My wife has always wanted to experience the Guggenheim museum in Bilbao, Spain and when it came time to plan our 10th Anniversary getaway, there was little question what part of the world we'd be visiting. Although I have been right next door in Portugal on countless occasions, this was our first time exploring the neighboring Iberian nation. I wanted my wife to enjoy whatever activities she desired for the majority of our vacation, with just four days dedicated to vinous explorations of Montsant, Priorat and the Rioja region. Otherwise, it was all hers to plan.

Shortly after our arrival in Barcelona, we hooked up with Oscar Quevedo of Porto Quevedo fame, along with wine video documentarian Zev Robinson and we headed to the home of Ryan & Gabriella Opaz. It was a long overdue meeting with this energetic and fun couple who are co-founders of the European Wine Blogger's Conference. I've virtually known Ryan for years, even before we launched our respective web ventures. We spent hours together that night, Ryan masterfully grilling a slew of vegetables and meats and we shared some fun wines that they opened for the occasion along with a few that I'd brought along for the occasion.

We started off with a fine Cava, a drink that Dorene and I consumed practically every evening with salads or calamari during our trip. Ryan then presented a Quinta da Bela Vista, Carcavelos Sherry a slightly maderized, Sercial-like dry version of Sherry with orange citrus overtones and a kiss of nuttiness and oak. This product came from the folks at Coho de Rocas and although quite dry in style, I liked it a lot. This was a really unique experience with the blend averaging 60 years old. Its specific grape was Galego Dourado, one I've never even heard of. Although bottled in 1991, the Solera began in the early part of the 1900s with the majority of the cuvee coming from blended harvests between 1930 and 1940.

My additions for the evening were a young but delectable 2001 Lewis Reserve Cab from Napa, which was showing beautifully; a peak showing of the 1993 Felsina Fontalloro, a really classy Super Tuscan wine and a dessert wine: 1990 Chateau Doisy Daene Barsac, amongst a few other scarce treats that Ryan and Gabriella opened later in the evening. It was a great way to start off our trip and it was nice to meet Zef their documentary film making friend and learn about his upcoming documentary on Dinastia Vivanco, as well as finally meeting Ryan & Gabriella. Spending time with Oscar for the 2nd time in a month was a rare treat and it was great to have him join us in Barcelona.

The next night the same cast of characters got together (although Oscar had a previous engagement) at a restaurant that the Opaz' selected and this was a fun and casual night and lots of great dialogue about social media, the Catavino Blog, FTLOP and the upcoming Wine Blogger's Conference in Walla Walla, Washington that was to take place while we were in Spain. As luck would have it, while they were all heading to Seattle and then across to WA wine country for the conference, we had inadvertently planned our trip during the same period of time or we'd have had lots more time together. My sincere thanks to Ryan and Gabriella who provided much guidance during the planning stages of our trip.

Before heading Southwest for part 1 of our wine touring, we spent time enjoying the vibrant, fashionable and historical city of Barcelona. I was blown away by the architecture, not only the Gaudi influenced buildings but overall chic edifices throughout the city. The Ramblas and adjacent marketplace makes Seattle's Pike Place Market look puny by comparison. Coming from Seattle where the temperature had been hovering around 15 degrees C. it was fantastic to have plenty of sun and 25-30 degree days. We made a day trip up North to the quaint town of Figueres by train, to see the world famous Dali museum, which is one of the more memorable museums on a trip filled with several great ones. Anyone planning to visit Barcelona, the Dali museum is a must see!

Next up Montsant and Priorat. I've been a fan of Priorat since the 2001 vintage hit the market, inspired by an unforgettable bottle of 1994 Clos Erasmus some years ago that a friend opened. I bought lots of 2001 from the top producers based on that early experience and have been enjoying them ever since, with a few older bottles enjoyed along the way and a few of the newer vintages as well. I was very excited to get to see this appellation because I knew the terroir shared some similarities with the Douro region, especially the vertically inclined schistose soil and steep terraced vineyards. I never would have believed it's even more remote and with virtually little to no sign of tourism infrastructure whatsoever.

We utilized the services of a professional guide to get us into some fantastic places as well as to provide insight into where to dine and locate accommodations, not to mention do the driving around the difficult to navigate wine region(s). Should any of you consider visiting this part of the wine world, the absolute smartest thing I can recommend is that you get in touch with the brilliant Rachel Ritchie, of Not only is she and her husband exceptionally professional and charming, their grasp on the area from a historical perspective to the lay of the land and knowing EVERYBODY, is beyond description. Two thumbs way up -- and even if I went back next year, I would never consider going it alone without Rachel's guidance. Doors were opened and wines poured that would be next to impossible to arrange on your own. Her husband Gerard Amorós Mestres, is the person responsible for the D.O. and regulations within the wine region of Montsant (which surrounds Priorat's demarcated area). So this is the perfect team as Rachel's expertise lies more in Priorat proper, but these two areas are so closely interconnected that its nearly impossible to skip one and do just the other.

