Slow down (Montsant, Spain)

Life is pretty different in this part of the world, and things move just a little bit slower. There is something peaceful about driving along the winding roads between Priorat and Montsant, and as the valley opens out into the gentler rolling hills it makes for very nice driving in a pretty decent car that I was upgraded to. Meandering about through the lanes of medieval villages perched on hills, sitting down to a long lunch, enjoying a cold beer with some local cuisine, life couldn’t be easier. If you have a closer look around the villages here however, you see several of the problems not only with Spain but much of Europe. The first is that it is a rapidly ageing population in the country, with most of the young people gone to work in the larger cities and live more modern cosmopolitan lifestyles. There are a lot of difficulties with the bureaucracy here and red tape is a constant annoyance of the people. Apart from Falset, if you drive through most of the villages they are essentially ghost towns, which may also have something to do with the afternoon heat this time of year. There just isn’t enough work for young people (not that there is much more in the cities), and many of the people who do work here commute in, such as from Tarragona only 45 minutes away on the coast. So shops close at odd hours, restaurants may not open several days of the weeks, I haven’t seen many petrol stations or supermarkets, it is a little bit more difficult than most of the other places I’ve been. It really does remind me of the Salta region in Argentina, except at least you aren’t far from other places here, whereas you can run into serious trouble if your car breaks down in Salta. Don’t let it happen to you!
Nice view into the Capcanes valley

As previously mentioned Montsant surrounds Priorat like a moat, and was created in 2000 as a DO shortly after the Priorat DOQ was created. At the time they were introducing a new DO for Catalunya, which would mean that the hard work establishing this part of Catalunya as a quality region would effectively be rubbed out, with large wineries purchasing or growing fruit/wine to cut their lesser quality wines. Those in Priorat got no help from the Spanish government, so took it all the way to Brussels and were rewarded for their persistence and moxy. Technically the whole region is known as Priorat, which meant that those around the geologically-defined DOQ would have to come up with an alternative name. They chose the name of the mountain range that surrounds the entire region, and thus Montsant was born. It is a much larger area than Priorat, but nowhere near as heavily planted as it used to be. Like many other places the region was all but abandoned after the outbreak and spread of phylloxera, but began to find some new hope with the growth of cities like Barcelona, Tarragona and Valencia, and the subsequent increase in demand for wine. Back in the 20s much of the wine was very sweet, dark and alcoholic, often being sold to other parts of Europe in bulk as a cheaper alternative to port wine. Another set-back ensued with the Spanish Civil War, and thus it wasn’t until after democratic independence in the late 70s that there were many opportunities anywhere in this part of the world. Growers returned, and with the acclaim the Priorat region was receiving there was much interest, notably from larger producers outside of the region. This is why the creation of the DO was so important.

High-yielding vine in red soils

Following the rebirth of wine in the area back in the 20s, a group of five families joined forces and created the cooperative winery known as Celler de Capcanes in 1933. I visited the Celler and met Jurgen Wagner (originally from Heidelberg which is coincidentally the municipal city I grew up in Melbourne), who introduced me not only to the facilities but the intertwined history of Montsant and Capcanes. Back in the day when they were selling all of their wine in bulk, they used enormous vats to ferment and store the wines, before shipping the wines away to their customers. Their biggest customer in the 80s was the Torres wine company, who began to purchase fruit and vinify it themselves. When Torres and others began to buy land on which to grow their own fruit, the Celler knew that they needed to rethink the business. Their revolutionary solution was to return to wine production, but this time selling them in bottles. This in itself isn’t exactly revolutionary, but it was the fact that they were the first winery in Spain to make kosher wine exclusively to Jewish customers around the world, who were desperate for good quality examples. This required some serious changes to the winery, as in the past they were producing bulk wine in a completely different way, and the smaller vinifications they needed to perform couldn’t be done in such vessels. They initially invested in a new part of the cellars that would be the kosher section, and the first few wines produced were considered amongst the best in Spain, irrespective of their nature as kosher wines.

Celler de Capcanes

Since then they have expanded to make non-kosher wines, but it is the wine that still has such a cult following amongst Jewish customers and wine geeks alike. The kosher process means that entirely new or sterilisable equipment must be used, nothing can be added either in the vineyards or the winery (apart from minerals like sulphur and bentonite), but most importantly no-one except a rabbi can touch or see the wine in the winery. The rabbi comes in from Barcelona periodically to perform the necessary tasks, but when he is not there the wines are locked up tight and kept in very reductive conditions. To end up as kosher the wine must be totally clean right from the start (as it is at Capcanes), or it must be purified just before bottling by taking it up to 100 degrees and pasteurising it. As you can imagine this is not really ideal for quality wine. The wine is also only kosher if it is opened by a Sabbath-attending Jew, so as Jurgen and I tasted it was just a great wine. The range of wines that I tasted were all wonderfully fresh and balanced, some of them being unique to the region (the new organic wine for example), and some were just good quality wines that could have come from any number of places. Click here to see my notes from the tasting.

Barrels under Capcanes

One of the first people to focus on Spanish wine in the United States was Steve Metzler, a wine merchant that also represents the Spanish (and now German) wine brands around the world. Via an importer in Australia I contacted Steve to try to arrange some appointments, and one of the first he suggested was a very small producer in Montsant called Dosterras. The winery located on the Falset side of Marcas, takes its name from the fact that originally there were two vineyards that had different soils or ‘earths’ – one with a calcareous soil and one with a limestone soil. Just because there are now five vineyards with different soils doesn’t mean he should change the name. It is owned by Josep Grau who invited me to visit with the winemaker Noe, who was joined by a sommelier from the top restaurant in Falset, who happens to be her partner and also speaks some English. We went out to one of the vineyards which has some of the oldest grenache and carignan vines in the whole region, and plays a small but important part in the wines. The yields on these old vines are miniscule, particularly in the hot and dry conditions. In the winery Noe ferments the young vine reds in stainless steel tanks, and the old vine in oak vats. The red wines see a combination of new and old oak, and they tend to use 300 litre barrels. We tasted through a few components from the 2011 vintage, before trying some of the finished wines. The wines are excellent examples of the region, showing the characters of the varieties in the environment, which reminded me a little of the Clare Valley. Click here to see my notes from the tasting.

Noe in her tiny winery

Click here to see more photos from Montsant, Spain. In the next post I visit three Cava producers.

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