Field Trips: Exploring DO Montsant in Spain
All photos by Becca Yeamans-Irwin Disclosure: The author was invited to a paid press trip to DO Montsant in Spain. The contents of this article were not influenced by DO Montsant.
Despite being a relatively young appellation, the area of DO Montsant has been involved in winemaking since the Roman Empire. With time comes progress, and the region is no stranger to innovation in winemaking and winemaking as a constant source of employment and income for families in the region. Officially, Montsant was finally recognized as a Designation of Origin in 2001.
DO Montsant is located in the county of Priorat, which may sound familiar as the more well-known appellation of Priorat is also located in this county. While these two appellations are very close geographically, the wines are markedly different, primarily due to the soil composition of each of the two regions.
An hour and a half west-southwest of Barcelona, DO Montsant forms an almost complete oval shape surrounding the DOQ Priorat, with one small section of that oval being apart of the Priorat. This semi-circle shape contains very mountainous terrain, as well as some more varied aspects including more gently rolling hills. The entire appellation features 6 different mountain ranges: Montsant, La Llena, Prades, Argentera, Mola de Colldejou, Llaberia/Catalan Coastal Mountain ranges, plus the La Figuera and Tormo mountains.
The region isn’t completely mountainous, however, as the area broadens a bit in the southern part of the region, which opens to the Ebro River Valley. Altitudes of the vineyards in DO Montsant range anywhere from 50 to 700 meters about sea level.
While the primary soil type in neighboring Priorat is granite-like, the soils in DO Montsant are more varied and calcareous. Each sub-region in the DO varies in terms of their soil composition, and the prevailing soils types across the entire appellation are calcareous or limestone, granitic, and slate-based.
The combination of mountainous terrain plus the influence of the Ebro River Valley and nearby Mediterranean Sea, classifies the climate of this region as “Mediterranean with continental aspects”. In other words, the region sees some climate aspects that come with having many mountains in the region, as well as some climate aspects that come with being located so near to the Mediterranean Sea.
The region sees significant differences in day and nighttime temperatures, particularly during the grape ripening period (from veraison to harvest). In general, these larger day and nighttime temperature differences influence ripening by decreasing metabolism and respiration of the grapes, altering the chemical composition of the wine, particularly the polyphenol content, which influences the overall aromatic profile of the wines.
The summers tend to be hot and dry (400-700L/m2 rainfall per year, mostly in spring and fall), though additional moisture is blown in from the sea in the summer, which helps the grapes during the ripening period.
Of course, with the area being so geologically diverse, there are bound to be many microclimates in the region, allowing a uniqueness to each sub-region and the wines made therein.
Overall, there are about 1,913 hectares of wine grapes planted in DO Montsant, with 94% of them being red varieties and only 6% of them white varieties.
About 66% of the red grape vineyards in DO Montsant are planted with Red Grenache (Garnatxa Negra) and Carignan (Carinyena, a.k.a. Samsó), with the remaining 34% split amongst 8 other varieties. For the whites, about 94% of the white grape vineyards in DO Montsant are planted with White Grenache (Garnatxa Blanc) and Viura (Macabeu), with the remaining 6% split amongst 4 other varieties.
Wineries, Wines, and Philosophy
In the DO Montsant, there are a total of 65 wineries with an overall production of 7-9 million kgs (or 1.8-2.4 million gallons). Compared to someplace like California, whose 4,653 wineries produced 680 million gallons of wine in 2016, the entire DO is very small.
The size of individual wineries in the area are also relatively small, from private family-run operations to larger cooperatives. According to Eulàlia Roca, Export Manager at Celler Masroig, the cooperative is the “engine of the village”. Roca explained that for Masroig, a village of about 500 people, it is “still one of the villages in Priorat county where 95% of the families still [make a living] from the vineyards”. She continued, “Luckily, we are one of the wineries that still have very young farmers who want to continue what their parents and grandparents started a while ago.” This commitment to the wines and vineyards of Montsant was evident at all the producers who I visited during my short stay in the DO, which gave the whole experience an added sense of community and comradery.
Expanding more on the philosophy of the region, the wines are created to embrace a true “sense of place”. The producers work diligently with the land and the grapes, often with organic (not necessarily certified), biodynamic, or otherwise generally sustainable practices. According to Jesús del Rio Mateu, former professor of anthropology and current proprietor of Mas de l’Abundancia, the vineyards he cultivates for his wines “[don’t] belong to me, I belong to [them]”, and therefore must be treated with the utmost respect and care.
One thing that surprised me when visiting the wineries and tasting the wines of the DO Montsant was how diverse they all were from producer to producer. Of course, the geography, climate, and microclimates of the region should lend itself to that type of individual uniqueness, but it was still surprising nonetheless. In addition to the varied microclimates of the region, each producer has their own way of producing their wines, which adds another layer of diversity, making wine tasting within this region even more exciting.
Where to find DO Montsant wines
In 2016, 70% of the wines produced in DO Montsant remained in the local market (Spain). The other 30% was marked for export, with 41% of that going to places within the EU, and the remaining 59% going elsewhere around the world (including the United States). The good news is that while much of the wine produced in DO Montsant is found primarily Spain, there are still many producers who export at least one or more of their wines to the United States and elsewhere around the globe. As a bonus, many of the wines produced in the DO Montsant are much less expensive than the wines produced in neighboring Priorat, giving you access to high quality wine at a much better deal.
DO Montsant wines are brought into the US by several importers on both sides of the country, from New York to California and Pennsylvania to Oregon, who then distribute the wines to shops all over the country.
Because of the high quality of the wines tasted on my recent visit to the DO Montsant, it is impossible to pick favorites. I thought most of the wines were exceptional, so I’ll just mention a couple of the producers that stood out in my mind in particular: Acústic-Celler, Sant Rafel, Celler Masroig, Mas de l’Abundància, and Coca i Fitó.
Overall, I highly recommend trying some DO Montsant if you have access to them. Ask your local wine shop about getting these wines if they don’t have them already. The more we demand the product, the more you’ll see it on wine shop shelves!