Last April, while visiting Spain and Portugal, a name came up a few times: Eric Solomon. He specializes in smaller ‘unknown’ wines from France (Languedoc/Roussillon) and Spain. I am reasonably confident that there are others out there like Solomon, like my friend, Kermit Lynch, who did similar in the Valcluse, Chatenauf-de-Pape (Viex Telegraphe), Bandol, and others. Seek them out because the stand behind and are deeply involved in the vineyards and wineries they represent.
Solomon made a concerted effort, along with Joâo Riveras of Quinta do Infantado, just outside Piñao, Portugal, in the heart of the Douro Valley. For over a century, the small growers had to sell all of their grapes to one of the large port shippers who bottled under their names like Dow, Sandeman, Niepoort, etc. Rivera’s family was one of the early protesters of this policy and struggled to get the law changed and in the 1980’s they succeeded. The two met and Solomon tried desperately to promote, not only small vineyard ports, but other wines like Dão, Vinho Verde (Albarinho – same as Albariño in Spain), Douro and others. The market simply wasn’t ready for that. To this day, go to the Portugal section of any wine store and you will see only a few besides Port, such as Lancer’s and Mateus, along with a few others. The missing ones represent great value, especially as Spanish wines are gaining in popularity causing prices to rise.
Rivera told me that the failure to gain acceptances was mostly due to “our failure to speak up for our wines…we are our own worst enemy” (this comment was also mentioned in Spain!). Eventually, Solomon found Portuguese wines a costly venture with no upside in sight, so he now focuses mainly on Spain, Southern France, some in Italy, and one each in Switzerland, and yes, even Macedonia (and up and coming region also). There is a word in Portuguese, ‘saudades’ (sa-da-ye), which means a nostalgia and warm feeling for the past. This is bittersweet in Portugal’s case, once one of the most powerful nations in the world. At times it seems that all of those former territories bear a cross of what once was.
What can you do? Be adventurous, try some of the wines and TB believes you will be pleasantly surprised, not just on quality but on price points. Don’t wait until it is too late.
Recently, I tried ten of Solomon’s wines (6 French and 4 Spanish), at a tasting in Excelsior, MN, at the Wine Republic, now approaching its second anniversary. Their unique niche is carrying only wines that are organic, sustainable, or dynamically produced. Why should you care? Because many of the expensive wines, especially in Bordeaux, France use chemicals as herbicides and pesticides (the U.S. is slowly moving away from this practice), and there are trace elements of these chemicals – some on the banned list, by the way – in the top Crus). Note that organic is not the same as ‘natural’ wine, which, while produced organically, tends to be unstable, and can be cloudy in appearance.
Here are the wines I tasted, all are curent release 2014(?) *Asterisks indicate the ones I liked best as I disavow any use of ratings as the last blog pointed out):
Lafage Cote d’Est, Roussillon, France ($12), a blend of Grenache Blanc, Chardonnay, and Marsanne. A bargain a this price!
Lafage Cuvee Centenaire, Roussillon($15), Grenache Blanc, Grenache Gris, and Roussane). *Big brother to the first, more complex, and a very well-made wine!
Lafage Tesselle Old Vine GSM, Languedoc-Roussillon ($16), Grenache, Syrah, Mouvedre are the stars here, hence the GSM moniker. *These are vines that are 30-50 years old and while they produce less fruit it is more intense. GSM has become very popular among winemakers everywhere, and again makes for a complex wine of merit.
Lafage Tessellae Carignan, Languedoc-Roussillon ($16). 100% Carignan, a grape commonly used in the Rhone and in Argentine and Chilean wines. ***This was my favorite of the flight. Carignan and Grenache are not understood well in the U.S. thanks to producers Like Gallo who produced insipid, sweet Grenache wines in the 70’s and 80’s. Give them a try!
St. Jean du Barroux L’Argile, ($28,(note how the price increases when you move to the Rhone Valley). 50% Grenache, 30% Syrah, 10% Cinsault, 10% Carignan. My favorite of the tasting with jammy fruit and many complex flavors (note TV is not good at descriptives)
Chateau Puech-Haut Prestige, Languedoc ($22), 50% Grenache, 50% Syrah. Once you get past the name, (pooch), this is another great find…and again lower in price.
Castaño Hécula, Yecla, Spain ($15), 100% Monastrell (8 months in neutral oak). Good value, but see the next one:
Castaño Solanera, Yecla, Spain ($19), 70% Monastrell, 15% Cabernet Franc, 15% Alicante Bouchet. *this shows how the Spanish have adapted to blending the stronger Monastrell with our varietals to make a better finish wine.
Capcanes Mas Donis, Montsant, Catalunya, Spain, 2013 ($16). *Montsant is like a claw partially surrounding the higher elevation and more recognized – and prized – Priorat region. Again, this wine is a very good value!
Black Slate Gratallops, Priorat, Spain ($23). Priorat is one of only two regions in Spain with the DOC and higher region, the other being La Rioja. This wine is 60% Carignan, 30% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Syrah. ***Perhaps the best value in Priorat, and from Grattallops, the oldest town and where grapes have been grown since for over 600 years! Also in Grattallops is Clos de L’Obac, which TB visited and where the owner Carles Pastranes, developed one of the original six vineyards. It was due to Alvara Pallacios, who made his reputation in La Rioja, and declared Priorat to be an excellent wine growing region. His L’Ermita ($400-800), is the benchmark here, Scala Dei, is the oldest winery here, having been operated by monks at this monesterio. Clos de L’Obac makes incredible wines in the $60-100 range.Vall Llach, which TB also visited is another fine producer. Quality? Consider this: they make three labels, Idus, Embruix, and Porrera (the village where the winery is located), when we visited last April the labels and cartons had been printed for the Porrera de Vi, their top of the line wine. Alberto, the son of the founder, and winemaker, decided the wine was very good but not to the standards he wanted for his signature wine, so it was not bottled: this wine has only been produced in 2009, 2010, 2012, 2013. That is caring, it cost a lot to declassify that wine but it is what buyers should expect of a quality winemaker. It is distributed by Michael Mondavi’s Folio Wines.
Ending with a love story, Eric Solomon met and became close friends with Daphne Glorian, whose Priorat wine, Clos Erasmus, is another pricey benchmark wine selling for over $200 a bottle. Eventually the were married and both they and their wines are doing just fine.
Whew! That is the longest blog I have ever written…hope you find it of interest and seek out the wines mentioned. Don’t forget to support your local wine merchants who do a good job, are both knowledgeable and helpful, because they are at risk from the ‘big box’ stores like Total Wines, and even supermarkets that don’t display and store wines properly and when you learn that you can buy better wines at similar prices from your local merchant, reward their research and investment by supporting their effort. It’s in all of our interest.