Northern Spain’s “Small California” (Spotlight On Somontano)

[ Editor’s note: Following is a piece that a wrote for a magazine, but after waiting over a year for them to publish it and pay me, I’m giving up and putting it here so that it can see the light of day and you can get some insight into a region that doesn’t see a lot of media play. Enjoy! ]

Northern Spain’s “Small California”

Why your next favorite Cab, Merlot, or Gewürztraminer might just be coming from Somontano

Take a second or two, and think about your favorite Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot, your go-to Chardonnay, even your last Gewürztraminer.

What region was emblazoned on the labels of those tasty wine? Paso Robles? Washington? Chile?

Chances are very good that the word “Somontano” was not the area printed on the label. And yet, chances are also very good that this relatively small northern Spanish Denominación de Origen has been growing those same fine wine grapes longer than the more famous regions that produce your favorite versions of those same wines.

Somontano’s ancient Alquézar

Like most of the wine regions in Western Europe, viticulture in Somontano was probably established by the Romans, and also probable predates reliable written history, extending back to the second century BC. That it took the region until 1984 to become an officially recognized  Denominación de Origen (DO) is, in a way, indicative of the minor identity crisis that defines the modern Somontano. At a time when “uniqueness” is the marketing battle cry of most luxury fine wine regions, Somontano is the odd man out.

Of the grapes officially permitted in the DO, only three (the white Alcañón, and reds Moristel and Parraleta) are indigenous. A few others (such as Garnacha and Tempranillo) are Spanish in origin but not native to Somontano. The rest are a hodgepodge of some of the wine world’s most famous – and decidedly not Spanish – grapes: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, Pinot noir, Chardonnay, and Gewürztraminer.

What makes Somontano such an awkwardly difficult topic in marketing meetings is the same thing that makes many of its wines so good: the place has a great climate growing famous international grape varieties. As winemaker Jesús Artajona Serrano, from Enate (one of the founders of the Somontano DO) puts it, “we are in a small California…”

Northern Spain’s “Small California” (Spotlight On Somontano)

Cellars of Pirieneos

Roughly translated, Somontano means “foot of the mountains.” Protected by the Pyrenees, the area sits at the edge of the European plate, on soils that were part of an ancient ocean, topped with runoff from the nearby mountains. While the climate is mostly continental, the proximity to the mountains allows for large diurnal temperature shifts, which fine wine grapes happen to love. The Pyrenees also help to keep the area relatively dry and sunny. Bodega Pirineos winemaker Jesús Astrain Losilla summarizes Somontano’s favorable climatic situation quite eloquently: “it’s like a theatre at the foot of the mountains.”

With beautiful ancient cities such as Alquézar (which, along with nearby Barbastro, is an UNESCO World Heritage Site), and stunning natural caverns that attract canyoning aficionados and adventure seekers, Somontano wine exposure isn’t struggling in terms of the tourist perspective. Sitting on a terrace and taking in the view of Alquézar after a hike while sipping a chilled wine made from grapes that you already know has got to be one of the more pleasant things that one can do in all of Europe, after all. There’s also a popular wine, art, and music festival, held annually in August. The Somontano DO headquarters (located in a building that dates back to the sixteenth century) is renovating to keep up with the tourist demand, updating their restaurant, wine shop, tasting room, and small museum.

Northern Spain’s “Small California” (Spotlight On Somontano)

Modern artwork at Enate’s gallery

But beyond the medieval walls and the narrow stone roads of its ancient cities, Somontano’s international wine variety focus is a much tougher sell. That the region can do so many things well is certainly its strong-suit, but that also means that its products face an inordinate amount of competition on the world’s wine shelves, even when you consider that the global wine market is arguably at the most competitive point it has ever seen in its centuries-long history. So, how did all of this happen in the first place?

