Dive deep into the wines of Priorat with Contributing Editor Michael Schachner then join Patrick Mata, co-founder of Olé Imports, as he discusses how red wine, white wine, rosé and Cava have evolved in Spain over the last two decades.
Read the full transcript of “The Past, Present and Future of Spanish Wine”:
Jameson Fink: Jameson Fink, Senior Digital Editor.
Let’s take a look at Spain … and explore wines there from the past, present, and also take a glimpse into the future. I was excited to learn more about not just the iconic red wines of Spain, but also surprising white wines, sparkling wine, that would be cava, and the discussion about rosse or rosato. It’s a really exciting time to be drinking wines from Spain, and exploring them.
We’ll take a look at the wines of the country, a bigger, broader view but then also one of the reasons I’ve been really curious about is Priorat, and that’s undergone some changes in style from some real dynamic producers, and the wines are very exciting.
We’re gonna dive deep into Priorat. Let’s begin to explore the wines of Spain.
Michael Schachner: Michael Schachner, contributing editor for Spain and South America.
JF: So Michael, you recently returned from a trip to Catalonia in Spain, and you wrote about a few different wine regions there, one of them that particularly interested me is Priorat, and I’m wondering if you could just start off … First of all, when you’re flying to Barcelona, how do you get to Priorat? What are you going to see as far as vineyards, and vines, and grapes, and what’s going on there? Just to give people a picture, and idea of the place and the wines.
MS: Well, Priorat by car’s about an hour and 45 minutes south and a little bit inlands, so southwest of Barcelona. It’s smack dab in the middle of Caledonian Wine Country, it’s surrounded by Monstsant, Terra Alta’s nearby. If you head north there’s the[inaudible 00:02:28], and there’s even regions further north than that.
However, I think that Priorat might be what we would call, the heart, soul of Caledonian red wine country. It’s a very historic region, it’s history stems back to the 12th and 13th centuries, when Carthusian Monks settled in this area, it’s a extremely rugged mountainous area … How these monks ever got there? I don’t know. Even today, possibly 1,000 years later, there’s still only 11 villages in the Priorat, ranging in population between 20 or 30 people up to maybe 500. If you take the whole region there’s 25,000 people living there in these little hard scrabble hilltop villages. It’s a rugged, rugged area, very hilly. It’s not so much about the elevation, ’cause it’s pretty close to the Mediterranean Sea, but it gives all the appearances of a serious mountain region. It was settled after those monks by Spaniards who built it into one of Spain’s prime regions. The grapes there are grenache, garnacha, [inaudible 00:03:46][inaudible 00:03:48]. Those are the core authentic grapes in the Priorat, and they make by themselves, pretty powerful wines.
It’s always been a region to produce big lusty red wines, and but it got slammed by phylloxera, so much of the rest of Spain did at the very end of the 19th century. Everything basically died there, and all these old Roman terraces, the original roots of these French monks were kind of left to waste. In came the 20th century, and replanting, and over time the Priorat rebuilt itself. But then it just kind of fell completely out of favor in the 1950s, so many wine regions did, and that post Spanish Civil War era.
And then, there was the final rebirth, the Renaissance, that has given birth to where we are now. And this took place right at the end of the 1980s early 1990s, and a group of wine makers from France and from Switzerland, and few Spaniards came together, decided they were gonna try to reclaim this once vital region. Wah-lah they made some wine, it was a big success, and hence there was this ground swell, and it started in the 1990s and it built into this century into the 2000s of full bodied, lusty, grenache, carignan blends, sometimes [inaudible 00:05:28] wines.
And then the introduction of cabernet, [inaudible 00:05:33], and Merlot, to try to beef these wines up. What we ended up getting were these non-local grapes interacting with the traditional grapes, and what we got were these really big fleshy, high alcohol, juicy, fat wines that were delicious, but a little bit hefty, a little over the top, and maybe not necessarily the most authentic wines of the region. And it’s an area that had great early authenticity, but maybe wasn’t so authentic, so now I feel like we’re coming back to maybe where things were originally. And that what was my take away from this most recent trip to Priorat was. And I think it was the fifth time that I’ve been to Priorat, it’s an area that I know pretty well. I consider it along with [inaudible 00:06:21], and [inaudible 00:06:22], maybe [inaudible 00:06:24], to be one of the best red wine regions in Spain. I would put it in the top five for sure.
