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Montsant on the Map

Near Priorat, Spain's newest wine region is making its mark; four producers lead the way

Bruce Schoenfeld
Posted: February 24, 2003

The recent spate of quality wines is attracting outside investment.
Cutting-edge dining on Spain's Mediterranean coast

The oldest Syrah vineyard in Spain, planted in a field outside the Catalonian village of Darmos in the province of Tarragona, is part of the country's newest wine appellation.

In November 2001, the Spanish government carved the Montsant Denominación de Origen out of the vast wine region of Tarragona, which sprawls along the Mediterranean coast south and west of Barcelona and inland toward Zaragoza. This past summer, Montsant labels first started appearing on wine bottles. By next year, the appellation will appear on official maps of the region.

Through most of the last century, Tarragona was best-known for cheap red wine, much of it sweet. But the Anguera family, winery owners for generations and planters of the aforementioned Syrah vineyard in 1980, had higher hopes.

History is a palpable presence in these spare foothills, where the Anguera family's vines are bordered by 900-year-old olive trees with roots as thick as a man's arm. Grapes have been grown here as far back as anyone can remember. "My grandfather made this path in the 1950s," says Joan Anguera, striding down a hand-placed stone walkway.

Joan Anguera, 24, and his brother, Josep, 27, own and run Bodegas Joan d'Anguera, a winery that has existed since 1820, passed down through the generations. The winery sold its fermented juice in bulk to the local population, which was trying to eke out an existence on the hardscrabble land, until 1984, when the Anguera brothers' father, Josep, decided to bottle the wine. The decision seemed like folly at the time.

A few years later, René Barbier, Álvaro Palacios and others arrived in the neighboring Priorat region, which bears more resemblance in geography and climate to Montsant than Montsant does to the rest of Tarragona. The newcomers' hard work recuperating a fading vineyard made Priorat wines among the most exciting and expensive in Spain. They are called pioneers; what then is Anguera, who was laboring to create an industry almost single-handedly a full decade before? "A visionary," says his youngest son.

Josep Anguera recognized that good land can make good wine. So did the market. By bottling his wines unoaked and drinkable young, he managed to turn what had been subsistence agriculture into a viable business. Young Josep and Joan were raised in the thick of it, learning alongside their father. When Priorat came into prominence in the mid-1990s, they weren't far behind. They graduated from unaged vino joven to oak-aged wines in 1998. When the elder Josep died of cancer in 2000, the wines were on the cusp of greatness.

Now the brothers make 2,000 cases of Finca l'Argata, a four-grape blend, and about 600 cases of El Bugader, which is mainly Syrah, at a winery whose total output is around 5,000 cases. They're renovating the old winery with the proceeds of sales in markets from New Zealand to Switzerland. The reception area remains unfinished, but a portrait of their father hangs in a place of honor.

Montsant is a relatively small appellation that wraps around Priorat like a shell around an oyster, blanketing it on three sides and most of the fourth. Its 116 square miles of territory are home to just 28 wine producers, many of whom make minute quantities of wine. In all, about 4,500 acres of vines are under cultivation, with most of that acreage planted to Cariñena, Garnacha and, increasingly, Syrah, along with some old-vine Tempranillo on the appellation's warmer, flatter southern rim.

As in Priorat, the steep hillsides of the area have an austere beauty, but the flatlands below evoke the dusty poverty of central Spain. The soils of the two areas are somewhat different, the gravel and schist of the Priorat contrasting with the llicorella slate and sand of Montsant.

Still, the Montsant appellation's gerrymandered configuration is more a result of Priorat's reluctance to share its riches than it is of any geologic or climatic separation. "People in Priorat think the land is sacred," Joan Anguera says. "They don't want anyone new to enter, and that's really fine with us. This is other land, other history, other grapes."

Some of that history is unlikely, bordering on bizarre. One intriguing story is found up the road from Falset in the village of Capçanes, about 10 minutes' drive south and a few hundred feet higher. An old cooperative there now turns out half a million bottles of wine every year. At the high end, the $50 Capçanes Cabrida, an old-vine Garnacha from an array of local growers, rivals much of the output from Priorat-and the rest of Spain-in cellar potential.

By 1991, the Capçanes cooperative gave up on even bulk wine and was selling grapes in bulk to the Torres family, which turns out world-class bottlings from the Penedès appellation. Then Angel Teixada, a winemaker without wine to make, decided to make 5,000 bottles of his own Cabernet Sauvignon to stay busy.

