Written by Taylor Cameron / Farrell Distributing
A few years back, San Francisco wine writer, Jon Bonne, released a very influential book called The New California Wine. In his book, Bonne discussed the cyclical nature of wine styles throughout history of California viticulture. In the mid 1990s, many winemakers were chasing ratings & scores from specific wine publications. It can be argued that some wines, mainly from the Napa Valley, were being engineered for a certain palate. While many of these wines can be quite enjoyable, they were typically harvested as late as possible, inoculated with “super yeasts” that can survive in a high alcohol environment, and aged exclusively in new oak barriques. In Bonne’s book he discusses how these practices homogenize the wines and covers up the sense of place that can make a wine truly unique. The good news is that there are a growing number of new producers (and some old) that are searching out cool growing climates and pursuing balance, nuance and terroir. These new California wines are typically higher in acidity and lower in alcohol making them more expressive and fresh than their predecessors.
So what the hell does this have to do with Spain and Portugal you may be asking…I’ll answer that question in a moment. I’ve always considered myself to have a fairly comprehensive understanding of the major wine regions of the world. However, for the past few years I’ve been immersed in wines mainly from France and Italy and have shamefully over looked some of the progression happening in both Spain and Portugal. After a recent tour of the Iberian Peninsula with Ole Imports and Obrigado Vinhos, I am fully aware that same “new California” philosophy of balance and freshness has been simultaneously developing in pockets throughout both countries. With the exception of Galicia, the wet northwestern corner of Spain, there is no shortage of sun and heat during the day making it relatively easy to make big wines that play well on the international wine market of the late 90s and early 2000s. Priorat, in the northeastern corner of Spain, was hardly a house hold name until Alvaro Palacios and crew started receiving huge scores from the press. This led to a proliferation of new D.O.s, such as Terra Alta and Montsant, that were known for powerful red wines. It was in the D.O. of Montsant where I realized that I needed to completely rethink my preconceived notions of what Spanish wine is capable of:
(Picture on the left shows the master minds behind Orto Vins demonstrating biodynamic preparation 500. At Orto Vins, all vineyard work and biodynamic preparations are carried out by hand.)
Montsant is located in the northeastern highland of Spain (or Catalunya depending on who you ask). This relatively young D.O. is often compared to the neighboring Priorat. While the climate, elevation and aspect of the regions are similar, it is the soil types that set the two D.O.s apart. Priorat is famous for its “licorella” slate soils while Montsant is focused on decomposed granitic soil. My experience with the wines of Montsant up until this point had been very one sided. The wine I tasted in the US market had big, fruit driven profiles with high alcohol and often a very apparent presence of new oak. This being my frame of reference, I was completely blown away by the wines of Orto Vins. Joan Assens oversees the viticultural aspects at Orto Vins. He worked closely with Alvaro Palacio for over a decade finally moving onto focus on his passion for biodynamic projects and wines of balance and terroir. Joan’s knowledge and passion for biodynamics are unparalleled. I fully realize that this mode of thinking doesn’t work for everyone but for Orto Vins it seems to be the perfect fit. The proof is in the bottle and I upon first taste I knew we were in for a entertaining and thought-provoking afternoon. Every wine we tasted had a sense of grace and balance. We are still talking about a pretty warm zone here where alcohol levels range from 13.5%-14.5%, but I never perceived them has hot or over blown, but quite the opposite. I was reminded by the entry level wines of cru Beaujolais from a warm vintage while the higher end single cru bottlings took me to Cornas. Instead of being one note Orto Vins has a wide depth of flavor that is centered around a striking minerality and lively acidity. I was also surprised by the purity of the wines. Often times hardcore biodynamic wines can end up on the funkier end of the spectrum bit Orto Vins were pure, stable and focused.
(At Orto Vins, all vineyard work and biodynamic preparations are carried out by hand.)
(Winemaker, Rodri Mendez, walking the group through a truly memorable tasting despite the intermittent rain at Forjas del Salnes in Rias Baixas.)
On the opposite side of the country, in the Rias Baixas sub zone of Val do Salnes, we find at once a tribute to generations past and one of the most relevant and forward leaning producers by the name of Forjas del Salnes. Lets orient ourselves quickly…This estate is located in the northwestern corner of Spain known as Galicia. Some call this part of the country “green” Spain because it receives about 8 times the amount of rain than the rest of the country. The proximity to the Atlantic ocean also moderates temperature creating a long cool growing season. Within Galicia we have the Rias Baixas D.O. which is then broken down into five sub regions. Val do Salnes is the closest sub region to the ocean and therefore the coolest in temperature. Up until the mid 1970’s both indigenous red and white varieties were grown about equally. Reds can be hard to ripen in this climate but the wines were happily consumed by the local population. When the demand for the white variety, Albariño, began to grow globally, many Galician producers abandoned the local red varietals. Albariño was easier to grow and commanded higher prices so it was an easy choice many farmers.
(Picture on left shows home base for Forjas del Salnes is the historic Finca Genoveva located less than one kilometer from the Atlantic. Here we look over the ancient albarino vineyard some of which dates back to 1820.)
Now we cut to Forjas del Salnes and the current proprietor, Rodrigo Mendez. Rodrigo is keeping many of the local red and whites alive in his vineyards. Working closely with the famed Raul Perez, Rodrigo farms some very extreme vineyard sites. He works as naturally as possible in the vineyard and the winery which is a glorified garage. One block of Albariño is located just 20 meters above the high tide mark on the Atlantic coast. The salinity and minerality found in the white wines is unforgettable. Pick your favorite Chablis producer and add in an extreme Atlantic influence and you have the whites of Forjas. Rodrigo’s reds come from Caino, Loureiro (not to be confused with the white variety in Vinho Verde) and Espadeiro. These reds blew my mind. It’s as simple as that. They are reminiscent of top tier Cab Franc from the Loire valley while being completely unique at the same time. The minerality, refreshing acidity and raspberry and black pepper notes were truly impressive. Forjas del Salnes is setting trends by respecting the past and should be recognized for it. This property deserves to be in the same conversation as Clos Rougeard from Saumur-Champigny and Ravenneau from Chablis.
(Picture on the left shows Biodynamic Prep 500 consists of burying manure inside of a cow horn before mixing with water and applying to the vineyard. This practice promotes vitality and balance.)
Next time we will cross into Portugal for “The New Iberian Peninsula Part 2” where we will discuss the polarizing soil types of the Douro and the effects whole cluster fermentation has on thick skinned native grape varieties. We’ll also explore the world of Arinto. Stay tuned!
Taylor Bio – He was first introduced to the world of fine wine by family members who had just returned from a sabbatical in Australia. After graduating from UVM he made the snowboarder’s pilgrimage to Lake Tahoe. With Tahoe as a home base, Taylor started exploring the west coast wine regions from Santa Barbara to Napa and even into the Willamette Valley and eastern Washington. During this time Taylor jumped into the deep end of the Wine and Spirit Education Trust which he stuck with all the way through the Diploma program. Next stop was Seattle where Taylor received a crash course in distribution and small production old world wines at a boutique importer. After five years on the west coast it was time to head back east. Taylor took a job with the esteemed Michael Skurnik Wines where the next four years he “pounded the pavement” in Manhattan and worked with some of the city’s most exciting restaurants. Taylor is now back in Vermont and is applying his studies, experiences and vision to the fine wine portfolio at FDC.