Garbinada Wind and Llicorella Soil Make Mas d’en Gil Stand out from The Crowd in Priorat

Overshadowed by Rioja, Priorat is the one of the smallest wine regions in Spain but crowned highest Qualified Designation of Origin (DOQ) in 2006 after Rioja. Surrounded by DO Montsant and only 130 km southwest, and approximately two hours by train from Barcelona, Priorat is a picturestic, mountainous agricultural area resembling the Douro Valley for its steep, terraced vineyards.

The total area in Priorat is 19,783 hectares (48,800 acres) but only 1,887 hectares are under vine. Receiving 400 to 600 mm rainfall and 3,000 hours sunlight on average per year with Mediterranean and continental climate influences, Priorat gets quite hot in summer, cold and dry in winter, with rainfaill predominantly in spring and autumn. One of the most crucial elements that differentiates Priorat from other wine regions in Spain is the soil, called Llicorella soil (slate). 

Priorat is red wine country; 96% of the vineyards is occupied by red varieties with white varieties making up the remaining 4%. Garnacha Tina, Samsó (Mazuela), Cariñenas, Garnacha Peluda, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Tempranillo, Pinot Noir, Syrah, Merlot, Picapoll Negro are the red varieties cultivated in the region. The white grapes include Garnacha Blanca, Macabeo, Pedro Ximénez, Chenin, Moscatel de Alejandria, Moscatel de Grano Menudo, Pansal (Xarel-lo), Picapoll Blanco. There are three tiers of aging requirements in Priorat just as there are for the rest of Spain: Crianza, Reserva and Gran Reserva. Many wine professionals consider Priorat to be one of the most sought-after and attention-worthy wine regions in Spain, especially for the reds it produces.

Mas d’en Gil, an ancient estate established 150 years ago, is located in Bellmunt del Priorat, the southern part of Priorat. Over the last century and a half, Mas d’en Gil has been through an adventure under the management of three families. First was Frances Gil, the founder of the estate and one of the pioneers who first bottled Priorat wine. The Barril family took over in 1930 and renamed the estate “Masia Barril.” The praiseworthy achievements of the Barril family enabled the estate to keep running during the most difficult time for Priorat in the '50s and '60s. It wasn't until the '80s and '90s that Mas d'en Gil earned international recognition. The present owner is the Rovira Carbonell family, who acquired the estate in 1998 and recovered the name of Mas d’en Gil. Under Pere Rovira’s watch, Mas d’en Gil released their first vintage in 2000. Marta Rovira, second generation of the Rovira Carbonell family and also the youngest daughter of Pere Rovira, introduced Maria Thun’s agricultural calendar and biodynamic farming methods to the estate and hopes to continue following these practices into the future. As a century-old estate, Mas d’en Gil is proud to maintain tradition while embracing newer ideas to consistently produce quality wine.

Grape Collective talks to Antón Lorenzo, the passionate and talented winemaker of Mas d’en Gil about the terroir of Priorat; especially focusing on Bellmunt del Priorat, where Mas d’en Gil is located as well as their philosophy of viticulture and viniculture. 

Joyce Lin: Please tell us a little bit about yourself and your background in winemaking and when you joined Mas d'en Gil.

Antón Lorenzo: I’m from Galicia which is located in the northwest of Spain. Galicia is a region where you can find some of the most interesting wine in Spain. My family's not involved in winemaking but we always enjoy wine. I always liked the winemaking world even though I don’t have a direct family connection to it. Some of my family friends work in the wine world, so I've been familiar with this world since an early age. I studied agronomy in Galicia then I did a vintage in Douro, northern Portugal right after graduation, and then I fell in love with winemaking. Later on, I moved to Catalonia in the northeast of Spain, to study winemaking at the URV University in Tarragona.

(Photo, left: Antón Lorenzo, winemaker at Mas d’en Gil)

After getting my degree in enology, I worked at several wineries overseas for a couple years, including Kent Rasmussen Winery in Napa Valley, California, The Crossings in Marlborough, New Zealand, Saronsberg in Tulbagh, South Africa and M. Chapoutier in Roussillon, France. I joined Mas d'en Gil more than five years ago.

Please tell us about the history of Mas d’en Gil.