During the Middle Ages, the area that would become Somontano saw a continuation in the winemaking traditions established by the Romans, in the form of Catholic monasteries that saw wine as both an essential beverage and a requirement for religious services (their influence, both ancient and modern, is on ample picturesque display in Somontano, drawing large numbers of tourists each year to sites such as the Torreciudad Shrine). But it was the nineteenth century that would set the course of Somontano’s winemaking future. In the 1800s, the early stages of the phylloxera louse epidemic (which would decimate much of the established vineyards in Europe) first swept through France. During that time, desperate wine and grape-growing businesses looked to other regions for economic salvation, leading some of them to Northern Spain. The result was an exponential increase in winemaking, sales, and exports for the Somontano area, and plantings of some of France’s most famous wine grape varieties.

That explains what grapes like Gewürztraminer are doing in Somontano. In that particular case, the variety was transplanted from Alsace, which makes sense when you think about it; the regions are relatively close to one another, and share some important climatic influences, like nearby mountain ranges. Where they differ are in things like sun exposure – there is more of that in Somontano, so its Gewürztraminer wines tend to be riper and more powerful than their Alsatian cousins. The grape has done so well here, in fact, that Somontano now has about 400 hectares of Gewürztraminer plantings.

Pirineos’ Losilla has a compelling take on both the marketing strength and challenge that Somontano faces on the international wine market: “The philosophy is diversity.” Here’s an introduction to a handful of Somontano’s most compelling examples of that diversity.

Northern Spain’s “Small California” (Spotlight On Somontano)

Bodega Pirieneos 2010 Señorio de Lazán Reserva

Northern Spain’s “Small California” (Spotlight On Somontano)Pirieneos evolved from a pioneering co-operative in the region, going private in the early 1990s, and now represents about twenty-five percent of the entire Somontano DO. Most of their vineyards are dry-farmed, with naturally low grape yields that are harvested at night to protect the grapes from the heat. The name of their Reserva is a tribute to the Lazán mountain in the Sierra de la Candelera, and the former marquis who was a lord of the area. This blend also pays tribute to the triple-threat identity of Somontano, using the international Cabernet Sauvignon, Spanish Tempranillo, and local Moristel. Their Reserva might also be the forerunner of oak-aged red wines in the region. It’s floral, peppery, and generous with blackcurrant fruit flavors and notes of tobacco and coffee.


Enate 2016 Chardonnay-234

Enate, celebrating its twenty-fifth anniversary in 2017, is one of the founders of the Somontano DO, producing about 2.5 million bottles per year. The brand is probably most famous regionally for the artwork that it commissions for its labels, much of which then goes on display in its impressive museum. Its Chardonnay is lively and pretty, with aromas of white flowers, citrus, and peach, and flavors of apricots and pears. It’s pithy, persistent, and a versatile match with food.

Northern Spain’s “Small California” (Spotlight On Somontano)

Enate 2012 Cabernet-Cabernet

So good that they had to name it twice? Well, once could certainly make an argument for that. The idea of this wine is to blend two different styles of Cabernet Sauvignon – a leaner, serious European take and a riper, generous Mediterranean side. It works; the result is a modern, juicy, plummy red with power and structure, but also with good balance and intriguing notes of toast, dried herbs, spice, and cigar.


Batán de Salas DeBeroz 2016 Essencia de Gewürztraminer

Batán de Salas de Beroz is headed up by current Somontano DO president Mariano Beroz Bandrés. In contrast to the region’s other fine wine producers, who in many cases have either large, ultra-modern facilities or long, storied histories, Batán de Salas is  small operator, housed unassumingly in an industrial area. They have steel tanks to one side, bottle storage to the other, and barrels and concrete in between. As Beroz puts it, “we make garage wine, in a bigger garage.” Their Gewürztraminer is a textural, focused, and serious effort that belies their small size. The white has intense rose petal notes, with ample stone fruits, apples, and citrus flavors.

