Bonney Rowley writes from Joan d'Anguera in Monsant
The saying, fine soil makes fine wine, has been passed from one generation of winemakers to another in the d’Anguera family. Their estate sits nestled between several mountain ranges and just east of the Ebro river in one of Spain's newest D.Os, Montsant. This is a region often overshadowed (literally) by the mountainous, and more well-known, region of Priorat. I am struck by the beauty of this area as we drive through the dusty yellow hills and up into the brick colored mountains. Skeletons of stone foundations dot the landscape; relics of the region’s history of war and turmoil. It's hard to believe that Catalonians only gained autonomy in 1978 after years of civil war and the rule of dictators.
In Monsant, the d’Anguera family has roots that go back almost 200 years. Their estate sits on the best terroir in the region with rare sandy soils. It is more common to find dense clay soils in the area but a river once ran through their property before the government built a dam in the 1970’s, leaving behind sandy top soils and river stones with clay and limestone beneath. As preferences changed to favor more international varietals, Josep Sr. started to grow Syrah to keep the family business alive. He sold fruit and made Syrah centric wines, but never gave up on or uprooted the old Garnacha and Carignan vines that were planted before his time. Josep recognized that the soils specific to his property brought something special to his wines, made from traditional varietals such as Garnacha and Carignan, that thrived. Today Josep’s sons, Joan and Josep, run the family business with the help of their incredibly proud mother Mercè. In an area where many producers aim to make wines that try to replicate Priorat, the d’Angeras strive to make wines that are uniquely their own.
As we step out of the air-conditioned bus and into the L’Hostal vineyard it's nearly 100 degrees and the intensity of the sun is assaulting. It does not take long for beads of sweat to form on my brow and I'm wondering how the hell ANYTHING can survive, let alone grow here. Josep and Joan walk us through the vineyard, which is their only site with fruit still on the vine, and explain that Carignan can survive in very dry and intense climates, making this an ideal spot. All of the vines are grown as low bushes, which is traditional in areas of Spain. There are almond and Arbequina olive trees planted around the vineyard, adding to the biodiversity of the site. They began converting their vineyards over to biodynamics in 2008 with the first Demeter certified vintage released in 2012. In Spain, only a handful of producers are certified.
Here, the soil between the vines is plowed only once a year to avoid causing stress to the vines and sulfur treatments are used sparingly, if at all. The brothers have seen first-hand that Biodynamic farming has decreased the number of treatments they have needed to apply to the vines. It has enriched the terroir and they have needed to do less as the years pass. “You can taste the health of the vineyard in the skin of the grapes,” Josep says, pulling fruit from the vines with his deeply stained and cracked hands. Farmers at heart, they do not rely on analytics to determine when to start harvest, but instead harvest according to of the taste of the fruit. It’s not uncommon to find wines approaching 16% alcohol from the Montsant region but the d’Anguera brothers are always the first to pull their fruit from the vines. They are looking to pick when the grapes best represent the site and convey a sense of place.
When it comes to their approach in the cellar, Josep and Joan believe that sometimes it's better to follow your heart rather than your mind. They try not overthink the process nor overwork the fruit during fermentation. All vintages are harvested by hand, rarely destemmed and are crushed by foot. The grapes then spontaneously ferment in cement tanks and age in large old foudres. Their process in the cellar is gentle, allowing them to make wines that are delicate and aromatic. This is the style of wine that their grandparents drank with family and friends around the dinner table. Joan explains that in Oenology school they teach students to make wines that are big, full of alcohol, overripe and extracted. These types of wine are outdated and the exact opposite of the kind of wine the brothers make today. “You must know the rules to break the rules,” Joan says with a laugh. When asked whether they have a favorite vintage, the brothers say of course, but that “each vintage is a self-portrait and you must learn to see the wine with new eyes each year. Sometimes you like what you see and sometimes you don't. Just as people change, so do vineyards and the fruit they produce.” It's clear that the d’Anguera brothers are forging a path of their own in Montsant. They are breaking the rules, but deliberately and with an intimate knowledge of the land their vines. The wines of Joan d’Anguera are an extension of the family’s independence, forward thinking spirit and a testament to their Catalan heritage.