We are standing face-to-face with the future here. Sara was the host of my very first vineyard and winery visits in Spain, many years ago. At the time, she was a young, energetic and very intelligent winemaker, just starting to stretch her wings. She was working under her father, Jose Luis Perez at Mas Martinet, one of the famous ‘Priorat Five’ who started the new wave Rebirth of Priorat Cool.
But even in outright youth at the time, Sara had her head fully around what was, what had been, and what would be the future in Priorat and Montsant … and she was already starting to work on her own break-out projects. 15 years down the track, she runs Mas Martinet outright. And she has two beautifully-realised solo projects, owned and run in conjunction with her now husband Rene Barbier. I met Rene the same day I met Sara and spent time with he and his father, Rene Barbier Senior, another of the ‘Priorat Five’ at Clos Mogador. And yep, Rene Junior (hereafter, simply Rene) was every bit as switched on, full of respect for the past, curiosity for the future, and fire for the hell-yeah-right-now as was Sara! This was in 2000. Sara and Rene hooked up. Four children later, Rene now runs Clos Mogador just as Sara is Mas Martinet, and partners Sara in life and their personal projects spanning Montsant and Priorat terroirs.
If that wasn’t cool enough, they have a third solo project ‘La Vinya del Vuit’ – a partnership between eight young spark-plugs of Priorat, who share a unique ancient Priorat vineyard just out of Gratallops. The past, present and future of Priorat are in very good hands. Lovely people, committed, energetic-yet-relaxed, quietly confident and doing very, very good things.
La Universal is an estate purchased by Sara in 1999. It is on Montsant soils, just outside of Falset where the road forks to either Porerra or Gratallops. It is home to Sara and Rene’s family, as well as a discrete wine estate.
Venus is a fun name, inspired by Boticelli, and is given to the main wines of the project: the Venus wines come from Universal’s granite soil and some rented vineyards of clay-limestone at Marça, just south of Falset. The second wines, white and red, all come from Universal and are called Dido (Dido was the lover of Venus’s son, Aeneus in mythology). “The Universal” is a further joke, invertedly referring to how tiny the project is – the antithesis of universality.
Sara started Venus and Dido in 1999 (before she and Rene hooked up) and invited Rene as a partner in 2004, just as Rene invited Sara to partner him in the DOQ Priorat properties which he had bought. Most of La Universal was planted by Sara in 1999, mainly to Garnatxa with a bit each of Syrah, Cabernet and Merlot. 4 hectares, though, is pre-existing old-vine Samsó on calcareous soils.
Apart from the limestone Samsó vineyard, the soils of Venus are granite and sand (the only granite in the region), yielding wines with very good freshness. Sara wants to make wines that are “fresh: fruity, but not easy”. That said, Sara and Rene are moving away from French grapes, and the future will see increasing focus on local Priorat varieties. As noted elsewhere, however, the Merlot in Dido and Syrah in Venus are very useful in helping the finicky local Garnatxa Negre to start fermenting.
Dido Blanc was first released in 2007. It’s a Macabeu-Garnatxa Blanca blend of 70 year-old vines from the home block north of Falset and another just south in Marça. The blend also features a little of the low alcohol, higher acid Pansal Blanc, plus some Garnatxa Gris and Cartoixa (Xarel.lo). The white is fermented in large ceramic tank and concrete eggs – It’s a natural fermentation of innoculated local yeast. There’s some skin contact (15% is macerated 5 days to form a ‘pie de cuba’, or fermentation starter. After 4 days a further 20% is added for 24 hours and the rest is pressed straight off) and the Garnatxa Blanca (with some Garnatxa Gris) is aged in barrique for texture, giving lots of honey and spice to the blend. This base is later blended with reductively handled, long-ageing Macabeu.
60% Macabeu, 30% Garnatxa Blanca, 10% Cartoixa/Garnacha Gris. Aged in foudre and concrete.
Golden, marmaladey, rich-bitter. Peachy perfume with pressed flowers, lemon thyme, mint and hissop. There’s a granitic crunch on the nose, too. Tastes of boiled sweets, wax, straw, barley water, verbena hedge flower. Warm, soft, good movement and no cloy. Sandy, elegant honey-rich spiciness.
Dido Pink is Garnatxa and Caranyena with 30% Macabeu white, aged in a 40 year old Mosel vat. It has a long fermentation in old wood then further ageing in amphorae and large vat, with SO2 at bottling in small measure.
Complex wine of bitter herb, amaro, citrus peel, a touch of spice. Great acid and freshness despite all the theoretical impact of wild winemaking it’s mild, smooth and easy. It’s not a ‘rosé’, but then it’s not anything else either …
La Universal ‘Dido’ Garnatxa Tinto blend, DO Montsant
Sara’s tribute to “youth, tenacity, love and Grenache”. Who can argue …?
Organically grown on a 10 hectare plot of degraded granite (Montsant’s only gravel patch), Dido has been in production since 2005. The blend is 86% co-fermented Garnatxa-Syrah (1/5 is Syrah, which helps the local Garnatxa ferment better), with 7% each Cabernet and Merlot. It’s picked early, and needs to be largely de-stemmed, so the fermentation takes place in two parts. A 15% portion is used as a starter – whole bunches take wild yeast and are covered with sulphur for 8 days. This is then released into the balance of the fruit, de-stemmed and un-sulphured, and away we go. After fermentation in old hogsheads, the wines are long-aged, more than 18 months – a first year in large raw concrete and then a further 6 months or so in large Foudre of 5000 litres.
Bright and fresh red cherry fruit marked by mint and scrubby little herbs, the wine shows the clear crunch of granite soil. It’s a red fruit wine marked by mineral earth on nose and palate, with the soil imposing a sense of austerity and order. There’s restraint, easy and space, a sense of the country air, perhaps. The quite gentle fruit in the show is moderated further by cheek-cleaning grapeskin tannin. It’s juicy and direct with macerated herbs, licorice and briar in lovely pastille fruit. It’s briar-herb-brambly, with a nice little nudge of spice, allspice husk and leather.
Clear and direct, with absolutely no wine-making clutter, it is delicately structured and savoury. Dido is a smasher!
La Universal ‘Venus’ Garnatxa Tinto blend, DO Montsant
Since 2001. Venus blends the soil of the home block at Falset with more ferrous soils from Marça (a village south towards Capçanes). The final blend from the two soils is 60-20-20 Garnatxa-Samsó-Syrah, and there’s less than 4000 litres. Venus is made and aged 16 months in foudre (they buy 1 new each 3 years). Whole berries, de-stemmed are fermented on stems with indigenous yeast in open wooden vats for around 30 days. Ageing is subtle, 20 months in 4,000 litre old clean French oak vats, and a small amount in 300 litre barrels.
Black raspberry fruits and a potpourri of dried country herbs – lavender, mint, thyme and sinsimella. Marked by the leather and spice of Samsó, it’s anisey-beefy but entirely without heaviness, and has a lovely fresh and easy release. Spicey, chewy, floral-sweet pippy-purple fruits have a fine, open developed balsamic herbal expression (marjoram and mossy thyme) and a deep sense of the earth. Spice and herb mark Venus at all points, particularly the gentle finish, It’s very well-composed with all elements working together: fruit, wood, herb, dirt, tannin, acid, sky and country air. With age, the beefstock and earth deepen and the wine lays out beautifully- it’s long, supple and easy.
La Universal ‘Venus’ Cartoixa Blanc, DO Montsant
First released from the 2013 harvest, Venus Blanc is an un-sulfured single barrel of Cartoixa (Xarel.lo), 300 bottles only. Not yet shipped to Australia.