Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Meeting Didier Soto and Tasting His Biodynamic Mas Estela Wines from Catalonia

Picture: Christian G.E.Schiller with Didier Soto from Mas Estela in the Spanish part of Catalonia

Not many winemakers master the art of biodynamic winemaking. But Didier Soto from Mas Estela in the Spanish part of Catalonia, close to the French boarder, does it. I met him and tasted his wines at Cecile’s Wine Cellar located in downtown McLean, Virginia.

Wine Producer Spain

Located on the Iberian Peninsula, Spain has over 1 million hectares of vineyard land planted. It is with Italy and France in the leading trio of wine producing nations. Wine making in Spain began many centuries ago, even long before the Romans came. During the Roman Empire, Spanish wine was widely exported and traded. The end of the 19th century saw the emergence of Spain's sparkling wine industry with the development of Cava in Catalonia. Spain’s reputation entering the 21st century was that of a serious wine producing country that could compete with other producers in the world wine market.

Spanish wines are classified according a five-tier system, which, starting from the bottom, comprises: (1) Vino de Mesa (VdM) - These are simple, table wines. (2) Vinos de la Tierra (VdlT) - This level is similar to France's vin de pays system. (3) Vino de Calidad Producido en Región Determinada (VCPRD) - This level is similar to France's Vin Délimité de Qualité Supérieure (VDQS) system and is considered a stepping stone towards DO status. (4) Denominación de Origen (DO) - This level is for the mainstream quality wine regions. Nearly two thirds of the total vineyard area in Spain is within the boundaries a DO region. (5) Denominación de Origen Calificada (DOCa) - This designation, which is similar to Italy's Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita (DOCG) designation, is for regions with a track record of consistent quality and is meant to be a step above DO level. Rioja was the first region afforded this designation in 1991 and was followed by Priorat in 2003, and Ribera del Duero in 2008.

The three most common aging designations on Spanish wine labels are Crianza, Reserva and Gran Reserva. (1) Crianza red wines are aged for 2 years with at least 6 months in oak. Crianza whites and rosés must be aged for at least 1 year with at least 6 months in oak. (2) Reserva red wines are aged for at least 3 years with at least 1 year in oak. Reserva whites and rosés must be aged for at least 2 years with at least 6 months in oak. (3) Gran Reserva wines typically appear in above average vintages with the red wines requiring at least 5 years aging, 18 months of which in oak. Gran Reserva whites and rosés must be aged for at least 4 years with at least 6 months in oak.

Major Spanish wine regions include the Rioja and Ribera del Duero which is known for their Tempranillo production; Jerez, the home of the fortified wine Sherry; Rías Baixas in the northwest region of Galicia that is known for its white wines made from Albariño and Catalonia which includes the Cava and still wine producing regions of the Penedès as well the Priorat region.

Picture: The Wine Regions of Spain

The country has an abundance of native grape varieties, with over 600 varieties planted throughout Spain though 80 percent of the country's wine production is from only 20 grapes—including Tempranillo, Albariño, Garnacha, Palomino, Airen, Macabeo, Parellada, Xarel•lo, Cariñena and Monastrell. Tempranillo is the second most widely planted grape in Spain and is an important grape in the Rioja, Ribera del Duero and Penedès regions. The most widely planted grape is the white wine grape Airén, served as the base for Spanish brandy.

Sherry is a fortified wine produced in southern Spain. It can either be sweet or dry, unlike Port. Port wine is made sweet by adding alcohol to the fermenting must so the fermentation stops and the sugar of the grapes remains in the wine. What you get is a wine with lots of alcohol and remaining sweetness in the wine. Sherry, on the other hand, is made by letting the fermentation go its full way so that a dry wine emerges. Then, alcohol is added to boost the alcohol level. If the winemaker stops there, you get a dry Sherry. If he also adds sterilized juice, you get a sweet Sherry. Thus, Sherry can be sweet or dry.

Cava is a Spanish sparkling wine made in the traditional method of the Champagne. Mostly, white grape varieties like Macabeo, Parellada and Xarel•lo are used for Cava, though some producers are experimenting with the use of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.


