In part 6 of Why go on a wine tour of Spain we will cover the up –and-coming wine region of Montsant and explain why we feel this exceptional wine region is often over-looked when one plans a visit to Catalunya. Please keep reading below why we feel the D.O. Montsant has everything going for it and why many people are beginning to say it produces wines that truly share a unique sense of place…
The D.O. Montsant – Wines with a sense of place
The celebrated winemaking appellation of Montsant has a rich history in grape growing and agriculture. Located only two hours southeast of Barcelona, it is just east of Tarragona, a city that was once the epicenter of the Roman Empire and is now the capital of Catalonia’s southern-most province.
To give you a look at the multifaceted history of this region, we may begin a few hundred years after the Roman reign in Spain when Muslims ruled most of the Iberian Peninsula. Due to the requirements of the Muslim religion, the local market for wine decreased rapidly and people who resided within the county of Priorat were forced to turn to other agricultural crops to makes ends meet. These crops replaced vines on all but a few muros, or ancient rock walls that are still found lining the hillsides of the region. In 1153 the Muslim reign ended in Catalonia with one of their last stands taking place in the town of Siurana, located within the D.O. Montsant on the highest and end-most point of the Muntanyes de Prades that neighbors the Montsant mountain range. It is here where the Queen of the Moors is rumored to have thrown herself to her death rather than accept defeat at the hands of the Christian troops, thereby ending the Moorish rule in the north of Spain.
Once the land of the Montsant/Priorat region had been recovered from the Moors, it became known as “New Catalonia” and a series of monasteries were built in order to bring Christian beliefs back to its inhabitants. In 1194 the first Carthusian monastery was built on the Iberian Peninsula in the town of Scala Dei (meaning “Ladder to God”), located at the foothills of the Montsant mountain range. Once established, this monastery, known as the Carthusian Monastery of Saint Mary of Scala Dei (or “La Cartoixa,” for short), had a leader known as a “prior” who ruled over the territory, known as his “priorato.” The founding of La Cartoixa spearheaded a period of great prosperity. As wine was important for the religious practices of the monks, grape growing increased accordingly and soon so much wine was produced that by the middle of the 14th century more wine was exported than could be consumed locally. Vineyards were the primary crop and prosperity continued to fill the region until the anti-clerical laws of 1820 and 1835 came into place. Founded by a government minister named Mendizábel, these rules were created in order to wrest power from the church. The monastery (and many others in Spain) was soon abandoned as the monks fled for their lives due to the increasing anti-clerical feeling in Spain, spawned from several centuries of repression and taxes at the hands of the church. Scala Dei was finally ransacked and burnt and the land was sold off at auction to families from the region who had interest in the land only.
With the invasion and spread of phylloxera in 1893, the already tenuous economic stability of the region wavered and then crashed. There was yet another mass exodus as the once prosperous culture, based primarily on viticulture, had now come to an end. Following the infestation of phylloxera the region remained relatively quiet for several years. Then the people who stayed behind in their beloved Montsant gradually replanted their land with grape vines and other agricultural products, and oenoculture once again brought prosperity to the region.
Before the D.O. Montsant was founded it was known as the D.O. Tarragona, subzone Falset. Due to the geological and climatic differences between Tarragona and Montsant and because the D.O. Tarragona was known for white wine production and Montsant known for its high-quality reds, Montsant became a separate appellation. Jaume Domenech, the current president of the appellation, spearheaded this campaign and in 2001 the D.O. Montsant became a new appellation designate.
Currently the Montsant appellation is located within the comarca, or county, of Priorat. The comarca Priorat contains two Denominaciones de OrIgen*: the D.O.C. Priorat (which is one of only two D.O.C.s in Spain, after the D.O.C. Rioja), and the D.O. Montsant. The D.O.C. Priorat is geographically represented as a small circular body of land located in the center of the newer D.O. Montsant, which forms a ring around its renowned neighbor.
The D.O. Montsant comprises of approximately 4,700 acres of registered vineyards and, as it is considerably larger than its interior neighbor (Priorat comprises less than 4,000 acres), both its landscape and terroir are much more diverse. Montsant’s soil is a combination of granitic sand and calcareous soil, including limestone, large pebbles, some clay and shards of slate – all of which can be found in varying amounts throughout the appellation. In addition, although the D.O. has a similar climate to that of Priorat, Montsant has two rivers that run through it and they, along with the daily sea breezes that come in off the Mediterranean, provide the appellation with an infinity of microclimates that gives its wines a unique character. Montsant on average also receives more annual sun exposure than Priorat and contains as many of the extremely low-producing, century-old vines that make up the succulent wines so highly sought after in both wine regions.
While 2030 hectares within the D.O. Montsant are now planted with vines, several rules have been established to ensure that Montsant wines retain their unique sense of place. These rules include that all grapes must be grown, produced and bottled within the boundaries of the appellation; the maximum production per hectare cannot exceed 8,000 Kilos/hectare and all new plantings must be approved by the D.O. so that mountainsides are not destroyed and planting rights are not forged. In addition, the only authorized grape varieties that a winery may use to make a red Montsant wine are Garnacha, Mazuelo (a.k.a. Cariñena), Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Merlot and Tempranillo , although only a very small amount of this last variety exists within the appellation. Similarly, the approved white varieties are Garnacha Blanca, Macabeu and Chardonnay. If a winery adheres to these rules they are then granted the privilege of being able to place a label on their bottle that designates it as a D.O. Montsant wine.
Currently there are 48 different wineries in Montsant and 16 villages, of which the oldest are Siurana and Falset. The latter, along with the town of Cornudella, also contains the oldest wineries which are still functioning cooperatives. These are highly worth visiting as they were designed in Modernist style by the architect Cèsar Martinet, a student of the famous Antoní Gaudí. The oldest family-run wineries are those owned by the Joan D’Anguera and the Capafons-Osso families, whose fourth and fifth-generation family members now conduct tours (by appointment only) of their ancient vineyards and hold private tastings of new and back vintages for those few lucky consumers who call ahead. Aside from the “old-guard,” there are also several newer wineries that are placing their names on the international wine scene with their bold reds and innovative whites, some of which include Venus Universal, Mas de l’Abundància, Can Blau, Laurona, Orcella and Etim.
In terms of wine style, the wines from the D.O. Montsant are full of flavor and finesse. True to their terroir, the wines of Montsant reflect “the fragrance of their landscape,” and are ripe with aromas of Mediterranean herbs (including thyme, rosemary and native lavender), exotic spices and black fruit. On the palate the wines are fresh and stunning, with notes of violets, blackberries, red currants, dried figs, sweet spices, toasted wood and subtle minerality.
For the adventurous wine lover, Montsant is an ideal place to visit. In the words of the president of Montsant, “The wines from Montsant are wines with passion because they represent the spirit of the people from this region. While there are close to 50 wineries currently within the D.O., we exist in a healthy state of competition where we all want to make the best wines possible at the best price…we are one great winemaking family that produces wines with identity and wines with a sense of place.”
The best way to soak up the history and taste these amazing wines is by visiting the region and for more information please visit www.nisowinetours.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.