Alella Vinicola: looking forward



Alella Vinícola is the historic reference of the Alella DO. It was founded in 1906 as a cooperative in the wake of the Phylloxera disaster. A cellar was built in the Modernist or Art Noveau style by the architect Jeroni Martorell.

The coop gradually incorporated some 90 % of the vines on the Alella village, and acted as an avant la lettre regulation council, defending the prestige of Alella wines and fighting counterfeiting, that became rife after receiving the King of Spain’s seal of appointment in 1928. In this time Alella white was branded “Marfil” (“Ivory”) because of the colour of the wine.
After Spanish Civil War, production, trade and counterfeiting resumed as usual until in 1953 the Alella DO was created. In the meantime, Jeroni Martorell had effected an enlargement of the winemaking facilities. The boom continued well into the 70’s, when large scale housing project started to eat into the vineyard surface and vinegrowers settled for the easy money of selling their lands. Grape production declined from ca. 3 million kg to around 200’000 kg.
The coop struggled for survival in the 80’s and 90’s, with timid attempts at modernization, but nothing important changed till 1998, when it was sold to private investors.
Since then change rhythm has stepped up. Vines were planted, winemaking facilities improved, bottles and labels changed, and new wines have been introduced or, in some cases, recovered from the past. More on that later.
Not surprisingly soils and weather are those typical for DO Alella: sandy and comparatively dry in terms of rain, but with wet breezes blowing inland from the sea.
Plots and grape varieties are allocated as follows: 
  • Pansa blanca (aka Xarel.lo) at Can Sala, plot at 200 meters over sea level. 13’000 vines were planted in 2001. 
  • Syrah in Rials Valley, in four plots at heights between 200 and 400 m. 12’000 vines from 2001 and 2002. 
  • Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot in terraces at heights between 200 and 350 m at Rials Valley. Some 15’000 plants from 2001. 
  • La Molassa at the top of the Rials Valley, facing the sea, and with ca. 10’000 vines of Moscatell (2004) and Garnatxa negra (2003). 
  • Mas Coll, at the top (350 to 500 m) of the hills of the same name. The sandy soil (sauló) is a trifle more acidic than in other properties, and temperatures more extreme. Planted in 2003 with Garnatxa negra, Syrah, Monastrell and Carinyena, with a total of 25’000 vines. 
  • Vinyes velles, a scattering of old vineyards that have survived till now: Pansa blanca, Pansa Vermella, Malvasia, Sumoll, Garnatxa peluda and Garnatxa negra. 
All these lands produce 80 % of grapes used: the rest is sourced from some of the former cooperativists, which have had to adapt their farming methods and gear them towards quality and organic principles. 
Grapes are collected manually in 25 kg boxes and refrigerated till processing. Stalks are taken back to the vineyards: production is not fully organic…yet. 

White wines have been the specialty of Alella. The Marfil Blanc Classic is 100% Pansa blanca and a wine very easy to drink, crisp, unctuous, with floral and white fruit aromas and a note of sweetness. The drier Marfil Blanc Sec has the same composition but less character. The Ivori Blanc is a more complex blend with Pansa blanca, Chardonnay, Garnatxa blanca, Sauvignon blanc and Moscatell, and oak aging.  
As for rosé wines, they produce Mayla, an onion skin coloured blend of Pansa blanca and Syrah, fruity and with a hint of gas and Marfil Rosat, from Garnatxa negra and Syrah. 
There are three reds. Marfil Negre, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Garnatxa negra and Syrah, and aged for twelve months in French oak. Ivori Negre, from Garnatxa negra, Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon, from selected plots in the Rials Valley, and fourteen months in French oak. Vallmora, coming from old vine Garnatxa negra and over a year of oak. 
As many other wineries, Alella Vinícola produces Cava; both Brut and Brut Nature Marfil. But more original are the sparkling wines under DO Alella, that differ in the elaboration: first fermentation is stopped by cold before sugar is completely used up, and resumes in the bottle. Besides, there are two of these wines made from Garnatxa negra, unusual in sparkling: Marfil Escumós Rosat Brut and Marfil Escumós Blanc de Negre Brut. Both have the typical aromas of red fruits in a sparkling; a surprise. Also worth trying are the Marfil Escumós Blanc Brut Nature (Pansa blanca / Chardonnay) and Marfil Escumós Moscatell Dolç, a sweet dessert bubbly. 
But perhaps the most personal wines are the soleras, made with this oxidative method. There are four wines. Two of them started their solera in 2003, reviving long-lost wines. Sweet Marfil Violeta is made from 100% Garnatxa negra and has indeed a cherry-violet colour. Marfil Molt Dolç, as his older brothers Marfil Generós Semi and Marfil Generós Sec, with soleras dating from 1976, are 100 % Pansa blanca and range from very sweet to dry, but always with balancing acidity that makes them very fresh in the mouth. The usual oxidative aromas of dry fruits together with chocolate, toast and citrics are predominant in the nose. 
Alella Vinícola is becoming very active in the Enotourism sector, with special visits, a restaurant located in the winery, and above all collaboration with the Cella Vinaria, a former Roman settlement with winery where wine production as Romans did it is being reconstructed. 
For me, Alella Vinícola is right now interesting especially for its Marfil Blanc Classic and its soleras. Also the DO Alella sparklings show potential. The other wines are nevertheless good value and will probably develop when vines are older. I also expect them to take more advantage of existing old vines that can surely yield wines with greater appeal.



