February 25, 2017

Morenillo

One of the most intriguing discoveries I've done during the past few years is Morenillo, which I was introduced to during a trip to the wine region of Terra Alta, Catalonia. This is a variety so unheard of that even the most recent version of Wine Grapes by Jancis Robinson et al. doesn't include it! However, I don't blame them, because currently the variety is on the brink of extinction with only some 15 ha (37 acres) in cultivation. Please note that despite the similarity in the name, Morenillo is not the same thing as Morellino, which is a synonym for Sangiovese in DOC Morellino di Scansano, Tuscany.

Morenillo is most likely a native variety from Terra Alta, where it has been cultivated for centuries. However, it fell out of favor during the 20th century, because the variety is relatively difficult to cultivate compared to the local favorites Garnatxa Negra (aka. Grenache) and Garnatxa Blanca (aka. Grenache Blanc) and normally it produces thin wines of pale color compared in comparison to the wines produced from other local red varieties. You have to remember, of course, that this was during the time when the determining quality factors of red wine were its color and concentration.

Juanjo Galcera Piñol of Celler Piñol, from the small village of Batea, Terra Alta, introduced us to this unknown variety during our visit to the winery in 2014. Historically the variety was widely cultivated, but now it is cultivated only by a handful of winegrowers – their number somewhere between 10 and 20 – and there is an even small number producers actually making Morenillo wines. Some of them use Morenillo in wine blends, whereas others make varietal wines. The reason behind the diminishing number of Morenillo producers is the local Consejo Regulador of DO Terra Alta, having decreed that Morenillo isn't only a non-recommended grape variety in the wine appellation of Terra Alta, but also an unauthorized variety as well. This means that there can't be no new plantings of Morenillo anywhere, nor has there been any for the past decades. All this is because the appellation consortium regards Morenillo an inferior variety and they try their best to keep the quality of the wine region up, emphasizing especially the high-quality white variety of the region Garnatxa Blanca.

Based on the Morenillo wines I've tasted I've realized how wrong the consortium is.

When Juanjo introduced us to Morenillo, he likened it to Pinot Noir. This is because both of these varieties have thin skins, resulting in wines with relatively pale, translucent color, and high acidity is typical for both of the varieties – only that Morenillo has adapted to survive in the warmer climate of Terra Alta* and thus is capable of retaining high acidity even in quite hot weather. The Morenillo plant itself is often pretty big: the trunks grow large, the trunks are long, the leaves are big and the grapes are often big with pretty small skin:juice ratio.

*Even though Terra Alta is bordering the hot wine region of Priorat, notable for its massive and concentrated red wines, it is not as hot a place as you might imagine. The wines of Terra Alta are often lighter and more delicate due to the high altitude of the region – after all, the name means "high land" – of 400 meters above sea level on average, keeping the climate relatively mild (and this is why Terra Alta's bright, sophisticated, crystalline and often remarkably high-acid Garnatxa Blancas are held in such high esteem!)

From what I have gathered based on my experiences, there are two main styles of Morenillo wines:
  • The lighter ones are made with fruit sourced from younger vineyards. These are often very Burgundian or even (Cru) Beaujolais in character, with pale color, high acidity and lovely freshness.
  • The more concentrated ones are made with fruit sourced very old, even vineyards. As new Morenillo plantings are scarce, most of the Morenillo vineyards are very old. However, it takes decades, even close to 100 years before the vines begin to bear fruit that is so small and concentrated that the resulting wines are very deep and feel a lot weightier than their lightier counterparts.

Now here are all the Morenillo wines I've had to this date:

Celler Piñol Finca Morenillo 2011
DO Terra Alta
  • Celler Piñol
  • Country: Spain
  • Region: Catalonia, Terra Alta
  • Grape(s): Morenillo (100%)
  • Price: 29,00€ / 0,75
  • Tasted on: September 25th, 2014



Celler Piñol is a family winery that has been operating in the village of Batea, Terra Alta, since 1945 and is also the winery where we working for some time during the harvest 2014. As Celler Piñol is probably the biggest winery producing Morenillo wines, Finca Morenillo is most likely the wine the people (who have heard of Morenillo) know. The wine is made with grapes from organically cultivated 75 yo vines and aged for 15 months in 500 liter French oak casks. Annual production is about 3,000 bottles.

