Hospice du Rhone Seminar Series: Why Spain (still) Rocks!

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The Hospice du Rhone combines its big tastings, lunches and auction with four key seminars that highlight important facets of Rhone grapes from the new and old world. This year brought a number of important new discoveries and significant developments in the old world and juxtaposed them with two of the new world’s top winemakers.

The Spain seminar focused on a selection of wines brought in to the United States by importer Eric Soloman. Rhone grapes are generally associated with, well, France’s Rhone valley. But in actual fact, two of the most important Rhone grapes originated in Spain: Garnacha (Grenache) and Monastrell (Mourvedre).

Spain has come to be known as a country making ‘new world’ style wines largely because of the influence of Robert Parker. I have to admit that I have often viewed Spain this way despite its important tradition of wine making. Outside of Sherry, Vega Sicilia, and the occasional traditionalist Rioja producer, most of my experiences have been with big bold fruity new world style fruit bombs with lots of oak. This seminar taught me that I am missing out on some very traditional, very serious wines, that every wine geek should seek out. The seminar focused on high altitude sites and the revisionist embrace in Spain of non-wood vessels, including amphora.

Naturalist Grenache from Metrida

The most exciting producer of the tasting (and indeed the entire festival) was Bodegas Jimenez-Landi. Jimenez-Landi is located in Mentrida, a region just southwest of Madrid in the foothills of the Gredos Mountain Range (Spain is the most mountainous non-Alpine country in Europe). Here you will find the highest Grenache vineyards in the world sitting at 700-1000m above sea level on both granitic and slate and clay soils. The vines are upwards of 70 years old. Winemaker Daniel Gomez Jiménez-Landi explained that he actually seeks vineyards that are not south facing to ensure the grapes do not ripen too quickly or too far. With the higher elevations and cooler exposure, these wines are extremely elegant, fresh and pretty – something I haven’t experienced in Grenache outside of the Chateau Rayas projects. All this makes sense considering Daniel’s view that Grenache is the Pinot Noir of the south. High elevation, old vines, and less hot sun exposure ensure that the wines have minerality, which Daniel views as essential for any great Grenache.

Old Grenache Vines at Jimenez-Landi

In a previous interview in the Irish Times, Daniel explained his view of and relationship to most Spanish wine: “Spain lost its way with wines. We had years of over-extracted, oaky, jammy wines. That is not our style. We are part of a new wave, people who don’t like new oak, and big extracted wines – and we are slowly taking hold, but it will take time.”

Jimenez-Landi not only uses a biodynamic approach to vineyard management, but is quite naturalist in their winemaking, using 100% stem inclusion, minimal sulpher and clay amphora or large barrel fermentation vessels. Daniel Started this project out of university (he is still in his 20’s) and is the only winemaker doing something this serious with the old vine material in Mentrida.

The wines were stunning, both for what they managed to achieve with the difficult grape Grenache and for the sheer virtuosity of terroir they display.

The 2010 Ataulfos Garnacha possessed an intellectually engaging beauty as uncommon as it is inspiring. It is impossible to leave this wine alone – earth, stems, light red berry fruit – and all with a textural lightness and translucent colour that belies almost every other Grenache on earth. The only other Grenache being made this way is by Chateau Rayas, at three times the price. In the end, you really need to drink both as each is a profound expression of its terroir. Excellent+.

The 2010 El Reventon Garnacha was deeper and more intense, but remained a restrained and elegant wine. This is a more mineral driven wine, with a profound depth of flavour, including spices and florals like lavender. Excellent to Excellent+.

These wines are made in miniscule quantities (about 1000 bottles of each per vintage), and are very difficult to find. But if you do, make no mistake that these are amongst the very best Grenache’s in the world and deserve a place amongst Spain’s greatest vinous achievements. At $70 a bottle, that’s a steal.

Old School Monastrell

While the Jimenez-Landi wines were my wines of the entire event (and probably the year), I also tasted an extremely interesting Mourvedre from Casa Castillo, a winery with a very long tradition located in Jumilla. Founded in 1870 by French vintners fleeing phyloxera, the winery eventually fell into disuse, even becoming a rosemary farm in the 1940’s. Revived in 1985 by the Nemesio family.

The soils here are sandy and the 700-800m altitude makes the grapes late ripening. Jumilla is actually one of the few regions that successfully resisted phyloxera (largely because its sandy soils were hostile to the louse), and as such the Mourvedre vines are actually planted on ungrafted rootstock – as such Casa Castillo’s Mourvedre is one of the best examples of pure genetic Monastrell in Spain.

The 2006 Pie Franco Monastrell was full of minerals and char and very classically Mourvedre in its full expression. Yet, the wine is elegant, lifted, fresh and has amazing acidity. The minerality throughout the wine is fascinating. Excellent.

The 2009 Monastrel (80%) with Garnacha/Syrah (20%) Las Gravas was less exciting, though still a solid wine. Roasted meat, toast, dark cherries and richly extracted. There is yet acid and minerals, so it has some interest. It is not my style of wine, though it is an excellent Monastrell. VG+.

Priorat


Priorat is now the darling of the U.S. press, and its prices show accordingly. We tasted through four leading Priorats (including one very rare white Priorat) and the wines were quite impressive, having tons of character and yet restraint (unlike a number of other wines from Priorat). The wines in Priorat – a region that Pliny the Elder considered made some of the greatest red wines in the world – are nearly all high altitude wines. Eric Soloman also made the argument that each of the villages in Priorat should be viewed as its own Cru to emphasize each Cru’s distinctive terroir.

Priorat’s soils are mostly slate, and many of the vines are very old. The La Conreria d’Scala Dei 2011 Garnacha Blanca Les Brugueres was made from 100+ year old vines and offered big orchard fruit such as white peach, along with minerals. The wine yet also had great acid and was incredibly delicious. A rare and exciting wine – I wish we would see a bit more white Priorat in North America (most of it is sold to restaurants in Spain). Excellent.

Bodegas Mas Alta is making some impressive wines in Priorat, particularly given their focus on minerality, modest extraction and neutral fermentation vessels. The 2009 Garnacha (70%) / Carignan (25%) / Cabernet (5%) “Artigas” is grown in north-facing vineyards on slate soils, the 90-year old vines are dry-farmed and massal selected. Grown at 750-1350 feet – this was filled with black fruits, minerals, and a massively dense structure with a lot of tannin. A good wine that needs time. Excellent.

The 2009 Carignan (60%) / Garncha (40%) La Creu Alta was cherry, blackberry mineral driven wine with intense chalky tannins. An impressive wine that also needs time but is not overly rich. Excellent.

The Clos I Terrasses 2009 Clos Erasmus was the rarest and most desired wine at the tasting, but I found it overly ripe, with a pruney, grapey nose that was almost port-like. The wine is picked between ripe and over ripe and lies on the skins until it is a little soft and then it sees a neutral cold maceration. The plums and dark cherries remind me of Portuguese wine and this is one of the deepest, darkest and most intense expressions of Grenache I’ve ever had. It has structure and acid, but it is extremely intense and somewhat abrasive. I’d say there is not much elegance in the wine right now, and it seems to be in an awkward phase. I imagine it will change considerably with age. Very Good+.

Conclusions

This seminar didn’t change my opinion on the majority of wines coming out of Spain, but it made me aware of a serious Renaissance going on with high altitude sites and new fermentation techniques. It proved that there are more producers in Spain than I thought who are worth paying attention to, and introduced me to what will likely be my winery discovery of the year. All in all, an impressive seminar.

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