“First of all” Didier Soto said, when I asked him what language to speak, “ I am Catalan and I speak Catalan at home. Then, I am a Spaniard.” “And then” I added you and I are Europeans”. Catalonia is one of the Kingdom of Spain's 17 autonomous communities, with Barcelona its capital. My daughter used to live there and when I visited her I was always surprised to hear so little Spanish in the streets and the bodegas. Among themselves, Catalans speak Catalan. Catalonia is really a community set apart by its language and culture. At the end of the last century, Catalonia imported Champagne techniques for the production of sparkling wines and today Catalonia is selling tens of millions of bottles of cava all over the world. Northern Catalonia is a term that is sometimes used to refer to the territory ceded to France by Spain in the 1600s, which now corresponds approximately to the French département of the Pyrénées-Orientales.

Biodynamic Wines

Mas Estella is a certified biodynamic winery. Biodynamic wines are part of the larger group of wines that I like to call eco-wines. What are eco-wines? Generally speaking, wines made with an ecological concept in mind. However, there are many different approaches in terms of what that implies in reality. I addition, there are winemaking concepts that belong to the larger family of eco-wine wines.

Organic: Organic generally means the use of natural as opposed to chemical fertilizers, insecticides and pesticides. The key is: no chemicals. Organic wines are changing the look of vineyards, literally. Whereas vineyards of the past commanded neat rows rid of all insects, rodents and weeds, organic vineyards are now replacing costly and damaging chemical sprays with environmental partnerships. Pesticides are giving way to introducing low-growing plants between vine rows that host beneficial insects that keep the pest insects in check.

Unfortunately, there is no agreement on what organic wine making as opposed to organic wine growing means. The main issue is the use of sulfur in the fermentation process. In the US, organic winemakers are not allowed to add sulfites during winemaking; an organic wine is a wine with basically zero sulfur. In Europe, sulfites are allowed to be added during fermentation and an organic wine typically contains a modest amount of sulfur.

Biodynamic: Biodynamic is similar to organic farming in that both take place without chemicals, but biodynamic farming incorporates ideas about a vineyard as an ecosystem, and also accounting for things such as astrological influences and lunar cycles. Biodynamic is an approach following the rules and ideas of Austrian philosopher-scientist Rudolph Steiner. In his 1924 lectures, he viewed the farm as an entire living ecosystem starting with the soil which is treated as a living organism and receives special applications to enhance its health.

Sustainable: Sustainability refers to a range of practices that are not only ecologically sound, but also economically viable and socially responsible. Sustainable farmers may farm largely organically or biodynamically but have flexibility to choose what works best for their individual property; they may also focus on energy and water conservation, use of renewable resources and other issues.

Natural: The idea behind natural wine is non-intervention and a respect for nature. For example, only natural yeasts are used, the fermentation is slow, there is little or no use of new oak barrels; and there are no filtrations or cold stabilization. Natural wines are minimalist wines produced with as little intervention as possible.

Vegan: Vegan refers to the process of fining the wine - eliminating undesirable items - with fining agents made from animal products, such as fish bladders and egg whites. As an alternative, Bentonite, a specific type of clay, is used for clarification in vegan wines. It’s important to note that vegan or vegetarian wines may or may not be made from organic grapes.

Carbon Footprint
: The carbon neutral label comes from a different angle: global warming. All economic activites have a carbon footprint, including wine making. Carbon neutral wineries are trying to make a contribution to the general efforts of reducing the emission of carbon dioxide.

Water Footprint: A new thing is water footprint, reflecting the concern that the planet is moving into a period where water becomes more and more scarce.

Mas Estela

Mas Estela is a small certified biodynamic winery, making premium wines. It is operated by Didier and Nuria Soto and two of their boys, Didac and Josep. It is located in the Emporda-Costa Brava wine region, two hour’s drive north of Barcelona, where the Pyrenees mountains meet the Mediterranean sea on the Cap de Creus, only 3 kilometers away from the beach. The Empordà-Costa Brava wine region has become a very promising area for making high quality wines. Despite being a traditionally co-operative area, new smaller family like Mas Estela have been springing up, which are now up-dating wine-making methods.

The Sotos first discovered Mas Estela in 1989 while on a hiking vacation. The Mas was in ruins and the property was abandoned. The Soto’s contacted the owners and quickly settled a deal. Within a year the Sotos moved there. They immediately started reviving plants that could be salvaged and re-planted the rest. Today, the vineyard boasts 15 hectares of land divided among Carignan, Monastrell, Grenache, Syrah, Chardonnay and Muscat d’Alexandria grape varietals.

