November 2008 issue

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PAGES (52) November 2008

Montsant: The “Other” Priorat Ben Narasin

Spain’s recent success in producing high-quality wines at economical prices—first from Rioja, and more lately from Priorat—is paving the way for its lesser-known appellations. It’s a repeating pattern: As sommeliers and consumers find new values from various parts of the country, these wines go on to gain popularity and price, and the search for value begins anew.

Such is the story of the Montsant Denominación de Orígen. As its Catalonian neighbor, the Priorat Denominación de Orígen Calificada, has started to turn out some of the world’s most collectible bottlings over the past two decades, wine buyers have begun turning to Montsant for similar, well-produced wines of excellent value.

TERROIR

Montsant surrounds Priorat like the white of an egg around its yolk. Topographically, the egg is inverted, with Priorat forming a relatively flat plateau in the center and Montsant elevated around it. This configuration denotes a shift in soil types: Priorat’s valleys and terraced hills feature volcanic soils of mica and black slate—the famous llicorella—while the steep, craggy, severe Montsant terrain is dominated by rock—limestone, shale, and granite.

The entire Catalonian province of Tarragona is still an isolated mountain area, speckled with tiny villages numbering their citizens in the hundreds. As an example, Gratallops, the village housing the Priorat DOC office, has a population of about 200. Falset, the capital of the region, with a population of about 2,500, lies within Montsant. Because of its distinct geography, Montsant was recognized as a unique DO in 2001; before that, it was a Falset subappellation of Priorat (that’s the Catalan name; in Spanish, it’s Priorato).

Four-wheel drives have replaced mule teams and hiking in recent years as methods of retrieving grapes from the Montsant mountainsides. Still, crossing from Priorat to Montsant is a “safari wine tour,” says Francesc Capafons, whose family winery, Capafons-Ossó, produces wines in both regions. Roads are often nothing more than cleared foot paths dating back centuries. To encourage hikers and enotourism, the Priorat tourist office has even allocated funds to “the correct signposting and clearing of historic paths which connected villages over 200 years ago,” according to Priorat wine guide Rachel Ritchie.

Montsant does share Priorat’s Mediterranean climate. Nights are dramatically cooler than the hot days, offering a needed reprieve for the grapes. Mountains block much of the sea’s harsher influence while still allowing entry to some of the moist, cooling air that is critical to so many varietals’ development during the dry summers. Rainfall is sporadic at best. The rivers play a modest role, being modest rivers; many are small rieras that dry up seasonally. Natural springs in the mountainsides, shored up by hand with gathered rocks, are often the only sources of water for miles.

VITICULTURE

Like Priorat, Montsant (which means “holy mountain” in Catalan), was first developed for grape growing by Carthusian monks in the 12th century. But while Priorat vineyards can be planted in contiguous blocks, Montsant’s rugged terrain requires vines to be shoved into every available ledge, plateau, or hollow. Tiny triangles and wedges, sometimes only a few rows wide, sliver the hillsides, with a block often bordered by a steep abyss on one side and a crumbling wall of shale on another.

Old vines dominate—usually head-pruned, inverted octopuses with little trellising. New plantings may require holes to be drilled into the rock and filled with water to give the vines a chance to take hold, let alone thrive. In fact, it’s a wonder that grapes survive at all in some of these rocky mountain crusts without irrigation, which is prohibited by DO rules. Shale provides layers to trap water and nutrients in some areas, but much of the terrain is penetrated only by roots fracturing the striated sedimentary construction of the soil. A carved hillside will often reveal lone roots that have miraculously found their way through and then out of walls of rock to claim a tenuous grip on the mountain. The stress of soil, sun, and solitude strengthens the surviving vines beyond the level of the most severe hillside fruit in other regions. As a result, the wines can be intense and complex, yet soft.