The Mas Figueres B&B we stayed at was very close to the train station which is less than two hours outside of Barcelona. It was quiet, quaint but modern and an extremely comfortable place to spend a night or more and the meals and hosts ... everything you could hope for. As the property also encompasses a moderately small working winery producing solid wines, there's a nice selection that can be enjoyed with dinner.  Thanks to our hosts, Quima and Paco for the extraordinary hospitality!

Our first visit was to Portal del Montsant, which is a huge facility as it once operated as the local wine cooperative of Marça but was converted to a private winery in 2003. There were some pretty cool old cement tanks, six of which have been modernized and are now in use along with a ton of stainless steel and casks too. We began with some barrel tasting along with their young and talented winemaker, Jordy who generously gathered a handful of fine samples beginning with a refreshing 2009 White Grenache that was loaded with crisp acidity and well developed flavors. Onto a spicy Syrah which although merely an infant, was worthy of bottling tomorrow. I really liked this component of the final blend, a meaty black beauty with symmetry, showing great promise for aging. The next sample was their Trossos Old Vine Grenache which was a breathtaking young beast, stemming from 100 year old head pruned vines, massively concentrated and as smooth as it was delicious. Both my wife and I looked at one another nodding, this was really something special. We tried another Grenache too, this one less complex and more in the dark red fruit range and very ripe. Then came the 2009 Carignan "A" and it really deserved that "A" too, smoky with meaty-animal flavors velvety in texture and produced in 225 liter casks.

Portal del Montsant has 3 tiers of wines: Santbru, Brunus and Trossos. We enjoyed learning some of the history of the old cooperative and heard a great deal about the construction of the new cement tanks that have been employed, as well as the special Riedel glassware that was designed specifically for the wines of Montsant. Actually, I thought the glass itself was brilliant and wish I could find these in the USA. We then tasted a few wines from bottle and learned a great deal about the vineyards and the grapes which made up the wines.

The Santbru White Grenache (or Garnatxa) that we started with had a bit too much oak, had some notes of banana and tropical fruits and a slightly oily texture which I enjoyed. The electric pink 2009 Brunus Rosé was a very fresh and soft wine made from 100% Grenache and I was enthralled by its minerality and fleshy presence. Very good quality and at less than 9 Euros, a heck of a deal too. Next up was the 2008 Brunus Garnaxta at 12 Euros, worthy of a case buy. Produced in concrete, this medium weight, spicy red with zippy acidity is perfect for pairing with hearty meat dishes. Two years from now this will be even better and will show greater complexity in the mid-range. 2007 SBCV made from 54% old vine Carignane, 25% Syrah and 21% Grenache showed lots of poise and the 14 months of oak were beautifully integrated. Roasted notes dominated powerful dark red, tart fruit aromas but showed more prune and plums in the mouth, very ripe and with fine balance. Plenty of brash, polished tannins here and this should age well over the next decade and a half. I just shook my head when I heard the price was only 18 Euros. Fortunately, these are imported into the USA by way of Colorado.

Before the end of our tasting we then tried three of the Trossos wines. The first was the 2007 Trossos Blanc which was followed by the same wine from 2008. The 2007 was produced in 500 ml bottles (only) and never sold. I can understand why they'd want to keep this around. Delicious with unctuous, round, tropical flavored fruit, great acidity and an oily richness that I really liked. They had this for sale in magnums at 64 Euros. The 2008 seemed a bit less integrated in terms of the oak, yet it was fresher due to a cooler year and along with great minerality, the acidity and tropical notes were wonderful. I really liked both cuvées. We ended our visit with a marvelous bottle of 2007 Trossos Negre which was from 100% Grenache grapes grown on 100 year old vines. Wow, this was definitely my favorite wine of the tasting (although the cask sample of this … either 2008 or 2009 was a stunning youngster too!) Lighter in color, sexy in the mouth, soft yet tannic, with deeply layered mid-palate and extraordinary length. I will be searching for these wines back in the USA! An excellent introduction to the grapes and wines of the Montsant D.O. from this fine producer located on the outskirts of the village of Falset.

There's plenty more to come … but this entry was starting to get too long. I'll be back soon with round 2.