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June 09, 2015

Interview with Dominik Huber – Terroir al Limit

Tosses in Spring

Les Tosses in Spring

Briefly expain Terroir al Limit:

It’s doesn’t really sound modest maybe, but I’m really trying to establish the Domaine Romanée-Conti of Spain. I think the Priorat is a very special place but difficult because of its climate. It’s very rough, dry, and hot. The landscape is steep. It didn’t have the best start, which was a very modern, international approach with too many non-indigenous varieties, modern vinification techniques, and being promoted as a region famous for big, oaky, over-extracted wines which is a shame because I think Priorat can do much, much, more.

Do you think there is the same understanding of the terroir in the Priorat as there is in Burgundy?

This is the challenge. And there are different parts to the story. The first part, the founding of Scala Dei wasn’t really important in the development of wine because it was a rather simple, primitive winemaking exercise. Next there was a long history of bulk wine and distilling. Then there was a moment, even before Rene Barbier arrived in the Priorat, when Celler d’Scala Dei was producing wines, bottled in a Burgundy bottle already, which I think is quite interesting from a historic point of view, made from Grenache before the arrival of modern winemaking techniques from France, there was no destemming, no stainless steel, there was no pigeage, there was no extraction, there was no new oak, just beautiful wines made in the 1970s. We can still taste these bottles. This is actually the type of wine Terroir al Limit references. It’s a summary of the whole place. You have a 1000 years going into these bottles before you had this aggressive new start, which was necessary because Priorat was dying, but I am trying to reconnect with this time before the 1980s.

Scala Dei Terrasses

Scala Dei and the Montsant

Dominik Huber isn’t a typical Catalan name…

It’s not Catalan, it’s not Spanish, it’s Bavarian, southern German. I come from a family of butchers with a long history of gastronomy. I first became interested in gastronomy in Germany but my real passion for food came after visiting Italy. I was lucky enough to dine at some great restaurants when I was 18 years old and then I worked for two years in Geneva for an Italian olive oil company so my senses were pretty much educated in Italy when it comes to food, aromas, purity, precision and to great raw materials – all of which I took with me to the Priorat. It’s an archaic, almost primitive place in the most positive way. It’s a place of almost Tuscan ambience but it also gave me space to develop my own understanding of wine.

Did you first become interested in wine when you visited Italy? After all Bavaria is better known for beer than wine.

My passion for wine started in the Priorat. I really loved food and from that I fell into wine. Italians call it alimento, they call food alimento, pasta and cheeses are called alimento but wine is also called alimento and I very much like that approach. It’s not so intellectual. It’s natural; it’s a physical and hedonistic impulse to try to make the best wine possible out of a natural location.

When did you first visit the Priorat?

The first time I visited was by coincidence in 1996. I was studying economics and marketing to become an academic to please my family but throughout my studies I realized that I really wanted to work with my hands so I did an internship at Mas Martinet and I fell in love with winemaking. I understood then that wine was the answer to all my desires when it comes to working with my hands and when it comes to traveling. I like the balance between sitting in my tiny little village in Priorat, farming my grapes, working in the cellar and visiting customers, having beautiful dinners and trying different wines and talking to different people. I like to be able to concentrate on my little place but then travelling to gain an international perspective on wine.

When did you found Terroir al Limit?

Our first vintage was in 2001.

And that was in partnership with Eben Sadie?

Yes. I returned to Priorat in 1997, 1998 and 1999 and after I finished my Masters studies I spent a whole year in the Priorat in 2000 with the Perez family because I was so intrigued by wine and I thought it was a good place to learn how to make wine. It was here that I met Eben Sadie who was also working at Cims de Porrera.

Dominik Jaume Eben

Dominik Huber, Jaume Sabaté and Eben Sadie

Describe the style of wine you were making at that time.

Personally, at that time, I was still young and I had a rough idea about wine so I was following the ideas of Eben Sadie in the very beginning and he was also quite young and his winemaking was more international, with extraction. Beautiful wines but big ones.

As your tastes in wine matured, what did you begin to see as benchmark wines? What did you envision for the Priorat?

As I mentioned before the early Scala Dei wines were a big influence for me. Tom Lubbe from Matassa was a very strong influence for me in the move away from the typical Priorat style.

Were your early wines blended or were you already making single varietal wines?

From day one we made single varietal wines. Dits del Terra from 2001 has always been 100% Carignan. Then in 2005 we started the project Vi de la Vila Torroja which was our first cuvée of Garnacha and Carignan and then came the other cuvées, the whites in 2008. All the others are single vineyard and varietal wines.

How many hectares do you farm?

We are running about 15 hectares at the moment.

How many wines do you currently make?

