp and fresh, with some herbal notes and firm minerality, wonderfully original and intriguing, and amply justifying a revival. There was also a sappy Mauzac Vert and a sweet late harvest Len de l’El made from passerillé, dried grapes; Muscadelle too was rich and honeyed. They have seven acres of Ondenc, from which they make three different wines, a dry wine, from grapes picked in mid-September; a sweet wine, from grapes that are dried on the vine until the beginning of October and a liquoreux, picked in mid-October
As for red wines, they prefer to label them by variety, despite the requirements of the appellation. We tried a Mauzac Noir, which was fresh and peppery; a perfumed Braucol , a sturdier Duras, which was firm and tannic, and Prunelart, a member of the Malbec family. Robert Plageoles saved it, taking cuttings from a vineyard that was going to be pulled up.
The Plageoles family have also maintained the tradition for Vin de Voile, from Mauzac, mainly Vert and Roux. They make a dry white wine that is put into barrels for seven years. The result is not dissimilar to an intense amontillado sherry, with dry nutty fruit and a long finish. It was a wonderful example of the vinous originality that you might encounter when you go off the beaten track in La France profonde.
Main photo: A vineyard at Plageoles estate. The wines of Gaillac are extraordinarily diverse, with a wealth of grape varieties peculiar to that region. Credit: Copyright 2016 Myriam Plageoles
2014 is a great vintage in Chablis. Although June was hot and sunny, July and August were cooler than usual. As in so many years, things were not looking great at the beginning of September in this region of France, but once again the vintage was saved by a dry, sunny September, ensuring perfect conditions for the harvest. And the result is wine — now just being released — that has the razor-sharp acidity and flinty minerality that is the benchmark of all good Chablis, wines with a purity of fruit that will develop in bottle over a number of years.
What follows could be described as my shopping list. The premiers and grands crus of Chablis offer great value, compared to some of the more prestigious names of the Côte d’Or.
Chablis, Cuvée Chatillon, Domaine des Hâtes
This is a relatively new estate, with a first vintage in 2010, when Pierrick Laroche took the family vines out of the cooperative. Chatillon is a new cuvée, just 2.4 acres of 45-year-old vines in the village of Maligny, with more depth and weight than his basic Chablis, with a small percentage of wine fermented in oak, and given 15 months élevage.
Chablis Vieilles Vignes, Domaine Gilbert Picq
A wine of great concentration with balancing minerality coming from vines that are more than 60 years old. They adjoin the premier cru vineyard of Vaucoupin and the difference between the two is pretty imperceptible. This is family estate, with a first bottling by Gilbert Picq in 1981. These days, it is his son, Didier, who makes the wine, representing a shift in two generations from polyculture to viticulture and from selling wine in bulk to bottle.
Chablis 1er cru, Côte de Léchet, Domaine des Malandes
Lyne Marchive is a member of an old Chablis family, the Tremblays, and she has firm ideas about how Chablis should taste. It must have a purity of fruit, with stony minerality. And her Côte de Léchet, from the left bank of the river Serein, above the village of Milly, is just that, steely and flinty, with enough structure to sustain 5 or 10 years aging in bottle.
Chablis 1er cru l’Homme Mort, Domaine Adhémar et Francis Boudin
Adhémar Boudin is now 95 and one of the venerable wine growers of Chablis — I always think his name befits that of a crusading knight. These days it is his son, Francis, who makes the wine, and they were the first to separate their vines of l’Homme Mort from the much larger cru of Fourchaume. Compare the two and l’Homme Mort is firmer and flintier, and almost austere, while Fourchaume is a little richer and fuller on the palate.
Chablis 1er cru Vaillons, Domaine William Fèvre
William Fèvre played an important part in the expansion of the vineyards of Chablis, and his estate boasts vines from virtually all the grand crus. In 1998 he sold to the champagne house of Henriot, who also own Bouchard Père et Fils, and the estate has gone on to even greater things with the talented winemaker Didier Seguier. I could have chosen virtually any of Didier’s wines in 2014, even his Petit Chablis, but have opted for the firm, flinty Vaillons with its elegant lift on the finish. Although a small proportion of the wine is fermented in old barrels, you are simply not aware of the oak impact on the palate, other than the addition of a little more weight and body.
