Priorat: Spain’s Answer to Chateauneuf?

priorat llicorella soils

As in Chateauneuf, Priorat soils are hidden by a layer of stones.

Priorat is an unbelievably rugged wine region in Catalonia, a couple of hours inland an up-country from Barcelona. The climate is Mediterranean, with hot sunshine partially moderated by altitude and wind. The vines grow on steeply sloped hillsides of fractured slate – often you have to dig through a foot or more of broken rock to get to the shallow soils where young vines are planted.

If the notion of soil hidden by stones brings to mind Chateauneuf du Pape, you’re on the right track. Except the rock is splintered granite instead of rounded off river stones. The main grapes overlap with Chateauneuf’s – Grenache, Syrah, and Carignan predominate – and ripen to the same big, bold, levels you find in the Southern Rhone.

But Utterly Unique
But Carignan – or Carinyena as it’s called here – plays a much bigger role (about 40% of AiAiAi’s blend). So you can think of Priorat as CdP but with more blue/black fruit character. And a more firm and powerful spine. And with an utterly unique and captivating sense of dusty slate on the nose, palate and finish.

Silvia Puig has been planting vineyards, growing grapes and making wine in Priorat for her whole adult life, and for the past 10 years or so she’s been creating some of the region’s most exciting, handcrafted, wines under the En Numeros Vermells label. Until recently, she’s made her tiny lots of bold, rich reds and whites (from a few hundred to 3,000 or so bottles of each wine) in the cellar of her home in the heart of Priorat (starting this year, she’s got her own winery – more on that to come later this spring!).

silvia-puig-2019.jpgWith such tiny production levels and a loyal customer base (like us – we sell more of Silvia’s wines than anyone!), she doesn’t have to present her wines to critics for review. But somehow Josh Raynolds of Vinous got his hands on a bottle of her “entry level” AiAiAi 2014. He wrote:

“A heady, exotically perfumed bouquet evokes ripe red and dark berries, potpourri and Indian spices, along with suggestions of cola and smoky minerals. Concentrated yet lithe, showing strong energy and focus to its juicy black raspberry, lavender pastille and spicecake flavors. The floral quality gains strength with air, carrying through a very long, sweet and gently tannic finish that leaves sappy berry and mineral notes behind.” Vinous (Raynolds) 92 points

Sound good? We’re featuring the 2018 AiAiAi this week, and 2018 is a much better year and this is an even more exciting wine. In fact, even though this is Silvia’s “entry-level” red, it easily outshines most Priorat wineries’ top reds.

And the name? It comes from Silvia’s experience making wine in the basement of her house while tending young children playing in the cellar. “AiAiAi, get off those barrels.” “AiAiAi, don’t fall in the vat!” But the name is just as apt as a description of your reaction when you taste this stunning 2018.

“AiAiAi! That’s delicious!”

Beautiful Bierzo: Wines From Green Spain

We’re really loving discovering wines from “Green Spain,” the exciting and fast evolving slice of Spain due north of Portugal, including Galicia and the westernmost slice of Castilla y Leon. Last spring we introduced you to winemaker Pedro Rodriguez and his Guimaro wines – from the dizzyingly steep vineyards of Ribeira Sacra.

1200px-DO_Bierzo_location.svgThis week, we move inland to Bierzo, and the wines of one of Pedro Rodriguez’ mentors, Raul Perez.

Warmer than Ribeira Sacra, Bierzo blends the copious and warming sunshine of central Spain with the cold air and brisk breezes of the nearby Atlantic coast.

Remote and Wild
The best vines grow on sloped, often terraced vineyards like the ones first planted by the Romans when they came here to mine gold more than two thousand years ago. The  grapes here are probably the same the Romans farmed, too – wild field blends that, today, include everything from scattered plants of Bastardo (Trousseau), Garnacha Tintorera (Alicante Bouschet), Doña Blanca and Palomino to the region’s most important vine: Mencia.

