Sara Pérez is a winemaker that is at the vanguard of the quiet revolution that has been taking place in the Spanish region of Priorat over the past 20 years. Long lauded as ‘a talent to watch’, the wines she makes at Mas Martinet put a new perspective on Priorat – terroir-driven, elegant and wildly original. Every grape is foot-trodden and such is her low intervention approach that she has done away with the sorting table altogether – “I make the perfect harvest in the vineyard and then I put it in the tank” she tells Peter Dean, who confesses to being totally bowled over by the quality and style of the wines which include the first orange wine to be listed by Justerini & Brooks and a Ranci Dolc that has to be tasted to be believed.
“Wines used to be categorised as ‘normal’ wines (ie. still table wines) and ‘good’ wines (ranci wines) – with a bottle or two drawn from the barrel on special occasions,” writes Dean about the Mas Martinet Ranci Dolc NV.
For the past 12 months wine merchant Justerini & Brooks has been holding tasting-based webinars on wine estates in their catalogue that they feel warrant a special focus, promotion or re-evaluation. It has been a most rewarding series in which we have tasted through the wines of Donovan Rall, Emrich-Schönleber and many more. In each case the producer and the wines have totally justified the time taken to embark on a deep dive.
Two weeks ago it was the turn of Priorat producer Mas Martinet, founded in 1989 and the longest-standing Spanish producer on J&B’s books. Its superb orange wine, Pesseroles (reviewed below) is also the first orange wine to be offered on J&B’s list and the company thought that the 2018 vintage was a good lens through which to take a fresh look at these wines. They weren’t wrong – this was an eye-opening event that showed one of the new generation of Priorat winemakers, Sara Pérez, at the height of her powers.
Back to the future: a new style of Priorat
The Mas Martinet wines do not have the typical structure, strength and rusticity of old-style Priorat, but offer a lightness, delicacy and terroir-driven energy. These are fresh wines that have a rocky minerality to them – refined tannins and texture with a slight dustiness.
Inland from Taragona in the North-East of Spain, Priorat underwent a quality revolution in the 1990s, with Pérez taking over the family winery soon after this renaissance and adding to the pioneering work done by her parents in establishing the estate. What Pérez has added is a renewed focus on the vineyards and process: recovering some indigenous varieties; working under agroecological and biodynamic principles; changing the materials used from barriques to working with concrete, clay amphora and glass demijohns; co-fermenting varieties for balance and extracting the desired phenolics; and working with as little intervention as is possible.
To this end Perez has done away with sorting tables “I make the perfect harvest in the vineyard and then I put it in the tank” and everything is foot-trod with 90% of her wines being whole bunch.
“You can feel the difference through your skin, the acidity, how the grapes will behave, it is a crucial way for me to understand the vintage,” she says.
The wines we taste are three reds, an orange and a rancio with each of the wines representing different stages of Priorat’s history. Els Escurcons 2018 is an homage to the time before phylloexra ravaged the region when the best vines were planted on top of the hills, Clos Martinez 2018 speaks of more recent developments when international varieties were planted, orange wine Cami Pesseroles 2018 is an “emotional journey” to recover the traditional orange wines of the region – white wine grapes fermented on their skins, and the Ranci Cold NV is the most historic form of Priorat – a wine made from 100 year-old barrels with ‘mother wines’ that are far older than that.
How are the new Mas Martinet wines tasting?
Martinet Bru 2019
This is an appetising introduction to the reds in the Mas Martinet range, a blend of Syrah, Carignan, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, from two vineyards which are co-fermented in order to keep alcohol down and maximise the elegance in the wine. Although this has the estate’s trademark core of acidity, it is softer, silkier, more rounded and with more upfront fruit than some of the more complex cuvées, as such it can be enjoyed at an earlier age. The wine has upfront fruit, blueberry and blue plum-skin notes, Mediterranean herbs, with a freshness and mouthwatering flavours, enhanced by an attractive slate-stone texture.
Although Perez describes the 2018 as one of the best vintages she’s seen, some of the wines were very tense and closed, unlike the very warm 2019 vintage that still has stony-tension in the mouth but also a luscious, fruitiness. 14.5% abv.
