Immediately to the west of the great Catalan wine region of Penedès are the vineyards of Tarragona, which houses the dynamic sub-region of Montsant. Twenty years ago, Montsant was little more than an unremarkable sub-zone of the larger Tarragona region, however, today Montsant is making a name for itself as a great value competitor to the mighty Priorat region. It is mainly the reds for which Montsant has become renowned for, the best of these excel and none more than the superb old-vine plantings of Garnacha. They can even rival top-flight Penedès wines in blind tastings and are considerably better value than the admittedly excellent wines of the Priorat area.
A short history
Montsant is one of the newest D.O.s or appellations in Spain, having been officially recognized in 2001. Yet, vines have been cultivated in this part of southern Catalunya since Roman times; the Roman historian Pliny praised the wines of this wonderful region, calling them “some of the best in the Empire.” At the height of their renown, vintages were shipped to the Roman capital, Rome. Sadly, after the Western Roman Empire fell wine production all but stopped in Catalunya. The invading Gothic and Vandal tribes from the North, in addition to the Moors from North-Africa, saw to that!
The Tarragona region started producing wine once more in the Middle Ages when vines were re-introduced by monks, who had relocated from the Burgundy region and the Rhine in Germany. They arrived bringing their unique wine knowledge to Catalunya and a thriving industry once again prospered. Trade with the Americas in the 1700s also brought great prosperity to the Catalan wine trade, although the arrival of the Phylloxera louse in the late 1800s devastated many of the area’s vineyards.
Montsant continued to exist in Tarragona’s shadow in the 20th century, until growers successfully petitioned to have their sub-region legally recognized as an independent D.O. in 2001. Prior to that year, it was previously known as the Falset sub-zone of the Tarragona appellation. Encouraged by their recent award of an independent status, growers in the new Montsant zone started increasing their vineyard plantings and more actively promoting their delicious wines. Today, the region has over 2000 hectares under vine and over 45 wine growers are making wine in Montsant.
The region is located in one of southern Catalunya’s most scenic areas and surrounds its more famous cousin, Priorat. Nestled in the shadows of that region’s famous slate hills, vineyards grow along the mountainsides and on the slopes among olive trees and spectacular forests. However, despite Montsant’s close proximity to Priorat, the terroir is quite distinctive which is reflected in the wine style. Montsant’s vineyards tend to be planted on granite, sandy soils, which can give generous grape yields in the right conditions. In contrast, Priorat is famous for it’s unique, porous and slate like sols – llicorella in Catalan – which naturally being unfertile gives low yields and extremely concentrated wines. Climatically, the region enjoys a relatively benign Mediterranean climate with continental influences. The summer growing season tends to be dry, with a risk of rainfall, at harvest time. Frost damage is also quite rare, another contributing factor to the generally plentiful yields enjoyed by growers in the region.
As a result the red wines of Montsant can be (and often are) excellent, but also tend to be less powerful, concentrated and as mineral driven as those of their famous neighbor. Nonetheless, they are delicious and very attractive to drink in their own right. The wines, like Priorat, tend to be blends of the widely planted Cabernet Sauvignon, Mazuelo, Garnacha Syrah and Tempranillo or Ull de Llebre in Catalan. They are typically medium bodied, with a supple black fruit character and softer tannins than Priorat’s wines. They can usually be enjoyed on release and don’t tend to age for very long periods, lacking the structure of top red Priorat. But crucially, they are considerably better value! Also interestingly, this region produces some of Spain’s best Kosher Wines.
There is also a small amount of white production in Montsant, but it is the reds for which the region is making a formidable name for itself. Whites are blends of Chardonnay, Garnacha Blanca, Macabeo, Moscatel, Pansal and Parellada. Single Varietal examples are rare, as winemakers feel blends tend to give the best expression of the Montsant terroir. A few rosé, dessert and rancio fortified wines using the sherry solera system are also produced in the region, although these are dwindling in number.
Ultimately, when assessing the wines of Montsant it is important to remember that this is a D.O still very much in its infancy. What has been achieved in a short space of time is simply remarkable, and the region now offers top quality reds to rival the more expensive competition from other parts of Spain. The arrival of Priorat legends René Barbier and Christopher Canaan was a welcome development over the past few years, as they have brought their invaluable expertise to the fledgling wineries of this picturesque region. This and the ever-rising standards of the top bodegas means that the wines of Montsant are finally making their mark with the world’s wine connoisseurs. So whether you’re after fruity, approachable reds or wines of greater complexity and elegance at an affordable price, you will not find a better place to start looking in Spain than in the vineyards of Montsant.