Yeah, I said the same when I heard I was going there. It’s in the northeast sector of Spain, just south of the French border (heck, I could walk there from where we were). Even though I (and most people I spoke with) had never heard of it, it’s also Spain’s oldest wine-growing region. The Romans came here 2,000 years ago, planted vines, and never looked back.
Today, it’s a fascinating area of rolling foothills and winding roads. The northerly Tramontana wind blows constantly, and like the Mistral in France, has a tendency to drive people mad. Also like the lands just north of the border, there is a large amount of slate in the ground, giving a nice mineral note to the wines while making the vines really work for their fruit. The area achieved DO (Denominacion de Origen, say it with the “th” sound replacing the “c”, so it’s pronounced Denominatheeon; go ahead, I’ll wait) status in 2006, and after this trip, it’s easy to see why.
First, a disclaimer: I am usually not a big fan of many (not all, so don’t get all up in my visage about this) Spanish wines. I find them over-ripe, over-oaked, low-acid, and basically over-done. And the prices for some of these ooze monsters aren’t exactly easy on the wallet. Heck, some of the cheapest Spanish wines I’ve tasted have been the best because they weren’t whacked with tons of oak and extracted to high Heaven (or Hell).
So while I kept an open mind about this trip, I was a bit skeptical.
However, after three days of tasting and visiting wineries in the (quite beautiful) region, I am convinced there are well-made wines to be found in this area. In general, the wines expressed a sense of terroir that I sometimes find lacking in other Iberian wines. They all had a relatively high amount of acidity, and while some were over-oaked, most were balanced. Most of the wines exhibited a lean earthy minerality in their mid-palate that I found refreshing, and a nice amount of acidity to balance the big fruit they get there. The main sticking point for me was, for the most part, price.
I found familiar and not-so familiar grape names on the bottles: Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Tempranillo, Torrontes, Macabeo, Samsò (orginally, I thought this was Cinsault, as the two are pronounced exactly alike, which led to a somewhat Abbott and Costello-ish routine with one winemaker until we cleared things up. Oh, what is it? Carignan, as they can't call it that here as a DO in Spain is named Cariñan and the authorities don't want any confusion...). However, some grape names were in Catalàn, a dialect that when spoken sounds half-Spanish, half-French, all said with a Portuguese accent. Interesting, to say the least.
So as I said, I found some interesting things that I'll follow-up with in the coming days. We'll see...