Vintaix Magnum Rave

Do not be confused; I do my best not to praise extravagantly any wines, and I hope I am not starting to lose my head. It is rather a wine tasting I attended recently, which its organizers, Vintaix, call Rave. It was not a wild party, as the name may suggest, but certainly informal, with live jazz and fluid protocol, and ably led by Miguel Figini.

The first wine of the night was a DO Cava: Castellroig Brut Nature Gran Reserva 2005. This Cava was explained by its winemaker, Marcel Sabaté, who stressed his obsession with terroir and its combination with a given grape variety.

The wine, as a Gran Reserva should, showed developed secondary aromas of bread and croissant, together with a very fine, well integrated and persistent bubble. It comes from a coupage of old-vine Xarel.lo and Macabeu, with no less of 36 months aging. This is not the ideal Cava for a refreshing single glass, but rather a great wine to pair with a full meal.

The second wine was a Petrea blanc 2003 barrel fermented white from the Mas Comtal winery, DO Penedès. It has mainly Chardonnay with a dash of Xarel.lo, with 10 months of Hungarian oak. The colour was a developed lemon yellow, not surprising since it was from the 2003 vintage. In the nose it was understandably closed at the beginning, but with time it developed aromas of butter, white fruits and a hint of wood, with some mineral notes at the end. In the mouth it confirmed the aromas detected; it was unctuous, still fresh and with a long finish. It showed the master hand of one of the leading Penedès winemakers, the late and lamented Joan Milà, who died prematurely last year.

The first red came from DO Empordà and the Espelt winery. Terres Negres 2007 is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Carinyena, aged twelve months in French oak. Deep cherry colour, with the oak evident in the nose, along with ripe fruit. In the mouth it is well structured, somewhat oaky, with enough tannins and acidity to keep for several years, when it will probably show greater balance.

Signes 2008 is a DO Catalunya red from Bodegas Puiggrós, in the town of Òdena. It is composed of Sumoll and Garnatxa coming from 60+ years vines. Sumoll is a local grape variety that all but disappeared and is now being revived by a handful of wineries, using modern winemaking techniques hitherto never available to Sumoll wines. The old vines, still grown as bushes, are harvested manually and the grapes are collected in small boxes. Aged in French oak for ten months. Deep red, with aromas of toast and spices, with kaleidoscopic evolution in the glass after a few minutes of swirling. In the mouth also show up citric fruits and licorice; excellent balance. Explaines by its enthusiastic winemaker, Josep Puiggrós, it shows how Sumoll wines can be in the future.

Moving now to DO Montsant, we sampled Dosterras 2007 from Celler Dosterras. It comes 100% from 100+ years old Garnatxa vines, harvested manually in 10 kg boxes and aged for sixteen months in French oak. Intense red, with fine legs, there is black fruit and minerality and flower aromas; with a very smooth mouth, freshness and an excellent balance with the wood notes.

The last red was one of the DOQ Priorat pioneers, Clos Martinet 2004 from Mas Martinet. As Magí Batllevell explained, it has 40 % Garnatxa, and 20 % each of Carinyena, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah, aged in French oak for sixteen months. Very deep red with few signs of evolution. As for aromas: very mineral, balsamic, black fruits, coffee and toast notes. It fills the mouth, with still noticeable acidity, noble tannins, velvety, long lasting.

After the tasting I had the opportunity to discuss with Silvia Naranjo some of the comments I made on the Guide of Catalan Wine in a previous post. An appropriate end to the Rave, an experience I hope to repeat soon.



Guides and ratings

Jay Miller, the Wine Advocate specialist covering the wines of Oregon, Washington, Spain, Australia, South America, Greece and Vintage Ports, is in Catalonia for a much awaited tasting visit. In ten days he will sample some 1.300 wines, mainly red and Cava.

Given the Wine Advocate’s influence, this visit has stirred considerable excitement in winemaking circles. Up to now, Catalan wines reviewed by Robert Parker or Jay Miller had been tasted mainly in the US, without first hand knowledge of vineyards, wineries and winemakers. It is to be expected that this year’s ratings will benefit from this deeper evaluation, which is the same used for other leading winemaking regions.

Oriol Guevara, head of INCAVI, the Catalan winegrowing official Institute, Jay Miller and Pancho Campo MW

What do I expect from a wine guide? Apart from the baseline, independence and tasting competence, there are other things: 
  • An evaluation based solely on the wine quality as evaluated in the tasting 
  • A clear description, in the book or in the webpage, of the rating criteria: what is included and what not, and what weight is given to each part 
  • Some kind of description (this might be the toughest point) of what is the ideal wine or gold standard of the tasting panel.
 Let us elaborate on these points.
Why this focus on tasting quality? What I want from a guide is to tell me what I cannot see, smell or taste unless I buy the bottle. There are some features of the wine that are readily available, mainly its price, appearance, overall data about the terroir. Others, like the grape varieties used, are normally not difficult to find. It is good to have this info next to the rating of a wine, but this should not influence the ratings. To include in the ratings other items like bottle type or label design is contentious, as a given label design may be loved by some and loathed by others.

It follows easily that well explained rating criteria must be available. What are the factors that have greater weight? Color? Aroma? Taste? Complexity of aromas? Intensity of aromas? Bottle color?