Chablis grand cru les Clos Domaine Jean-Paul Droin
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This is another old family estate, going back to the beginning of the 19th century. These days it is Benoit, Jean-Paul’s son, who makes the wine, and on a visit to Chablis a couple of years ago, I was introduced to the 16th generation, Louis, in a stroller. Jean-Paul was enthusiastic about aging Chablis in new oak, whereas Benoit exercises a more restrained and subtle hand in the cellar, to very good effect. As for Benoit’s 2014s, I find it difficult to choose between Grenouilles, the smallest of the grands crus, with its elegant stylish fruit, and les Clos, the largest and generally richer and more powerful. Both have an underlying elegance, but Grenouilles is more ethereal, while les Clos is more substantial. Both will be delicious in about 10 years’ time.
The 2014 vintage is so good, that I could effortlessly select another six wines.
Main photo: The Chablis vineyards of 2014 have produced a wonderful vintage. Credit: Copyright 2016 Jon Wyand. See more of Jon Wyand’s photographs in his latest book, “Corton.”
If you think of Tuscany and its wines, it is the famous names that immediately come to mind: Chianti, Brunello di Montalcino and Bolgheri. But Tuscany is so much more than those. There are all manner of lesser-known wines off the beaten track.
I recently spent a couple of days in the Orcia valley, an area sandwiched between the vineyards of Montalcino and Montepulciano, with a river that rises at Monte Cetona and flows into the Ombrone. The Orcia DOC was recognized in 2000, and in 2004 the whole valley was classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
As for most of the red wines of Tuscany, Sangiovese is the dominant variety, often blended with the likes of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Petit Verdot. There are now about 40 wine estates in the 13 villages of the Orcia valley, with an impressive level of quality and just waiting to be discovered. Here are five that are well worth the detour.
Fattoria del Colle
This is the property of Donatella Cinelli and Carlo Gardini. Donatella’s family has long been part of the wine scene of Montalcino, with her brother now running Fattoria dei Barbi, but Fattoria del Colle is where Donatella makes her mark outside Montalcino. She has about 81 acres of vines near the village of Trequanda and makes three red wines, not to mention Vin Santo, which is an essential part of every classic Tuscan estate.
Leone Rosso is Sangiovese with 40 percent Merlot, making for riper, fleshier flavors. Cenerentola, or Cinderella, is Sangiovese with 35 percent Foglia Tonda, an old Tuscan grape variety that almost disappeared. Donatella has played a large part in its successful revival. And then there is Il Drago e le Otto Colombe, a blend of Sangiovese with some Merlot, as well as 20 percent of an Umbrian grape variety, Sagrantino. The name of the wine refers to the fact that the estate is run by women, the doves, with just one man, or dragon, Donatella’s husband, Carlo. It makes an amusing aside. But Donatella has a serious focus; a fellow winegrower described her as the anima, or driving force, of the Val d’Orcia.
This is a relatively new estate, in Tuscan terms, for it was created in 1997 by Pasquale Forte, a businessman from Calabria. From one small purchase in 1997, he has developed a 416-acre estate, including 25 acres of vines (in addition, there are olive trees, extensive woodlands and land for rearing animals).
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Sangiovese is the core variety, with some Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Merlot. They aim for self-sufficiency and even have a restaurant, the very stylish Osteria Perillà, in the nearby village of Castiglione d’Orcia, where you can enjoy the produce of the estate. They are moving toward biodynamic principles and paying enormous attention to the condition of the soil, with advice from the leading expert in the field, Claude Bourguignon.