Els Escurçons 2018
A single vineyard cuvée of 100% Garnacha that is a homage to Priorat before phylloxera when people worked in higher vineyards growing mainly Garnacha (after the disease they planted Carignan in abundance). At 600m high this is the highest Licorella vineyard in Priorat, a region where vines are more commonly found at 200-300m elevation. Originally Pérez was going to replant the vineyard with a North-East orientation but was persuaded to face South-West after talking to some of the older locals. There is no clay here but just stone and the 1.7 hectares are planted with 9,000 plants per hectare, bringing low yields and a concentration of flavour but without a big alcoholic punch and power.
The fruit is 100% whole bunch, fermented in clay amphora and pressed after 2-3 weeks, then aged in glass demijohns. The nose is fresh, beguiling with ripe plums and berries, the palate is pure, tense and focused; you feel the warmth of the sun in the ripenesss of the pure Grenache but there is also an elegance and fine, stony texture, spice and a ferrous quality too. 13.5% abv
Clos Martinez 2018
This flagship cuvée is an homage to the generation of Sara’s parents, a blend of 65% Garnacha, 18% Carignan and 11% Syrah with tiny amounts of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, hailing from three low vineyards, planted by her parents at high density to obtain low, concentrated yields. The fruit is picked early (13.5% abv) and the wine fermented in concrete and then aged in a mix of foudres and demi-johns.
Medium ruby red; the nose is elegant, complex and charged with red plums, cherry, mulberries red liquorice, tobacco and ferrous earth. The palate is medium bodied, layers of fresh red and black fruit with a vibrant mineral core and fine-grained. The tannins are ripe but make their presence felt. There is texture and excellent balance to this wine – not just in the interplay between fruit, structure and acidity, but also in the way it manages to be both elegant and terroir-driven (earthy) at the same time. The length is impressive. Not tasted alongside, but this style reminds me of the top single vineyard wines from Ribera’s Pago de los Capellanes – mineral-driven power, precision and elegance. A 96-point Parker wine if that means anything.
This is the second vintage of a fascinating, complex orange wine that took ten years of production before Pérez felt it was right to release onto the market. It’s an oxidative, exotic, spicy and savoury wine and totally beguiling. Pesseroles is a field blend of six varieties including Picpoul, Garnacha Blanca and Pedro Ximenez that is foot-trodden, given a slow and cold fermentation, macerated on the skins for three months then transferred to glass demijohns and glazed ceramic jars with 30% skins and stems.
To look at the wine is deep orange gold, the wine has notes of peach, dried apricot, turmeric, cloves and honey. At first the mouthfeel is fresh and juicy, then becomes more structured, textured and bone dry, with a dry stone textured, saline finish. 13% abv.
Bags of flavour – this would be a natural fit with some smoked, salted almonds watching the sun sink into the sea.
Ranci Dolc NV
This is a naturally sweet wine based on Garnacha grapes that are left to dry for two to three weeks after harvest, the fermentation taken up to 16% abv is done in a solera system with some components over 100 years old and a system of very old barrels that are well above 100 years old. This is Sarah’s homage to the historic Ranci wines of the region, which were made by every household. Wines used to be categorised as ‘normal’ wines (ie. Still table wines) and ‘good’ wines (ranci wines) – with a bottle or two drawn from the barrel on special occasions.
The Perez family started producing this wine proper with acquired aged stock in 1995 and bottle tiny amounts every two years. Nothing is added and the wine is not treated in any way, the residual sugar clocking in at about 80 gms/l
To look at the wine is medium to deep mahogany brown, cloudy; the nose and taste are both extraordinary and quite original – like a cross between a Madeira and a very old Oloroso sherry. Hugely complex bouquet that evolves in the glass and mixes walnut shells, caramel, manuka honey, sea salt, balsamic, leather, polished wood, alcohol-steeped macerated fruit; full-bodied, oleaginous, sweet and sour – rich with a sharp citrus acidity keeping the melange of flavours nicely balanced; the overall flavour is like a liquid mince pie, there’s also a sea salt caramel tang, orange liqueur, with a twist of fresh citrus. The length goes all the way to your stomach which is quietly warms. So original and so delicious.