The third point is more difficult to explain. Most professional wine tasters, due to place of birth, personal and professional experience, and personal taste, will probably have, maybe unconsciously, a mental model of what the perfect wine should be like. For instance, there are many mentions of “parkerised wines”. It is indeed difficult, but some kind of open, honest self analysis may yield a description of the mental model used and so enable readers to decide whether it fits with their own.

This can explain some ratings that otherwise may look surprising. An example was when, some years ago, a tasting in Paris of two groups of similarly priced Rioja and Penedès reds showed a clear advantage for the Penedès wines, opposed to ratings in Spanish guides. The general explanation was that, as most Penedès reds include French grape varieties, they were closer to the gold standard of French critics involved in the tastings, while Spanish guides have the Rioja gold standard.

All this is relevant because some weeks ago the third edition of the Guide to Catalonia Wines (Guia de Vins de Catalunya) reached the bookshops.

The GCW is based on blind tasting panels and gives a lot of info for every wine rated: winery, grape varieties, method of grape harvest and winemaking details, price range, main commercial channel (supermarkets, wine shops, restaurants; there is in Catalonia limited overlap between the offerings of supermarkets and wine shops), a small picture of the bottle, suggested food pairings, and highlights of the tasting notes.

More than 2200 wines have been evaluated; in spite of the absence of a handful of significant wineries, the GCW gives a good overview of the diversity of the Catalan wine range. Wines are arranged by DO, and further organized by type (young white, oaked white, young red, oaked red, young sparkling,…), ordered by descending rating. Most of the information is with icons, so the language barrier is not an issue.

One of the most interesting parts is a general comment on Catalan wine under the name L’ull de l’ocell, the bird’s eye; the guide authors, Silvia Naranjo and Jordi Alcover, discuss the main risks and opportunities in a very open and constructive way; alas, it is in Catalan (or Spanish), as the rest of the guide.

What about the ratings? Although some complain that in several cases the lesser wines of some wineries get more points than their older and supposedly better siblings, I tend to consider that as part of the error inherent to the blind tasting processes and the comparatively short track record of the tasting panels as a team, although I would advise the user to be aware of this fact.

My main concern about this guide is that the rating rules are not published anywhere I can see, and sometimes it appears as if price and grapes used influence the ratings. As explained above, I need to know the rules and the standard against which wines are rated to get full benefits from a wine guide.

All in all, the GCW gives a fair and quite comprehensive view of Catalan wines, and can be an excellent introduction tool. Let us see, in some months’ time, how the ratings compare with those of the Wine Advocate.


DO Costers del Segre: continental wines

Costers del Segre is a rather geographically disperse DO with different zones that have three main things in common: its location on the basin of the Segre river (Costers del Segre may be translated as Banks of the Segre river): the soils, largely calcareous and with a healthy dose of sand; and the comparatively greater distance from the sea, offering better conditions for cold climate varieties. This is the more “Continental” of the Catalan DOs.

There are seven sub zones (see map) that show some difference in terms of height and climate. Raimat and Segriá are the ones with more continental climate, with extreme differences of temperature between day and night and foggy winters. Les Garrigues, Valls del Riu Corb and Urgell  are drier and sunnier, more adequate for strong red wine but with a winery with excellent whites: L'Olivera. Artesa de Segre and Pallars Jussà are starting to climb the slopes of the Pyrenean foothills, with colder and longer winters; excellent conditions for some Central European grape varieties.

The short-term history of Costers del Segre is chiefly determined by Raimat, a very large winery owned by the Raventos family of Codorniu fame that invested heavily in the lands and winery a century ago. Still now, Raimat is the largest operation by far, focused on high volume production, with mechanized processes like grape harvest. Another historic player is Castell del Remei, a winery built at the end of the 19th century in the style of a French Chateau and one of the pioneers in the introduction of foreign grape varieties. The rest of the DO’s wineries are generally smaller.

Costers del Segre is one of the Catalan DOs with a lower proportion of local grape varieties in its wines. Allowed whites are Macabeu, Xarel.lo, Parellada, Chardonnay, Riesling, Garnatxa blanca, Gewürztraminer, Malvasia, Moscatell d’Alexandria, small berry Moscatell, and Albariño. Allowed reds are Garnatxa negra, Carinyena or Samsó, Ull de Llebre, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Monastrell, Syrah, Trepat, and Pinot Noir.

With this range there is production of white and red wine mainly. A few rosé and sweet wines and a quality sparkling with second fermentation in the bottle with features and quality comparable to Cava. Raimat produces mainly monovarietals, while the other wineries tend to favour coupages, especially in the reds.

My personal choice of wineries: 
  • Castell del Remei 
  • Castell d’Encus 
  • Cérvoles Celler 
  • Celler Cercavins 
  • L’Olivera 
  • Tomàs Cusiné 
  • Vall de Baldomar 
  • Vinya l’Hereu de Seró
Some excellent wines are to be found in Costers del Segre, especially among the smaller wineries (Raimat aims more to the middle segment). The main issue for me has to do with personality. There is potential to produce great wines, but they lack personality: with their international grape assortments it is difficult to taste one of them and identify it as a Catalan wine, let alone a Costers del Segre, and that is for me the true test for the great wine zones.