It is a mountainous vineyard with poor soil, made up mainly of brown slate which means that the young plants need to work hard and put down deep roots to look for any moisture they can. Eventually the roots could go down 5-6 metres and that is when you will really get the mineral flavors so much appreciated by wine lovers. The grapes are hand-picked and vinified with great care. When the grapes come in to the Bodega, they are destemmed and crushed into grape juice which is cooled to 8ºC from the 24ºC or so when they arrive, filtered, then stored in the stainless steel tanks where they undergo the first controlled fermentation to convert all the sugar to alcohol.

The Wines Didier and Jonas Poured

The Mas Estela wines were presented by Didier Soto and Jonas Gustafsson, wine explorer, according to his business card, and owner of Vin de Terra Imports. Vin de Terra represents Jonas Gustafsson Selections, a growing portfolio of high-quality wines from Spain. Jonas Gustafsson has over 20 years of experience in the wine retail and importation industries, and now brings us his own selections with a focus on his passion for Spanish wine.

Mas Estela Selva De Mar Blanca 2008

A blend of 85% Grenache Gris and 15% Muscat d’Alexandria aged for 6 months on the fine lees in second use acacia barrels. You’ll immediately notice tropical fruit with accents of fresh flowers, grapes and orange, but the depth of the aroma sneaks up on you. The flavors are deep and complex, too, with orange blossom, fresh fruit, and even a touch of coconut flavors.
Regular Price: $26.99 Sale Single Bottle: $21.98

Mas Estela Quindals Tinto 2007

A blend of 90% Grenache and 5% each Syrah and Carignan, the 2007 Quindals opens with generous aromas of black fig, black raspberry jam, and cheerful Christmas spice. In the mouth it is rich with loads of black raspberry, black plum, baking spice, and coffee flavors. It finishes with more coffee and red raspberry notes with fine, ripe, tannin emerging at the end to give everything support.
Regular Price : $29.99 Sale Single Bottle: $24.98

Mas Estela Selva De Mar 2004

The 2004 Vinya Selva de Mar Negre is a blend of 50% Garnacha, 30% Syrah, and 20% Carinena aged for 18 months in 33% new French oak. Inky purple in color, it offers up a complex aromatic array of balsamic, hazel nut, kirsch, cassis, mineral, and garrigue. Elegant on the palate, it has outstanding volume, intense, succulent fruit, some elegance, and a lengthy finish.

The inland parts of Catalonia are known for a cuisine that includes earthy combinations of fruit and meat (or poultry)—dishes that go amazingly well with the equally distinctive and delicious Grenache-based wines of Catalonia.
Regular Price: $41.99 Sale Single Bottle: $36.98

Mas Estela Vinya Selva De Mar Natural 1991

Grown in the most Northwesterly regions of Catalonia, Mas Estela is a true regrown work of nature. The land was taken over in 1989 by the Soto family, who have since restored the property to a 100% bio dynamic vineyard, planting Garnacha, Carignan, Monastell, and Muscat of Alexandria.

The Selva de Mar is 100% Garnacha blended in the solara style. The wine presents a deep garnet with richer notes of Mahogany. The aromas are something like nutty raisins, crushed red fruit and hints of coffee and caramel.
Regular Price: $64.99 Sale Single Bottle: $54.98

Mas Estela Vi De Lluna 2007

The 2007 Vi Luna from Mas Estela is a bold, ripe, blend of 50% Grenache and 50% Syrah. It’s a blockbuster of a red, bursting with super-ripe black raspberry fruit, Belgian chocolate, and loads of spice. Round and rich in the mouth, it explodes on the long, bold, finish with hints of kirsch, framboise, and dark chocolate lingering nicely.
Regular Price: $64.99 Sale Single Bottle : $58.98

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1 comment:

  1. Dear Christian,

    Congratulations for your posting on schiller-wine, I really enjoyed reading it and looking at the photos. Through it I could remember with great pleasure that tasting at Cecile´s Wine Celler.

    I will appreciate you come to visit us in Mas Estela during one of your tours in Europe.You will be very welcome.

    My best regards

    Didier Soto