I spent a happy Saturday in February tasting some very good Spanish wines in Zurich, at the Robert Parker Matter of Taste – the wines at the public tasting are all rated 90 or above, so it was a powerhouse kind of day. Most were from the north of Spain, with an exciting dash over to Tenerife.
I ended with a group of wines that were tasted as part of Luis Gutiérraz’s master class where he presented wines by producers who are in his book The New Vignerons (see my review).
I began with a plan to sample Catalan Priorats, then Rioja wines. The first group because I wanted to try again wines that I met last May in Catalonia, the second because in coming weeks I’ll be doing a lot of Rioja tasting and wanted to broaden my knowledge base.
And before that I warmed up by tasting some very fine Swiss wines, which are now firmly in place in the Parker notation universe.
Two remarks before I take you to the wines. The momentum for organic and biodynamic wines is picking up in Spain, as in France, and although I did not immediately realize it, virtually all of the wines I tasted are made this way. The geography of their homes is often extraordinary and the landscapes beautiful; wineries are increasingly working with nature in these areas, rather than trying to dominate it.
Secondly, an excellent feature of the Matter of Taste events that I did not appreciate fully while I was trying the wines was explained to me later by Parker business development director director, Patrick Sauze: wineries are invited because their wines have received a note of 90 or higher from the Wine Advocate, and it’s suggested that they bring three wines.
But these can be any three of their wines, either three vintages of one top wine, or maybe other vintages and wines for comparison, or other top wines to show a range. The number of wines and mix of what people bring is eclectic and makes for far more interesting discussions. Jean-René Germanier from Vetroz in Valais, Switzerland, as expected, had their bestselling Cayas Syrah but they also brought a relatively new wine that I love, the lesser known and very classy, light Pinot Noir Lapon, from high (800 m) vines in Venthône.
En route to Priorat I tripped over the Catalan Lleida Pyrenees, by way of Castell d’Encus, a high mountain project of oenologist Raül Bobet, who also brought wines to Zurich from his Priorat winery, Ferrer-Bobet, a 15-year-old joint project with Sergi Ferrer-Salat. It turned out to be one of my favourite stops.
Where can I even begin? I knew nothing about wines from the Spanish Pyrenees and everything about these and the winery and the man behind them is intriguing, starting with the Encus labels. They are classy and contemporary, showing the ragged outline of a 12th century hollowed rocky outcrop used then, and again now, to ferment grapes. The vineyards are at 1,000 metres altitude, the wine I tasted, a 2014 Pinot Noir called Acusp, was produced in relatively small quantities (under 12,000 bottles) from the top of the mountain where the vines are densely planted.
I generally try to do my homework before tasting wines, but in this case I had asked for directions in the crowded hall from Raül, who convinced me to try his wines. I tasted them unaware of the 93 points this wine had rated with Parker, and the description, written 2 years earlier, when it was marked “early”. And the fact that for years before creating his own purist lines of wine that have been getting attention he worked for Torres (he mentioned in a vague way to me that he used to work for a very big wine firm).
The first thing I noticed was that it had a first nose remarkably similar to a Swiss Graubünden Pinot Noir from Annatina Pelizzatti in Jenins that I had just tasted, odd because her Selection is lightly oaked and Jenins is at 600 metres, near the young Rhine river. Both wines had an animal whiff to the nose, and I wondered if they were closed, needing a bit more air, so I asked Raül, who suggested it was because 2014 was a cool, damp year. He was intrigued by the comparison, as it turns out he’s interested in a wine project in Graubünden, so maybe my connection was not so farfetched.
I spent a bit of time talking with him and the wine opened up, although the nose remained subtle, showing notes of cherries, anise and a hint of nutmeg. The mouth was smooth, with raspberries evident but a marked (pleasing) bitterness, especially in the finish. I also tried his 2012 Ferrer Bobet Vinyes Velles (another 93 point wine), since I was on the lookout for Priorats and this is one, a blend from one of the higher and cooler areas in the region. Garnacha/Garnache, Cariñena/Carignan, Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon are the grapes. The nose offered spices and the mouth was very smooth, a well-structured, almost round wine that I would happily put on my table.