Somehow, members of Barcelona's Jewish community came across the wine. They told co-op president Francisco blanch that if he would produce it as a kosher wine, with a rabbi supervising, they would buy the entire output. This entailed an enormous investment, including the installation of new tanks and the paying of rabbinical fees that totaled thousands of dollars. But the village was losing its laborers because it provided no work, and this was a business opportunity. blanch accepted, and sold the co-op members on the idea.

Before long, Capçanes was making 10,000 bottles a year of kosher wine called Flor de Primavera. "Most people in Spain think we still do only kosher wine," says Jurgen Wagner, one of three enologists at Capçanes and now the export manager, as well.

And kosher wine is all Capçanes might still be doing if Wagner, a German national who was working at Clos Mogador in Priorat, hadn't come across the story of Flor de Primavera's success in a local newspaper and gone on to meet Eric Solomon, an American importer with strong ties to the region (he's married to Daphne Glorian, owner and winemaker of the Priorat wine Clos Erasmus). When Solomon asked Wagner if he'd come across any interesting wines, Wagner mentioned Capçanes.

Solomon tasted the kosher Cabernet and was startled by its quality. Teixada made him two non-kosher wines at different price levels, Mas Donis and Costers del Gravet. Solomon sold every bottle of both and came back asking for more. Now Capçanes is making a million bottles annually, and selling most of that internationally. "Big business," says blanch, as surprised as anyone at the result.

Capçanes and others around them are making serious wines without positioning them as the next cult favorites. It's a philosophy that seems exactly right for these unpredictable times. "What's important to us is to make our own wines, in our own style," says Josep Serra. He's the talented enologist at Agricola Falset-Marçà, the cooperative of the town of Falset, and his best wines are marketed under the name Étim, which means "roots" in Catalan. "A few producers are trying to make copies of Priorat wines," he says. "But only a few."

Slowly, the reputation of Montsant wines is spreading, both abroad and at home. Falset is the political capital of Priorat, but also the center of life for Montsant's winemakers. To the Angueras, who grew up in a town where families are identified by the name of their house, Falset's latticework of a half-dozen streets makes it the equivalent of the big city.

On any afternoon, one or more of the top Priorat winemakers are likely to found at El Cairat, the best restaurant for miles around (see "The New Mediterranean," page 155), eating Juli Mestre's postmodern food and entertaining an importer or a writer. They're still the local celebrities; the likes of the Angueras, Blanch and Serra slip in unnoticed, or almost. "Good wine," said Mestre, nodding toward a bottle of Étim when Serra walked in recently.

But Montsant won't remain so humble forever. Already, outsiders are arriving. Europvin-Falset is a joint venture between Christopher Cannan, an Englishman based in Bordeaux whose Europvin S.A. exports wines to the United States, among other markets, and Priorat's Barbier, who owns 10 percent of the company and makes the wines. Based in a striking, two-color building just off the main road inside the Falset city limits, Europvin-Falset is a harbinger of things to come.

From the 1999 vintage, its first release, Europvin-Falset made 50,000 bottles of Laurona, a five-grape blend with more Cariñena than anything else, and 6,000 more of Laurona Seleccio de 6 Vinyes, a reserve-level wine comprising 60 percent Cariñena and 40 percent Garnacha. There's a bit more of both wines from 2000.

The grapes come from the better growers of the Falset region, as negotiated through the cooperative. "We started because nobody but cooperatives was making wine in Montsant, and the cooperatives weren't making particularly good wine, though some of them have started to," explains Cannan, who is in Falset as frequently as twice a month these days. "We saw the potential."

Perhaps because he is an outsider, Cannan doesn't understand the need to make a strong differentiation between Montsant and Priorat. "They feel they shouldn't use Priorat as a locomotive for Montsant, which I find a bit strange," Cannan says. "Politically, Montsant is part of Priorat, anyway. It's only in wine terms that they're different."

Indeed, acknowledging contiguity might make sense when looking at maps spread out on a table in Bordeaux, but in Montsant the distinction is real. When the Angueras uncork the 1998 El Bugader and the nose of black fruit begins to rise from the glass, they take a pride of ownership that transcends their small finca.

"The soil, the terrain, the variety, our work in the vineyard," Josep Anguera explains, ticking off the attributes on his fingers. "But mostly, the terrain. This is Montsant."

Michael Finucane
Dublin, Ireland —  August 30, 2012 7:58am ET
I couldn't agree more with the above. I holiday in Catalonia every year and talk with some of the wine merchants in the area. Montsant, as well as Priorat, are making some of the most exciting and complex wines around. Alcohol levels are high (often 14-14.5%) but the wines exude quality. Not sure about ageing potential yet as I have only been trying these wines for a couple of years but what I have had is delicious. Plus (as if you needed more!) they are nowhere near as expensive as many of the top Riojas and Riberas.

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