Ètnic 2006

Today I start a new kind of post, evaluating more in depth a wine I have recently tasted. There are some other blogs that usually take this approach with proficiency, such as Els vins que vaig tastant and Els vins del Bonviure (both in Catalan, but with automatic translator).

Here I face a typical dilemma, that recently came up in Els vins del Bonviure: shall I write negative reviews of wines? After thinking it out, my intention is not to do so unless I am sure that the flaws found are really present in most of the bottles and not a result of bad cellaring, my own clumsy tasting capability or simple bad luck. This means in practice that I should find similar problems in two independent bottles (not coming from the same source or stored in the same way) to make a negative report. A single unsatisfactory bottle will generate no remarks.

Another matter is a wine that, without actually showing flaws, does not deliver according to its fame or price. In these cases, with due allowance for my inexpert tasting, I may try to explain how and why I am disappointed.

Do you agree with this approach? Should I do otherwise? Please feel free to comment!

And now to the wine.

Ètnic is a red wine from DO Montsant. It is produced in the facilities of Celler el Masroig, following the directions of a group of people that includes some wine shop owners with no direct experience in winemaking. This 2006 is the first vintage. It comes from old Samsó (aka Carinyena) and Garnatxa vines. Curiously enough, the vineyards are actually sited in neighbouring DOQ Priorat soil. It was aged for fourteen months in French oak. Alcohol content of 14.5 % in a black Burgundy bottle.

The result is a very dark cherry red wine, with slow dark legs. In the nose, after some time in the glass (decanting is highly recommended), it opens to release black ripe fruit, balsamic wild herbs, hints of red fruit, chocolate, yoghourt.

Structure in mouth is big, with adequate acidity and notes of minerality. Tannins and alcohol are well integrated into a silky feel. Long finish.

At a retail price around 13 to 15 EUR in Catalonia, it gives good value. The trick is to find it, as production is very limited.

A wine to follow in coming years to see if it confirms the good start.


Espectacle by Selecció Ingrid at Auditori

Fifteen months ago I had the luck to be invited to enter the GMT, which has nothing to do with Greenwich or time, but rather surprisingly stands for Grup de Matemàtics Tastavins, or Mathematician Winetasting Group. The other five members are Maths Professors in the Autonomous University of Barcelona (I am a pharmacist by training). I had longed for years to become part of a tasting group, but somehow the expected background of its members did not include this specific profile. Nevertheless, no formulas or equations are needed for the tasting we do: it is basically hedonistic (three different bottles for six people), and we do not rate the wines apart from an informal “Which one do you like best?”

Led by a master wine blogger, Jaume Aguadé of Vins de Catalunya, we have had some memorable sessions; among them the one last week. We tasted three wines that had in common coming from very old Garnatxa negra vines:

  • Auditori 2008, Acústic Celler, DO Montsant
  • Espectacle 2006, Espectacle Vins, DO Montsant
  • Vinyes Altes Selecció Ingrid 2005, Clos Dominic, DOQ Priorat

All three were decanted one hour before the tasting. An additional hour would have been welcome.

Albert Jané, from the family that owns Jané Ventura in DO Penedès, moved to DO Montsant to start his own project, Acústic Celler, in the village of Els Guiamets. Using 60+ year old garnatxa vines (aptly described as “magical old vines” in the label) coming from three small plots with poor sandy soils, and with thirteen months in French oak, Auditori is the top product of the winery.  

It was the youngest of the three wines; it showed in its dark, intense colour with still bluish overtones in the rim, and the comparative lack of tertiary aromas. But anyway the nose was overwhelming, kaleidoscopic, with lots of fruit (mainly red) and spice (at one moment it positively smelt like a pepper-pot) developing over the two hours that we enjoyed tasting. In the mouth acidity and tannins were very present, but rounded and integrated, with length and width. A great wine, and no doubt that a few years in the bottle will help to develop its full potential.

Espectacle Vins is a joint venture of the Barbier and Cannan families, of Clos Mogador and Clos Figueras fame, to make wine from a centenary Garnatxa vineyard in Montsant. The wine is actually produced in the Celler Laurona winery, partially owned also by the Barbiers. Once the fruit is ripe, it is harvested manually in small boxes and kept for one day at 4ºC. After berry selection and gentle pressing the grapes go to a new French oak vat where both alcoholic and malolactic fermentations take place; afterwards the wine is aged for some fifteen months. 

Cherry to crimson in colour, with medium intensity, the nose is extremely complex, with layers of black and red fruit, tobacco, balsamic notes. It fills the mouth but silkily, with great elegance and finesse. 