So, now we’re seeing this large scale movement of many wine regions in the Priorat trying to reharness the old, and get back to wines of slightly more elegance, fruit expression, less extraction, lower alcohol, less oak, and they’re eliminating the cabernet and Merlot, almost completely, very little [inaudible 00:06:51] and it’s now gone back to those old style, old vines, the vines planted right after [inaudible 00:06:58] producing these really fresh, vital, exciting blends. I think it’s a really good time for the Priorat, I was excited by what I discovered. There’s more wineries than ever, but I feel like it’s the wineries that have been around, and now rediscovery of what this pretty impressive Caledonian wine region can be.
JF: Yeah, just the steepness of the area, the old vines they have. I was kind of surprised too that you saw these blends, and there’d be cabernet and Merlot, and things like that in there that weren’t ganache or garnacha.
It’s also good to hear that … I’ve enjoyed the wines, but like you said, they can be really over the top, and a little too extracted. I think that’s a great move to go away from these big extracted wines, and just showing what the region can do without these international varieties, without these other grapes, and without that kind of style.
MS: One of the things is, Priorat by its nature, it’s a warm region, it wants to produce grapes of mass. Clearly the cabernet and the Merlot that were brought in either for marketing purposes, or just to get some quick beef into the wines has proven to be maybe unnecessary, so as we say, those are out, but you’re always gonna have that key element in Priorat, the licorella soil, the fractured slate, it’s really unique to almost any place else in … You might find it in areas of Galicia, but the level of which this old slate has just been broken and cracked and the roots penetrating down deep into these really porous, nothing type of soils. It’s really impressive, I’m always going to be of the belief that the Priorat is gonna produce clear cut warm climate red wines, but they’re more elegant than they were 10, 15 years ago. They’re definitely more restrained now, and that’s where people are targeting their efforts, and they’re doing a pretty good job with it.
One last thing Jameson, I wanted to point out that white wine, which is only about five percent of production in Priorat, is getting a lot of attention. Garnacha blanca mixed with other approved grapes like [inaudible 00:09:11], and [inaudible 00:09:11], a little bit of [inaudible 00:09:13]. I’m finding that the white wines from this region are not a total after thought. While you might, probably won’t see too many of them in wine shops, or in restaurants … If you ever do come across a white Priorat expect it to be … especially from a more recent vintage, should be really good minerally reflective [inaudible 00:09:38] that licorella soil, and something that I would have never given much thought to five, 10,15 years ago I do believe now is an honest product, that’s really has an upside.
JF: Michael thanks for updating me on sort of the past, present, and future of what’s going on in Priorat.
MS: No problem Jameson, got it.
Patrick Mata: Patrick Mata, co-founder of Ole Imports.
JF: Patrick, as a fellow wine lover and someone in the wine business, one of the things I think about is … People always ask me about my ah-ha moment, when you fell in love wine. When do you think about co-founding a wine importer, let alone working in the wine business, it seems like such a perculian undertaking. Was there a moment when you were like, “You know what? I’m gonna be a wine importer, this is my passion, this is how I wanna express it.”
PM: My family produced wines in Spain since the late 1800s. My father really wanted me to come to this country to learn English, and learn from this great culture, and basically he kicked me out of my country, and sent me to America, and to study college.
And as soon as I arrived to Miami, many friends from family friends that are in the wine business, sent me samples to my dorm, and in particular, my best friend in Spain, Alberto Olte, his family produced wine in Montilla. He sent me some samples of his family wines, and I was very taken by this idea of starting an import company, and It’s something that excited me a lot, because wine had been in my family for a long time.
And I started doing research about how you can import wine in America, and I was 19 years old at the time. You have to be 21 years old in this country to consume wine, and also to import wine. So, the whole idea of importing wine was complicate, but it’s something that appealed to me a lot, and I found that Florida International University had hospitality degree. They had a class within this hospitality degree on wine and talking about importation, distribution, talking about the business side of wine. I thought that this class would be very helpful to me, I went to register, and I could not really register because you had to be 21 years old to take the class.
Anyways, I ended up showing up as if I had registered, I was able to get in the classroom and took a seat to the class, and at the end of the class I asked the professor if he would let me audit the class. He was super welcoming, and this professor also happened to be the buyer for 25 stores in Florida, so he was super influential person, and I didn’t know about this, but after the first day of class when I ask him about if it was okay for me to audit this class. I also told him that I wanted to learn, because I wanted to import wines from Spain, and he said, “Well, I’m happy to help you, If you bring me the wines that you were thinking of importing I can taste them, and I can let you know what I think.”
