By Drew Matich
Compared to some of you, I’m a newbie to the grape…I drank my first wine, a 1997 Bordeaux (1997 Chateau Chevrol Bel Air, from Lalande de Pomerol), during a trip to Paris in 2000. But a passion has emerged over the last 9 years, and over those years I found myself gravitating towards the wines of Spain when looking for something special. Between Rioja, Ribera del Duero, Jumilla, and others, it seemed as if I could always find a great wine for every occasion; and often with a significantly better sticker price than could be found right up the road from here in Napa Valley for similar quality.
In 2002, the wine buyer at Art Escudellers (a fantastic Barcelona crafts outlet doubling as a wine store) pounded the table about the wines of the Priorat, a remote area about two hours to the south, so I brought a little home…a couple bottles of ’99 Clos Mogador. I hadn’t “evolved” to the point of making notes at the time, but it was the first wine in the journey that enlightened me to the possibilities.
I hadn’t yet learned to put it into words, but there was definitely something other than fermented grape juice going on here.
Cut to 2009…and the planning for a summer trip to the Mediterranean anchored by a 12-day cruise, culminating in a 4-day stay in Barcelona. And knowing the geography, the trip would not have been complete without a day trip to the Priorat. A Google search uncovered Paddy Mannion, a jovial Irishman who conducts bike-centric wine tours all over Catalunya under the banner of El Moli Tours (highly recommended), who introduced me to Stefan Lismond, his associate in the Priorat.
Between our passions for music and wine, Stefan and I had a lot to talk about from the start. We started with the wine. In addition to his principal role as an international ambassador (and export manager) for several different Priorat and Penedes producers, he markets his own Cava (called Can Festis), mainly to his homeland of Belgium (more information on Stefan and his activities can be found at www.festis.cat). Stefan picked us up at the end of a 2-hour train ride from Barcelona to Falset, the commercial center of the Priorat. Immediately upon setting out from the train station, I was struck by the steep, rolling hills marked by gorgeous terraced vineyards.
Although wine production in the Priorat goes back almost a thousand years, origins of the Priorat as a modern wine producing powerhouse are attributed to the pioneering efforts of Rene Barbier, Alvaro Palacios, and Jose Luis Perez. Their bellwether wines—Clos Mogador, Les Terrases, and Mas Martinet, are the yardsticks by which the Priorat wines are measured and our first stop was Mas Martinet.
Upon our arrival, we were greeted by Jose Perez’ daughter Sara, who serves as winemaker (and resident philosopher) for several of their offerings, chief among them Els Escourcons (a Granache/Syrah blend), Clos Martinet, and Cami Pesseroles (the later two consisting of varying blends of Granache, Carignan, and Syrah). Before the tasting, she took us up to their highest vineyard, which is among the highest in the Priorat. Unlike many Napa wines, which from my observations have turned into products of oak and chemistry more than reflections of fruit and terroir, I was quite taken by the apparent simplicity of Sara’s winemaking philosophy. Each vineyard consists of varying amounts of Grenache, Carignan, and in some cases, Syrah (To the right is a picture of the terraced vineyard at Mas Martinet). And the resulting wines consist of the same, in the same proportions. This was a bit unorthodox to me, so I must have asked her about this 3 or 4 different ways (in both English and rusty Spanish), but the bottom line is this: Sara’s wines faithfully reflect the grapes of the vineyard in any given year. There are no winemaker games played to “optimize” or equalize the wine across different vintages. The grapes are blended, fermented, and aged as they come out of the vineyard.
And from our tastings, the results were amazing.
The ’06 Martinet was my favorite, and hit the glass with an almost black color, fading just a bit to dark purple at the edges. I got some roses and dark fruit on the nose, which got a little more pronounced with some air. In the mouth, it was the definition of balance, with blackberry and sour cherry up front, and then adding some old world leather and minerality, and a touch of licorice on the finish. Didn’t really taste the oak with this one. Tannins were pretty subtle and in harmony with the other flavors…medium-full bodied, and very low on the pucker-meter.
The only downside from the Mas Martinet tasting was that they didn’t ship their wines from the winery, and it has taken some effort to find them in the US (and when I did, they were pricey). On the merits, Martinet wines are well worth seeking out…they’re intense, yet balanced, with layers of complex flavors.
After a 3-hour Catalonian lunch in the village of Gratallops (marked by 4 courses, 3 wines, and a €165 tab for 3), we moved on to our next stop, which was the pleasant surprise of the trip. Stefan explained that we would be going from a leading Priorat winemaker to a “garage project” with which he’s involved. Located in the Priorat village of Vilella Baixa (Catalan for “lower village), this garage band wine is called Lo Givot, and their just-released 2006 vintage is only their 9th. And like most of the Priorat wines I’ve tasted to date, it’s pretty incredible. More traditional winemaking is employed here, with blending done after aging to ensure consistency across the vintages. Lo Givot is primarily Granache (33%) and Carignan (32%), with some Cabernet Sauvignon (25%), and a bit of Syrah (10%). Stefan grabbed 2006 and 2004 bottles, and took us just outside the “Celler Del Pont” to a 2000 year old Roman bridge, where we had what was easily the best wine tasting I’ve ever had.
(The photo to the left is Vilella Baixa Priorat with Lo Givot Vines In Foreground and the photo to the right is the 2000 Year Old Roman Bridge Outside Lo Givot Winery)
The 2006 vintage was terrific, but the best is yet to come with this one. The 2004 was a barn-burner. Deep purple in the glass, the nose was absolutely lovely right out of the bottle (perhaps due to the extra Cabernet?)…blackberries, currants, with the warmth of a little smoke and oak. And maybe even a wisp of orange peel. Great. The initial attack on the palate was similar to the Martinet…quite a bit of blackberry and cherry, adding some very subtle oak, spice, and minerals leading up to a yummy licorice finish. Couldn’t even taste the 14% alcohol.
Thanks in no small part to Stefan’s efforts, Lo Givot can be found at quite a few outlets in the USA. I found a case of the 2004 vintage via internet at Sokolin Wines in NYC, but as an offering of the omnipresent US importer Eric Solomon, it’s fairly easily found. Thank goodness.
This part of Spain, especially Vilella Baixa, was a life changer and I would love to come back to experience a harvest at the very least. And somewhere in the future…a summer home?
EDITORS NOTE: Perhaps the most exciting event of Drew's trip was when he proposed to Sue at Trevi Fountain in Rome. She said yes which spared Drew any public embarrasment and they will be marrying in a few months. Pulling The Cork is wondering what wine will be served?
Drew Matich is a producer on prime time television shows which, according to my midwestern sensibilities, makes him a Hollywood insider. I wonder if he can get me a guest spot on Entourage? Though he only discovered his passion for wine in 2000 he has been on a fast track of learning and tasting and he seems to favor Bordeaux in his cellar. We are excited that Drew has agreed to contribute to Pulling The Cork and we can't wait to read his future contributions.