By Celia Strong
It’s always nice when you can understand the name of a wine. And, luckily, most of us drink enough New World wines with names that make sense. But, Old World wines from Europe are named for where they come from, how ripe the grapes are at harvest, what the grapes are, sometimes, and all kinds of other stuff. Sometimes we get the names and sometimes we don’t, or can’t. I think that’s the case with this week’s wine. And even if we don’t know what the name means, it’s still easy to say, and it’s a great wine that’s easy to drink. So all is not lost as we journey to Spain for our wine this week.
Spain has almost 3 million acres of vineyards. That makes it the third largest in the wine world, behind France and then Italy. This country has an abundance of native grape varieties, about 400 or so. But, 80 percent of their wines are made from just 20 varieties. The main ones are Tempranillo, Garnacha, and Monastrell, for red wines, and Albariño, Palomino, Airen and Macabeo for white wines.
With all these native grapes, it’s no surprise that grape growing and winemaking has a very long history in Spain. Archeologists think that grapes might have been grown there as long ago as 4,000 BC.
During the days of the Roman Empire, Spanish wines were traded and exported throughout the Empire. Actually, more Spanish wine than Roman wine made its way into Gaul, now France. The quality of it all, though, was not consistent.
After the Roman Empire fell, Spain and its wines went through assorted invasions, including the Moors who were Muslim, colonizing parts of the New World, starting with their sponsorship of Columbus, the defeat of the great Spanish Armada by England’s Queen Elizabeth I, economic lows, brought on by too much spending by their rulers, the phylloxera infestation of their vineyards, just like the rest of Europe, in the second half of the 19th century and the worldwide wine boom at the end of the 20th century.
Spain passed its first wine laws — the “Denominación de Origen” (DO) — in 1932. One of the wine growing regions was Catalonia. This is a fairly important region in Spain because “Cava,” their sparkling wine, was invented there in the early 1870s, and “Priorat,” one of their two elevated DOQ wines, comes from there.
Also, Catalonia was the leader at the turn of the 20th century because it was the first to adopt stainless steel fermentation tanks. And, Catalonia produces a large quantity of corks. This region is located in the very northeastern corner of Spain and Barcelona is its capitol city. Most importantly, to us anyhow, our wine comes from this region.
As early as the 14th century, a Franciscan writer described Catalan wines as “strong, dense, highly alcoholic which, although high quality, sometimes needed to be diluted with water.” Yikes! But, they moved forward, inventing Cava, as we mentioned earlier, embracing modern techniques and bringing in and using more international grapes such as Cabernet, Merlot, Syrah and Chardonnay. A 1979 win at a Gault Millau Wine Olympics put Catalan wines firmly on the wine map.
In addition to the Cava and Priorat DO’s, there are nine others in Catalan. Montsant, ours, was declared in 2001 and the first wines labeled Montsant were sold in 2002. Montsant was named for the mountains in its area (it actually means “holy mountain”) and it has a little over 5,000 acres of vineyards, with more coming all the time. The Montsant DO actually surrounds the better DOQ of Priorat. So we should guess the wines might be good?
The Catalan soil is lime, over a granite and slate subsoil. Most of the vineyards are at about 1,200 feet above sea level. The climate is Mediterranean with some continental influences. The white varieties allowed here are Chardonnay, Garnacha Blanca, Macabeo, Moscatel, Pansal and Paralleda. The reds allowed are Cabernet Sauvignon, Cariñena, Garnacha, Garnacha Peluda, Merlot, Monastrell, Picapoll nero, Syrah and Tempranillo. Between all of these grape varieties, we’re lucky to know some at least.
The main style of Montsant wines is powerful red with velvety textures, just like our wine of the week, the 2010 Mas Sorrer Montsant. The proprietors are Sara Perez and Rene Barbier, Jr., husband and wife. Both of them had parents who made Priorat wines. Sara is the winemaker for Mas Sorrer and speaks at wine conferences and symposiums on what it’s like to be a woman winemaker. In Spain, according to Sara, more women are involved at wineries in the winemaking than some other European countries.
Both Sara and Rene believe the potential for Montsant wines is huge. The climate and the rich variety of soils are exceptional. Besides this couple, other young winemakers work in this area, for the same reasons.
The grapes for Mas Sorrer are Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah, in that order. They come from several sites in the DO, all steep slopes. The soil is schist, clay, sand and calcareous. Twelve thousand bottles are made each year. This wine is a bigger style red, especially when compared to most of the other Spanish red wines we have tasted. Its aromas are strong red and black fruits (blackberries, black cherries, dark plums) with hints of herbs, tobacco and mocha — a truly exciting first sniff.
The flavors follow these aromas — big, rich, intense, and very smooth. Oh, boy! Even after all that we’ve just learned about Montsant wines, this one is just so exciting to taste. Mmmmm.
Another sip. There’s the nice little touch of earthiness at the end. Yum.
Between the aromas and the flavors and the texture and the weight — this is one special treat. For $14.99, it’s special, special, special! (You think I maybe really like this one?)
But, when it comes to the name of this week’s featured wine — “Mas Sorrer” — it remains a mystery. No matter where I look or who I ask, there is no meaning or translation for this name. I know “mas” means “more” in Spanish, but “sorrer” isn’t a Spanish word, or proper name, that I could find. It is a little hard to understand: Why name your wine something that doesn’t mean anything? But, maybe it has a special, personal meaning for Sara and Rene. Maybe it’s the name of their favorite band or bar at home in Catalonia. I’d like to think so. Because now I can love this wine even “mas.”