A drive around the vineyards offered breathtaking views of the hilltops of Rocca d’Orcia and Castiglione d’Orcia, with the autumn sunshine reflecting on golden vines. The cellar can only be described as state-of-the-art, with several sorting tables, vats for microvinifications and a serious selection of barrels.
They make three wines. Petruccino, a blend of 70 percent Sangiovese and 30 percent Merlot with 14 months’ oak aging, has a ripe fleshiness from the Merlot, balanced with freshness from the Sangiovese. More serious is Petrucci, a pure Sangiovese, described as their flagship wine, with aging in new oak. The third wine of the range is single-vineyard Guardiavigna, from Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Petit Verdot. The 2010 was drinking particularly well, with elegance and balance.
This estate was developed by Giuseppe Olivi, who produces an eclectic range of wines from an equally eclectic selection of grape varieties, namely Sangiovese, the key Bordeaux varieties, Syrah, and Pugnitello, another Tuscan variety that has been revived in recent years. His flagship wine is I Puri, a varietal wine that changes from year to year, depending on which grape variety is the absolute best in that particular vintage. In 2009 it was Merlot and in 2010 Sangiovese, with a fine expression of the variety. Unusually for the Orcia valley, they also have some white varieties, Verdicchio, Viognier and Sauvignon, making a fragrant white wine with some stony minerality.
This is an enchanting spot, with views of Monte Amiata and the small town of Pienza. The almost abandoned property was bought in 1999 by Ada Becheri and Alberto Turri, and they began planting vines in 2002. Until 2008, they merely sold their grapes and did some experimental microvinifications. The following year, they built a neat compact cellar and now they make a convincing range of wines that amply illustrate the characteristics of the Orcia valley, with Sangiovese, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot in varying proportions. Oak aging is essential to them all.
Citto, from all four varieties, is elegant and cedary; Ciriè is Sangiovese and Merlot, with some fleshy fruit; Tribòlo is a pure Sangiovese, and a riserva, which requires 24 months of aging. In fact, it has spent 30 months in small barrels, with some lovely elegant sour cherry fruit and just the right amount of oak. And finally there is Albiano, a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, with just a touch of Petit Verdot. This is riper and immediately more international in flavor, while still retaining the benchmark elegance of Podere Abiello.
Marco’s first vintage was 2001. He has developed the vineyards of an old family estate to make two wines: Capitoni, which is a blend of 80 percent Sangiovese with some Merlot, and Frasi, which comes from a 3.2-acre vineyard planted in1973 that is mainly Sangiovese, with Canaiolo and Colorino. The three varieties are all mixed up in the vineyard and consequently fermented together, then aged in large wood for two years. A vertical tasting of Le Frasi from 2010 to 2005 illustrated the vintage variations. But the first things you see in Marco’s cellar are two large amphorae, for he is experimenting with Sangiovese in amphora.
The flavors are fresh and perfumed, with elegant red fruit and potential, rather like Val d’Orcia, which is a sleeping giant waiting to be discovered.
Main photo: Podere Forte’s vineyards offer breathtaking views of the hilltops of Rocca d’Orcia and Castiglione d’Orcia. Credit: Photo courtesy of Consorzio del Vino Orcia
The extraordinary diversity of France never ceases to amaze me. Each region, even the most established, offers a note of originality, but the farther you go off the beaten path, the greater the surprises.
Roussillon, in the deep south, nestling at the foot of the Pyrenees, is quite distinct from the rest of France, for it is part of Catalonia and has more in common with Barcelona, with the Pyrenees unifying Spanish and French Catalonia. This is the region that developed the fabulous vins doux naturels, the fortified wines made from Grenache and aged for years in old barrels. Think port, fine ruby and old tawny, but with a French touch. However, these days table wines, which they call vins secs, are more important. The red wines from appellations such as Côtes du Roussillon Villages, Collioure and Maury are based on Grenache Noir, with Carignan, Syrah and Mourvèdre, and offer rich spicy flavors.
