Food & Drinks

Mas Igneus In Spanish Priorat: When Soil, Climate And Winemaker Interact To Make Fabulous Wines

Good quality wine is the result of many different things, such as the natural growing conditions in the vineyards and all the winemaker’s decisions. This is evident when I talk to Daniel Cuesta in Priorat, a wine region in Catalonia in northern Spain. Daniel is the new winemaker since 2019 at Mas Igneus, a well-known organic wine estate of 25 hectares in the heart of the region. The estate changed owners in 2020.

Daniel studied winemaking in France and also worked there for several years before going back to Spain. He admits to being influenced by France in his winemaking. But he believes that a lot of the character of the Mas Igneus wines comes from the soil. “This is the magic of Priorat”, he says when he talks about the region’s poor schist soil, locally called llicorella.

I have tasted some new and old vintages of Mas Igneus and talked to Daniel about his philosophy and the changes that are underway at Mas Igneus.

Priorat is famous for its powerful wines with aromas of warm and ripe fruit. I ask Daniel how it is possible to retain a good level of acidity in the wines.

“After doing two harvests here, I can say that the soil gives this acidity”, he says. “It is a schist soil, shallow, well-drained and very poor in organic matter. The vines suffer a great deal, but it allows us to keep a very distinct acidity, which naturally balances the high [alcoholic] degrees specific to the region.”

That the vines have to struggle to obtain water and nutrients will affect the yields. They are extremely low. Daniel says that it is not possible to get higher yields from this terroir.

“This again depends on Priorat’s soil and climatic conditions. Priorat is not at very high altitude, but it is a very hilly region. Priorat is situated on top of a huge slab of slate; only the surface part, exposed to severe weather and human labour, is disintegrated, so that young vines can take root. It is only by looking for cracks in the bedrock that the roots can develop.”

It only rains 400-600 mm per year, and when it does, it is very heavy rain that quickly washes away and cannot penetrate the lower layers of the soil. “For all these reasons,” Daniel says, “we have such low yields, about 15 hectoliters per hectare on average. The vines give us small berries, but rich and aromatic.”

The red wines

Fusió 2018, Mas Igneus, Priorat

In Priorat, Spanish grape varieties are grown alongside Bordeaux grapes. Fusió 2018 is around 30% each of grenache and carignan, 18% merlot, 15% cabernet sauvignon and 4% of syrah. There are masses of fruit, dark berries, spices, a touch of chocolate. It’s quite powerful, but everything is in balance. The wine has concentration, a good freshness combined with a smooth finish. The oak stays in the background.

M de Mas Igneus 2019, Priorat

A very interesting as well as delicious wine. The grapes are 40% cabernet franc, 28% grenache, 25 % merlot, 7% carignan. It has the hallmark “warm climate fruit” of Priorat. It is a very generous and ripe fruit, but at the same time, there’s a good structure and herbal notes. I guess that the cabernet franc plays an important part here?

“It is a bit of everything”, Daniel replies. “Our cabernet is planted in the higher areas of our plots to try to get its vegetative cycle as close as possible to these places of origin, to obtain a ripe but aromatic and fresh grape. Also, how our vineyards are distributed between the villages of Gratallops and Poboleda, the first being much hotter and drier than the second, we obtain a panoply of wines with very varied profiles. For this reason, our technical itinerary must adapt to each one.”

M de Mas Igneus 2019 was released in April 2021.

The white wines

V de Mas Igneus 2020, Priorat

This is a magnificent wine, different, with intense floral aromas, pears, raspberries, very fresh. The grape varieties are surprising: 38% grenache (red variety), 25% merlot (red), 23% pedro ximenez, 10% viognier and 4% grenache blanc. The obvious question to Daniel is, why make white wine with a majority of red grapes?

“Being a great lover of white wines and blends, I resisted the idea of making only a monovarietal white. I like La Capelleta a lot (see below), of course, but I wanted to craft a white for fun, to experiment, and to be able to provide a more modern white. As I didn’t have enough white grapes, I used the reds!”

Seeing pedro ximenes here in northern Spain is also unusual. PX, as it is also called, is one of the grapes used in the very south of Spain for sherry. “Priorat is the only appellation in Catalonia that allows it, but it represents a tiny percentage in the Priorat vineyards. It was a very first for me. It was vinified in 450 litres barrels, bringing us the delicacy and density we are looking for.”

V de Mas Igneus 2020 was released in April 2021.

La Capelleta 2019, Mas Igneus, Priorat

La Capelleta is superb, made from 100% grenache blanc. It is complex and full-bodied (even some “fatness”), with honey notes, stone fruit, melon and apricots. It has a lovely mouthfeel, and it is very fresh.

The wine has been in contact with its lees for 11 months. This is something Daniel brought back from France. “I like to keep the white wine in contact with its lees as long as possible.” He stirs the lees (batonnage) several times a week in the beginning and once a week in the last months to protect the wine from oxidation.

La Capelleta is from a small plot in Gratallops, facing south-east. It receives the first rays of the morning sun. It is a fairly warm area, and harvest is early in the season, the first week of September for 2019.

As the vineyards are on a slope with a strong inclination, there is a big difference in maturity. “The top of the plot, dry and hot, gives us the candied apricot and pear characteristics”, remarks Daniel, “and the bottom, more humid and fresher, gives us the acidity necessary to balance the whole.”

We ended the tasting with Mas Igneus’ two premium red wines, Costers l’Ermita and Costers de Pobleda, both from vintage 2013 and extraordinary wines. New vintages will soon be released.

Costers de l’Ermita, with 100% carignan, is classic in style, with tobacco and cedarwood aromas, balanced, with an excellent tannic structure. It has a fresh, long, delicious finish.

Costers de Pobleda, with 95% carignan and 5% syrah, is full-bodied, with ripe fruit (but not overripe), herbal notes, tobacco and quite a lot of tannins still. It finishes on a fresh and lingering note.

It will be exciting to see where the new winemaker and the new owner take this already excellent winery in the future.

—Britt Karlsson

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