Vitec

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.

Passion and Pampering in the Priorat

In the Priorat, the passion for wine is palpable.  August Vincent, winemaker for Celler Cecilio in Gratallops embodies this fervor in his poetic descriptions of his craft.  When we spoke (via Rachel’s translation), he explained that growing grapes is an activity that “absorbs you completely.”  It is a task that requires great punctuality, as the vines require attentive pampering to prevent them succumbing to the many obstacles that nature might throw at them.  He said that the vines “always want me to be contemplating them,” and in return they are very appreciative of the effort exerted.  He asks, rightly, “what other fruit can give decades of satisfaction?”

August took over the role of winemaker from his father, Cecilio Vincent, and explains that the family knowledge is always applicable, no matter the technology of the time.  He said that the the cultivation methods have changed little since his father began growing grapes in Gratallops in 1942, but that most importantly, he has inherited the passion for growing grapes.  His son-in-law, a trained winemaker, is now working with him in the vineyard and winery, and they share duties in the vineyard and winery, especially during the harvest, when things are busiest.

In what I’m beginning to learn is typical Priorat-fashion, August has strong opinions about the question of trellising.  Like Mr. Capafons, Celler Cecilio started trellising their vines about 3o years ago, and now are realizing that this is not the way of the future.  August explained that because of the dry climate of the Priorat, the vines don’t want to have a lot of excess wood on their trunks, but trellising eliminates the possibility of cutting back the wood, contrary to plants which are kept as bush vines.  By keeping the wood to a minimum, the plant is able to circulate sap to its extremities, keeping the vines healthier.

August left me with some sayings which help to elucidate his deep affection for wine:

“Good wine warms men’s hearts.”

“Penicillin cures men, but really what makes them happy is wine.”

With August in his cellar.  The barrel on the right is called “dida,” Catalan for “wet nurse” because everyone drinks from her.

Old-fashioned press in the cellar.

Whilst in Gratallops, we also stopped into the wine shop, where I met Jaume who gave me a brief tour of his small winery.  Traditionally, he makes only one wine, a 100% Grenache (one of the few in this area).  He explained their general process for making the wine, but made it very clear that variation may result from doing what they (he and his father) deem needs to be done in any given year.  He presented a fabulous analogy to explain why they age their wine in bottles for at least 7 months.  He suggested that one might grow up in a country house, with lots of acreage and space to play and explore.  You get used to these surroundings (the barrel) and then suddenly, one day, are forced to move to a small apartment in the city (the bottle).  At first it is shocking, and you may not be at your best, but eventually things calm down and you get used to a new lifestyle.  Thus their reasoning for bottle-aging is to acclimate their wine to its new surroundings.  He poured his Grenache alongside two other Gratallops wines and his methodology seems to hold up as he is able to produce a surprisingly complex wine from the single varietal.

As a side-note, I wanted to share a few non-wine related photos from this weekend:

Friday we went to the Ebro River Delta, where rice paddies abound (in Spain? who knew?! But makes sense given the prominence of Paella in this region).  I was very surprised to get out of the car and be surrounded by the distinct smell of boiled rice!

Yesterday, Jo and I took a trip to the nearby city of Reus, which is the birthplace of Antoni Gaudí.  We went to the Gaudí Centre – an interpretation center which explains a lot about his life and works.  His major inspiration was nature, which provided an interesting perspective on art and science, as one of the videos described Gaudí’s workshop as being turned into a lab to experiment with natural forms, particularly those of paraboloids and hyperboloids, which he discovered when he realized that many natural materials are made from fibrous materials, which are straight lines with particular orientations in space to make three-dimensional objects.  Here are some quotes presented in the Centre:

“To be original doesn’t mean to do strange things, but to go to the origin – nature.” – Antoni Gaudí

“The great book, always open and which we should make an effort to read, is that of nature; all other books are taken from it, and in them there are the mistakes and misinterpretations of men.” – Antoni Gaudí

“My structural and aesthetic ideas are of an indisputable logic.  I have thought deeply on why they were not applied before, on why i must be the first to do it.  In any case, this would be the only thing that would make me doubt.  Nevertheless, I believe that, being convinced of the perfection they represent, i am obliged to apply them.” – Antoni Gaudí

A video display of photos of natural features of the region (many of which are places I’ve been to or seen) and how  Gaudí implemented his inspiration in his designs.

 

Today Jo and I got up early to go on a long hike around the area, including through a dry riverbed between Capçanes and Marçá.

After getting ourselves quite lost trying to cross to the other side of the dry bed, we emerged triumphant!

Pinord Priorat

First stop today was Pinord Priorat.  Pinord is a prominent producer originally based in Penedès (the region known for producing Spain’s sparkling wine – Cava), but came to the Priorat recently, opening a brand new operation using organic and now also biodynamic practices.
Jaume  showed us how he collects a random selection of berries to test for their sugar content (in Baumé – a density measurement) and pH to determine when the ideal point for harvest will be.  He also can tell if the grapes are ripe by squishing them between his fingers – if the flesh remains stuck around the seed then the grapes are not yet ripe.

This grape still has some time left!

Pinord’s Priorat vineyard is fully biodynamic and organic, so you see friends like this one:

Though they leave the vast majority of the insects alone, they do employ an ingenious method to indirectly combat one of the major pests of the region, the vine moth.  They attach plastic ties impregnated with pheromones to the trellis.  The pheromones create “sexual confusion” for the moths, preventing them from finding their mates to fertilize the eggs.

The red tie is the “sexual confusion” diffuser.

Then it was back to the lab (with the grapes in very high-tech containers) to check the sugars.

Sugar content is measured using a refractometer (here they measure it in Baumé – a density unit, rather than Brix that is often used in the US, which is a sugar concentration unit).

Today was a busy day and this visit was only the beginning of it, so more will be posted soon!

Escaladei

 

In 1194 King Alfons I founded the first Carthusian monastery on the Iberian peninsula.  Over the next several centuries the Carthusian monks of Escaladei had jurisdiction over the 6 villages that now comprise the Priorat, and cultivated vineyards in the region,  making wine for their own consumption as well as for the Eucharist.  In 1835, the Spanish government authorized the auctioning of church property (both as a source of income for the state and a way to diminish the power of the Church).  This resulted in the ransacking and burning of the monastery, the remains of which can be seen today. 

Reconstruction of a cell.

Montsant mountain rangeOld cellar in town.

 

La Bisbal, Tarragona, i Festa Major

Friday:  Visit to La Bisbal (Rachel’s husband Gerard’s home village) to visit  Àvia (grandma) and Avi (grandpa), and have lunch with the Priest!  He was probably about 25 years old and I never would have known he was the Priest if I hadn’t been told (and he took us to the church to show us the stained glass windows that Rachel did for them).

Saturday:  Jo and I took a day trip to Tarragona – the small city with World Heritage status for its Roman ruins (which I failed to take any photos of… sorry – you can see some here.  We spent the morning wandering around, had a lovely lunch, and spent the afternoon at the beach.

Sunday/Monday:  Falset’s Festa Major begins! The social event of the year.  Kicked off with a major parade (complete with fire-bearing “devils” and dancing Giants), and then the next morning another parade featuring children sprinkling lavender on the streets (traditionally to as odor control after the previous day’s festivities).

Videos from the Festa:

Devils, Parade, etc. (sorry the cinematography is a little nauseating…hadn’t quite figured it out yet)

Giants dancing

Horse dance