Espectacle is an intellectual wine. This is a nectar to enjoy reflectively, putting forth all one’s senses, not carelessly. Supremely subtle and elegant, it needs time and wrist work to release its complexity. 

As explained in a previous post, Clos Dominic is a small family-run winery in Porrera, DOQ Priorat. The best cask from its century old Garnatxa vines in La Tena vineyard goes into the Vinyes Altes Selecció Ingrid, named after one of the daughters of the owners, Dominic Bairaguet and Paco Castillo. Fermented with its own wild yeasts, it is aged for eighteen months in French oak. 

Colour is similar to Espectacle, but with higher intensity. The nose is very particular, probably in part due to the non-standard yeasts. Red and black fruit, wild balsamic herbs (rosemary, thyme, all those that grow in and around La Tena), spices, liquorice, cigar box, cocoa, the lot. 
Ingrid Castillo Bairaguet ready to pour for Jay Miller

The mouth is packed with flavour, good acidity, ripe tannins, and the minerality coming from the slatey soil. Round, very long. A wine that impacts the senses. A wine to be enjoyed shamelessly, boisterously.

Towards the end of the tasting, as mentioned before, the question of which was the best of the three came up. As a backdrop, Parker ratings: 94 for Auditori 2008, 96 for Espectacle 2006, and no rating for Clos Dominic Selecció Ingrid…yet.

Auditori was handicapped by its youth, and the jury is still out about the other two. Espectacle or Ingrid? As somebody said, Audrey Hepburn or Marilyn Monroe? George Clooney or Brad Pitt? Rolls Royce or Lamborghini? Probably depends on when, where, with whom, with what…although I have always loved Lambos…



DO Montsant: up and coming

The DO Montsant was defined ten years ago as a solution to the issue posed by a number of villages (actually seventeen) encircling the prestigious DOQ Priorat yet included in the much less glamorous DO Tarragona. These villages had already a defined personality, recognized with a subzone denomination (Falset) but the quality differential with the rest of the Tarragona DO finally led to the creation of the DO Montsant.

Wine has been produced in the region since Roman times, but the monks of the Scala Dei priory gave a major push to winegrowing in the late Middle Ages. Phylloxera, as everywhere in Catalonia, all but destroyed the wine industry, but in Montsant the cooperative effort managed to bring back wine production to acceptable levels. Now some of these cooperatives, led by the example of Capçanes, are making significant strides in the race for quality. Many of the other wineries in the zone are small (perhaps 20’000 bottles per year), family owned and in the hands of young, enthusiastic people that have decided to remain in the country rather than depart for the big cities.

Montsant vineyards, between 200 and 700 m above sea level, present a wealth of microclimates due to the hilly terrain. Yearly rainfall is about 500 liters by square meter as an average, and concentrated on spring and autumn. Winters are cold, and summers hot and dry. In summer evenings wet sea breezes bring precious moisture that, combined with a big temperature difference between day and night, ensure optimal ripening of the grapes.

Soils are varied, with three main types:  
  • Limestone rich compact soils 
  • Sandy soils coming from granite decomposition; sited largely around Falset, the main town and seat of the DO Council 
  • Slatey soils, known as llicorella, similar to those of Priorat.
The two last soil types have low content of organic matter and drain water extremely well, forcing vine roots to dig deep in search of moisture.

Altogether there are 2’000 hectares under vine, with an average production of 10 million kg of grape. Some fifty wineries are active. Evolution of sales since the establishment of the DO has been astonishing: in 2002 only 10 % of the wine was sold bottled; in 2008, 78 %, one third in Spain and two thirds in international markets, mainly Germany, France, UK and the US.
The range of grapes used are a mixture of traditional local varieties, often more than fifty years old and grown in bush form, and international varieties. For white wines Garnatxa blanca, Macabeu, Parellada, small-berry Moscatell, Pansal and Chardonnay are allowed. For reds Carinyena (aka Samsó), Garnatxa negra, Garnatxa peluda (hairy), Monastrell, Ull de Llebre, Picapoll negre, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah.

95 % of wine produced is red. Reds are usually dark and concentrated, while whites can be young and crisp or oak aged, with more structure and complexity. Fruity rosés are sourced largely from Garnatxa negra.

Noteworthy are the rancis and mistelas. Rancis are brown, nutty wines that undergo oxidization in the oak casks for years. Mistelas are produced adding alcohol to unfermented must and aging in oak, sometimes with sherry-like solera systems. These can be perfect wines for aperitif and dessert.
My favourite Montsant wineries: 
  • Acustic Celler
  • Celler de Capçanes  
  • Celler Dosterras 
  • Celler el Masroig 
  • Joan d’Anguera 
  • Coca i Fitó 
  • Orto Vins 
  • Portal del Montsant 
  • Venus La Universal
  • Vinyes Domènech
Some outstanding wines are produced in very small wineries (for instance, Espectacle) and some interesting producers only have one or two wines (as Laurona).

Many wines of Montsant exhibit two excellent attributes: personality and a great quality price ratio, as they have not (yet?) achieved the fame of their Priorat neighbors. This is a DO to watch closely.