Bierzo is pretty remote and, once the Romans mined all the gold, the region was largely cut off from the rest of the world, except for the Catholic church and regular visits from pilgrims walking the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage.

Modern Times
The first modern fine wine from Bierzo dates from the arrival of Priorat’s Alvear Palacio in the late 1980s and his founding of Bierzo’s best-known winery today, Descendientes de J. Palacios. Palacio’s wines took advantage of sun, heat and ripeness and introduced new French oak to prove to the world that Mencia didn’t need to be thin, light, or wan.

If Alvear Palacio first brought the world’s attention to Bierzo, then Raul Perez revolutionized everyone’s understanding of what Bierzo (and the wines of Galicia in general) could become.

Raul Perez 2“The Best Winemaker in the World?
Perez made his first Bierzo at his family’s winery in 1994 at age 22, and when he set out on his own in 2005, he quickly became one of the world’s – not just Spain’s – most talked about, admired and inspirational winemakers.

He was named “Winemaker of the Year” by German publication Der Feinschmecker in 2014 and “Best Winemaker in the World” for 2015 by France’s Bettane+Desseauve. And when Decanter profiled him last year, they captioned his photograph, “Is this the best winemaker in the world?”

We’re offering Raul Perez’s Bierzo Ultreia 2016 this week: It’s proof in a bottle that the accolades are deserved. If you like red Burgundy from Cote de Beaune vineyards, Oregon Pinot with plenty of earth to go with the fruit, great Cru Beaujolais, crisp and herbal Cabernet Franc, old-school Rioja – in short any wine that’s all about the combination of perfume, complexity, vibrancy, freshness and amazing flexibility to pair with any kind of food at all…well, this is the wine for you!

But, no need to take our word for it. The Wine Advocate 93 point Raul Perez Tinto Ultreia 2016 will be open to taste for yourself all week long. The wine is fantastic, the pricing the best in the country, and the opportunity all too fleeting. Because only 500 cases or so were bottled and Spain keeps most for itself.

The Highs of Mencía – Exploring Spain’s Ribeira Sacra

Mencía, a varietal unique to Portugal’s Dao and Spain’s Bierzo and Galicia regions, reaches its most exciting heights on the steep riverside vineyards of Ribeira Sacra in the center of Spain’s Galicia region.

MenciaMencía is high in anthocyanins (red pigment), so its wines typically show a deep red color even when grown in cooler vineyards. And it’s high in terpenoids, aroma compounds that deliver bold scents of fresh flowers, raspberry, strawberry, pomegranate and sweet cherry. A bold dose of cracked peppery spice, a touch of something leafy green (think Cab Franc), and a dollop of crushed gravel minerality round out the fascinating aromatic and flavor profile.

What does Mencía taste like? Well – if you like the aromas and silkiness of Pinot Noir, the herbal snap of cool-climate Cabernet, and the plump, direct, fruit of Cru Beaujolais, these wines are sure to thrill.

As Neal Martin wrote in Wine Advocate a few years ago:

“I found the wines of Ribeira Sacra immediately attractive, not because they are powerful, ineffably complex or built for the long-term. No, I enjoyed their sense of purity and their complete lack of pretention. I enjoyed these wines because they spoke of their place, harnessing the Mencía grape variety to conjure crisp, fresh, vivacious wines that are born to marry with the local cuisine. The finest wines are those whereby I could envisage one finishing a bottle and yearning for another drop – a virtue all too often forgotten in this day and age.”

From Romans, to Monks, to Today
First planted by the Romans to provide wine to overseers and slaves working the goldmines of Bierzo to the east, Ribeira Sacra’s vineyards tumble down hills sloped 50 to 85 degrees (remember – 90 degrees is straight down!), often running along terraces first carved by the Romans. Replanted by monks in the Middle Ages to serve the 18 monasteries and hermitages that dot the region’s hills and valleys, the vineyards were once again largely abandoned in the 19th and 20th Centuries.