Mas d'en Gil is operated by the Rovira Carbonell family who come from Penèdes, another wine region in Catalonia, Spain. They are a family of three generations of viticulturists in Penedès and they started the new project of Mas d'en Gil in 1998. But Mas d'en Gil, the estate itself, has a very long history before that. Frances Gil founded Mas d’en Gil in 1867. He was a businessman, a journalist and a farmer. His interests in agricultural and viticultural activities were the base of success of Mas d’en Gil today. In addition, he was one of the pioneers who first bottled Priorat wine. His wine has been awarded in numerous international fairs.

The estate was then owned by another family who is very important to us, the Barril family. Rafael Barril Figueras acquired the estate in 1931 and renamed it with their family name: Masia Barril. This was the beginning of the Barril era. Under Rafael Barril Figueras' management, he decided to build a house to live in on the estate alongside the winery, stables, and barn. Secondly, he carried the tradition of planting olive trees on the boundaries of the estate and this has become the major identity of the estate. Priorat was a very isolated wine region back then; it has not been well communicated with the rest of the country and it's a little bit underdeveloped. After Priorat was hit by the phylloxera, many viticulturists left the region to pursue a better life in other cities. There were only a few vinters staying and taking care of the vineyards. Most of the wineries were just making bulk wine for the value of the alcohol and not trying to make good wines. Luckily, for us, the Masia Barril family kept this property alive through most of the 20th century, which was the most difficult period of time in Priorat. It was very fortunate that the estate preserved the vines and everything else for such a long time; maintaining and being activated throughout most of the time in Priorat. There were some years the estate didn’t function fully but only for a very small period of time.

Priorat had like a rebirth in the late '80s when a new generation of winemakers came here and started to make wines with a modern approach and believed that there is tons of potential in the region. It was 1998, the Rovira Carbonell family saw the opportunity of the estate and decided to start a new project. That's the beginning of the new era of the estate, Mas d’en Gil.

(Photo, right: The Rovira Carbonell family, current owners of Mas d’en Gil. Left to right: Pere Rovira with daughters Pilar Rovira and Marta Rovira)

As I said before, the history behind Mas d’en Gil is much longer. It has been owned by three families and it is very unusual to keep an estate running during the economic crisis in Priorat history. Mas d’en Gil was the first of two wineries that started to bottle wines in Priorat back in the '70s while under Massia Barril’s ownership. The other winery is Scala Dei. We have some of the first bottled wine in Priorat made under the brand 'Massia Barril.' So Mas d’en Gil has a very long history and thanks to the Massia Barril family for preserving some of the old vineyards, we can make wine from these well-preserved plots now.

Priorat is one of the DOCs in Spain besides Rioja. Could you please briefly talk about the climates and the terroir of Priorat?

Priorat is a small wine region. It is about 19,000 hectares and 10% of the land is vineyards. So only 1,900 hectares are occupied by vines. Priorat is surrounded by big mountains. In the northwest, we have the Montsant, which goes up to 1,200 meters and we have the Llaberia, Sierra de la Llaberia, which is up to 1,000 meters in the southeast. To me, the geology of Priorat is very unique and has its own characteristic. The climate in Priorat is very specific and is completely different from the neighboring regions; more Mediterranean with a strong continental climate impact.

The average altitude of Priorat is not that high, usually around 350 to 400 meters. It is mountains with hills. For those vineyards situated at 350 to 400 meters above sea level, they are being surrounded by mountains and it actually creates the microclimate more similar to the vineyards planted at 600 to 700 meters high. Therefore, the weather gets more of a continental climate influence: with really cold winters and very low rainfall in fall and during the spring. Winters and summers are usually very dry but we will have rain for a few days in the spring and fall. The temperature varies dramatically between winter and summer. In the summer, the temperature could go easily as high as 40 Celsius, which is over 90 Fahrenheit, and the temperature changes rapidly between day and night, which is a crucial factor that helps the grape to develop all the phenolic content on the skins during the maturation process. In the winter, we will have a couple days of snow. It won’t be as cold as New York but it’s winter. Therefore, the climate in Priorat is dissimilar from other regions and that’s one of the reasons that the Garnacha in Priorat tastes differently from Aragona or from other parts of Catalonia.  

Tell us more about the Llicorella soil as well as the Garbinada (sea breeze). How do Llicorella and Garbinada give Priorat wine its distinctive characters?

The geology of Priorat is singular and distinctive from the other wine regions close by. It has ancient soil which was formed in the Devonian period. The soils are very old and very poor. Nothing really grows well there. It is hard to cultivate. The main rock is what we called Llicorella (slate) that forms the soil of Priorat. It is a laminated metamorphic rock. There are various types of Llicorella with different structures (depending on foliation, size of grain) and color (depending on the mineral composition, it can go from black, to brown and red).

