Wine column for the week of 16 February 2015

In 1998 Bordeaux heavyweight Bruno Prats sold the family estate, the classified Second Growth Cos d’Estournel, the top property of St-Estephe. Open-minded, and keen to create something new, he then embarked on something of a world grape odyssey.
Today, Prats is behind Vina Aquitania in Chile, with partners including Paul Pontallier (general manager of Chateaux Margaux), Chryseia in Portugal (with the Symington family), and Anwilka Vineyard in South Africa (with Hubert de Bouard de Laforest, owner of Angelus).
Prats continues to work with Bordeaux’s main grape, cabernet sauvignon, because it is so close to his heart, while turning his hand to Burgundy grapes chardonnay and pinot noir. Meanwhile in Portugal he has eagerly embraced the Douro’s top two indigenous grapes, touriga nacional and touriga franca.
Most recently, he’s created AlfYnal (correct spelling) in the Spanish region of Alicante DO, working with one of his obsessions since wine school days – the red variety monastrell. This grape also grows in the southern Rhone at places like Chateauneuf-du-Papes, where it is known as mouvedre; and also in Australia where it is part of the GSM (grenache syrach mouvedre) blend so popular now in that country.
The monastrell variety almost certainly comes from Spain, and grows throughout southeastern regions including Jumilla and Yecla, across to Alicante on the coast which has the kind of climate that suits it best.
What do the Spanish think of this variety? “It is known in Spain but only by those people who really like wine,” says Daniel Castano, from the Familia Castano estate in Yecla DO, who adds that wine knowledge in Spain in generally very low. Within Spain this variety does not have the profile of tempranillo (the base of wines in Rioja and the Ribeiro del Duero) or garnacha (also known as grenache), which performs so well in the fashionable Penedes sub-region of Priorat.
Familia Castano is one of the oldest and best properties in the region, making wine in an environment where wineries are increasingly being bought out by big commercial groups. Castano has the advantage of being large, with an annual production of nearly five million bottles. Daniel Castano adds that the southeastern wine regions of Spain are probably more recognised in the export markets than domestically, with a growing reputation for offering great value for money.
So what are the wines like? Few grapes can withstand the intensity of the heat in this part of Spain, or indeed need this much heat to ripen fully. Yet the monastrell grapes still maintain refreshing acidity to balance sometimes quite rustic tannins. Vines need up to 10 years to mature, and vineyards here are full of very old vines.
The vines are not trained, but sit close to the ground in bush style – providing the grapes with protection from the sun – and almost entirely without irrigation. Prats and Familia Castano work with grapes from vines of between 40 and 70 years; and for Castano about three per cent of their vines are more than a century old.
Yields are low on old vines, creating intensity of flavours, but what is most thrilling about these wines is their freshness. One wonders, how is it possible to make such a refreshing style of wine in such a hot climate. High altitude slopes are critical, but then it is down to the varietal selection. “The climate in Yecla is dry,” Castano says, “but monastrell vines are very well adapted to dry weather. It is one of the most resistant varieties, as far as we are aware.” He calls it an “easy going” variety which works well on its own, or blended with merlot, cabernet sauvignon and syrah. It also works with the region’s second most planted grape, garnacha tintorera.
His family’s Castano Monastrell 2013, which would generally be priced at less than US$15, shows some of the grape’s key characteristics. It is spicy and earthy in a slightly rustic way, but has lovely fruit: think loganberries and redcurrants. It is no more than medium-bodied, but all the components including astringency are there, and in perfect balance. It has a silky texture, akin to nebbiolo, and finishes long.
The Castano Coleccion 2011 (priced around US$25) has more obvious oak treatment and darker fruits (blueberry and blackberry) but is still delivers a fresh and invigorating experience. It is hugely food friendly.
Prats’ AlfYnal Iberico Monastrell goes in a slightly different direction (and commands a higher price), being a huge and intense wine that should probably be laid down for a few years. Yet it is still fresh as opposed to heavy, with an extraordinary herbal-floral nose, a marvelous structure, and a long elegant finish.
Disclosure: Samples of the Castano wines tasted for this column were supplied by the vineyard.
Words: 772

Categories: Not home, wine

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