Dark, almost completely opaque garnet color shows much more concentration than what is typical for the variety.

The wine has very open and aromatic nose with fragrant floral nuances veering towards violets and rich blackberry-driven fruit aromas, with elegant hints of fresh dark fruits and a touch of wild strawberry in the background.

On the palate the wine is medium-to-moderately full-bodied with lively acidity and lovely brightness. The wine feels moderately concentrated – probably due to the intense fruit produced by the old vines – but still very balanced and far from being heavy or ponderous. There are juicy, vibrant flavors of rich dark berries, some plummy fruit, a little tart cranberry character and a hint of leather. The mouthfeel is velvety smooth due to the rather modest, ripe and pretty mellow tannins.

The finish is long, nuanced and delicate with layered aromas of ripe blackberries, sour plums, some violet floral hints, a touch of vanilla and a light volatile lift towards the end. The alcohol lends a little warmth towards the finish.

This wine is really lovely stuff – it is by far the most elegant and delicate expression of Terra Alta in Celler Piñol's premium range. For a Morenillo, however, this Finca Morenillo is very dark-toned, concentrated and robust an example; normally Morenillo wines show much less concentration and extraction, are paler in color and higher in acidity.

91/100
Summary: Although not my favorite Morenillo, with its bit too ripe fruit flavors and somewhat too obvious oak character, Finca Morenillo is still one of the best examples of Terra Alta winemaking and definitely one of the best wines in Celler Piñol range, if not the best. At 29€ the wine is priced according to its quality, making it somewhat of a "cult wine" of Terra Alta. I can imagine the wine will age nicely in the cellar, especially if it loses some of its baby fat with the years.

***

Lafou El Sender 2012
DO Terra Alta
  • Lafou Celler
  • Country: Spain
  • Region: Catalonia, Terra Alta
  • Grape(s): Grenache (60%), Syrah (20-25%), Morenillo (15-20%)
  • Price: 8,90€ / 0,75
  • Tasted on: September 28th, 2014



Lafou Celler is from Batea, Terra Alta, just like Celler Piñol, and also one of the very few producers making a varietal Morenillo. I haven't had the Morenillo wine from this relatively new winery (founded in 2007), so here's a tasting note on a wine with a small portion of Morenillo instead.

Dark, slightly translucent cherry color.

Juicy, succulent nose full of fruit-forward aromas of ripe strawberries, dark cherries, cherry marmalade and some brambly raspberry.

The wine is juicy, fruit-forward and medium-bodied on the palate with succulent and spicy but somewhat one-dimensional flavors of ripe strawberry, some sweet oak spice and a hint of plummy dark fruit. The wine is rather low in acidity, but has moderately firm, ripe tannins.

The finish is juicy and quite long with nuanced flavors of cherry, roasted spice, some coffee notes, a little bitterness and a touch of sweet raspberry juice.

87/100
Summary: El Sender is a fruity, enjoyable and quite balanced blended wine typical of the region, where the small addition of Morenillo adds nice brightness and a little sense of crunchy red fruit. The wine is, however, a bit simple, easy and pretty straightforward and lacking a little in the structure department. With higher acidity and grippier tannins the wine might come across more serious and intense. Might hold on for some years in the cellar, but is not in need of further cellaring. OK QPR at 8,90€.

***

Vins del Tros Morenillo Àmfora 2013
DO Terra Alta
  • Vins del Tros
  • Country: Spain
  • Region: Catalonia, Terra Alta
  • Grape(s): Morenillo (100%)
  • Price: 12,20€ / 0,75
  • Tasted on: September 27th, 2014



Vins del Tros is a winery founded in 2009 with an aim to produce terroir-driven wines that are very typical for the Terra Alta region. Their winemaking philosophy is pretty much based on minimal intervention. This is a 100% Morenillo fermented with natural yeasts in stainless steel tanks and aged for 5 months in 450 liter terracotta amphorae. Total production 3,102 bottles.

