Travels of the ONX Team: Aaron in Spain
Traveling is part of any winemakers education; visiting the wine regions of the rest of the world teaches us to appreciate and understand new styles of wine and grape growing, as well as enlighten us to the history of winemaking and where the origins of our craft lie. I’m thankful to have gotten to travel to many countries of Europe and the southern hemisphere, visiting wine regions and getting to know the people and vines that produce the wines from each place. High on my list of places to visit for many years has been Spain, which I had planned to visit in 2005 but suddenly changed plans to go elsewhere. I’ve always been enamored by the rich culture, as well as the food and wines of the famouly hot country. Grenache happens to be one of my most favorite varieties, and it’s possible that no where else in the world grows more amazing Grenache as Spain (known in their country as Garnacha). So when it came down to vacation planning late last year, Spain was on the top of my list. Needless to say, I was thrilled to get a chance to head back to Old World Europe, and once I arrived there last month, I had no regrets. IMG_1134
I spent 3 weeks traveling through Spain, exploring the Basque Country of San Sebastian, the Catalonian capital of Barcelona, the entire Mediterranean coast, the rich Islamic center of Granada, as well as the the wine regions of Penedes, Priorat, Hondarribbia, and others. It was a trip of a lifetime for sure! Incredible people, incredible landscapes, amazing wines, and enought delicious food (especially seafood) to satisfy any hunger.
Of all the places I visited in Spain, I was most captivated by the wine region of Priorat, a small area with one of the best reputations in Europe for producting world class wines. This area lies in the mountains just 1 hour south of Barcelona, and is without a doubt the most beautiful wine region I have ever visited. Dramatic doesn’t even begin to describe the feeling of driving the incredibly narrow and steep mountain roads amidst impossible vineyards and groves of hazelnut trees. The photos here cannot do it justice. Nestled below a massive tabletop mountain known as the Montsant, the vineyards of Priorat are planted mainly to Grenache, Carignane, Syrah, and Cabernet Sauvignon and grown in a head trained style not too dissimilar from how we grown Zinfandel in California. One look at these vineyards, growing on hillsides so steep that one can barely walk up them, and you feel that anything in grapegrowing is possible. The thin, slate soils known as “licorella” are so rocky that machinery or animals are not able to be used for in most vineyards, meaning that only the hands of a human can work the vines. I was in awe the moment I entered the Priorat, feeling as if I stepped back in time to a winemaking land from eons ago. The tiny villages (the town I stayed had a whopping 50 residents) were made up of nothing more than a few small wineries, a restaurant (if you were lucky) and a handful of farmers. It was truly an authentic Spanish experience, and I found myself dreaming of being lost there forever and living amongst the mountains and the vineyards. IMG_1171
The wines of Priorat are rich, powerful, and extremely distinct. The harsh warm summers in this part of Spain heat the rocky slate below the vines to oven-like temperatures, moderated only by the high mountain elevations that cool things off a bit. The vines cling onto the steep slopes for dear life without any irrigation whatsoever, making you wonder how they were even planted there. As such, each of the old vines that grow in Priorat grow a mere 2-3 clusters per vine, a far cry from some commercial vineyards that may grow 40-50 clusters on a single vine. These vines yield flavorful grapes with amazing power and muscular tannins, and the resulting wines are equally as intense. Mostly based in Grenache and Carignan, with smaller amounts of Syrah and Cabernet, the wines feature lofty alcohols in the 15-15.5% range and very concentrated flavors of black fruits, dense chocolate, and distinctively savory notes, with chewy tannins. IMG_1258
The incredible blend of muscle and nuace instantly made me think of Paso Robles, and although our region is not quite as dramatic as Priorat, I find that the wines share similar traits. The incredible balance of power, grace, and complexity is what we at ONX really strive for, and certainly something that we can acheive. As I mentioned earlier, it’s these travels that help enlighten us as winemakers and give us inspiration to push the limits!
I returned from Spain without a single complaint other than I wish I could have stayed longer. If for some reason you find that I’ve disappeared and gone M.I.A., I would recommend you start your search in the mountainous vineyards of the Priorat.