Today, the region’s most visionary, committed, hard working and talented wine grower, Pedro Rodriguez Perez, comes from a family that kept up the struggle during these times, making wine selling it in garrafones – 20 liter glass containers – to local bars and families.

In 1991, when Pedro was still a teenager, he and his parents decided to bottle their own wine and named their estate Guímaro – dialect for “rebel,” the family nickname for his grandfather.

steep vineyards of ribera sacra

Doug and winemaker Pedro Rodriguez in the steep Ribeira Sacra vineyards.

Pedro and his parents (still in the vineyards daily!) work their vineyards organically and by hand (because machines are impossible here). The whole bunches are sorted and then go into tank where they are trod by foot to release some juice and then allowed to ferment with native yeast. Then into a mixture of large oak tanks and barrels of various sizes (all used) to smooth out before blending and bottling with minimal sulfur.

We spent a day with Pedro in March at the winery, tasting his 2017s and 2018s to come. Pedro took time out of his day not only for the tasting, but to hike the vineyards with us (don’t look down!) and then treated us to a Galician lunch of squid, octopus and rare local beef.

Tasting his wines today recaptures that amazing experience. We have two on sale this week. Like Pedro himself, these are wines of fantastic joy, intense focus, and – importantly – serious fun.

Guimaro wines

  • The 2016 Camino Real (93 points Wine Advocate; 95 points Suckling) is at once rich and light. Aromas of fresh red berries, cracked pepper, leafy herb and sweet spice carry through to a palate that combines a velvety mouthfeel with energetic verve and sublime grace. Every sip reveals a new combination of flavors that flow beautifully into the silky, kaleidoscopic, finish. From a best in the USA $22.98/ea, this is fabulous now through 2026.
  • The 2015 A Ponte (95 points from both Wine Advocate and Suckling) is stunning at multiple levels. From a very young vineyard, it somehow delivers old-vine intensity in a wine almost translucent in color and weightless on the palate. As Suckling writes, “Detail is the key. Great length and depth. Toasty, plush finish.” We have only five cases available (the region’s allocation) of this rare (165 cases) gem from $49.98.

These are some of the very finest wines produced to date in Ribeira Sacra, made by the region’s leading winegrower from amazing vineyards old and young. We cannot recommend them to you highly enough.

Wines of Wind and Stone … Exploring Empordà

Not far from the rocky, popular tourist beaches of the Costa Brava, Spain’s Empordà wine region is a decidedly unwelcoming place. In this tiny slice of Catalonia above the Costa Brava, on the border of France’s Roussillon region, acidic brown schist soils stress the vines, while the baking heat of summer days and the strong Tramontane wind that hurls southward from the eastern Pyrenees stress both vines and people.

Tramontane clouds in Rousillon

Tramontane clouds

As Andrew Jefford writes in Decanter Magazine:

“It’s tough country, not least because of the flagellation of the Tramontane, the northwesterly wind which hurtles southwards here with unbridled force. What I discovered about the Mistral in Châteauneuf is every bit as true for the Tramontane in Empordà: it’s hard on humans, but all the signs are that the vines thrive on it.” – Andrew Jefford, “Wind, Stone …”

Grapevines can thrive in tough climates, and as in many parts of Europe, winemaking here dates back thousands of years. But the vines will only thrive – and be transformed into excellent wine – because of extraordinary efforts and care by humans.

priorat jonas gomez 2

Importer Jonas Gustafsson

Importer Jonas Gustafsson, who explores Spain looking to discover new winemakers, recently brought us two wines from Empordà made by David Saavedra, founder of the relatively new estate, Celler Viniric. David created the estate to celebrate the old vines and the new traditions of Empordà. David’s 20 acres of vineyards run down the southern side of the Gavarres Massif towards the Mediterranean Sea.