The wine has translucent dark cherry color with a hint of youthful purple to it.

Youthful, pure and aromatic nose full of crunchy red berries like wild strawberries, ripe raspberries, tart cranberries and sweet redcurrants with a light, herbal undertone of blackcurrant.

The wine is youthful, refreshing and medium-bodied on the palate with velvety texture, bright acidity and modest, fine-grained tannins. There are pure and fresh flavors of wild strawberry, cherry, crunchy red fruits like raspberries and redcurrants with some earthy spice, a hint of bitterness and a touch of slatey minerality. Wonderful focus and balanced structure.

Long, fresh and clean finish with flavors of cranberries, bilberries, stony minerality, some wild strawberries and a hint of herbal bitterness.

Overall we have here a wonderful, pure, bright and easy-drinking example of Morenillo. Truly a lovely and attractive little wine that drinks wonderfully on its own, but shows great potential as a versatile food wine.

92/100
Summary: Stylistically this is very close to a well-made Pinot Noir or Cru Beaujolais. Incredibly moreish stuff with tremendous drinkability. Most likely this is best enjoyed young, when the wine is full of youthful vigor. Simply exceptional value at 12,20€.

***

Vins del Tros Morenillo Lo Morenillo 2011
DO Terra Alta
  • Vins del Tros
  • Country: Spain
  • Region: Catalonia, Terra Alta
  • Grape(s): Morenillo (100%)
  • Price: 23,45€ / 0,75
  • Tasted on: October 25th, 2015



This is a wine made from the grapes of century-old Morenillo vines, the oldest vines owned by Vins del Tros. The wine is fermented and aged partly in old barrels, partly in amphorae and bottled unfiltered and unfined. Annual production of 1,140 bottles.

In the glass the wine has dense, opaque and concentrated blackcurrant color with a hint of haziness from the sediment.

It has incredibly rich, charming and expressive nose that is just deliciously juicy and clean; there are aromas of pure, juicy red grapes, prunes and fresh blackcurrants with nuances of balsamico volatility and animality in the background.

In the mouth the wine follows the aromas of the nose with its intense, pure and super-juicy flavors of ripe dark fruits, plum juice, bitter spiciness, some wild florals and a hint of honey. It has dry, concentrated and savory overall appearance with high-ish acidity and moderate tannins.

Ripe and pure finish with flavors of bitter spice, plum juice, florality and hints of volatile rusticity – and a slightest hint of alcohol heat (14,5%). Very long, pure, honest and complex aftertaste.

Boy oh boy this was good! More than good! Just incredibly pure, charming and juicy stuff – it is so much like its younger sibling, Àmfora Morenillo, but with a lot more oomph and concentration!

94/100
Summary: Not only is this perhaps the greatest Morenillo I've had, this is also one of the greatest modern Spanish red I've ever drunk. I'd love to see how this stuff ages, but it's very hard to cellar a wine like this, because this is so incredibly delicious and thus has incredibly high evaporation rate – my glass just emptied itself in mere seconds after it was filled, every time! An excellent buy at 23,45€.

***

Bàrbara Forés El Templari 2012
DO Terra Alta
  • Celler Bàrbara Forés
  • Country: Spain
  • Region: Catalonia, Terra Alta
  • Grape(s): Morenillo (70%), Grenache (30%)
  • Tasted on: October 25th, 2014




Celler Bàrbara Forés is a winery that has produced wine since the late 19th century in Gandesa, Terra Alta, and is currently spearheaded by Carme Ferrer and her husband Manuel Sanmartín. They cultivate 22 ha of vineyards organically and they are one of the wineries trying their best to revive larger interest in Morenillo. However, curiously, their Morenillo wine, El Templari, isn't a 100% varietal Morenillo, but instead a Morenillo-dominant blended wine with some Garnatxa Negra (aka Grenache) in the mix.

