Swirl Wine Bar & Market

Monday, February 14, 2011

Montsant and Priorat, The New Spain

Spain has a long history of producing great wines, particularly the red wines of Rioja.  However, this famous name is just one small region among many which produce incredible wines that are off the beaten path for most wine drinkers.  The exciting Spanish wine regions of Priorat and Montsant are nestled at the base of the Montsant mountain range, just an hour and a half’s drive south of Barcelona.  Priorato is known for it's somewhat expensive, powerful, rich reds while neighboring Montsant produces vlaue priced, elegant, complex wines.  Both regions share many similarities, there are distinct differences in the soils and terrior that set the wines apart.

Among the lesser-known wine-growing regions of Spain, Montsant seems like a potential treasure trove of solid, yet not too expensive wines, often coming from undervalued old vines. Its soil has some similarities with next door Priorat, and so does the varietal selection, but without the high price tags of Priorat wines.

Wine experts and press consider it to be an up and coming region and industry rags have declared it to be “a great discovery”.  The quality of Montsant wines is key to their success, as too is their great quality-price ratio. The prestigious Spanish wine guide, “Guia Peñin” agrees that “the quality of Montsant wines and their great prices make this region an excellent alternative.”.

The D.O. Montsant (Designation of Origin or wine appellation) despite being a fairly new wine appellation has years of wine-making history behind it.The D.O. Montsant comprises approximately 4,700 acres of registered vineyards and, as it is larger than its interior neighbor (Priorat comprises less than 4,000 acres), both its landscape and terroir are much more diverse. Montsant’s soil is a combination of granitic sand and calcareous soil, including limestone, large pebbles, some clay and shards of slate – all of which can be found in varying amounts throughout the appellation. In addition, although the D.O. has a similar climate to that of Priorat, Montsant has two rivers that run through it and they, along with the daily sea breezes that come in off the Mediterranean, provide the appellation with an infinity of microclimates that gives its wines a unique character. Montsant on average also receives more annual sun exposure than Priorat and contains as many of the extremely low-producing, century-old vines that make up the succulent wines so highly sought after in both wine regions.

In terms of wine style, the wines from the D.O. Montsant are full of flavor and finesse. True to their terroir, the wines of Montsant reflect “the fragrance of their landscape,” and are ripe with aromas of Mediterranean herbs (including thyme, rosemary and native lavender), exotic spices and black fruit. On the palate the wines are fresh and stunning, with notes of violets, blackberries, red currants, dried figs, sweet spices, toasted wood and subtle minerality.  Within the DO, varieties in a red Montsant wine can include Garnacha, Mazuelo (a.k.a. Cariñena), Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Merlot and Tempranillo, although only a very small amount of this last variety exists within the appellation.

What immediately distinguishes Priorat from other grape-growing regions in the world is its soil type.  Many believe the secret to Priorat’s success lies in its amazing, granite-like soils, known to the Catalan people as llicorella and to the rest of Spain as pizarra.  The llicorella soil resembles slate or shale rock, intermixed with tiny bands of reddish-brown earth.  The name llicorella stems from the Catalan word for licorice, chosen to describe the black, somewhat shiny rocky substrate which is high in mineral content.Another important aspect of Priorat’s unique terroir is its climate.  The region is extremely arid and receives hardly any rain during the summer months.  Irrigation is rarely used as water is scarce, and is typically saved for the youngest vines and the hottest years.  Due to the steep slopes, rocky soil and little water, the annual production per acre in Priorat is extremely low.  A head-pruned, old vine in the region might yield only enough fruit for a half-bottle of wine.

This low production directly contributes to the characteristically concentrated wines of the region, which have great tannins, deep color and high alcohol content (13.5-15.5%).  The extremely harsh growing conditions and low-yielding vines also help explain the high cost of Priorat wines, which are justifiably more expensive than those of other high-volume wine regions of Spain.  The grape varieties in Priorato include Garnacha, Garnacha peluda and Cariñena with Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah vines having been included in small areas.

We'll be tasting wines from both Priorat and Montsant on Tuesday, February 15 from 6:30 to 8pm so you can taste for yourself the similarities and differences between these two exciting regions!

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