We happened to meet one Saturday morning, and we tasted the wines, and this was all within one week of taking this class. He really liked them, he introduced me to a distributor that same day, and this distributor was super excited about importing and distributing this wines in America, because I could not legally import the wines, he had to be the one importing the wines. That’s how we, Alberto, my business partner today, and I started this import company. And little by little, Alberto and I started representing more and more estates throughout Spain, artisanal producers, small production wines, that offer a lot of quality, wines that no one knows in America, that we could find and represent and bring over.
That was the beginning of this import company, it’s the only free class I took in college, and I never thought that it would lead to so many great things and such a great adventure. Now 19 years later, we represent 70 producers from peninsula and has been so far a wonderful journey, and very rewarding, helping so many farmers in Spain, artisanal producers, and working with so many different people around the country here in America.
JF: So what were the first wines that you brought in, the first wines that came off the boat and you’re like, “Okay, these are my wines. Now I gotta sell them.”
PM: So, the first two wines that we imported into the U.S., Alberto and I, the first wine was a wine from southwest of Spain very close to chary [inaudible 00:14:53] makes chary style wines and we imported [inaudible 00:14:57] a sweet wine. That was not very successful, we only imported that wine once in our lifetime. We also imported from this winery, from Albertos’ family winery [inaudible 00:15:12] dry chary style, made with Pedro Jimenez, dry style. And in that container, we also imported a wine from Riberta del Duero, called remeron, which 19 years later we still represent, and import in the U.S. It’s an incredible tempronillo style made with 80 to 100 year old vines, prephylloxera, 30% of the wine is prephylloxera, and it sells for 14, 15 dollars. I don’t know any country that is capable of producing a wine for 14 dollars made with 80 to 100 year old vines. No, it’s something super unique, super special that makes Spain so unique and different from other countries.
Anyways, this is a wine that we are very proud to be importing and it’s one of the firsts.
JF: So, you’ve been doing this for 19 years now, and I think about … What was popular in Spanish wine then and what’s popular now? Sort of like what’s changed? Are people trying new things from different areas? Are they going back to the classics? Or what’s changed for you and Spanish wine in the last 19 years?
PM: When we started importing wine in the U.S. Spain didn’t really … was not … A reference for any wine list, or any wine program. People knew that Spain produced wines, but if they knew anything about Spain was just that existed and perhaps sweet cherys. That’s all there was to Spain at the time, and then big powerful wines became very fashionable, juicy wines, wines that had a lot of structure, those wines became very popular. And that’s the beginning of other regions from Spain becoming more known, other regions that perhaps Priorat were not so popular.
I think that overall that was a good thing for Spain. It brought other regions that were capable of producing great wine to the scene and over time that trend became a little bit over done. The wines were perhaps too alcoholic and too structured, and maybe a little bit undrinkable. With time little by little that fades away and other regions like had become more known as of today, and more interesting, they produced wines with less alcohol, wines that are more refined, wines that are more uplifted more pretty.
That’s overall the fashion to today in Spain, there are many Appalachians throughout the entire producing wines in this style. Maybe before, Spain was all about big producers, you find those in you find those in Riberta del Duro, but today’s more about the small artisanal farmer who also makes wine. I think that’s a great development, that’s exactly what Burgundy’s all about, that’s what other interesting regions are focusing on to produce high quality within small production. When you do a small production you can focus a lot more in quality than when you do large production, and also the idea of being a farmer and being a wine maker together. That is fundamental, to make high quality wine.
I think that’s where everything is going now, obviously things before … there were fewer producers and there were less names in the market Now, there are many names, many producers, many importers, many people involved in the trade. That can make the message … It can be complicated, because there’s so many messages right now. But overall, it’s a wonderful thing, and that’s what Spain needs and the more people involved in communicating this reality the better for what Spain is doing.
JF: You mentioned Rioja, almost 20 years ago, and that’s probably what’s my maybe it’s every ones introduction to Spain, Rioja, it’s the classic wine, the classic region. But there’s so much diversity there, and one of the things that I’ve come to appreciate, that I wanted to get your perspective on is … I think it’s still underrated, is the white wines. I really love albarino, godello, verdelho, and these wines like that. Have you seen more of an interest in Spanish white wines, and is that something reflected in your portfolio and some of the wines that you have?
