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Assumptions versus Reality: What is DO Montsant

Montsant Vines-1-2This past weekend was a whirlwind of activity for Catavino, as we shot about the wine region of Montsant for 3 days of intense wine tasting and sightseeing. It was approximately 4 years ago when we first visited Montsant, and having only made handful of trips back to the region over the years, we were both shocked by how much we learned this time around, not to mention how much wine its possible to taste in such a short period of time!

Our goal was simply to immerse ourselves, and with the exception of one wine from the Priorat, we drank Montsant, breathed Montsant and nibbled on many delicious treats from Montsant. One might even go so far as to say that we literally infused this region’s essence through our veins and into our minds so that we may share each and every detail with you at: catavino.net/montsant over the coming days!

But first, I want to talk about a very important lesson that hit home for both of us regarding the subject of identity and self-awareness. Our adventures took place in the Comarca of Priorat, where we experienced Montsant to its finest. Sounds a bit confusing, doesn’t it? No worries, because we were too! So allow me to explain.

DOCa Priorat and DO Montsant are both in the comarca, or political region, of Priorat. In 1954, the DOCa Priorat was established taking its name from the Comarca Priorat. This region was based upon a very unique area where the soil is known as Llicorella, or what you might call schist. The entire area of the Priorat wine region is made up of this same schistous soil, and consequently, the wines have some commonality in style. It is also due to a few historic events in the wine world in the early 90’s that the DOCa Priorat rose to fame and thus spurred the surrounding lands to try and share the glory.

In 2002, the region of Montsant stepped into the picture and became more than just a subzone of the region DO Tarragona, claiming its independence. The why and how of it I won’t get into right now, but basically this act created a C shaped region around DOCa Priorat that is composed of various soils(4main soils to be exact) and hilly landscapes. When all was said and done, and the region was formally recognized as DO Montant, most people jumped to the conclusion that because DOCa Priorat’s land is considered the “best” land in the area, Montsant was simply taking advantage of the “leftovers” or residual terroir. Additionally,  as Montsant was only classified as a ‘DO’ while Priorat held the same ‘DOCa’ fame as Rioja, then logically, the wines are inferior in some way. The baby brother syndrome was thus created, giving Montsant the the reputation of the little brother who could never measure up to his big brother’s fame.

I myself subscribed to this idea, that is until this week. Having only 54 wineries in the region, of which we tasted approximately half, and both Gabriella and I now firmly believe that Montsant deserves more credit than any of us have given it. In my mind, what makes a region’s wines great are the things that set it apart from others, and Montsant has plenty to call its own.

Quickly a few points:

  • Acidity and Alcohol – Montsant is hot, very hot, and wines without any effort reach alcohol levels of 14, 15, 16,+ percent, which is generally considered overwhelming to most of us for a red table wines alcohol. But in truth we had trouble finding the alcohol in the majority of Montsant wines. The wines were incredibly well balanced with a freshness that never failed to amaze us both. Huge rich natural acidities, and high alcohol levels, led ironically, to words like “elegant”, “nuanced” and “subtle” written in my notebook. This balance is something that Priorat does not share in the same way, and is something very unique in my mind to Montsant’s wines.
  • White Wines –  I love white Grenache, but I was stunned to see so much of it, and so often elaborated in such unique and subtle ways. Generally, these wines did have large alcohol levels, but they were perfumey, full of layers, minerals and dramatic to drink. Though there were several that had yet to achieve a good balance, overall I think this region has loads of potential for producing white wines that are unique and exciting.
  • Carignan/Samsó/Mazuelo – Whatever you call it, it has been  considered a useless variety. Jancis Robinson derides it in the Oxford Companion of Wine, while several others push for its uprooting. I too might have fallen in that camp until I tasted several mono-varietal Carignan wines from Montsant. When treated with care, this varietal can take center stage, and should! Please watch the video at the end of this post to learn more about this varietal.

So at this point, neither Gabriella or I believe that Montsant should be looked at as the younger brother of DOQa Priorat, but rather more of a  fraternal twin. Both regions have a common history of origin and similar upbringings, but they are very independent in both style and flavor. Each one has a uniqueness that should not be overlooked, and for us, it is without a doubt that Montsant can one day be an equal to Priorat. It will take time and patience, while it discovers its identity, but it can happen.

Stay tuned to Catavino this week, along with our micro site: www.catavino.net/montsant to learn more about this magical region.


Ryan Opaz

Alfredo Arribas – Portal del Montsant from ryan and gabriella opaz on Vimeo.

Alfredo Arribas tells us why he chose Carignan for his top wine.

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