Passion and Perseverance
As winemaker David Saavedra told Jonas, “Everyone has a formula that leads you to fulfill your dreams. In my case, as the owner, winemaker and wine producer at Viniric, the words that guide me are passion and perseverance.”

Viniric collage

Other than deliciousness and tiny production levels (around 600 cases each), what David’s Viniric wines most share is what Andrew Jefford describes in Decanter as the essence of Empordà:

“A drama, a stoniness and an austere, almost aching bittersweet beauty which is common to this northern Catalonian cluster of vineyard zones.”

More than “Taste-Deep”
Sometimes we feature wines because they are familiar, or highly-rated, or in demand. But sometimes we bring you wines that touch our hearts a bit with what we find in the glass and the story behind the wine. And we hope they will touch your heart a bit, too.

And so, here are two of David Saavedra’s wines discovered by importer Jonas Gustafasson from this windy, rocky, remote Spanish region, one white, one red, and both ready to deliver inspiration in your glass from $14.98.

  • David’s Vella Lola red – a blend of Garnacha, Syrah and a tiny bit of Cabernet – delivers layered black fruit, crunchy minerality, and feels great in your mouth. It’s a fantastic cookout red, for sure, but you can also give it a light chill and sip it for fun and refreshment.
  • His Vella Loa white – blending Garnacha Blanca, Xarel.lo, Macabeu and Muscat – is zesty and fresh, serving up a mouthwatering serving of lemon, lime, quince and pineapple fruit supported by salty, chalky minerality at the end. Shellfish, sea bass, and fresh cheeses are its natural companions but it’s so lipsmackingly delicious, you’ll find yourself reaching for it on any warm, sultry day.

Growing and making these wines is hard, tough work, drinking them, on the other hand, is easy as pie! See for yourself when you stop by this week and give them a try – we’ll have a bottle of each open every day, all day.

Both are fine value at the $16.98 bottle price, and better still at $14.98/ea when you mix/match your way to a case of 12. We know you’ll love how they taste. We hope you’ll enjoy the connection to place and story as well.

Viniric labels

AiAiAi! Garage Wines from Rugged Priorat

silvia puig in storeSilvia Puig was pretty much born into the wine business – her father, Joseph Puig, is a longtime restaurateur, export manager for Spain’s Miguel Torres and founder of Torres’s operation in Chile. Silvia followed Joseph into the trade, learning winemaking at school and while working at properties in Bordeaux and Spain (including Vega Sicilia’s Alion winery).

Eventually, she and Joseph founded their own estate called Vinedos de Ithaca in the rugged Gratallops region of Priorat, in the province of Tarragona southwest of Barcelona.

Priorat llicorella soils.pngRugged Priorat
Priorat is an unbelievably rugged wine region in Catalonia, a couple of hours inland an up-country from Barcelona. The climate is Mediterranean, with hot sunshine partially moderated by altitude and wind. The vines grow on steeply sloped hillsides of fractured slate – often you have to dig through a foot or more of broken rock just to get to the shallow soils where young vines are planted.

If the notion of soil hidden by stones brings to mind Chateauneuf du Pape, you’re on the right track. Except the rock if splintered granite instead of rounded off river stones. The main grapes overlap with Chateauneuf’s – Grenache, Syrah, and Carignan predominate – and ripen to the same big, bold, levels you find in the Southern Rhone.

But Carignan – or Careinyena as it’s called here – plays a much bigger role (about 40% of AiAiAi’s blend). So you can think of Priorat as CdP but with more blue/black fruit character. And a more firm and powerful spine. And with an utterly unique and captivating sense of dusty slate on the nose, palate and finish.

No, Really – It’s a Garage!
Silvia and Joseph’s Vinedos de Ithaca was successful from the start, but like so many talented winemakers, Silvia wanted to do something completely on her own. So, in 2008 she began the project now called En Numeros Vermells. The name, “Numbers in the Red” and clever label design by local graffiti artist Adria Batet, evoked the rain of bad news showing down on Spain and the world during the late 2000’s financial meltdown.