Morenillo is fermented and macerated for 35 days in stainless steel whereas Grenache is fermented and macerated for 28 days in stainless steel. After the fermentation is complete, the wines are transferred to French Allier oak barriques, where they remain for 13–14 months before blending and bottling.

Dark, translucent color.

The wine exhibits a bit reticent nose dominated by sweet strawberry notes of Grenache with some alcohol and hints of oak spice.

It is quite full-bodied and sweet on the palate with relatively low acidity, resulting in a slightly flat and flabby mouthfeel. There are really ripe and rich flavors of strawberry, bitter spices, some fresh red berries and a hint of chocolate oak spice. The fine tannins are rather mellow and gentle and alcohol shows a little.

The finish is rich, juicy and a bit warm with flavors of strawberry, some oak spice and a hint of plums.

I was really curious to check out this new, Morenillo-dominant wine, but in this case the moderately small proportion of Garnacha seemed to dominate the blend with the oak influence overwhelming the rest of the Morenillo character. Normally Morenillos that I have tasted have been quite light, delicate and bright, but this was more about richness and sweet, ripe fruit – the wine actually tasted like a normal, average Grenache wine, with very little unique character.

85/100
I was a bit disappointed with El Templari. Probably the wine suffered from being served a bit above the optimum drinking temperature, making the acidity appear lower, fruit sweeter and alcohol more prominent, but it really felt that even in optimum drinking conditions it would have been an underachiever for a Morenillo wine. I guess I should return to this, but serve it cooler. This time the wine just didn't manage to impress.

***

Bàrbara Forés El Templari 2014
DO Terra Alta
  • Celler Bàrbara Forés
  • Country: Spain
  • Region: Catalonia, Terra Alta
  • Grape(s): Morenillo (70%), Grenache (30%)
  • Price: 13,00€ / 0,75
  • Tasted on: July 16th, 2016



Well, as the vintage 2012 of El Templari felt such an underachiever, I decided to give it another go. A few years later I returned to the vintage 2014, which should be similar in style – a Morenillo-dominant blended wine.

The wine's appearance is a bit lighter than that of 2012's, with translucent and rather pale cranberry red color, turning almost clear towards the rim.

The nose is pretty nuanced and bright, but also rather reticent and restrained, even. However, the nose exhibits more savory than sweet red tones with aromas of cranberries, some crowberries, faint wild notes and faint nuances of sweeter, ripe raspberry. The alcohol (13,5%) and the oak character seem to be well integrated.

On the palate the wine feels pretty full-bodied and moderate at most in the acid department, although showing a bit more freshness and brightness than the 2012 vintage. There are ripe but attractive and lively flavors of sweet dark berries, red cherries, some wild strawberries, a little dark-toned oak spice and a hint of rough, stony minerality. The tannins are still pretty mellow and keep out of the way unless you go looking for a fight.

The wine finishes with a medium-long, dark-toned and pretty pure aftertaste that is mostly about ripe fruit, not oak character. There are juicy and lively flavors of sweet red berries, some dark forest fruits and a little bitter spiciness with a hint of aromatic oak spiciness towards the end of the aftertaste.

Well, after the rather nondescript vintage 2012, it really did good to return to this wine again with another vintage! The 2014 vintage of El Templari felt brighter and more pure with more emphasis on the fruit than on the oak department. Still, I wouldn't say El Templari shows much competition against the best Morenillo wines on the market – this wine is a simple, unpretentious, easy-drinking red with very little to set it apart from a multitude of other Catalan reds.

88/100
Summary: Apparently Morenillo is so delicate it gets pretty easily overwhelmed under more powerful varieties. Both times I've tasted El Templari it felt I was drinking a Garnacha wine – even though Garnacha was only a minor component there composing only approximately 30% of the blend. I guess if you want to make a good Morenillo, you should treat it as the delicate variety it is, not something that needs "bigger" varieties to bolster up its "weaknesses".

