Making the Case for Terroir in Spain Has Never Been Easy

Betsy Andrews Making the Case for Terroir in Spain Has Never Been Easy

8 minute Read

“This is a tough place by definition,” Valentí Llagostera says.“Nothing is easy. We are just survivors.”

Lean and fit at 60, Llagostera stood at the base of a 60-degree slope of pure schist, peering upward, ready to tackle it. I worked up my nerve to scramble after him.

We weren’t rock climbing. I was visiting wineries, and Mas Doix, Llagostera’s family estate, is tucked into a mountain valley in Priorat, Spain’s most forbidding wine region, in the country’s northeastern Catalonian corner.

Ahead of us, 100-year-old Garnacha and Carignan vines clung to the hillside, their roots reaching down through rock fissures 15 meters to moisture. The schist soil, called “licorella,” contains 2 percent organic matter, and the rock is friable at the surface.

My feet slipping on the flat, broken stones, I struggled up to the top and looked down at the vines that yield the spare fruit in Llagostera’s Doix blend, four plants per bottle.

In the distance, the Serra de Montsant range rose like a shrub-and-stone layer cake. A gusting wind called serè sweeps through from inland, carrying the scents of wild fennel and thyme. Serè blasted dry heat on this spring morning. In the summer, it is tempered by a cooler Mediterranean breeze that brings the 45-degree-Fahrenheit diurnal swings that slow the grapes’ ripening, fine-tuning their structure and acidity.

We sat down beneath a wild fig tree, and Llagostera opened a bottle of 2013 Doix. Forty-five percent Garnacha and 55 percent Carignan, it had a dark ruby glow and the brooding flavor of blackberries dashed on hot rocks. It was intense, like the landscape where the grapes were grown.

I was as captivated as I had hoped to be. This powerful expression of terroir — this sense of place in the glass — was why I had come.

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After years of being undervalued, the concept of terroir is coming to the fore now in Spain. Historically, wineries in Spain’s 69 D.O.s (denominations of origin) were prohibited from including vineyard information on their labels. The country’s most famous region, Rioja, classified wines not by terroir, but by the length of time they sat in oak. With bulk production helping to triple Spanish wine exports in the past couple of decades, the inability to distinguish quality wines from industrial plonk made in the same D.O. has presented a huge marketing problem for Spain’s terroir-driven estates.

In 2003, as a kind of corrective, Spain created a new designation, Vino de Pago. (Pago means vineyard.) Vino de Pago refers to a single-estate wine from a vineyard with soil and climate so exceptional that it merits its own D.O. To date, only 14 vineyards have been granted the D.O. Pago status.

In 2016, more than 150 Spanish producers and industry supporters signed a manifesto calling on the regulatory boards of Spain’s appellations to establish a terroir-focused classification system, based on French-style tiers: regional, village, and estate.

“All the great wines in the world come from exceptional vineyards,” the document reads. “That’s why the most revered wine regions have passed laws to defend and protect those unique sites.”

Last year, to stem the tide of producers threatening to flee their famed D.O.C., the Consejo Regulador of Rioja agreed to classify single-estate wines. The Consejo Regulador de Cava made a similar move. Both follow the example of Priorat, which has used village and estate designations since 2009. Terroir-driven change may finally be afoot in Spain.

In the meantime, what’s a wine lover who doesn’t geek out over D.O. politics to do? How can you select a Spanish wine that has a sense of place? And, if you’re traveling in Spain, which wineries should you visit to have that mystical communion with terroir?

One smart move is to delve into the Grandes Pagos de España. Established in Castile in 2000, and expanded to the rest of the country three years later, Grandes Pagos de España (GPE) is an independent association of estate producers that have come together to highlight the unique terroir of their single-vineyard wines. To gain entrance, a producer must demonstrate success in the market, undergo vineyard inspection, and submit wines to a vertical tasting by association members.