Silvia created ENV to let her intimately nurture small amounts of wine from grape to bottle on a barrel by barrel basis. The small scale let her largely ignore the normal time and financial pressures of winemaking – with a total production of just a few hundred cases, she was free to let each wine find its own way to maturity and use only the barrels that actually fit in her final blends.

We throw around the terms “garage wine” and “handcrafted” quite a bit, but that’s truly the best way to describe everything about these wines. The En Numerous Vermells “cellar” is the garage of Silvia’s house in the Priorat village of Poboleda, a building that also serves as Silvia’s home and her husband – Belgian chef Pieter Truyts – Brots Restaurant.

In this tiny space, Silvia is literally doing virtually everything by hand. She tends the small number of barrels stacked in the space carefully, tasting and re-tasting to learn how each is developing and gaining a deep understanding of each cask’s unique character, strengths, and weaknesses. Multiple blending trials allow Silvia to explore how her charges work together (or don’t), and create an ideal marriage that lets each site and varietal shine without fighting or overwhelming each other.

We’ve been blown away by Silvia’s top wines – the flagship Priorat Negre and the ultra-small production alternate blends – since importer Jonas Gustafsson brought us the first vintages to land in the USA last year. The quality has been nothing short of extraordinary and they’ve all flown off our shelves.

AiAiAi Indeed!
With increasing success with her ENV wines, more and more active children and her husband’s thriving restaurant, Silvia has now decided to focus 100% of her winemaking energies on En Numeros Vermells. The extra time allowed her to purchase a little more fruit and turn her attentions and talents to making a softer, more accessible, wine that we can enjoy now while letting the top bottlings develop in cellar.

The name comes from Silvia’s experience making wine while tending young children playing in the cellar. “AiAiAi, get off those barrels.” “AiAiAi, don’t fall in the vat!” But the name is as apt as a description of your reaction when you taste this stunning 2017.

AiAiAi! That’s delicious!”

Rioja Modern and Traditional

vinsacro-grapesJuan Escudero began making Rioja wine in a small cave carved out of a hillside in 1852, well before the French invasion. The family continued winemaking and growing through the years, with Juan’s grandson, Benito, moving into Cava production in the 1950s. His children returned to Rioja and under the leadership of Bordeaux-trained brother Amador founded Bodegas Vinsacro around the turn of this century.

They planted about 30 acres of vines in Rioja Baja in 1996, but the key to the success of this very modern winery was a small, very old, and very, very old-fashioned vineyard owned by the family for 120 years. It’s called Cuesta la Reina and it was planted around 1945 (70 years ago) on the stony southern slope of Mount Yerga between 450 and 800 meters elevation.

An Old-Fashioned Vineyard
Vinsacro harvestAs was customary at the time, the vineyard was planted by taking cuttings of another old vineyard and grafting the canes onto new rootstocks – a process called massal selection. And, as was customary in Rioja for centuries before the current modern revolution, that old vineyard was planted to a mixture of vine types including Garnacha (perhaps half the vineyard) plus Tempranillo, Graciano, Monastrell and Bobal.

As in 17th and 18th Century Bordeaux, this blend of grapes was less about achieving the perfect blend in the finished wine than about insurance: if growing conditions caused problems with one varietal, there was at least a chance that the others would ripen. When it was time to harvest, the whole vineyard was picked at once and the wine’s final blend was whatever happened to come off the vines. In fact, the traditional name for this style vineyard, “Vidau,” means “ready to pick.”

Modern Quality and Care
Amador and his brothers cherished this old vineyard, but also began applying some modern farming ideas. First, they converted to completely organic farming to help the soil regain its health and keep the old vines thriving. Then, they began to pick each varietal separately as they ripened fully. Tempranillo gets picked first, usually in the first week of October. Then Garnacha comes in late October before Graciano in early November and then, last, Mazuelo and Bobal.