And the real surprise of my last visit to Roussillon was the stunning quality of the white wines, from Grenache Blanc and even better Grenache Gris, as well as Roussanne, Marsanne Vermentino and other local varieties. And Roussillon is well worth a visit, not only for the quality of its wines, but also for the breathtaking scenery, with wild hillsides inland and steep terraced vineyards close to the coast.
What follows are five of my favorite wine growers, but I could easily have chosen yet another five.
The Cazes family has been making wine in Rivesaltes for several generations. While now part of the large group Advini, Cazes is still independently run. They have extensive vineyards in Collioure, an estate called les Clos de Paulilles, as well in Rivesaltes and a smaller plot in Maury.
In the 1980s, they were pioneers of table wine in Roussillon, planting Cabernet Sauvignon as well as the more conventional grape varieties of the south. Their vineyards are organic and they concentrate on southern grape varieties, producing a range of table wines and a delicious selection of vin doux. The star of these is undoubtedly their Cuvée Aimé Cazes (Aimé Cazes did much to develop the family estate and he died in 2000, a few days short of his 100th birthday). The wine is a blend of 80 percent Grenache Blanc and 20 percent Grenache Noir, which has been aged in old foudres for 22 years. Grenache Blanc turns amber in color after 22 years in wood, and the evaporation is such that 26 gallons reduce to about 8 gallons. This is fabulous, with an elegantly dry walnut nose, and long-lingering nutty flavors on the palate. As Bernard Cazes, Aimé’s son, observed: “It’s the wine to drink by the fireside, with your favorite music and a purring cat.”
I first visited this estate in the mid-1980s when Fernand Vaquer was the winemaker. He is now 85 and these days it is his daughter-in-law, Frédérique, who runs the estate. She comes from Burgundy, where she met her husband, Bernard, at wine school, and then went on to make her first wines in Roussillon in 1991. Very sadly, Bernard died soon afterward, but the reputation of Domaine Vaquer is brilliantly maintained by Frédérique.
She makes an elegant range of wines, with a delicate feminine touch. Esquisse Blanc is a blend of Roussanne and Macabeo with some Grenache Blanc, with some lovely texture and white blossom on the palate, and a defining freshness. The classic Côtes du Roussillon is a blend of Carignan, Grenache and Syrah. Best of all is Expression, a pure Carignan, and a vin de pays, Côtes Catalanes. Frédérique is lucky enough to have eight and a half acres of Carignan, planted in 1936. The palate is beautifully nuanced with red fruit, elegant tannins and wonderful freshness on the finish, making an excellent example of this often decried grape variety.
This is another estate that I first visited in the 1980s, when it was owned by Charles Dupuy. At the time, he was almost the only independent wine grower of the village of Maury. Now, there is a village cooperative and 30 other wine estates.
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These days, Mas Amiel is the property of Oliver Ducelle, who has invested hugely in his estate; you will see one of the best-equipped cellars of the entire region, run by a talented winemaker, Nicolas Raffy. They still have the enormous old foudres for aging the fortified vin doux, but there are also amphora, concrete eggs and barrels of different shapes and sizes. Maury Sec is a new appellation; the village was dominated by vin doux, but Mas Amiel’s Vers le Nord is a lovely example of the new appellation. The blend is mainly Grenache Noir with a splash of Syrah and the wine is redolent of ripe red fruit with elegance and spice on the finish.
Even more memorable is their 40-year-old Maury, a pure Grenache that spent one year outside in large glass jars, subject to all the climatic vagaries of the changing seasons, and then another 39 years in large oak casks. It has the most extraordinary length with long nutty fruit.
Domaine la Rectorie
The Parcé family have long been wine growers in Collioure and Banyuls. There are two strands to the family, with Domaine du Mas Blanc and Domaine de la Rectorie. They both make wonderful vins doux, but for me Domaine de la Rectorie has the edge with its white wine, Cuvée Argile. But first, you have to admire the vineyards — they are on steep hillsides lined with little walls, or murets, making small terraces, with fabulous views over the Mediterranean. There are apparently more than 3,700 miles of murets in the area. Cuvée Argile comes from a plot where the soil is mainly clay (argile in French), planted with Grenache Gris and just a little Grenache Blanc.
