May 222013
 

It was the best of times and then… well, you know. Originally a Roman wine region, Spain’s Priorat then became a lost land of outlaws and wolves.  The Carthusians came in the 12th century, replanted the vineyards, and built a massive monastery in the middle of the wilderness.  But in the early 1800’s, that was destroyed in the revolts against the church.  And once again, the region became a rural backwater—but this time without the wolves.

It wouldn’t be until the 1980’s that anyone outside of Catalunya even heard of Priorat. A group of young winemakers took a look around at the steep hills and realized, we can make great wines of the world here. And so they did.

These determined winemakers brought in modern equipment, French oak barrels and a vision of a new kind of wine from Priorat:  focused, intense and very high quality.  They appreciated the area’s special soils, called, llicorella, whose mica particles add a touch of glitter to the landscape. The soil retains heat and reflects it back off the precariously steep slopes on to the vines. This added warmth, along with wild herbs and flowers that cover this hillsides, give the region some very powerful and aromatic wines.

Today, wine enthusiasts are clamoring for the wines, willing to pay top dollar. These are some of the best expressions of garnacha and carinena in the world.

I just visited the region and give you a view of Priorat Through the Bunghole:

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May 212013
 

PrioratI just got back from Priorat last week. What I was not prepared for was the beauty of the region.  I knew it made great wines, but I didn’t know about the stunningly steep vineyards (some terraced, some not) and the explosion of wildflowers that covered the hills.

Poppies in PrioratOf course, this has been the wettest spring in recent memory, and as one of my hosts put it: “anything that grows is going to blossom this year.” But, the result is glorious:  poppies, lavender, thistles, sage, rosemary — the full Mediterranean spice rack.

You could almost hear Julie Andrews singing…

Jul 262012
 

Over the past several years, wines from the country of Spain have been turning heads. Due in large part to increased energy and investment, most Spanish wines now offer exceptional quality at a price that most of us can afford.

In terms of the styles of wine that the country produces, they are as varied as colors of the rainbow. Being the second most mountainous country in Europe (can you guess the first?) and with shorelines on both the Atlantic and Mediterranean coasts, the country offers a range of climates and soil types.

The region of Castilla-La Mancha is the very center of the country. This is Don Quixote’s Spain. Full of history, tradition, and wine, Castilla-La Mancha is little known in the United States. While most U.S.-based connoisseurs are familiar with Rioja, Navarra, Ribera del Duero, or Priorat, few have heard of the wines from Castilla-La Mancha. That is because, until recently, the region was known mostly for producing uninspired wines, made in an outdated style and meant for a local audience. This is changing however.

“Spain is full of these ‘new’ old regions,” says noted author Karen MacNeil. And it’s true. These traditional regions are making an effort to bring themselves into the 21st century and their work is paying off.

With a typically continental climate, Castilla-La Mancha experiences very hot days and cool nights. The diurnal temperature swing can be as much as 60 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s extreme by any measure. But, what that ensures is that you end up with an extended growing season, and those cool nights help the wines retain a good acidity level without too much alcohol. Numerous mountain ranges and rivers lend their influence on the meso-climates of the region, and the soils are pretty consistently limestone with some sedimentary clay in spots. At 1,200 to 3,000 foot elevation, it makes it one of the higher growing regions in the world.

Within the Castilla-La Mancha area, there are several sub-DOs (denominación de origen). DO Méntrida, DO Mandéjar, DO Uclés, DO La Mancha, DO Valdepeñas, DO Ribera del Júcar, DO Manchuela, DO Almansa, and DO Jumilla (partly in Murcia also). 46 grape varieties (23 red and 23 white) are permitted in these DOs and range from obscure local varieties to well-known international varieties such as Merlot.

Interestingly, there are more DO Pagos in Castilla-La Mancha than anywhere else in Spain. A Denominación de Pago are individual single-estates with an international reputation.  This speaks very highly of the regions overall quality and potential.

At a recent tasting hosted by Fundación Castilla-La Mancha Tierra de Viñedos, I had an opportunity to try some wines from this region. Here are some of the stand-outs:

  • Los Alijares DO Méntrida Viognier 2011 – pale gold color, orange blossom, jasmine, ripe apple, medium acid, light body, low alcohol, mineral on the palate, refreshing, Very Good
  • Solmayor DO Uclés Young Red (Tempranillo) 2011 – medium-minus purple color, unoaked, mineral, Santa rosa plum, cranberry, olive, medium body, medium tannin, medium plus acidity, young, fresh, delicious, Very Good
  • Azusa DO Manchuela Bobal Roble 2010 – pale ruby color, cigar box, cherry, underbrush, medium acidity, low tannin, medium body, long length, Very Good
  • Maar D Cervera Vino de la Tierra de Castilla Syrah 2010 – medium purple color, root beer, vanilla, brown sugar, spice, medium plus acidity, medium plus body, soft tannin, round, smoked meat and dried fruit on palate, complex, Very Good
  • Finca Los Alijares DO Méntrida Graciano 2009 – medium ruby color, crushed berry, strawberry, fresh, fruity, medium acid,medium body, Very Good
  • Viña Cerrón Vino de la Tierra de Castilla  El Sentido de La Vida 2009 – ripe, powerful, concentrated, Very Good
  • Viña Cerrón Vino de la Tierra de Castilla Rabia Petit Verdot 2009 – floral, balanced, spicy, Excellent

These wines range in price from arpund $8 to $25 at retail. That’s a bargain if I ever saw one. We’re not chasing windmills here.