The Prestige oracles
Faced with rising temperatures, some winemakers are resorting to unorthodox practices — with surprising results, writes
magic can occur when man is forced to think outside of the box in the face of nature’s capriciousness. A growing number of producers in warmer grape-growing regions are mitigating nature’s tendency towards higher temperatures with a holistic approach from vineyard to winery that’s often far from conventional. Such regions include many in the deep Mediterranean: Parts of Sicily and Priorat in Spain, to name but a couple.
Changes under way suggest a dramatic shift in the stylistic zeitgeist. While it’s still easy to find clumsy wines across Priorat’s cellars, there’s a clear movement towards wines architected by tensile tannins, a mountainous vibrato and lip-smacking drinkability. This said, leaders of the movement, such as Dominik Huber of producer Terroir al Límit, don’t deny the proclivity of the rugged vineyards in this torrid environment to yield sturdy wines.
Indeed, despite climatic challenges, Huber neither adds acid, tannins or enzymes, nor is he overly zealous with his handling of oak, preferring larger neutral casks or concrete for breadth and textural detail to new barriques that impart oak flavours and tannins. The vineyards are chemical free, farmed by mule to biodynamic tenets, and low yielding, resulting in fully ripe grapes at lower alcohols. Contrary to established norms, too, Huber champions Carignan as the sole driver of three of his wines — L’arbossar, Dits del Terra and Les Tosses — and as an equal component in the blend Torroja Vi de la Vila, also containing the more exuberant and oft-used Grenache. While Carignan is often demeaned as a variety offering little but green flavours and stringy textures, partly due to marked tannins and high acidity, these factors become attributes when the grapes are gently extracted, the vines old and low-yielding.
Huber’s sites boast vines in excess of 70 years of age! Green notes are shed for red and darker fruit flavours, while Huber’s unorthodox practise of removing the skins from the fermentation vat after around two weeks (less than half the time of other winemakers in the region) without any punching down or pumping over results in mouth-whetting tannins and bright, juicy acidity. These become able tools to mitigate any lack of freshness caused by Priorat’s climate.
Similarly holistic is the approach of Filippo Rizzo at la Moresca, his estate in the far southern corner of Catania, close to Etna. Here the soils are of meagre sandstone and clay, rather than the schist of Priorat, yet the geological and climatic meld with local grape varieties, some prone to over-ripeness and rustic tannins in lesser hands, is no less challenging. Pesticide and herbicide-free vineyards transpose a purity of fruit across the three different red wines, all handled with minimal oak and neither temperature control nor additions.
Rizzo’s ace, however, is his gentle extraction of tannin and colour from the grape skins, which come with especially thick skins as a physiological carapace against the aridity and sun. This takes place in relatively small, open-topped plastic vats, for around 30 days, considerably longer than at Terroir al Límit where Carignan’s tannins provide a different challenge. This idiosyncratic technique imparts a chalky, fine-grained edge to his wines that gives lift, balance and a visceral smashability.
Rizzo’s sensitive touch infuses even the oft-baked flavours of Nero d’avola with a lighter shade, blending it with Grenache and the sour cherry lilt of Frappato to create Lamoresca Rosso. Yet my favourite is the cuvée known as Mascalisi in which Nerello Mascalese plays the bass to a higher octave, lifted by Frappato’s soprano. The resounding theme is a mineral tow carrying red-fruit flavours inflected with briar, olive and herbal notes to a long, tangy finish, accented by a telltale phenolic pucker.
While Mount Etna and its vineyards of Nerello Mascalese have long drawn the attention of the world’s top sommeliers and critics to Sicily, just as the behemoths of the 1990s drew attention to Priorat, the deliciously unorthodox approach at Terroir al Límit and la Moresca suggests that many of the world’s most striking wines hail from the greatest challenges.