As the rooster crows

The “Les Crestes” vineyard, with Garnacha vines, gives its name to our wine of the week

By Celia Strong

I suppose somebody, or something, needs to crow. At least if it’s a bottle of wine we can all get in on the crowing and enjoy ourselves. The subject of our crowing, meaning this week’s wine, comes to us from Spain. A new region this trip, but a familiar main grape variety. Just, as it happens, a change of region, meaning a change of soil and climate, makes a huge difference in how it all tastes.

Spain has more acres of vineyards planted than any other wine producing country in the world — almost 3 million acres! Interestingly, though, they are third in total wine production, behind France and Italy. In part, this is due to much lower yields from their vineyards. (And these lower yields are due to dry and not too fertile conditions and really wide spacing between many Spanish vines.)

There is archeological evidence of grapes growing in Spain from as far back as 4,000 to 3,000 BC, a long time before any of the very early Mediterranean civilizations we usually associate wine grapes with even existed. Through the Phoenicians (who founded the trading post of Cadiz in 1,100 BC) and then the Romans and then the Visigoths and the Moors, wine production and trading continued on the Iberian Peninsula. The whole time, including now, adapting to the various climates and soils there.

Catalon is one of the Spanish wine regions, located in the northeastern corner of Spain, on the Mediterranean coast. The city of Barcelona is the capitol and the focal point of the Catalan wine industry. There is a long history of winemaking in Catalan, in particular the making of Cavas — the main sparkling wines of the country.  Catalon was also the first wine region in Spain to start using stainless steel fermentation. And, further, a lot of corks are produced in this region. In Catalon, there is archeological evidence that the Phoenicians were making wine here before the Romans came. The Phoenicians traded these wines with the ancient Egyptians. Of course, after the fall of the Roman Empire, and the Moors came into Spain, the wine business was crippled somewhat. But, by the 14th century, Catalon wines were strong, dense, high in alcohol and high in quality. The area is strongly influenced by the Mediterranean — warm weather with moderate rainfall, along the coast at least. Inland, it becomes much drier and cooler in places. There is a range of soil types, mostly calcereous mixed with clay and Alluvium. Some of the best vineyards are located on small deposits of limestone.

Cava was “invented” in 1872, in the Penedès area in Catalon. But we need to move on to our sub-region which is Priorat. Wine has been made in Priorat since the 12th century. Carthusian monks founded a monastery and established a priory. This gave its name to the local wine. Many wineries still show the original monastic influences on their wines by including the word “Clos” as part of their vineyard name.  Priorat wines are one of only two in all of Spain with the designation “DOCa,” the other being red Rioja wines. This is the highest, and best, qualification for all Spanish wines.

The soil in the Priorat “county” is volcanic in origin. It is reddish and black slate with small specs of mica. In Catalán (a local form of Spanish) it has a special name — “llicorella.”  The mica pieces in this soil reflect the sunlight onto the grapes which keeps them warmer. The topsoil layer of “llicorella” is almost 20 inches thick, so the vines’ roots are forced to work through it to find water, nutrition and minerals. The “llicorella” does have a profound impact on the flavors of Priorat wines.

Garnacha is the traditional grape variety in Priorat. (Yep, the same Garnacha we looked at a couple of weeks ago.) Garnacha Tinta is still found growing in the older vineyards along with other, now authorized, varieties such as Garnacha Peluda, Cariñena, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah. Cariñena is being used less and less, Cabernet and Merlot are small amounts, and Syrah is becoming more popular.

Yields in Priorat are very low. The rocky soil does not let much water accumulate and the vines are planted further apart than most areas so that each vine can get enough. Fewer vines mean less juice and less wine made. There are guidelines, by Spanish wine laws, but many producers do not follow them closely. They make, generally, aged wines that have been barrel aged for 18 months followed by six months in their bottles. These are best two years later. The spread out vines, the sparse and hard to reach soil nutrients, the aging — all this tends to make Priorat red wines wonderful, intense, smooth, full bodied and a tad pricey.

Our Priorat comes from Cellar Mas Doix, a family winery founded in 1998. But, don’t get nervous. This new winery still has a heritage going back to 1850, when Juan Extrems Doix, grandfather to the current owner, was making wines. Actually, Grandpa won a gold medal, in 1888, at the Universal Exhibition in Barcelona and a silver medal, in 1878, at the Universal Exhibition in Paris. Some of the grapes for today’s Priorat are grown in vineyards that are more than 100 years old. These vineyards are located on hills, with “llicorella” slate soils. Family tradition and their love for their wine has let the Doix maintain about 10 acres of Carineña vines, planted in 1902, 80-year-old Garnacha vines and more. The “Les Crestes” vineyard, with Garnacha vines, gives its name to our wine. (“Les Crestes” refers to the “crown” or “crest” on a rooster’s head.) One look at the label on our bottle should make it easy to remember its name.

This wine is made from 80 percent Garnacha, 10 percent Carineña and 10 percent Syrah. These vines are planted at over 1,300 feet above sea level. The grapes are harvested by hand, machines cannot do it on the steep slopes of these vineyards, hand sorted and selected, then fermented in small, stainless steel tanks. Cool temperatures are maintained and maceration takes 18 days. After blending, the wine is aged for 10 months in fine grain, French barrels. The longer than normal maceration time helps to enhance the ripe fruit flavors and complexities in the wines. And ripe and complex is what a good Priorat should be. So, old vines, rough terrain, struggling grapes, blending and aging time all come together for us. And, for $26.99, this is a well-priced Priorat. Les Crestes: A wine we can all crow about. Enjoy.

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