As if four separate harvests weren’t expensive enough, the grapes are sorted twice, once in the vineyard and then on a vibrating table in the winery before they go into the vats. After fermenting separately, each varietal ages for 12-14 months in a mixture of new 70% French oak casks – for modern polish and American oak barrels – for that classic Rioja style.

Finally, Amador creates the decidedly old-fashioned Rioja blend that will become Dioro. About 50% of the final wine is Tempranillo – compared to 80-100% at most “modernist” estates. About 20% is Garnacha (for hints of red raspberry) and 10% each Mazuelo and Graciano (for vivid acids and cherry fruit). Monastrell (earthy) and Bobal (licorice and plum) make up the rest of the blend. Only the very best barrels of wine from Cuesta la Reina go into Dioro, with the rest of the vineyard’s wine being blended into other bottlings.

From organic farming to multiple harvest passes, double sorting, new French oak aging, and strict selection of only the best lots, this is an expensive way to make wine. Which is why Wine Advocate gave the 2015 such high praise (92 points) even at a curiously high reported $65 release price.

At the $27 charged by the big box store down the street, Vinsacro Rioja Dioro 2015 is solid value in rich, ripe, powerful Rioja. At our $14.98 best price, the quality/price ratio is simply silly good!

vinsacro-rioja

A Homecoming Story: Remelluri Rioja

Telmo RodriguezTelmo Rodriguez’s first time returning home did not go well.

He’d left to study at the University of Bordeaux, made wine at Cos d’Estournel, and then worked in Cornas, Hermitage, Châteauneuf and Provence. He returned to Remelluri to work with his father in 1989.

But after a few years of battling over farming methods, winemaking approach and more, Telmo left home for the second time to explore new regions and vineyards across Spain. Today he is one of Spain’s most important winemakers and a vocal champion for authentic grapes, vineyards and wines.

Coming Home Again … and Making Changes
In 2010, Telmo’s father retired and Telmo came home once again to lead the family estate. In his homecoming year, he made important changes – starting with telling the 30 or so farmers his father had been purchasing grapes from that Remelluri would now use only their own, estate-grown, grapes. (Not to worry – he also helped those farmers found their own label and both made and marketed their wine for them!) Since 2010, Remelluri has become one of Rioja’s only “Chateau Estates,” making wine only from grapes they grow themselves.

Telmo picked a great year to come home, because vintage 2010 is perhaps Rioja’s greatest modern harvest. In this nearly perfect year, he harvested low-yields of Tempranillo (about 90%) plus Garnacha, Graciano and white grapes Viura and Malvasía Riojana. All were grown organically, harvested by hand, and fermented with native yeast in stainless steel. A full 17 months in mostly used French oak casks of various sizes let the wines round out and gain spice. Time in bottle allowed the final blend to integrate and add complexity to the sweet, ripe fruit.

remelluri reserva rioja“Real Deal” Reserva Rioja
The result is what I can only call “the real deal” in Reserva-level Rioja. The aromas are fantastic, interleaving scents of crushed cherry and raspberry with fragrant warm spice, orange peel, and fresh earth aromas. The texture is deep and rich, but with a classic touch of Rioja lift, and generous flavors of ripe fruit, sweet and savory spice, cedar, and more. The firm, dusty, finish is the perfect complement to earthy lamb or pork dishes and promises plenty of life for years to come.

  • “Very pleasant and easy to drink. It grows on you,” says Wine Advocate in its 93 point review.
  • “Fresh and long. Great persistence,” says Jancis Robinson.
  • “A wine with beautiful finesse and depth,” says James Suckling with his 95 point rating.

“Yummy – may I have some more?” your family and friends will say as they come home for your holiday feast. “Come taste it now, while you can,” we add, while it is on sale for $37.98 or $34.98 on a six-pack.

Because this is the kind of delicious treat that will give folks one more reason to come home for Christmas dinner for years to come.