“We green harvest in the vineyard by fifty percent,” says vivacious young Judit Llop, standing in a perfect-looking vineyard in the middle of harvest on a gorgeous sunny Fall day. “That’s why it grows so healthy and ripe.”
Judit is the winemaker for Morlanda & Fra Guerau wineries located in the world-famous Denominacion de Origen Calificada (DOC) in Priorat, Spain. She is referring to the technique of removing green fruit before it changes color (verasion) so the vine can put its energy into producing better, riper fruit. The wineries are one of the many jewels in the Freixenet sparkling wine company’s crown, as its CEO, Pablo Ferrer, is passionate about having flagship wineries in the finest regions in Spain – and the world.
The modern winery was built in 1997, though the vieyards that surround it are much older. Much of the fruit comes from select hillside vineyards with vines between 25 – 40 years old, and some almost 80. The elevation here is between 550 – 700 feet, with the winery’s name taken from the name of the highest hill in the area. Yields are low, with the estate producing about 3,300 cases annually. The soil located in the vineyards near the winery is clay, though Priorat’s hillside vineyards are well known for their llicorella soil that gives the grapes unique characteristics.
The Grapes of Priorat
If you love wines, you’ve probably read about this region, which produces wines that can cost hundreds of dollars a bottle. The grapes allowed by the region include Garnacha and Carinena, which combine together to produce wines of dramatic power and depth, though in recent years Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah have been recently planted. Traditional white varieties include Macabeo, white Garnacha, and Pedro Ximenez used in sweet dessert wines.
In the vineyard
I am handing a pair of shears and begin to cut the grapes along with the rest of the pickers. At first it’s fun to cut the clusters from the vine, the grapes heavy and cool in my hand, but this pleasure quickly wears thin. The pickers, an assortment of locals, continue on though, piling the grapes into small baskets that are swiftly picked up by men driving tractors.
The sun is hot and within the hour the pickers go down to the winery to have their mid-day meal. Though I had expected a romanticized version of a hearty farmer’s wife dishing out whatever the local Priorat stew may be to hungry workers, the pickers – mostly young woman – pick at lettuce salads from plastic Tuperware containers.
The distinctive smell of yeast greets me as I enter the winery and see a man with blond hair mixing water with dry powder. I discover that local yeast (which is found naturally on the bloom of the grape skin) has been sent to the laboratory (e.g. ‘cultured’) so as to make for a more reliable fermentation.
A few feet away, workers are bringing the just-harvested grapes to the reception area, where they are immediately tossed into a machine called a crusher de-stemmer. It’s a magical process to watch the machine literally gobble up the whole bunches, ‘spitting‘ the stalks into one area, and allowing the mix of juice and pulp to travel through a thick hose to a waiting temperature-controlled stainless steel fermentation tank.
The grapes ferment at a temperature between 77 – 80 degrees. Masceration lasts thirty days, during which time the wine is tested and analyzed. Afterward, the young wine undergoes malolactic fermentation and hen racked into casks for nine months of aging. When finished, the wine is delicious, with aromas of plums and blackberries and a touch of roasted coffee with the kind of lush palate that can pair with a dish such as lamb.
The Fra Guera brand is made in a similar way but uses the traditional grapes of Montsant, such as Syrah, Garnacha, and Carinena — the so-called “Mediterranean grapes.” The estate takes its name from a 12th cenutry local Monk who supposedly cured Queen Sanca from a mysterious illness and was given land as a reward.
To make the wine, Judit kept the grapes with the skins for 22 – 28 days, then aged the final blend in new and first year American and French oak barrels for eleven months. In color the wine is an intense ruby with hints of blue. On the nose, the wine is complex and offers flavors of violets, blueberries, and blackberry. On the palate, the ripe tannins are delicious and pair well with grilled lamb as well.
Judit was born the daughter of vineyard owners, and despite her youth has an impressive resume of oenology degrees and positions with winemakers such as Miguel Torres. Female winemakers are no longer a real novelty in today’s Spain, yet there is something very refreshing and vibrant about Judit and I am very excited to see her development in the world of fine wine.