Northern Spain’s “Small California” (Spotlight On Somontano)

A sense of humor at Batán de Salas’ tasting room

Viñas del Vero 2014 La Miranda Secastilla Garnacha

Viñas del Vero, and its sister winery Blecua Estate, are high-end, boutique operations owned by the González Byass group, who operate over twenty wine brands worldwide. That corporate ownership seems to have little trickle-down impact on the Somontano wines overseen by the talented José Ferrer, who has a winemaking touch equally as impressive as the renovated Blecua Estate in which he works. The Secastilla red is produced primarily from old vine Garnacha planted in organic vineyards that are over 700 meters above sea level. The combination of unique site and attention to detail in the cellar results in a lovely, fleshy, refined, and complex wine. Notes of violets, black pepper, spices, and dried herbs combine with fresh blue, black, and red plum flavors, and enough structure to suggest that some cellaring patience will pay dividends later. [ Editor’s note: for more on this stellar producer, check out the feature that ran here earlier. ]

Northern Spain’s “Small California” (Spotlight On Somontano)

Bullet holes from the Spanish Civil War are still visible on some of Lalanne’s barrels.

Lalanne 2011 Lataste Gran Vino

The history of Lalanne parallels the history of modern Somontano wine, and their roots in the area run as deep as any of the region’s oldest vines. This family-run outfit was established by an offshoot of a Bordelais family that decided to move to the area during the phylloxera epidemic in the late 1890s. The family has run a local hotel, regional trains and boats (guess what those were used to transport…), and owned a hydroelectric plant that once provided the majority of Somontano’s electricity. Not surprisingly, Lalanne is one of the oldest commercial wineries in the region, and one of the founding DO members. Some of their large oak casks still bear bullet holes from the Spanish civil war. Their Lataste (named after their founder’s wife) is an interesting example of Somontano’s potential, blending all of the DO’s red international varieties – Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, and Pinot Noir (with a bit of Tempranillo, as well). Each vineyard plot is selected, fermented, and aged separately before blending. It’s an “old school” dark and earthy red, with notes of chalk, leather, prunes, and licorice.


Sommos 2016 Glárima Variatales Blanco

Sommos is an architectural wonder. Designed by Jesus Marino Pascual, the winery has twenty-seven meters above ground, and extends the same distance underground, as well. Its ultra-modern facade houses an antiseptically clean, mechanized, cavernous interior where just about every stage of the winemaking process is carried out by large, impressive machinery. Almost as impressive are the experimental vineyards surrounding Sommos, in which twenty different vine training systems are being used. The calling card of the winery is their Glárima white, a blend of Gewürztraminer, Chardonnay, and Pinot Noir. Aromas of hay, roses, and apples give way to pear and citrus flavors, with a texture that is both intellectual and delicious.

Northern Spain’s “Small California” (Spotlight On Somontano)

Sommos 2014 Merlot

If you like your Merlot on the dark and toasty side, then you’ll love this red. Dark and plummy, with ample tannic structure and full body, Sommos’ Merlot is a complex beast of a wine, with aromas of oak, vanilla, tobacco, and even smoked meat.


Laus 2016 Rosado

Across the street from Somos sits Laus, a winery in transition (with redesigned labels, and a restaurant and spa in development) whose clean, stylized exterior would look ultra-modern if not for its slightly ultra-modern neighbor. The name means “grace,” and certainly its combination of 100 hectares of well-tended vineyards and calming water pools (used to help cool the winery areas underneath) will have a calming effect on just about any visitor. Winemaker Jesús Mur has crafted an instantly accessible rosé from Laus’ Syrah and Garnacha. It has a beautiful watermelon color, with strawberry flavors and a tasty, vibrant mouthfeel.

Northern Spain’s “Small California” (Spotlight On Somontano)

Modern styling marks the construction at Laus

Laus 2013 Tinto Crianza

A 50/50 blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, with eight months of French oak aging, this red is a testament to the Bordeaux heritage of Somontano’s modern wine scene. Pure flavors of cassis and plum mingle with clove, violet, toast, and cigar aromas in this focused and fresh wine. If its structure is any indication, Laus have an overachiever on their hands here that will mellow out and get even more delicious with a bit of bottle aging.