***

Bodega Marañones Darío 2015
DO Madrid
  • Bodega Marañones
  • Country: Spain
  • Region: Madrid
  • Grape(s): Morenillo (100%)
  • Price: 15,40€ / 0,75
  • Tasted: February 17th, 2017



Before I heard about Bodega Marañones' Darío I thought Morenillo was a variety found exclusively in Terra Alta, but lo and behold, somehow they've got some Morenillo in Madrid as well! I have no idea how and why Morenillo ended up in Madrid, or whether this Morenillo is even the same variety than the one in Terra Alta. But take note that this isn't just a recent thing – this Darío is made with grapes sourced from a vineyard 60 years old! Anyhow, this is definitely the only Morenillo wine I've seen coming from outside Terra Alta – at least for now.

The bottle itself doesn't declare it is made from Morenillo, only variedades locales; furthermore, the home pages of Bodega Marañones don't even recognize Darío's existence! It's all the other sources that claim this is a Morenillo, and I guess I just have to take their word for it. The vineyard in question is situated on granite soil and the resulting wine is aged for 9-10 months in very old (more than 10 years of age) oak barrels of 500-700 liters. The total production is 2,500 bottles.

The wine is dark cherry-colored and quite translucent.

The fragrant nose is utterly beautiful and attractive with pronounced aromas of crushed lingonberries, supported by more delicate notes of cranberries, raspberries, some dusty earth and a hint of animal. The nose actually has a strong sense of Pinosity, really, with a slightly wild undercurrent.

True to the nose, the wine is very light-bodied, fresh and super-crunchy on the palate with bright, lively flavors of raspberries, cranberries, redcurrants, some sour cherry and a hint of sour plums. Some lighter nuances of earthy spices and something wild linger in the background. Overall the wine shows remarkable focus and purity of flavor; if this was served to me blind, I'd go automatically for a Loire or Jura Pinot Noir, nothing Spanish! There isn't much in the way of tannins, yet the wine shows nice little grip and even a slight sense of astringency, just to emphasize the tart and savory red fruit flavors.

The finish is somewhat more bitter than the midpalate with quite pronounced sour cherry character, complemented by savory nuances of ripe dark-skinned berries, some slightly leafy green notes, a little plummy fruit and hints of animal and leather. The aftertaste that remains on the tongue is really long with pronounced lingonberry tartness and slightly grippy tannins.

As a whole, this is an immensely attractive, tasty and delicate red wine that is nothing what you would expect from a wine coming from Madrid! As a huge fan of well-made Pinot Noir and other red wines showing same kind of poise and verve, this wine shows huge appeal to me. Along with Lo Morenillo by Vins del Tros, this is definitely the best Morenillo on the market currently.

94/100
Summary: Whereas Lo Morenillo shows a lot more concentrated and brooding character with tremendous focus and balance, this wine is only about elegance and sophistication. Definitely one of the most Burgundian red wines I've had from Spain. Although drinking really wonderfully now, I wouldn't be surprised if this wine would age as gracefully as the best Pinot Noirs from Burgundy. Simply astounding value at 15,40€.

***

To me, Morenillo is an undiscovered treasure of Spanish wine, capable of producing tremendously attractive wines of some real character and wonderful drinkability. The thing of utmost importance is that the Consejo Regulador of DO Terra Alta would start promoting the variety, instead of talking the growers out of cultivating it! Of course I understand they want to promote their Garnatxa Blanca, which is definitely their trump card and a variety cultivated there for ages, but if they also have this red variety of remarkable character that no other region else has (well, apart from Madrid, it seems), I can't understand for the life of me why they wouldn't want to take advantage of it!

Lucky for us, there are still some producers who are intent on making wines of real local color out of Morenillo and I really do hope that they will keep on doing them in the future. With this blog post I hope to raise some awareness of this virtually unknown and almost extinct variety; this way we can signal the producers that there is demand for this unique variety and that they are doing the right thing.

Fortunately, as both light and delicate wines and wines made out of unheard-of indigenous varieties are currently popular, the wine trends seem to be on Morenillo's side for once. Let's hope it stays that way.

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