The GPE has 29 wineries in 14 appellations throughout mainland Spain. They vary in size and character from tiny, family-run operations like Cortijo los Aguilares, growing 18 hectares of Tempranillo and other grapes 900 meters up in Andalucía, to grand estates like Navarro’s 128-hectare Propiedad Arínzano, owned by Stolichnaya’s Yuri Shefler. At Propiedad Arínzano, travelers can stay, and dine lavishly, in a refurbished 18th-century villa.

All are wineries of excellence and historic importance with a focus on terroir. Not every label that a member makes will be a GPE wine — only those from an exceptional vineyard. The majority of them export to the U.S. And, like Mas Doix, whose Doix label is a GPE wine, most welcome guests to their estates for tours and tastings.

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“I don’t believe in the appellation,” said Antonio Sarrión, owner-winemaker at Bodega Mustiguillo and the current president of the GPE, as he drove me through a Valencian valley of factory vineyards whose grapes are largely exported for bulk wine. “I don’t believe in the big cooperatives.”

We had come from the Requena to the valley’s south, where, on a 900-meter-high slope, Sarrión grows white grapes: Xarello and Chardonnay for Cava; and, for still wines, Viognier, Malvasia, and Merseguera.

A little-known indigenous variety, Merseguera is most often blended into bulk wines. In “The Oxford Companion to Wine,” Fourth Edition, Janice Robinson calls it “lacklustre.” But grown organically and dry farmed on hillsides that see a substantial temperature swing between night and day, then naturally fermented and aged a year in old French oak and acacia barrels, Sarrión’s Merseguera yields a zesty, peachy, mineral-laden mouthful for his single-varietal Finca Calvestra.

The vineyard in spring was beautiful, with mustard and other cover crops blossoming in the red-hued soil. Birds sang from Sarrión’s native olive trees and the surrounding forest, which has abundant wildlife.

“We put human hair and little radios of humans talking in the vineyards because the deer don’t like it,” Sarrión said. “They eat the Malvasia because it’s sweet. Wild boar eat a lot, too.”

We started climbing out of the valley’s northern end toward Utiel, where Sarrión’s D.O. Pago Terrerazo vineyard is located on a slope undergirded by limestone that the cooperatives couldn’t machine-harvest.

“I bought all the little parcels others don’t like,” Sarrión told me. “This property has good and medium and bad parcels. I’m working only with the good and medium — 45 or 50 of 87 hectares. The rest I sell to other properties.”

It’s here that he built Mustiguillo winery from the ruins of an old stone farmhouse and barn. And it’s here that he cultivates the local red grape that proved the estate’s worthiness for its own D.O. Pago: Bobal. A dark fruit that brings deep color to red blends, Bobal can be harshly acidic if not treated properly; it has primarily been bulked in Valencia. When Sarrión started bottling it on its own, Robert Parker awarded it 95 points, but Valencia’s regulatory board wouldn’t let him export it.

“It was a bad grape, they argued, so I couldn’t label it by type,” he told me. To get around that restriction, he applied for D.O. Pago status in 2010. “The only way here for me was not to belong to the appellation in Valencia.”

With an eye toward the granular quality of the terroir, Sarrión keeps his parcels separate, making 55 to 62 different Bobals per vintage and then blending them into his Mestizaje and Finca Terrerazo reds. Quincha Corral, his top label and a GPE wine, comes from two tiny, dry-farmed plots planted as far back as 1919. Sarrión only makes 4,000 bottles of it. The 2009 vintage that we tasted had a deep, licorice flavor and a gorgeous, silky mouthfeel.

Like his whites, the reds are organically grown and long-fermented with native yeast. Sarrión has also been experimenting with concrete fermenters, which he mixes and casts himself using sand dug from the property.

He’s introducing new things, too, to the GPE. The organization may have been more of a marketing apparatus in the past, but Sarrión uses it to emphasize terroir-driven excellence. He’s gathered an independent panel of experts for twice-yearly tastings to ensure the quality of GPE wines. And he’s instated a biannual meeting where members swap viticultural advice.