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That Is One Big Pile Of… Enthusiasm (Vinyes Domènech Recent Releases)

Joan Ignasi Domènech, talking sh*t in Vinyes Domènech

If you visit Montsant’s Vinyes Domènech, located in the southern portion of the winemaking district that nearly encircles Spain’s famous Priorat area like a talon, be forewarned that owner Joan Ignasi Domènech is likely to talk sh*t.

As in, literally speak about sh*t. Like, fertilizer. Along with solar energy, water collection, and all things botanical. Long enough to really, really, really make you want to move away from the intensely pungent nearby piles of the stuff…

Domènech, who heads up this family-owned and operated vineyard area surrounded by the natural park beauty of the Llaberia and Montalt mountains at roughly 400 meters elevation, is a stickler for all-things natural, biodynamic, and conservatory.

That Is One Big Pile Of… Enthusiasm (Vinyes Domènech Recent Releases)

Since 2002, this former tech-guy has overseen some of the oldest vines in Capçanes, in a spot that previously had no real supporting infrastructure of any kind. That Domènech didn’t have any previous experience in wine (aside from drinking it, and living near Priorat in Falset) or in reconstituting rugged landscapes didn’t deter his enthusiasm for transforming a previously nearly-inaccessible 15 hectares of land into what is now the handsome hamlet of Vinyes Domènech.

Domènech was, as he tells it, wooed by the natural beauty of the area after visiting it with his family on holidays, and luckily for us wine geeks, he happens to have access to Garnaxta perluga vines that are well into their elderly stage (60-80 years and counting)…

That Is One Big Pile Of… Enthusiasm (Vinyes Domènech Recent Releases)

That Is One Big Pile Of… Enthusiasm (Vinyes Domènech Recent Releases)2016 Vinyes Domènech ‘Bancal del Bosc’ Garnatxa Blanca (Montsant, $NA)

Priorat-area fans are justifiably ga-ga over old Garnacha vine fruit, but its blanca equivalent can be equally as compelling in its later years, as evidenced by Vinyes Domènech’s wares. Their Bancal is creamy, generous, harmonious, textured, and lovely. It’s also complex, with varying degrees of blossom, honey, peach, citrus, pear, lemon, herbs, and toast. Overall, it’s a beguiling white, provided that you’re grown-up and daring enough to venture into the more exotic territory to which it’s inviting you.

That Is One Big Pile Of… Enthusiasm (Vinyes Domènech Recent Releases)

That Is One Big Pile Of… Enthusiasm (Vinyes Domènech Recent Releases)2016 Vinyes Domènech ‘Rita’ (Montsant, $NA)

There’s Lovely Rita, and there’s this, which is more like Sexy Rita. 60+ year-old vines provide the fruit for this Garnaxta Blanca, and only about one thousand bottles were made of the `16. Some of the vinification takes place in barrel, resulting in a silky, tropical, rich, and floral presentation with emphasis on the lemon cream action. Having said that, it’s not without its charm, by way of little tinges of herbs, minerals, and saline.

That Is One Big Pile Of… Enthusiasm (Vinyes Domènech Recent Releases)

That Is One Big Pile Of… Enthusiasm (Vinyes Domènech Recent Releases)2015 Vinyes Domènech Vinyes Velles de Samsó (Montsant, $NA)

100% Carignan, with maybe 500 bottles produced in the vintage, from 80+ year-old vines. Domènech remarked, I think in equal parts joke, exacerbation, and pride, that it takes “five vines per bottle” to craft this smooth, elegant, spicy, and vibrant red. The plummy fruitiness is quite deep, the structure (this is still a baby-child) and power are ample, and the purity is enviable.

That Is One Big Pile Of… Enthusiasm (Vinyes Domènech Recent Releases)

That Is One Big Pile Of… Enthusiasm (Vinyes Domènech Recent Releases)2014 Vinyes Domènech ‘Teixar’ Garnaxta Vella (Montsant, $NA)

Old vines from select plots supply the fruit for this spicy, savory, silky, sinewy, loud and long red. Red and black plums and cherries, violets, dried herbs, along with almost-but-not-really-overripe flavors make for a big, bold, steak-ready sipper. The long finish is a bonus, and might help to clear your retro-nasal passages of any lingering smells from all of that natural fertilizer, should you be lucky enough to visit…


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Copyright © 2016. Originally at That Is One Big Pile Of… Enthusiasm (Vinyes Domènech Recent Releases) from - for personal, non-commercial use only. Cheers!