PM: Spain is a super interesting country, and I think it’s one of the most diverse countries in the world for growing grapes and making wine. You have more than 400 indigenous varieties in Spain, and about 72, 73 different Appalachians and for example, in Rioja the 1800s, 80% of the production of Rioja was white wine.
PM: In the 1800s. And in fact, white wines had a higher tax than red wines. People tainted the white wines with a little bit of red wine to make wines or tintos so that you pay a lesser tax.
And now finally, with phylloxera basically, friends Berdo, had a need for red production to bottle their wines. They could not find grapes anymore in Berdo, because of phylloxera so they found other places that were not affected by phylloxera, and they went to Rioja and in Rioja they planted many grapes from cabernet, Merlot, and other grapes, also melverc and they produced a lot of red wine.
That was the beginning of Rioja, making red wines. But until then, Rioja was all about white wine, and that disappeared, red wine started becoming very fashionable. There was a tax incentive for that also, and now in 2017 people have started to realize that these white wines produced in Rioja are unbelievable. You have some examples of all vintages of Caldonia, Marques del Mollerta, blends produced with Buta, garnacha blanca, moscatel, blended together. Also, some of these wines are affected by flor. People think that flor is only a result of chary, but flor grows in many different areas throughout Spain. This yeast that makes wines a lot more interesting, that grows-
JF: It’s like a protective layer of yeast. Is that correct? And it adds, it protects the vine, but it also adds flavor.
PM: Totally. Yeast is alive, and it has biological activity, and it’s alcohol, it’s also glycerin, and also imports flavor. And if your wine is exposed to oxygen, yeast can live in this environment, and can protect and cover the surface of the wine, and as a result, you can have a wine that has the complexity of tevar, but also the complexity of the yeast stain that can grow naturally in this environment. And different areas throughout Spain have different yeast stains.
People believe that flor is only a result of chary, but flor can grown and this yeast strains and there are many different types. They can grown in many different regions throughout Spain, so today you have many people experimenting with this reality, but Rioja is a classic example of that. In the old times, Rioja actually, they didn’t grow their own flor, or they didn’t … they were afraid of that and they brought the flor influence once from chary and they blended that with their white wines.
Today some producers like Alberto Ote, grows his own flor in his own cellar in Rioja with the yeast strains of Rioja, which is something that I think is special and more true to the Terjar of Rioja in every aspect of the world. You’re not only being the grapes of Rioja, and fermenting them in Rioja, but also you’re using the yeast strain of Rioja. Coolne for examples, the old classic monocle style of coode was always a blend of white wine from Rioja with a little bit of dry chary from chary and they’re making now a classic bottling that is moving in this direction, bringing some chary and blending it together. And that’s at Rioja wine with grapes from another region. What Alberto Olte is doing, is bringing back these flor influence from the region of Rioja, and certainly there is a huge trend now going back to the classics. Going back to wines that are age worthy, wines that are complex, and show something other than primary flavors. What a great place, Rioja for that.
JF: We’ve touched on reds, and whites, but in other category of wine that’s really exploded really globally is rosse, but I don’t really hear a lot about provance. What’s the scene with rosse in Spain? What grapes are used? How are they distinct? If you can clue me in on what’s happening with rose in Spain.
PM: Rose has exploded in America, we are all aware of that. Spain has been producing rosse for a long time, mostly there are some classic Appalachians like Nevara, Rioja, Calataude, and the main grape for making rosse in these areas has always been garnacha, and they style has always been a dry style that is richer, fuller, darker in color, with this incredible explosion of Provence style roses in the world.
Spain now is also doing direct oppress styles rosses, and because of the popularity of rosse people are experimenting with other grapes, grapes such as mencilla we have a wine we import, Liquid Geography, it’s 100% mencilla and we donate 100% of the profits to cancer research, also Mary’s Meals, it’s a foundation that supports hunger in third world countries, but they only supply the food in schools. So if you want to eat, basically you have to go to school.
This wine, Liquid Geography, is also supporting another foundation that is local to New York, The Bronx, the south Bronx, the location of the foundation, and it’s very popular. We’ve been importing these wine for the last 6 years now, and every year it grows by 30 to 40%, so it’s interesting to see, how many different red grapes are used to make rosse, and rosse used to be just a thing of the summer and now it’s becoming not so connected to the seasonality, obviously summer is very important for rosse, but people are also using it to make cocktails, it’s extremely interesting … To see how that’s expanding and evolving, and becoming an important part of culture in the wine world. I’m very happy to see that.