(Photo, left: Llicorella soil at Mas d'en Gil)

Since the soil is very poor, the vines struggle and dig deep to find water and nutrients and it gives the grapes great balance, concentration and minerality. Because of that, the yields are extremely low. With different soil components, the wine actually tastes nothing alike. In Mas d’en Gil, we get an average about 3,000 kilograms of grapes per hectare, which is considered very low yields but we are able to get rich and concentrated grapes. I believe Priorat wine has very distinctive personality and characteristics with concentrated ripe fruits, great structure, minerality and good acidity.

And Garbinada? The sea breeze ...

Yeah. We have Garbinada, the sea breeze coming from the Mediterranean Sea. Mas d’en Gil is located in Bellmunt, in the southern part of Priorat. Bellmunt is like a cross path between two winds. One is Cerç, which comes from the north (northwest really) from the regions of Aragon and La Rioja. The other is the Garbinada, a fresh, cool wind from the southeast. In Bellmunt, we are on the other side of the La Serra de Llaberia. It is only 25 to 30 km to the coast of the Mediterranean Sea. So we are very close to the Balearic Sea. The Garbinada wind is a huge influence to us especially during the growing season. Priorat is really hot and with a lot of hydric stress during the summer. Garbinada serves as a key element to cool down the vineyards and slowing down the maturation. It is actually great for Garnacha, because Garnacha is a short-cycle variety. Anything that can help to slow down the maturation is crucial and that’s one of the reasons why Bellmunt is a great place to grow Garnacha and why our wine has the freshness quality.

(Pictured, above: Where Cerç and Garbinada meet at Priorat, creating the unique climate that sets Priorat wine apart from other regions. Map courtesy of Mas d'en Gil)

There are 12 villages in Priorat and Mas d'en Gil is located in Bellmunt del Priorat. Can you tell us a little bit more about the terroir, the climates and the geography of Bellmunt?

Sure. Bellmunt is considered one of the richest geological parts in Priorat. There used to be different types of mining in Bellmunt. The geology of Bellmunt is very diverse. Some of the geologists think it is a very interesting spot. Then of course, the climate ... The main influence is Garbinada wind. Secondly, slate is the main soil component in Bellmunt. Mas d'en Gil is divided into five small valleys: Bellmunt Valley, La Coma Valley, Clot de L’oliver Valley (Olive Tree Hollow), Lo Grinyó Valley and El Sas Valley. Most of our vineyards are located in Bellmunt Valley and La Coma Valley but we also have plots in the other three valleys. We have more than 45 plots in total. The characters of each vineyard are very different because of the age of the vines as well as the composition of the soils. Take Bellmunt Valley for example, dominated by black slate with limestone, marl, and mostly pebbles in the bottom of the ravines. The valley is well-ventilated and lots of vineyards lay by the forest. With that said, we have some of the fresher plots in this area.

On the other hand, the terroir of La Coma Valley is completely different. The soil in La Coma Valley is dominated by brown and red slates, with very low organic material content. It is strongly influenced by the Garbinada wind. Vineyards are carpeted all over the valley; some are in the valley floor and some are on the terraces. Our vineyards go around the valley and form like a semicircle. This is what the valley looks like so we call the valley “Coma,” the half moon shaped valley. In this case, we have vineyards in different orientations, altitudes and expositions. We have Garnacha planted in the higher areas, and Cariñenas is usually planted close to the valley floor. While a vineyard contains more black slate soil than other soils, the wine usually tastes a bit edgy. On the other hand, wine produced from red slate dominated soils has more of a velvety mouthfeel. We also have some argilo-calcareous (clay) soils in the valley floor of La Coma Valley. We also have white and sandy types of soil in Bellmunt Valley, near the forest. There are plots with different orientations; some are more exposed to sunlights and some are less. The altitude of where vineyards are located doesn’t change dramatically but it gives a little bit of influence without a doubt.

It’s quite complex in terms of climate, soils, sunlight exposition and so on. In Mas d'en Gil, we now have 85 acres of vineyards. Each plot represents themselves and showcases different qualities. After fermenting the grapes by individual plot, we taste all the wine and you will realize how complex and distinctive each wine is, even the wine from the same vineyard but different plots. Take Garnacha for example, the wine made with 70-year-old Garnacha in red slate soil tastes dramatically different from 25-year-old Garnacha oriented to the south. What makes Bellmunt stand out from other parts of Priorat? I would say the geology and the Garbinada wind have a powerful influence.

