Exploring Spanish Vintage

The wines of Spain are being rediscovered and wine tours are a great way to experience them first hand.

The wines of Spain are being rediscovered and wine tours are a great way to experience them first hand.

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The aftertaste of my last tour in Spain still lingers like a deep, dark red wine finish in my taste memory. In fact, it is so pleasant that I often recommend people take a slow trip to Catalonia that allows them time to explore a couple of vineyards – or only one, as I did – rather than taking a whirlwind tour; though the latter can be quite an education, especially if combined with a Spanish language class.

My personal choice was to visit the wine region of Priorat, even though many are drawn to the more popular regions of Rioja, Galicia or Catalona for their elegant, better known vintage, produced using a mix of wine – growing techniques. The magnetic pull of Priorat’s intense red wines had attracted me for some time though, so I opted to tour just one vineyard, Clos Mogador, which sits in a rather rugged, remote area around two hours from Barcelona.

Secrets in the hills

A short, two-hour drive away from the Catalan capital’s cosmopolitan culture with its diverse shops and restaurants, and Priorat feels like a step back in time. Walking the hills is a fair bit of work, as they are terraced on steep terrain. Luckily, my long time friend, Carolotta, who has frequented the region for years agreed to take me personally to visit the winery and thus enjoy the “insider” treatment.

The area’s blackish soil, mixed quartzite and slate known as llicorella, produces powerful, robust wines. They became popular in the 1990s, which was when I first discovered them. Whilst the spelling of the region on bottles is usually ‘Priorat’, you will also often see the Spanish name Priorato on road signs. The area’s relative inaccessibility makes it even more of a find.

Among Spanish wine aficionados, Priorat is one of only two regions (the other being Rioja) designated as DOCa – the highest order of wine rankings in the Denomiacio d’Origen Qualificada. Despite the fame of the wines made there, however, there are few foreign visitors.

Savouring the Scene

I selected a vineyard known for wines I’d long admired. It’s name is Clos Mogador and it was founded in 1987 by Rene Barbier and Fernando Zamora. The duo have built a reputation for their suave, sophisticated wines, earning them the name ‘The Gratallops Pioneers.’ Their 22 estate-owned vineyards are major producers of what many call ‘cutting-edge’ wines, thanks to their creative, varietal blends.

Since we’d started early from Barcelona, we stopped in the lovely village of Escaladei, with the Montsant mountains piercing the rich blue skies high above us. A large cappuccino and a shot of espresso were the only planned intake. However, Serge, the owner of the small café where we stopped, insisted we sample the fresh paella and tasted his mushrooms with egg yolk. Delicious.

Bolstered, we head off. The drive was fantastic and took us into the spectacular Montsant National Park, with its rich ochre-coloured mountains. As sheep were herded across the road now and again and we took the time for photo opportunities. Even the worst pictures are fantastic, as the views of the valley’s villages from on high are amazing.

Tasting the Grape

On arrival at the vineyard, we were treated to a short, relaxed tasting by none other than Rene Barbier’s 40-year-old son, also called Rene. His demeanour and look were “comfortably scruffy, like his father’s”, Carolotta said, and I was enthralled. As we tasted, he explained the well-known favourites produced in the winery. His words swirled in my head as the elixir-like wines swirled in our glasses.

The offerings included Clos Mogador, the estate’s flagship dry, red, aged wine, a mix of Garnacha, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Carinena, which makes for a powerful concentration. Another creation, Clos Manyetes, was the second wine poured, also a dry red and similar in grape variety but with different proportions and a gentler nose. Then came Clos Nelin Joven, a dry white that intrigues with half Garnacha Blanca, plus a mix of Viognier and untypically, Pinot Noir.

We followed our tasting with a small feast, typically served under a pergola covered with grape vines and surrounded by pots overflowing with flowers. The meal consisted of ‘boquerones’, Spanish anchovies that are pickled in vinegar and stored in olive oil then served on pan con tomate (bread with tomatoes). Next came clams, slow-cooked with wine, laurel, bay leaves and a touch of olive oil. Words cannot do justice to this subtle blend of tastes.

Natural Process

Rene then took us on a long walk through the vineyards. He explained how the low moisture in the region’s rocky terrain, which has little topsoil and no irrigation, forces vines to “search deep” for moisture. What they “drink-in” is the 25m-deep supply of llicorella-rich subterranean liquid. This gives the concentrated flavour, while an absence of chemicals or synthetic fertilisers equates to small yields per hectare.

Of course, there was a conveniently placed table mid-trip with some more wine samples ready for our enjoyment. One of my favourites, the 2008 Manyetes, was served solo. With its bold mix of fruity and spicy notes, it proudly spoke for this vineyard as we surveyed rows of vines extending in every direction. The region is known for blistering summers (up to 35 degrees C), but has rather cold winters (down to 4 degrees C).

Next, our tour of the winery showed us a bit more how and why these luscious liquids are known for their dense flavourings. The winery uses an olive oil press for grape pressings, which yields only half of the juice ordinary wine presses do. The result is wine that is 50% more concentrated, and this in a region already known for concentrated wines.

Famous Hospitality

Our trip down the winding staircase to the expansive wine cellar was made all the more special by Rene’s detailing of what was in the endless rows of bottles on racks in one area. Then, he gave another short sampling of a 2006 Clos Mogador jewel as we wound through the carefully stacked oak barrels holding wines galore for future oenophiles to sigh over.

Rene had held off all other “private” tours for our trip, which was most gallant and appreciated. Even though I’d hoped to meet his famous father, to be shown around by part of the legendary family that helped to revive Spain’s wine standing was indeed an honour.

Beyond the vineyards themselves, Priorat also holds plenty of other attractions for visitors, made all the more pleasurable by a notable lack of tourists outside major holidays. Here are some additions worth including during a trip to the area.

  • Be sure to wander Gratallop’s winding lanes and marvel at the ancient structures that remain much as they were hundreds of years ago.
  • Sample the region’s cuisine at one of the village restaurants hidden around every corner. Order some fricando – an earthy veal and mushroom dish, and try some tangy romesco sauce-topped roasted vegetables with your wine. We particularly enjoyed Restaurant Piro and La Casola.
  • Trips to many Spanish wineries can also include cooking lessons, as well as lessons in some of the steps of the winemaking process.
  • Summer camps are available in the area for the kids while parents take daily winery tours.
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