JF: And something else, I mean it’s great that you touched on that people drinking rosse year round. It’s a great food wine. Another category wine that’s really grown too is sparkling wine, and obviously Prosecco’s been a phenomenal growth, and that but I kind of feel that cava is still, it’s underrated as far as quality and price and that there’s inexpensive delicious cava. There’s also a really fine luxurious rich, elegant cavas too. Can you talk about the state of cava in Spain, and where is its place in the world of sparkling wine?
PM: So, I love this topic of cava, cava is such a fascinating concept to me. I think cava has a great future in America, it’s something that as soon as people realize how cava is produced versus other sparkling wines they will fall in love with it. Cava is first fermented in a steel tank then you take this wine that has been fermented inside a steel tank. You put it in a bottle, you add yeast, you add a little bit of sugar, and then it referments inside of the bottle.
And the yeast stays inside of this bottle for at least nine months, most producers today, good producers, artisanal producers in cava like to keep the yeast inside of the bottle for 24 months, 36 months, and this yeast adds more complexity of flavor, and then as a result of this yeast you have re fermentation inside of this bottle. And this re fermentation causes the carbon dioxide to appear, and the carbonation is natural. You’re not injecting bubbles, and the flavor complexities that you experience are flavor complexities that you don’t find in other wines, where you just injected the bubbles.
In this case, because of the yeast inside of this bottle, you’re going to develop a lot more flavor and richness and different aromas and also different flavors. Flavors that are more complex that are … that bring more pleasure to your palate. And if you were to inject bubbles you will only have the complexity of the grape, but in this case you have the complexity of the grape, and the complexity that yeast brings with it. And this is something super unique and cava is less expensive than proseco, proseco in mostly of the cases is charman method, grand bass tank fermentation, and the amount of yeast contact in very little, so it’s something that I think cava is less expensive, more complex, it has a great future in America. Overall, cava it’s going through a revolution at the moment.
You have some incredible producers like Pepe Jarbentos who are questioning the system rightly so, they’re trying to establish that place matters, that it doesn’t make sense that you grow these grapes that everywhere, and you produce cava, place matters. And depending on what grapes you grow where, you’re going to have better flavors or not. And he’s questioning that, and he has as a result left the Appalachian of cava to make a point.
And I think that overall that’s going to help cava, because cava is gonna get more into this question, and start establishing the difference between different terjarus within cava and what grapes are most suitable, and making a distinction, and eventually we will see that on labels. Something that you don’t see that today. Today cava can be produced in Ribera del Duro in Rioja and if it has to be call cava all you need to know is that it’s fermented in the bottle, age the least for nine months, and it need to produce, be produced with this grapes, but if that area is not good for those grapes then the cava that you produce there is not good and that’s what Pepe Jarbentos is questioning, and I think that overall that will be good for cava.
JF: And finally, If you can kind of look into your crystal ball, just for people who are interested in Spanish wine, learning more, trying new things. What places or regions are really exciting right now that you what people to know about and taste the wines from?
PM: I think the most fascinating area in peninsula today, in my opinion is Galicia. Galicia is the northwest of Spain, you out of 400 indigenous varieties grow in Spain, 200 come from Galicia. You have a lot of white wines, red wines, whites that people do not know about. Like bastardo, or gallino, lorado red, and many white grapes, goldello, sorry … albarino are some examples of that, but there’s so many grapes.
So Galicia it to me, it’s a fascinating area of diversity, of making incredible wines, there is also an incredible element of many producers making wine artesian producers, small producers, making wine in this area and all of them are focused on terjar, on making truly specials wines. That area to me is very special, I think it’s one of the areas. Also, it’s a lot cooler in this area of Spain, Galicia, it’s more rainy. So, what you taste there you cannot taste anywhere else in Spain, and maybe at this specific moment in history, people are … Looking for lighter wines, wines that are not so alcoholic, wines that are more pretty, more uplifted, and I think Galicia is pretty place for that.
JF: Well Patrick, thanks for joining me today, and sort of catching me up on the past, present. And future of Spanish wine, it sounds like it’s a really exciting time to be in the Spanish wine business, whether you’re an importer, or a drinker of the wines.
PM: Thank you, thank you so much for having me.
Speaker: This podcast is produced by Larj Media L,A,R,J, Media.
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Last Updated: June 5, 2023