Let’s talk about your philosophy of viticulture.  

Yes. The Rovira Carbonell family started the new project in 1998, and we've been practicing organic agriculture since then. We are certified organic since the beginning. Eight years ago, we started to practice some of the biodynamic procedures. We are still far from being 100% biodynamic farming but we are working with an advisor for that. Eventually we’d like to turn all of our lands into biodynamic agriculture. We not only produce our own biodynamic compost but also follow the moon calendar as well. You know, our idea is to try to get the best part of our soils to compensate the issues we have in Priorat: like the high alcohol of ABV, high temperatures in summer and so on. Take high temperatures in summer for example, working with the biodynamic composts really helps us a lot to preserve the texture and humidity of the soil. When we have an extremely hot summer like in 2016 and '17, this method really helped to maintain most of the humidity in the soil and helped the vines to survive from severely hot vintages. Our philosophy in viticulture is to respect the nature; try to get the best expression of our soil. We try to improve the vineyards in every possible way but intervene as little as possible in the cellar.

We have 300 acres of land in Mas d’en Gil. Only 85 acres are covered by vines; the rest of them are Arbequina olive tree, almond trees, hazelnut trees and peaches. We produced olive oil under Mas d’en GIl as well. We owned a Mediterranean forest which occupies 40% of the estate and we take care of them. Mas d’en Gil preserves an array of agricultural crops and works with an organic farming philosophy. That said, the beauty of maintaining the complexity and diversity of the land is to keep the balance of Mother Nature.

(Photo, left: Part of Mas d’en Gil in Priorat showing the diverse crops on the rolling hills of Bellmunt Valley) 

Right, it's like you having a little universe in your estate.

Yeah! It is also very beautiful because you can see the change of the crops in the landscape. First we have olive trees and behind them are endless Garnacha vineyards. Two weeks ago, the almond trees just started to bloom and the scene is just gorgeous. The white, red and pink flowers are all over the valley. It’s like looking at a garden but on a bigger scale.

What’s your philosophy of winemaking? Has your winemaking changed over time?

Since we are one of these oldest fincas in Priorat, one of our goals is to be a good reference of traditional producers in Priorat. When people think of Mas d’en Gil, they look at us as a reference, a specific style that people are looking for, and we would like to keep the flame. But in the meantime, we are not afraid to make changes; we adopt and make changes in winemaking over time slowly. So, in terms of winemaking, we don’t do radical changes but we did have an evolution. First, eight years ago, we started to work with 1,500- and 3,000-liter foudres to reduce the impact of the oak on the wine. Second, we pick the grapes a little bit earlier and our intention of doing so is to have a little bit more acidity, more freshness, and the oak is a little bit subtle. If you have tasted Mas d’en Gil in 2000 or the 2001 vintage and you taste the Mas d’en Gil that we recently made, you can notice the difference. Our philosophy is not to intervene too much in the cellar but we work very hard in the vineyards to get the best grapes. As I said before, winemaking is trying to get the best expression out of the grapes and we experiment with different things, such as fermenting with stems; this is what we have been trying to do in some plots. We are still trying to see if it could work or not. It’s a progress and it is a slow progress.

Tell us about the grapes you work with and the wine you make.

The grapes we mainly work with are the traditional grapes of Priorat, which are Garnacha and Cariñenas. The production of whites isn’t too much in Priorat, but the traditional variety of Garnacha Blanc is planted here too. Garnacha is always a much more important variety to us because of where we are located. It just works very well in our vineyards. Because of the trend of planting international varieties in the late '80s and '90s, there were couple of plots of Merlot, three plots of Cabernet Sauvignon and two plots of Shiraz in Mas d’en Gil when we took over in 1998. We got rid of all the Merlot because it was not working so well for us. We just kept one plot of Cabernet Sauvignon and it grows very well even though it's not a traditional variety of the region. We have these two plots of Shiraz, which are located in La Coma Valley and they work great with the Priorat climate and terroir. For these international varieties, they represent a minority in our vineyards. They are always no more than 10% of coupage in the wine. So, most of our red wine is dominated by Garnacha and Cariñenas. There are only a couple wines that we add a little bit of Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz.

For the white, we are lucky enough to inherit four beautiful Garnacha Blanc and Macabeo vineyards. We also planted a tiny plot of Viognier in a Garnacha Blanc vineyard. Again, it is not a traditional variety from Priorat but we think it works well with our wine and we like it. So we keep it.