Priorat and the wilds of Catalonia
I headed towards two wineries I was keen to revisit a few months after I spent a wonderful week exploring the wild Priorat countryside and vineyards. René Barbier and Sara Pérez make Dido, a 2015 Montsant wine and Venus, a giant of a 2006 wine. Sara’s family makes Clos Martinet 2015, a Priorat wine that made them famous. Montsant used to be seen by many as the lightweight little brother of Priorat, but that perception is changing.
Dido, 85% Garnacha, high acidity and the 2016 needs more time, but the 2015. 75% Garnacha (15% Syrah, plus Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon) is very easy to drink despite being a big wine. Fruity, mineral and the mouth has a touch of balsamic.
Clos Martinet 2015, very fruity, good structure.”All our wines have this rustic taste.”
Venus 2006, very, very smooth, a lovely wine from Garnacha, Cariñena and Syrah: big structure, round, rich and velvety. The new Montsant.
Two other vineyards whose wines I enjoyed, with the more classic approach that has come to be known as Priorat style were Doix, whose very big 1902 is sublime if almost overwhelming, and Portal del Priorat’s Tros de Clos from a single vineyard, 100 Garnacha, rich and textured.
A final mention goes to a winery that I was keen to try – and it turned out they are among the stars in Luis Gutiérrez’s book that I discovered shortly afterwards in the master class. The 2015 Solana from Tenerife came as something of a shock, so different was it from the wines of Priorat and Montsant. A very mineral nose, organic to the hilt (whole bunches crushed natural fermentation with indigenous yeasts, 200 year-old vines (phylloxera missed the boat to the Canaries), made in 500 litre barrels. The result is startling, all fresh fruit and forest, very pleasing.
This takes me to the wines in Luis’ class, where for me the standouts were our number 2, La Bota de Palo Cortado 72, which is so far from any sherry experience I’ve had that I felt like I was Alice and I’d just fallen down the hole. Very powerful, nothing timid about this, and it made me realize I do want to learn much more about sherry, a wine I’ve only begun to appreciate since spending time in southern Spain. The story of Equipo Navazos, a group who decided in 2005 to start finding and saving Andalusian wine treasures, is quite exciting. More on this in coming months.
Our number 4, Picaro Clarete from Dominio del Águila, was also a surprise, partly because I liked it and I don’t normally find bright pink wines appealing! Time to drown the clichés, for this is not a cute little rosé but once the main style of wine from Ribera del Duero, made from nearly a dozen red and white grape varieties (about 50% Tempranillo) from various village wine parcels that are fermented together during several months in oak before being moved into French oak barrels for another 20 months. It’s unlike any other red I know, dry, lighter than what we’re used to from the region but certainly with more depth than a rosé, to which it bears little resemblance. Traditionally, here and even more so in Portugal, says Luis, red and white varieties, as many as 20 to 30 different ones, were complanted (grown together) in the same vineyard.
By number 8 I was beginning to understand well that this was all about wines that challenge the status quo and are bolder and more interesting as a result, but also not always as easy to understand as the Spanish wines we’ve become used to. The 2015 Villa de Corullón from Descendientes des Palacios in the northwestern area of Bierza brought us back to big red Spanish wines, but with a difference. There is an Atlantic influence here, Luis tells us, and it is a rich combination of fruit and smokiness that I fall in love with. The names would be familiar if I were a devotee of Parker’s 98 point wines, as the family and this wine have been highly praised by wine media. Ricardo Pérez Palacios has a wine family pedigree that includes several well known Spanish names from Rioja and he started off in Priorat before he joined an uncle on to a biodynamic farm in Bierza where he has given the Mencía grape a good name after decades in the doldrums.
Finally, I make it to Rioja and a wine I am enthusiastic about, with Telmo Rodriguez‘s Las Beatas 2014. A classic Rioja nose, a rich mouth, but this is a wine that harkens to the past: Telmo, who is from Spanish Basque country and grew up surrounded by artists, has focused on reviving forgotten vineyards, and his company has restored vineyards with wineries in 10 parts of the country. As part of that, he sets out to make wines that “reflect a sense of place”. Las Béatas, restored starting in 2007, is one of five Rioja wines the company makes – a Rioja the way it once was, designed to bring back some of the beauty and simplicity of earlier Rioja wines. From “old and twisted bush vine of different varieties mixed” with fermentation in large oak casks followed by maturing in French oak barrels (forget American oak). It works, it definitely works.
Tasting sessions usually have similar wines – this was the most disparate group I’ve ever seen, and not just to look at.