I Praise This Wine Without Using Exclamation Points

I am so guilty of abusing exclamation points. If you read the “About Me” section of this very blog, I even confess/brag about it. I refer to my predilection as deploying an “overabundance” of them.

A quote from F. Scott Fitzgerald has stuck with me:

“An exclamation point is like laughing at your own joke.”

In this crazy day and age of texting and social media, not using an exclamation point can come across as sarcastic, cold, or detached. You type “Congratulations!!!” rather than “Congratulations.”

In The Guardian, Elena Ferrante, author of the excellent 4-book series Neapolitan Novelstakes on the exclamation point, saying:

“Of all the punctuation marks, it’s the one I like the least. It suggests a commander’s staff, a pretentious obelisk, a phallic display. An exclamation should be easily understood by reading; there’s no need to insist with that mark at the end as well.” 


“But I still think that ‘I hate you’ has a power, an emotional honesty, that ‘I hate you!!!’ does not.”

I highly recommend reading the whole column because it makes serious points about language, meaning, and power.

Inspired by Ferrante, I would like to talk about a wine. This is much less serious matter, but here I go.

I like this wine. It’s really good.

Siete Red (No Exclamation Points)

I Praise This Wine Without Using Exclamation PointsFirst of all, I dig this label. So. Much. I am very tempted to finish a sentence about it with a punctuation mark that would convey an exuberant mood. Furthermore, I might repeat the use of this mark three to five times for maximum impact.


The Siete Red is from Rioja. It’s a blend of 80% Tempranillo, 10% Garnacha, and 10% Mazuelo. The grapes are organic, which is great. Due to  no oak being involved, this Spanish wine is very welcoming and open. But the Siete is beyond pleasant, with a little bit of earthiness that leads to a spicy, fruity kick of a finish.

Who wouldn’t love to bring this wine to a party because it just looks so cool? Everyone would pour themselves a glass. Additionally, it’s not too pricey. I got it for 14 bucks at Dandelion Wine.

If you’re also a fan of label design and some of the considerations both artistic and practical behind their creation, please read my Q&A with Randall Grahm of Boon Doon Vineyards. Or find out what five graphic designers thought of another Spanish wine label. Finally, get to know a creative agency that chimed in on a label and wine I dig.

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Grenache Blanc From Priorat: Seek Out This Surprising White Wine

Four years ago I went to Spain on a trip with a Cava producer and the most surprising wine I drank (during a day away from sparkling) was a Grenache Blanc (Garnacha Blanca) from Priorat. The later is a region in Spain a couple hours west of Barcelona but it feels like a world away. Steep slopes, super gnarly vines, and soil that’s a jagged razor’s edge of slate.

You can see some evocative photos (that I did not take) here.

It was great. The white wine had wonderful richness without being too heavy. It walked the tightrope! (It’s also worth seeking out Grenache Blanc from Washington, California, and in blends from southern France.)

On a recent episode of the Wine Enthusiast Podcast, hosted by yours truly, I was excited to hear that, in Priorat, Grenache Blanc wasn’t a fluke. Though the vast majority of wines in the region are rich, concentrated reds, our Spanish wine reviewer, Michael Schachner, has some eye-opening comments about the tiny trickle of white wines. Plus a history lesson on Priorat.

Then I chat with with Patrick Mata, co-founder of Olé Imports. We touch on how to start a wine import company when you aren’t old enough to drink. And I learn the surprising history of white wine in Rioja. Plus a few regions to watch out for, notable white wines, and some talk about how the world of rosé wine (rosado) in Spain has grown since everyone is thinking (and drinking) pink.

Have a listen:

Photo by Angela Llop via flickr.

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