“Heroic mountain viticulture?”
While it’s true that the Spanish (and Catalans) are sometimes overly fond of dramatic rhetoric (and heavy autor bottles), in this case, the terminology is appropriate. Here, towering above the valley of the Siurana river, overlooking the old mining town of Bellmunt de Priorat, Xavi Pallejà’s mountain vineyards are incredibly steep, remote, forbidding. It takes the most powerful and rugged 4WD imaginable to surmount them. Handling fruit during harvest is unthinkably difficult.
Xavi has 7 hectares planted at up to 450 metres altitude on a 13 hectare estate. There are some bush vines around 70 years old (planted at the end of the civil war, when the real abandonment kicked in), and some 20 year old trellised plantings, all on ancient terrasses. The label is the local Boxwood, buxus sempervirans and serves testimony to long, patient attention to the vineyards.
Buxus is a village wine, from Bellmunt, and also a Partida, or lieu-dit expression. ‘les Aubages’ are the ‘shady places’ referring to the relatively cool and breezy north-facing situation high above Bellmunt.
Xavi is currently in his 40s, born nearby in Reus. He studied viticulture and oenology at the local Falset winemaking school, under local legends Joan Asens and Toni Alcover. This was back at the end of the dark ages: in 1992 when Xavi enrolled, he was the only student enrolled and the school may have been about to close! He purchased a farm of 4.5 hectares in 1994, and which contained two special old costers vineyards with 3.5 ha of old vines looking straight out to the Montsant massif. The locals considered him an outsider: “Ganxet (slang nickname for Reusenses), you have bought a mountain of stones … you do not know what you have done!” Deep into the 1990s, the abandonment of Priorat’s toughest (and best) sites continued, and Xavi was able to purchase further lands before the Pop Stars, Torres and other vultures descended. But farming this land is just too hard for opportunists seeking to scoop up Parker Points, and Priorat today is almost overwhelmingly a place for dedicated, extremely hard working small-scale agriculturalists like Xavi.
Bellmunt is the southern-most town of Priorat. Technically, it’s the warmest village, but the best vineyards of Bellmunt are high up in quite cool northerly aspects, further cooled by the refreshing south-easterly sea breeze known as the Garbinada, which flutters in reliably during the hot summer afternoons. It’s a small village with a long history of mining, which ceased in the late 20th century; now the 300 population are reliant on the wine trade. Bellmunt perches on twin ridges above the valley of the Siurana, on the brink of the continental uplift which birthed Priorat’s slate soils from the limestone of surrounding Montsant. The massif of Montsant looms above and around Bellmunt from the west and north, just as Riu Siurana underscores the village …
… and ‘Bell-munt’?
Beautiful mountain: looking towards the village from Falset a few kms to the east, Bellmunt hunkers beneath the protective prow of an outreaching mountain, formed from the younger slate extrusion which formed Priorat within the ancient limestone of the Montsant range. All the elements of Priorat display clearly here: the towering Montsant, of course; Siurana snaking through the valley below, which reaches north across to Gratallops; almond and hazelnut trees, olives, fennel, woods, mountain air and the smell of stone everywhere. In Priorat, it’s hard to not stop in wonder and revery, within the majestic order of the mountains and the fresh tell of pines, and acknowledge the over-arching sense of not just remoteness, but utter detachment. Am I really in the world right now? Priorat is utterly a place apart.
2016 is the first release of Buxus, and just 2300 bottles were made. Spring was wet, but summer long and entirely dry, with freshening breezes in September. 75% old vine Samsó (aka Caranyena) with Garnatxa negre. Spontaneous fermentation in stainless steel (25 days, temperature controlled), 11 months ageing in old French oak, bottled unfiltered. Good pH (3.28), very low sulphites (23 mg/l), TA 5.4.
This is a really lovely country wine style. It’s bright, with tight, wiry-briary herbs twitched through low glycerol red berry fruit. The core is purple-pippy Caranyena, in an easy register without any tubular tannin strength and releasing into a sour-herbal balsamic stretch to finish. Pure countryside …