Traditionally, Priorat Tinto is dominated by Grenache with some Cariñenas in it. Some reds are blended with international grape varieties such as Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot or vice versa. What’s your thought on blending international varieties with the long-lived Priorat Garnacha and Carignan?

Well, that used to be a very fashionable thing to do back then in the late '80s and '90s and it didn’t just happen in Priorat but all over Spain. It has became a trend where people consider that blending the international varieties will enhance the aging potential of the wine. In addition, it is driven by the demand of the market. But now it changes radically, there are more and more Priorat producers that tend to switch back to the traditional Priorat varieties. This is happening in northern Spain, too. There were years that people planted lots of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot but there are people who care about these almost lost and autochthonous varieties in Spain, too. So, I'm not against this trend. I'm not a radical, you know. Some people are really close-minded and think, "Wine has to be this way or that way." I’m not like that. I'm open to the idea of people trying different things with their wines.

For Mas d'en Gil, we consider ourselves a traditional Priorat wine producer; we stick with Garnacha and Cariñenas, the traditional varieties in Priorat. In my opinion, some of the international varieties don’t strive in the land of Priorat. Like Merlot, from my point of view, it depends, of course, on the plots. There is a complex microclimate within Priorat. Maybe you can find some spots where Merlot can work properly. But for me, Merlot doesn't really give the best expression in Priorat. So, in Mas d'en Gil, when we think about what grape variety to replant, our thought is not just focus on keeping indigenous varieties but also looking for potential grape varieties that have a lot to give in the region. We are planting small amount of Macabeo in one of our vineyards, which is another traditional white variety in the region. I believe it is going to show best in a few years. Overall, Garnacha and Carignan would always be our first choices while planting some young vines and we are still looking for the best plots for these varieties.

Lastly, why do you think people should drink more Priorat and how would you describe Priorat wines to those people who are not familiar with them?

Well, there are many wine regions producing great wine not only in Spain but all over the world but I think not so many are as distinctive as Priorat. Priorat is really a wine region with strong personality. It's a wine region that really shows its characters and specific style in the wine. It is an old region with a long winemaking history but doesn’t have international recognition like Rioja. As you mentioned before that Priorat is one of the DOCs along with Rioja, but Rioja is a huge wine region with big companies and well-known worldwide. On the contrary, Priorat is quite the opposite. It's a very small wine region with small producers and the production is very limited. Therefore, Priorat wine is not so well-spread and it becomes more exclusive. In Mas d'en Gil, we worked mostly with Garnacha and the alcohol can reach 15% easily but with the benefit of the terroir in Bellmunt, we are able to make wine with lots of minerality, fresher, lighter and more delicate; an elegant interpretation of Priorat. It is still a big wine with concentrated fruit notes but well-balanced with low pH. It has very good acidity and that’s what makes the wine taste fresh. Our wine can age very well too. There are probably more winter types of wine but I think that Priorat wines is gastronomic food friendly. It goes with almost everything.

Well, in New York, we have long winters.

Exactly! A New York meal in the middle of the winter! Red Priorat can go with steaks, lamb, any kind of red meat, even BBQ. And as for whites ... We've been making whites since the very beginning and not so many people were doing this 20 years ago when we started. Most people know Priorat because of the reds but we truly believe that white Priorat has the potential to be the star of the region. Garnacha Blanc grown in Priorat has lots of personalities and it is also a gastronomic friendly white. The aroma and taste are very different from other white wine in Spain, such as Verdejos or Albariños. These whites tend to be lighter on the palate but Garnacha Blanc has more body and it is rich and sometimes greasy depends on the winemaking process. You can really pair Garnacha Blanc with grilled fish, white meats or even pork. It’s a wonderful opportunity to taste a historical wine region with small producers and the wine has a lot of characteristics to it. We have a lot to offer.

Priorat wine is very versatile and it goes with every kind of food, as you said.

Yep, really. You know, like Indian food or some cuisines use lots of exotic spices. Priorat wine is truly a wine that you can play with these dishes. Take Coma Alta, the white Priorat we produce for example, it has saltiness, is a bit oily and waxy. It can stand up with these spices very well. So do the reds. For those dishes which have big, bold flavors and they are hard to pair with, Priorat red is a great alternative and you will find you won’t be disappointed at the end of the night. So, It’s really a versatile wine, yeah!

Watch the video to learn more about Mas d’en Gil.