“My idea is to go close to the properties,” he says, “and make a purer association with the land.”

He encourages artisan producers to join by waiving membership fees for wineries making fewer than 40,000 bottles. And he’s organized a viticultural trial of the same Tempranillo clone vinified in the same manner across member estates, to test the effects of their different soils and climates on the resulting wine. He believes his obsession with terroir is catching on, all for the better.

“I think, every day, people are drinking better wine,” he told me. “I see the new Spain.” To help others see what he sees, Sarrión launched an enotourism initiative this year, promoting opportunities for visitors to get closer to the member estates’ winemaking and terroir.

“Grandes Pagos de España is like a dream,” winemaker Pepe Mendoza says. Photo credit: Betsy Andrews

Sarrión’s partner in evolving the GPE is executive committee member Pepe Mendoza, owner-winemaker at Bodegas Enrique Mendoza. I met him at his winery tucked between the town of Villena and two mountainous national parks not far from Alicante’s shore. Here, on the high, coastal desert, the climate is what Mendoza calls “Mediterranean extreme.”

“There’s a big diurnal range,” he explained. “But the real problem is water. There’s no rain at all. In 2013, there was not a drop of water in 11 months. Then, the 28th of August, we had ice storm. I lost all my wine.”

Mendoza has given into the vicissitudes of the terroir, working biodynamically and even dry-farming some of the estate.

“The soil is very bad. It’s calcereous and sandy limestone,” he told me. Though Mendoza tends old-vine Pinot, Cab, and Petite Verdot planted by his father, international varieties take a lot of work in these conditions. “But if you want biodynamic wine with character, this is the place.”

With the ocean breeze and aridity, there’s little fungal pressure. He treats vineyard moths with pheromone bait and wards off spiders with cinnamon. And he fertilizes with a heady, homemade compost: honey, seaweed, stinging nettle, homeopathic preparations, lamb droppings. “The idea is to give energy and life to the soil,” he told me.

It’s a commitment to the deceptively abundant terroir of an area that’s been inhabited for seven millenia. We piled into Mendoza’s jeep, and he drove me along the old Roman road that cuts through his property past the ruins of an ancient Arabic well house. We were headed to a hidden little vineyard where he grows Monastrell. Squat, knee-high bushes, some 65 years old, they looked like bonsais and were sparsely planted, just 15 vines per acre. Each would yield only about half a pound of the native Spanish grapes that the French call Mourvèdre.

“If you have a big plant, they need everything. These don’t. They will give just 100 grapes but with amazing quality,” he said. “The unique possibility here is to reduce your volume. Natural wine: This is my life. This is my evolution.”

Mendoza set a basket on a picnic table beneath a tree beside the vineyard, which is named for the width of the valley in which it is planted: Estrecho, meaning “narrow.” The valley was formed by an ancient salt river that flowed through the land to the Mediterranean Sea.

“When we bought this vineyard, it was nearly dead,” said Mendoza, whose father purchased the land in the 1980s. “For me, this place reduces my stress and blood pressure. I stay here one hour, and I go home more quiet.”

A kestrel perched on a branch above the vineyard’s far side. Mendoza pointed out an endangered lizard that was scurrying along the rocky soil beside us. “I believe very much in this vineyard,” he said.

When he pulled a bottle from the basket and poured me a taste of the GPE wine that comes from this plot, also called Estrecho, I believed in it, too. Aged in neutral oak for 15 months, it tasted wildly herbaceous —rosemary, lavender, pine needles — with an umami streak of balsamic and truffles. But its exuberance was hemmed in elegantly — narrowed, like the site itself — by its tannic structure and the minerality of the vineyard’s caliche soil.

It so expressed the character of this particular vineyard that I remarked that it seemed to prove the case his association tries to make: There is a place for terroir in Spanish wine.

In response, Mendoza looked out over this beloved plot of tiny, widespread, indigenous vines. “Grandes Pagos de España is like a dream,” he said. “If you buy a bottle from all of them, you have a beautiful picture of Spain.”

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