The struggle to make wines from native Catalan grape Sumoll, reflects many other ways in which this region has persevered to get its voice heard. A tricky and capricious grape to grow, only used in blends, and not recognised as a single varietal by the DO until 2009, it is to the credit of MontRubi, the world’s only winery to make single varietal wines from the grape, that these unique wines are available at all. Justin Keay hears how the wines were made and tastes a range of Sumoll wines, concluding that to him these are preferable to those made from Tempranillo.
With Catalonia home to 10 DOs, producing 90% of Cava production and also the base for Bodega Torres amongst others, it is not surprising that the region’s winemakers might feel that it is too often overlooked in favour of Rioja and the wines of the North.
At the time of writing it was still unclear how Madrid’s reaction to Catalonia’s declaration of independence, was going to play out with the world hoping that some peaceful compromise will be found.
However, Catalonia’s holding the referendum in the first place revealed a strong sense of frustration, with many Catalans saying they give more to Spain in financial terms than they get back and that the Spanish insufficiently recognise them as a distinct culture, with their own language and traditions.
It would not be surprising if some Catalan winemakers felt the same way.
Wine drinkers generally associate Spanish red wine with Rioja (more recently also maybe Ribera del Duero) and Spain’s best known grape variety, Tempranillo. This despite Catalonia being home to no fewer than ten DO regions, including most famously Priorat, Penedès and Monsant (all of which make outstanding red wines) and also to Bodegas Torres, one of the most famous wine companies in the world but not one automatically associated with Catalonia.
If wine drinkers think of Catalonia at all, it is for Cava, over 90% of which is made there and whose phenomenal popularity has encouraged winemakers to plant Parellada, Macabeo and Xarello, the main varieties used in Cava.
So against this heated political backdrop, Catalonia’s Heretat MontRubí showing of their range of wines made from Sumoll, in London in early October came at a propitious time. Sumoll may sound like a continental brand of fruit juice but it is a little known red variety that originally hails from Catalonia (but which can also be found in the Canary Islands) and is generally used in blends. Until earlier this century, that is.
Heretat MontRubí is a small Penedès-based winery founded in 1984 to focus on the production of high end Cava. Ten years later however, noting that just about every other winery in the region was also getting into Cava, and pulling up long-established vines to do so, MontRubí decided to go the other way and focus on lesser-known indigenous varieties.
Sumoll wasn’t an obvious choice, it is famously late-ripening and tricky to grow and vinify, all reasons why it was allowed to go into decline in the first place. And it wasn’t recognised as a DO grape by the Penedès wine commission until 2009, which meant that the Sumoll wine produced until then had to be classified as table wines. But MontRubí reckoned the variety had a few things going for it.
For one, says winemaker Josep Queralt, was MontRubí’s location: 550 metres above sea-level, blessed with slate and granite soil, the winery is one of the highest in Penedès and has almost ideal growing conditions for Sumoll, which at lower altitudes can run a bit too wild.
The fact the Heretat had some 70 year old vines of Sumoll was another consideration. But perhaps the driving force was the desire of MontRubí’s owners to focus on an indigenous variety that really reflected the area’s terroir and history.
Sumoll, which can be a wild and productive variety and give intense rustic flavours, in medium to full-bodied wines, fits the bill.
The fact MontRubí is today still the only winery to make single varietal wines from it – Queralt says the variety’s capriciousness is such that only small wineries would consider such a step – has given MontRubí much-deserved cache.
So how were the wines?
The full range of Sumoll wines were on show though only a few of these are currently imported into the UK (by Laytons/Jeroboams). They certainly demonstrated the variety’s versatility.
First off, a sparkling wine and a pink, both of which were lively on the palate, and fruity though with good acidity showing through. The main event though, was a tasting of Gaintus Vertical, the centrepiece red wine MontRubí makes from Sumoll, albeit in tiny quantities: many of the vintages were below 100 bottles, almost all were below 2000.
This vertical of Vertical was a fascinating journey with most of the vintages – 2004, 2007, 2009, 2010, 2015 and 2016 – all showing well, although most evident too was the change in winemaker technique, with the use of new oak tapering off with the later vintages. All the wines reflected MontRubí’s use of amphorae to mature the wine, and concrete eggs to soften and smooth what would otherwise be pretty rough tannins.
Winemaker Josep Queralt said all the vintages were treated to reflect the different climactic and other conditions that prevailed at the time. For me two vintages shone through; the 2015 which was very fresh with minimal interference to allow the full flavours of the variety to shine through, but with wonderful acidity which should guarantee this wine a good long life; and the 2007 which despite being ten years old still felt very youthful with fresh cherry fruit alongside exciting rich meaty animal and rustic flavours coming through.
At the other extreme, the 2016 Gaintus Radical and the 2012 Gaintus Sobremadurado – a delicious, unctuously rich wine with 238.5 grams of residual sugar; some 20% of the grapes are boyretised, making this a very smooth and more-ish desert wine – demonstrated Sumoll showing other sides of itself.
With 12.5% alcohol – a full percent less than the Vertical – lower residual sugar and more tannin, the Radical is ‘Sumoll unplugged’, so to speak, very much a food wine and frankly a bit of a Marmite wine too. However Peter Mitchell MW at Laytons/Jeroboams, says Radical should become softer over time.
“The Radical, to me, has a structure more like an Italian red, with bright sour cherry fruit, full acidity and moderately firm tannins. These are not qualities everyone is looking for in wine today, with many preferring looser structured, fruity red wines, but I find it no more challenging than many Piedmontese or Tuscan wines, though it is unquestionably a wine that needs food.”
Mitchell says the customer response to Sumoll – after they’ve gone through a “what’s that?” phase – has varied, with some appreciating its haunting rustic flavours and others finding them too challenging. He says however its uniqueness should be appreciated.
“It is an unusual variety because of its high acidity, even when fully ripe. Wines have relatively pale colours, quite full tannins and develop herbal, rose petal, liquorice and dark plum flavours – not unlike Nebbiolo in many respects. Their uniqueness comes from their very low pH which brings great freshness to them, even with substantial age,” he says.
Mitchell maintains that Sumoll’s naturally high acidity aids the production of the rosé, sparkling and also the dessert wine, but presents a challenge to the reds, especially given the high level of tannins in the grapes. Which is why the oaked Vertical wines really show the best in this grape, showing some astonishing diversity vintage by vintage.
As tensions continue between Barcelona and Madrid, Catalonia may or may not achieve the international recognition it was striving for with its independence referendum. Its winemakers should however demand wider recognition of its native variety Sumoll, so different and to me, rather more interesting than Tempranillo. In the right hands and with the right temperament, this native Catalan variety could go a long way.