Vitec is Catalonia’s wine science and technology institute, affiliated with the university in Tarragona.  Vitec’s director, Sergi De Lamo Castellví, was kind enough to show me around their facility in Falset, a beautiful new building with viticultural, oenological, and sensory laboratory spaces.

Their sensory laboratory consists of cubicles equipped with an “enoscope”, which is essentially a light box that emits the “perfect” white light to analyze color and transparency of the wine.  All experiments are tasted in this facility, and Vitec is working to attain EU accreditation to train professional wine tasters.  The official tasting glasses for Spain and France are small wine glasses (and black glasses are used when the influence of wine color is to be eliminated), but Vitec prefers to use the Riedel Syrah glasses as these give far better expression of aromas.

In the wine and must analysis lab, Vitec performs many different types of experiments, as their funding comes from many different sources – keeping their work quite varied.  Some of the things they are looking at include acids and amino acids as aroma precursors, the characterization of polyphenols in must and wines, as well as in the seeds and whole grapes, the use of infrared (IR) spectroscopic analysis to differentiate individual strains of yeast and bacteria in must, and the analysis of the contribution of cork materials to desirable aromas in wine.

Their gas chromatograph-mass spectrometer (GC-MS) was equipped with two special attachments – a “sniffer” to run samples of volatile aroma compounds, and a “Twister” which uses a miniature stir bar to create a tiny vortex inside the sample tube, allowing for the analysis of very low concentrations of compounds in aqueous solutions (i.e. wine!).

They also have a viticultural lab, although Sergi described it as more of a storage space as all of the viticultural experiments take place in the vineyards.  Some things that they are looking into here are hydric management and “precision viticulture,” which involves analyzing small subsections of the vineyard in order to cultivate them in such a way that the overall crop yield is uniform.  The research at Vitec is integrated in such a way that all of the experiments in the field are carried through to final wines for sensory analysis (tasting).  This means that they must carry out a large number of microvinifications, preparing 30-50 liter batches of wine.  The problem with this method is that the smaller the batch size, the less realistic the vinification conditions.  Vitec has developed several methods to circumvent this problem.  They have a press that is specially designed for small batches – allowing 30-300 kg (66-660 lb) of grapes to be pressed at a time in conditions that mimic those encountered in the winery.  They also have found that fermenting their wines in 30 liter  beer kegs allows them to prevent oxidation of the wines, because they can top of the kegs with carbon dioxide after filling them.  (Notice in the photo of the beer kegs that there are some pink bottles sitting on the floor?  The wine in these bottles was an experiment where grapes were harvested from vines grown in pots!)

Vitec has also come up with an innovative solution to the problem of controlling the temperature of so many tiny fermentation tanks.  Buying microvinification tanks with built in temperature control systems would run them about €1500 (as opposed to about €50 for the regular tanks), and they can be working with up to 80 microvinifications at a time.  They have devised a system where they insert a heat exchanger in the bottom of a large water tank, which they can then set to the desired temperature (with a fish tank pump to keep the water circulating) and control the environment of several tanks simultaneously.

Vitec has the only instrument in Spain which is capable of comparing the oxygen environment of inside and outside of a cork (or any other type of closure).  In this way, they can measure the amount of oxygen that enters the bottle per day, and find that some corks can allow up to 20 times more oxygen to pass through than others!  They can use this information to determine the most appropriate type of closure for a particular type of wines, as, for example, relatively “closed” red wines can benefit from a bit of oxygenation, whereas a young white or rose can become oxidized quite easily with the wrong cork, turning essentially into sherry!

The breadth of research at Vitec is astounding, and they seem to have a well integrated program.  It is the institute specifically focused on wine in Spain, as other wine research is conducted at centers that study food science as well.  Locating the center in the Priorat was an important political gain for the region as well, as it brings this resource of technological innovation directly to the area.

Also:  Important information about traveling with wine!!!

The Week in Photos

Lead mines of Bellmunt, Siurana, and the Falset wine cooperative:

The lead mines were a very important industry in the area but were closed in the 1970s due to decreased demand for lead.  After learning so much about the unique soil profile in the Priorat, it was interesting to get a new perspective by looking at the earth from the inside out!

Siurana is a gorgeous clifftop village famous for its rock climbing (as you might imagine from the photos).

The Falset wine cooperative is representative of the co-ops built around the region in the early 20th century.  This building was built by a student of Gaudi in typical art nouveau style.  Though the architecture is quite ornamental (known as one of the “cathedrals of wine” because the architecture shares many features common to cathedrals), it was designed as a fully functional space and is still used to produce wines from the Montsant DO today.

Just DO(Q) it

“Wine is a photograph of a specific place and time.” – Toni Alcover Jofre, President of DOQ Priorat

Professional tasting room at the DOQ Priorat Headquarters in the village of Torroja

The primary role of the Denominació d’Origen Qualificada (DOQ – Qualified Denomination of Origen) Priorat is to certify where grapes are coming from, thus ensuring that wine bearing its label is a quality product, according to Toni Alcover Jofre, the recently appointed President of the DOQ Priorat.  In 1954, Priorat became the second DO to be established in Spain (after Rioja), and the “Q” was added when the Catalan government approved the application for the distinction of Priorat as a “qualified wine region” in 2000 (a distinction that this region shares only with Rioja).

The process of certification is intensive, with each of the 93 registered wineries subjected to vineyard and winery inspections at key points of the year (ie harvest and winter pruning), a full laboratory workup of the finished wines (including sugar levels, pH, volatile acid, sulfur dioxide and sulfate content, and possibly other tests such as tannin content), and a blind tasting by a panel of tasters.  The tasters include someone from the Wine and Vine Institute (a branch of the Agricultural department of the Catalonian government – INCAVI, someone from the oenology institute in Tarragona, Mr. Alcover (who has long been a teacher at Falset’s oenology school), and two winemakers from the region (though it is set up so that they are never tasting their own wines).  To dequalify a wine, three of the five members must agree  (though according to Mr. Alcover, such a decision tends to be unanimous).

Mr. Alcover replaced the former President, Sallustià Álvarez, who had held the position for 18 years.  Though he is still getting to know the ins and outs of the job, he expects that streamlining the qualification process, preparing for the EU checks that are coming up (to ensure that each of the DOs across Europe is following its own guidelines), and promoting the region within Spain will be the top priorities during the first years of his Presidency.  Though it might seem strange that they should be focusing on internal promotion, Toni explained that the Spanish market is not developed enough to recognize the quality of wine produced here.  Further, most Spanish people immediately think of Rioja when they think of wine, so he hopes to promote Priorat wines in order to demonstrate the diversity of wine production in Spain.