Regular readers of this column will know I am not a fan of heavily-oaked Spanish reds, especially riojas, because of the excessive taste of wood the wines leave in one’s mouth. It is like chewing bits of balsa.
But a tasting of wines provided by the Kerry Wines group has changed my perception. The session opened with an exceptional cava, the sparkling white from the Penedes region near Barcelona.
Cava is made in a similar way to champagne and other sparklers from France but the grapes are indigenous — typically macabeo, xarel-lo and parelleda.
Pere Canals built a boutique winery in 1999 to focus on the best sparkling. The Castell Sant Antoni version of cava is matured from 24 to 48 months before release, and only the free run juice is bottled (this is considered the best juice). The 2005 vintage zings in the mouth, though the indigenous grape varieties produce a different flavour compared with the toast and citrus of champagne. Cavas typically taste more smoky, with less acidity.
A trio of reds from the Monstant and Priorat regions especially impressed. Priorat is one of only two designated “denominacion de origen calificada”, or DOCa (rioja is the other) in Spain. This means the region has been recognised as having produced superior wines for at least a decade.
Priorat lies inland from Barcelona on Spain’s east coast in the Catalonia region. It has undergone a massive transformation since the late 1980s when a group of pioneers started making wines that impressed the world, including the famous critic Robert Parker Junior.
The resulting high prices the wines could command meant money was available for expansion. It also attracted visionaries. Architect Alfredo Arribas founded Portal del Priorat in 2001, aiming to resurrect abandoned terraces.
The region is very hilly and rugged, rainfall is low and laws forbid vineyards from using irrigation. This concentrates flavours. Another factor is the soil known as llicorella, comprised of black slate and quartz, that gives some of the reds a liquorice flavour. The quartz shines in the sun and helps ripening by retaining warmth, and altitudes of 500 to 700 metres mean cool nights, which help the grapes to mature slowly.
The result is some outstanding wines. The 2010 Somni (Spanish for dream) is a dream to taste, with dark fruits and an outstanding texture from the blend of carignan, grenache and merlot grapes.
The 2011 Tros de Clos from the same region is 100 per cent carignan from vines that were planted more than a century ago. But they were left unattended for decades until Arribas arrived. This is only the second vintage of this wine since Arribas’s intervention, and it is a marvel. Sadly, Arribas only makes about 1,500 bottles a year.
Much more available is the 2010 Faunus de Monstant, also by Alfredo Arribas. The label is easily recognisable, showing a line drawing of Faunus, the god of nature and fertility. Again the wine is made from old vines, some 50 years old, that Arribas has resurrected. Monstant is near Priorat. Though less well known it has great potential. The region’s soils consist of similar slates and the name comes from the phrase “holy mountain” that describes the nearby hills.
This wine has a much larger production of 14,000 bottles, and should be available in fine wine shops in the region. It is a blend of tempranillo, syrah, merlot and carignan and each grape’s virtues show through in the combination. It is rich, dark — almost brooding — yet full of black fruit flavours and an intense nose that is almost like smelling hot tar.
The same intensity shows in a range of malbecs from the Altos vineyard in the Mendoza region of Argentina. Mendoza has a semi-desert climate with high temperature ranges between day and night, which concentrates fruit flavours. Unlike Spain, plenty of water is available from wells, so the vines produce ripe grapes.
I tasted the 2008, 2009 and 2010 vintages. These reds are dark cherry in colour and full of the essence of blackberries with hints of wild flowers and herbs. Best of all, they are relatively inexpensive and available in a range of outlets in the Asian region.