Vol 3 No 3 an evening to remember

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.

TB

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Vol 2 No 22 -a wine importer/distributor worth knowing – and a Spanish region worth knowing: Priorat!

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.