By Jonathan Cristaldi
In 2002, Montsant, the Falset subzone of Tarragona DO in the Catalonian region of northeastern Spain, was approved as its own DO level.
Since then, a lot of effort has been made on the part of wine writers and critics to explain the style of wines from Montsant DO, and because its neighbor is the better-known Priorat region, it tends to be the de facto comparison.
But that doesn’t do the Montsant DO justice. Consider what Eric Asimov of the New York Times said in a November 2016 wine school column:
“Montsant and Priorat are like Gigondas and Châteauneuf-du-Pape in the southern Rhône Valley of France, in that Gigondas is often thought to be a diminutive and cheaper version of the grander Châteauneuf. But though Gigondas and Châteauneuf have much in common, and are made of a similar set of grapes, the grapes are grown in different soils in different places, and so make different wines, each with its role at the table.
“Similarly, Montsant and Priorat are Catalonian neighbors. Both are made historically with the garnacha and cariñena grapes, better known in English as grenache and carignan, though nowadays they are often supplemented with international varieties like cabernet sauvignon, merlot, syrah and tempranillo.
“But as the soils and microclimates of Montsant vary from their neighbor, the wines of Montsant are better understood without the reflex comparison. They are very much their own wines and can be excellent.”
While Spain’s Priorat region produces weighty and powerful reds that are some of the more expensive bottlings in the country, a few miles away in Montsant, winemakers are busy turning out elegant, beautifully perfumed wines that retail for far less than their popular neighbor.
Below are 5 reasons the Montsant DO warrants the attention of every student of wine.
- LOCATION & CLIMATE
One of the best descriptions I’ve read of the region comes from a Decanter article by Andrew Jefford in which he says, “Montsant surrounds Priorat like a bangle around a wrist. Which is to say almost completely; there are just a few kilometers near the Priorat village of Porrera where the circle is not closed.”
It’s proximity to Priorat is one thing, but this DO has been gaining in popularity among locals because it is a cheaper alternative and reds tend to be lighter and more perfumed, a result of its higher elevations. This little pocket of activity in northeastern Spain is one region to keep your eye on—these wines could absolutely end up on a WSET year one day.
This mountainous region is influenced by the Ebro river and Mediterranean sea breezes, making it largely a Mediterranean climate with continental influences. Winters are cold, summers are hot and dry.
- THE TERROIR
The “horseshoe” shaped DO is prized for its higher elevations, some areas rising up over 2,200 feet, and incredibly special “llicorella” soils, which are comprised of blue slate and pockets of granite. Vines must root through these fractured soils in search of nutrients. The llicorella unquestionably lends unique qualities to the wines made from vines rooted in them—almost a dark, crushed rock, or liquified rock minerality and berry compote quality.
Producers leverage Grenache and Carignan mainly but also blend in Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, and Tempranillo. Small quantities of white wines are also produced from Chardonnay, Macabeo, and Garnacha Blanca.
In the Montsant DO, some 1,900 hectares (close to 4,700 acres) of vineyards are planted, which produces around 5 million bottles annually. This is still a significantly lower number of bottles produced than regions like the Rhône Valley, which in recent years, has seen 70 million bottles sold through hyper/supermarkets alone, according to the Inter-Rhone. The takeaway is that Montsant DO is a real region of more limited production, discovery wines.
Montsant vineyards boast a rich diversity of soils, from pockets of Llicorella to stony, calcareous-infused soils, and the reds are elegant and complex. While Priorat is now home to some of Spain’s most expensive wines, Montsant offers up some of Spain’s most riveting bargains.
Napa Valley Wine Academy’s own Catherine Bugué has visited Montsant DO and in an article originally published in The St. Helena Star, she describes the style as: “Ninety-four percent are red–the heart and soul of Montsant–with Garnacha and Carignan (Garnatxa Negra and Carinyena locally) as the stars. Whether blends or varietal wines, each of these grapes thrives in the summer heat, balancing ripeness and alcohol with a bright freshness that finds a thread through all the wines. Whites are made from white Garnacha (Garnatxa Blanca) and other local grape varieties, the style being rich in texture yet crisp, fruity and mineral-ly.”
For even more detailed information, check out this dossier from the region itself.
SEMINAR: Join Napa Valley Wine Academy on May 10 for Montsant Wine Day.