For the Parcé family, the character and quality of white Collioure depends upon Grenache Gris; they call it the pillar of the appellation. Some of the vines are centenarian; others are a mere 50 to 80 years old. Both grape varieties are fermented together in old oak barrels; the oak is very discreet but gives the wine some structure with some firm minerality and saline notes from the proximity of the vineyard to the sea. The white appellation of Collioure is relatively recent and Cuvée Argile show just why it should be an appellation.
Roc des Anges
This is one of the newer estates of Roussillon, created by Marjorie and Stéphane Gallet, who met while studying oenology at Montpellier. Stéphane then went to work for Mas Amiel, so it was logical to look for vineyards close by. Marjorie comes from the northern Rhone, but land in Côte Rôtie would have been much more expensive.
Besides, everything is possible here in Roussillon, without the constraints of a more established appellation. Altogether, they have about 100 different plots in just 86 acres and since 2011 a smart streamed-lined cellar with an underground barrel hall. They make a range of different table wines, classic Côtes du Roussillon Villages, a pure Carignan Côtes Catalanes and a delicious white wine, Llum, from old vines of Grenache Gris, Grenache Blanc and Macabeo. And then there is Maury, both dry and sweet.
The hallmark of their wines is indisputably elegance, and I find difficult to chose a favorite, but if pressed I will opt for Carignan 1903, so called for that was the year the vines were planted. It is a lovely combination of richness and power, but not at all heavy, with a fresh finish and a firm streak of minerality; in short, it illustrates the classic flavors of Roussillon at their finest.
Main photo: Roussillon is well worth a visit, not only for the quality of its wines, but also for the breathtaking scenery. Credit: Courtesy of the Conseil Interprofessionnel des Vins du Roussillon
It is extraordinary to consider that about 20 years ago Priorat was an unknown name in the roll call of Spanish wine regions. Today, much has changed. Priorat is now one of just two regions with a designated DOCa classification, a step up from plain DO, the other being Rioja.
A band of friends
It began in the late 1970s, when René Barbier bought land outside the village of Gratallops, the estate that was to become world famous as Clos Mogador. The first wine was made in 1989 and Barbier was joined by what he calls a band of copains, friends who had worked or studied together and went on to develop their own estates, such as Alvaro Palacios from Rioja. However, Priorat has always been a wine area, with vineyards run by the priory of Scala Dei, the ruins of which nestle at the foot of the dramatic cliffs of Montsant. In 1835, the Spanish government confiscated all church property, and then the region suffered badly from the phylloxera (the aphid that was imported into Europe on American vines and ultimately destroyed most of the vineyards of Europe, until the remedy of grafting European vines onto American rootstock was discovered). The aphid blight resulted in a drop in the vineyard land from 10,000 hectares (nearly 25,000 acres) of vines to barely 2,000 hectares (almost 5,000 acres) today.
The landscape is dramatic and viticulture is tough. You look at steep slopes and narrow terraces and realize how the lure of urban life in nearby Barcelona or Tarragona was irresistible for many of the farmers who had been scraping a living from their vines. But today there is a new appreciation of the quality of Priorat, based on wonderful old vines, Grenache Noir and Carignan, as well as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah. For white wine, there is Grenache Blanc, Macabeo and Pedro Ximenez, and more recent introductions, such as Chenin Blanc and Viognier.
A special soil among the slopes
So what accounts for the typicity of Priorat? There is no doubt the wines convey a strong sense of place. The intensity of the flavors conjures up the steep hillsides, with alarming gradients — a vineyard tour is an exhilarating experience, and certainly not for the faint-hearted without a head for heights. The vineyards follow the contours of the land, so the aspect changes and the altitude varies considerably. Then there is the soil, the characteristic llicorella, which is a type of schist, some 300 million years old. It is this schist that separates Priorat from adjoining DOs such as Montsant and Terra Alta and gives freshness to the wines, balancing the sometime heady alcohol levels that result from the warm summers.