Red grapes dominate, representing roughly 90% of the planted crops. Varietals traditional to the area, Carinyena (Carignan) and red Garnatxa (Grenache), grow throughout the region, but international grapes such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, and Merlot are gaining favor, both as single-varietal wines and as blending components (see box). Ull de Llebre (Tempra-nillo) dominates the warmer southern portion of Montsant. White grapes are almost exclusively white Garnatxa or Macabeu, which are vinified as both table and sweet wines.

WINE PRODUCTION

Crumbling remains of stone and brick buildings nestled into the mountains recall a time when grapes and olives were harvested and stored on the hillsides. Wines were originally made in tiny stone huts built into the hills or dug into the ground. Now the grapes are transported to more modern facilities.

Montsant vintners universally talk about their production in terms of bottles rather than cases, proudly claiming numbers in the thousands. Large tanks and barrels with spigots and first-generation-gas-station-style hoses still dominate public entrances to the wineries, where locals buy by the liter. Step back into the production facilities, though, and you’ll often find brand-new, shiny, stainless-steel tanks—a clear indication of the relatively recent shift to modern winemaking methods.

A wine must be made within Montsant to carry the DO label. Since the region is dominated by small growers, this requirement has resulted in the creation of multiple cooperatives to share costs and facilities. In fact, of the 782 grape growers registered with the DO, 684 are members of nine cooperatives. “All the villages in Catalunya have cooperatives,” explains Jürgen Wagner, export manager of Celler Capçanes (named for its town of 400 people), which is owned by 80 growers.

Historically, the region’s wines were sold in bulk, but with the formation of the DO in 2001, more of the wine began to find its way into bottles. In 2002, 90% of the region’s wine was sold in bulk, but by 2004, that figure had dropped to 66% (see box). The United States is now the second-largest importer of Montsant’s bottled wine, behind only Germany.

Many of the best producers are just starting to find distributors in the United States and other international markets. One of the challenges is that overseas, and even in Spain itself, good Spanish red wine has long been considered to come only from Rioja. “This is not the Tempranillo area,” says Wagner. But Spanish wine drinkers—and some locals who once ignored the wines produced in their backyard in favor of Rioja—are beginning to discover Montsant. Importers are also paying attention. Michael Mondavi’s Folio Fine Wine Partners, which focuses on high-end, family-owned wineries around the world, has recently added two Montsants to its Priorat-heavy lineup: Capafons-Ossó and Mas de l’Abundància.

MONTSANT WITH FOOD

While Priorat wines are often macho, high-alcohol reds with tooth-ripping tannins, the wines of Montsant tend to be softer, nuanced wines without the alcoholic extremes. But these are still serious wines that will still stand up to just about any hearty meat or game dish. “The red wines of Montsant are typically paired with any kind of herb-rubbed meat, with lamb and quail being especially popular,” says Nicole Andrus, Folio’s Spanish wine imports specialist. “During the winter months, Montsants are also often paired with heavy stews and soups, pot roast with rosemary potatoes, and mixed-cheese plates.”

The lighter reds favor the classic, well-seasoned Spanish rice dish, paella. Capçanes’s Wagner rightly notes that his Rosat (see tasting notes) “pairs perfectly with rice dishes such as paella or seafood,” adding that his reds pair “most typically with lamb, goat, rabbit, quail, stews, game, mushroom risottos, and chicken or rabbit paellas.” Andrus also finds a match between “lighter reds and mixed paella or mushroom risotto.”

All Spanish producers are fiercely proud of their wines, but some might say that Priorat’s pride verges on a fault. Montsant, perhaps because it has not yet had its day in the sun, offers a softer side of Spain. Olive stands sit shoulder to shoulder with vineyards. An agrarian lifestyle still dominates, with tractors parked outside homes and shops in the small villages, and children riding into the fields beside their fathers. One town boasts a store dedicated entirely to local honeys.

The comparison of Sonoma to its more heralded neighbor, Napa, comes to mind. Both regions produce exceptional wines, separated by a slight shift in geography and a chasm of ethos.