Imagine: you get an invitation to a wine tasting by email. Not just any tasting but a vertical tasting of the first twenty-five years the winery has been in existence. The last SIX of those vintages have not been released yet – just lying in the cellar slowly aging. You received the invitation because you visited the winery and only those who have are being sent invitations. You have a choice of going to New York, Chicago, or Los Angeles. What would you say? Oh, I forgot, the cost was $250 including dinner…hmm just $10 per vintage.
I spent at least ten minutes thinking about it and since that winery was the highlight of my trip last year to Spain and Portugal, which included a wine cruise along the Spanish coastline tasting local wines, I made up my mind to go. Done! I chose Chicago for the ease of getting there. (See Vol 2 No 16 for the area around Barcelona and Priorat)
The winery is Clos de l’Obac (Costera del Siurana) in the Priorat region of Spain about 75 miles south of Barcelona in the town of Grattalops. It is a very small area that is encircled by the up and coming Monsant region, a DO (Denominación de Origen) since 2001, while Priorat is the gem and received its DOQ (Denominació d’Origen Qualificada), later upgraded to DOQa, (actually the same but the first was Catalyan, and the other Spanish, and is only one of two such designations in Spain, the other being La Rioja.
For the first three vintages, 1989–1991, the group of five wineries pooled their grapes, shared a winery in Gratallops, and made one wine sold under five labels: Clos de l’Obac, Clos Dofi (later renamed to Finca Dofi), Clos Erasmus, Clos Martinet and Clos Mogador. From 1992, these wines were made separately. There are several more wineries now but all are very independent of one another.
According to the owner, five people got together in 1979 – “crazy people” according to owner Carles Pastrana, and they bought and developed vineyards and a winery in Grattalops. The vineyards dated back over 100 years and were originally planted by the Romans and monks at the monastery of Scala Dei. Besides Clos de l’Obac, the wineries were Clos Erasmus, Clos Martinet, Clos Mogador, Clos Dofi. The first three vintages were made in then only winery in Grattalops, then they each made their own wine. Later Mas Doix, Scala Dei, and others appeared and some of the original five had name changes.
In 1995, Clos de l’Obac finished in the top four in a tasting in Stockholm. The four top were 1989 Clos de l’Obac, Chateau Le Pin, Cos d’Estournel, all tied and only surpassed by five points by Chateau Pétrus. Carlos then made the unusual decision to make the blend the same from that point on: 35% Cabernet Sauvignon, 35% garnacha, and 10% each of merlot, syrah, and cariñena. His theory is that the grapes and wine have a personality, while the climate and weather provide the character. He has been criticized for this but to him, he is using the best formula he knows to make wine and the differences by year are only due to the weather. I tease him about being ‘the lazy winemaker’, but if that were the case his wines would not be so well received. More significantly, since they do not buy grapes or juice from other wineries, what happens if there is a light harvest of one of the 10% varietals? He cuts back production, which can hardly be called efficient, and sells the excess to other wineries. He also does the blending at the harvest, rather than after aging in separate barrels that are then ‘assembled’ to the desired proportions. The wine is fined using egg whites but never filtered. This is accomplished in his gravity flow winery by adding an additional tank by the bottling area. The wine goes into this and is left for a few weeks which creates a natural filtering when the wine is drawn off and bottled.
Here is how the tasting was organized. First, there were only 24 people participating including Carles, his wife Mariana, his importer Jon Cancilla and his wife. That meant a total of 600 glasses which were delivered in flights of five beginning with the 1990 (which only had four wines because he had saved the 1989, a magnum for last. Small plates (tapas), that would pair well with the wine were served with each flight. Only after we were done with the flight was there any discussion of what we thought. Here are my conclusions:
While there were distinct differences between the vintages (especially in the mid-2000’s due to steadily warmer temperatures which caused the alcohol level to go from a steady 13.5% to 14.5-16%, but even then the wines did not taste hot, nor were they the fruit bombs so popular with critics and employed by California wine makers. These were all excellent food wines), but there was no oxidation or browning of any of the wines. They were all fresh and vibrant. By the way all of the wines were opened three hours before serving but not decanted. When it came to the final 1989 vintage, it showed no sign of age and fruit. It was very soft and pleasant, with very little tannin. I believe the tasting confirmed Carles’ theory of personality and character and that the differences between vintages would have been far greater if the blend had been varied. I began, as and am even more so now, a fan of these excellently made wines.
As for the tasting and venue, it was perfectly orchestrated and the pairings were all unique and excellent. It was just over three hours and the time went by very quickly.