Barbier set the pace at Clos Mogador and others have followed. At the end of the 1980s there were six wineries; today, there are 104, such has been the breathtaking rate of growth. However, the vineyard area has not grown significantly. Vineyards have changed hands and where once grapes were delivered to the village cooperative they are now vinified by new owners, or by people taking a new look at their land.
From experiment to winery
David Marco from Marco Abella in the village of Porrera is one such example. His family have had vineyards in the area for centuries. He had worked as an engineer in telecommunications and his wife was a lawyer, and they had increased the family vineyard holdings with the idea of simply selling the grapes. However, in 2004 they decided to make some wine as an experiment, and they were so pleased with it that they took the dramatic decision to give up their jobs and build a winery. I was lucky enough to taste that first wine and delicious it was too, fully justifying the career change.
Marco now makes three at least reds, Loidana from younger vines, from equal parts of Grenache and Carignan with 20 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, with elegant red fruit, well-integrated oak and a fresh finish. He explained that the influence of the Mediterranean is important, giving a good difference between day and nighttime temperatures. Mas Mallola comes from old Grenache Noir and Carignan, as well as a little Cabernet Sauvignon, from a particularly dramatic vineyard with a 200-meter difference in altitude between the top and the bottom. In the best years, he also makes separate cuvées of Grenache Noir and Carignan from the same vineyard. And then there is Clos Abella, which is predominantly Carignan, with sturdy fresh fruit. Carignan has often been decried, but tasting Priorat certainly prompts a drastic reconsideration of the quality and potential of this grape variety. White Olbia is a blend of Viognier and Grenache Blanc, with a little Pedro Ximenez and Macabeo, with some rounded textured fruit on the palate and well integrated oak.
A $4 taste led to a vineyard
Christopher Cannan is an Englishman who discovered Priorat in the early 1980s in San Francisco, where he happened to drink a bottle from Scala Dei that cost just $4, and it was delicious. He has long been a friend of René Barbier, and when Barbier told him in 1997 that there was a vineyard going for a song, 10 hectares (about 25 acres) for £30,000 (about $46,500), Cannan succumbed to the temptation. He made his first wine at Clos Figueras in 2000. He now owns 18 hectares of land, 12 of vines, with olive trees as well, and rents an additional four or five hectares, to make a range of finely crafted wines.
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The white wine, Font de la Figuera was an accident. They had ordered Cabernet Sauvignon vines and did not realize that they had been sent Viognier until the vines were well established. It seemed a pity to pull them up. Blended with some Chenin and Grenache Blanc, the wine has delicate peachy fruit. Serras del Priorat, from 60% Grenache, 20% Carignan, with some Syrah and a little Cabernet Sauvignon, has ripe fresh fruit, with a little oak. Font de la Figuera also comes from the same four grape varieties. The Cabernet Sauvignon accounts for less than 5% of the blend, but it gives backbone and structure, and the wine is dense and rich, but always with a fresh finish, even if the alcohol level is nudging 14.5%, even 15%.
The flagship wine Clos Figueras comes from 60-year-old Grenache Noir and even older Carignan — records were lost in the Civil War — with a touch of Cabernet Sauvignon, fermented and aged in barriques. It was ripe but elegant. And our tasting finished with Cannan’s first wine, 2000 Font de le Figuera, enjoyed over lunch in the welcoming winery restaurant on the edge of the village of Gratallops. It was deliciously mature, and as Cannan put it, “still at cruising altitude,” with some leathery maturity, a touch of minerality and a fresh finish, illustrating convincingly that Priorat amply deserves its newfound reputation.
Main photo: Once unknown among Spanish wines, Priorat is enjoying a newfound appreciation today. Credit: Courtesy of Clos Figueras SA