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MAS DOIX: PRIORAT AMBASSADOR


by Andrew Chalk We frequently hear that vines need barren land to produce the best wine. Make them struggle, the saying goes, and they will plant deep roots and develop grapes of more complex character and uniqueness that can yield, in the hands of the right winemaker, greater wine. Few pieces of land on earth can be a more telling testament to that than Priorat, in the autonomous community of Catalonia in northeastern Spain. 


I recently had a meeting with Valenti Llagostera, co-founder of Mas Doix, a quarter-century old producer of wines from vines that go back (almost) a century and a quarter. The pictures he showed me of their vineyards and the surroundings showed a territory that is almost intimidating in its rejection of modernity. Hills and valleys are punctuated by small towns with tightly-spaced buildings, their placement reflecting the availability of water. 

SOIL

In the vineyards the predominant soil is one of the defining characteristics of the DOQ (Denominació d'Origen Qualificada). A mixture of black slate and quartz known, in Catalan, as licorella. Its coarse texture makes for excellent drainage, forcing vines up to 20 meters deep for water. Its other property is to reflect sunlight and conserve heat, allowing the bottom of the grape canopy leaves to undergo photosynthesis. 



VINES

In Priorat, it is common to see vines cultivated as short round shrubs (the goblet style), a traditional defense against the ferocity of powerful winds. The cold winds from the north and warm Mistral from the east. The quid pro quo of reliable wind is lower disease pressure as it evaporates moisture from the grapes after rain. It is the most dominating geographical feature of the region, the Serra de Montsant mountains, that provides additional mitigation against the north winds. 


At the end of the nineteenth century phylloxera devastated the vineyards at a time where Priorat had around 5,000 hectares (12,000 acres). Vineyard planting has been rapid since the 1980s with the result that by 2018 planted area was back to 40% of the pre-phylloxera heights. 


Only 7% of the grapes are white varieties, with the predominant reds being dominated by 41% garnacha (although the grape originated in Spain many wine drinkers know this grape by its French name, grenache), 23% cariñena (carignan), and the remaining 26.5% being international varieties (cabernet sauvignon 10%, syrah 10%, and merlot 6.5%). In a market where authenticity looms with growing importance I wonder if the presence of this latter group undermines the individuality of Priorat. Does the world need another outpost of cabernet sauvignon to compare with Bordeaux and Napa? 


THE MAS DOIX PHILOSOPHY

This is where Valenti Llagostera and Mas Doix come in. Far from intergenerational investment in Priorat or Spanish wine generally, Valenti and his brother Ramon founded Mas Doix in 1998 from a background in technology and finance, respectively. Maybe it is an outsider’s irreverence to conventional wisdom but in their founding principles they committed to make the finest wine possible by relying on some very traditional axioms. Thus, their red grapes are almost either garnacha or cariñena (10% syrah is used in the two least expensive lines). They classify their brands by the age of the vines, with the oldest being a sprightly 100-years old. As has been long recognized in Priorat, garnacha contributes the fruit and cariñena the structure and color. Small wonder that Max Doix winemaker Sergi Batet’s orchestra consists in some part of harmonizing the two. 


How are they doing after a quarter of a century? We tasted through three brands made from  progressively older vines from the 10-25 year-old 2021 Les Crestes, to the 25-30 year-old 2019 Salanques, to the 70-100 year-old 2018 Doix. The latter was 45% garnache/55% cariñena and a prodigious wine that will improve with age for many years. That is not to discount the other bottlings. All of these wines represent Priorat winemaking at its best. 


We also tasted the white 2022 Murmuri made from 90% white garnacha and 10% macabeu (the predominant grape in Cava, the best-selling Spanish sparkling wine). This is a welcome change of taste from the common white wine options of chardonnay or sauvignon blanc. It has a firm acidic backbone for food friendliness, and body to assert itself among strong food flavors. 


Priorat is small at about 5,000 acres but the wines are available in all of the world’s major markets. I recommend you check them out when you can.



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