Right now we produce seven main wines. There is the village (Torroja) and Terra de Cuques at the entry level, then Dits, Arbossar and Pedra de Guix as the premier crus, and then finally the top cuvees, Maynes and Tosses. We have an experimental project called vinum verum, a series of three wines: a 100% Muscat, a 100% Xarel.lo and what I call a Clarete, a rosé that we make out of Grenache Blanc, Grenache Gris and Grenache Rouge, it’s a co-fermented rosé.

Terroir al Limit Lineup

Tasting the 2013 vintage in Chicago, May 2015

When did the style of your wines start to evolve and what changes did you make in the cellar and the vineyard to cause this evolution?

The reason we could make the change was my 100% presence in the Priorat starting in 2007 and from then onwards you could see that the wines really changed stylistically. We threw out the Bordeaux barrels so now there is not a single barrique in the cellar. Also from 2009 onwards we changed from destemming to whole cluster fermentation without any pigeage, remontage, or pumpovers. We also introduced organic and biodynamic viticulture. This dramatically changed the quality of the grapes and their natural yeasts so we entered a entirely new world of winemaking and better expressions of aromas and terroir.

Let’s talk about the white wines you make, when did you start making them?

 There was a very interesting experience that led me to making the whites. In 2006 I presented my red wines to Josep Roca at his restaurant in Girona and he liked the wines and he bought some cases and asked, “Dominik what are you doing now? I’d like to invite you for lunch.” I was very happy for the invitation and I spend three hours sitting at my table where they sent out 15 courses. Twelve were served with white wine and 3 with red. This was quite shocking for me as a Priorat wine producer and it motivated me to make the first vintage of Pedra de Guix in 2008 which is a cuvée of Grenache, Macabeo and Pedro Ximenez. It’s mostly very old vineyards, very steep slopes and concentrated grapes. This is the one wine where we play with oxidative factors and where we have a very saline and mineral approach to wine. Then we have a second white that we started in 2011 (Terra de Cuques) and here we are playing with skin contact. It’s made in the same way that we make the reds. We throw the grapes together with the stems in the tank, two weeks of fermentation and maceration, pressing off, then finishing in big tanks. So two weeks is a long time on the skins.

How is the Terra de Cuques different from an Orange wine?

 We only do two weeks on the skins and the grapes are whole cluster. Normally if you destem you break many if not most of the grapes and you get a certain tannin in the wine from the broken stems and skins and you have some oxidation at that point as well. Additionally with orange wine the skin contact is much longer. In amphora wines, for example they don’t press until after Christmas but we press after two weeks without any extraction at all. This is why the wines are very light in color and structure. It’s a very different style than Pedra de Guix.

You’ve already described the Priorat as hot, dry and extreme. Carignan is better suited to such a climate but how do you make an elegant Garnacha in the Priorat?

It’s interesting because in the Priorat, Carginan was always considered the black sheep in the family and no one wasn’t happy with Carignan because it tends to be rustic and inelegant but if you treat Carignan very well and you don’t have a very young vineyard – 30 years or older – you can make the most beautiful wines out of Carignan. Grenache, it is very true, is difficult. You have to look for special sites – north facing, high in the mountains, and look for clay. The only 100% Grenache we make is on red clay soils high up in the Montsant with no slate at all.

Manyes Vine copy

Clay and gypsum soil of Les Manyes

Isn’t that an uncommon soil in the Priorat?

Normally when you talk about the Priorat you are talking about the nine villages that are dominated by slate but when you drive up into the mountains behind Scala Dei it’s all clay. So we have two realities – the reality of the nine villages at lower elevation, in the heat and on slate, and then we have the Montsant at higher elevation with clay soils.

What is your feeling about the Vi de Vila concept?

The whole idea of terroir was originally an invention of northern climates, you find it best understood in Burgundy, in Piedmont and in the Mosel. But I think the Mediterranean world is changing significantly. You have all these beautiful wines coming out of Sicily for example. The Priorat is working towards a village concept because they have these different, beautiful villages with different microclimates, slightly different soil types, so it’s definitely a great idea.

Mapa DOQ Priorat

Vi de Vil map of DOQ Priorat

Any plans to grow or are you happy with your current size?

 We are making about 3200 cases now but I would like to increase that to 5000 cases but only grow the Torroja and Terra de Cuques. At 5000 cases I could have a sustainable business which would allow me to plant a vineyard and construct a small cellar. Right now I’m still renting space which is very complicated with several different levels making the cellar work difficult.

What is your approach to farming?

I think if you want to make a decent, honest, authentic wine it has to be organic. First of all we don’t want to put herbicides and pesticides into our bodies, which is really bad for us. That’s the healthy approach to wine but there is also the hedonistic approach to wine. If you want to produce healthy grapes you need a lot of organic material in your soils and if you want to feel the very authentic flavor of the vineyard you need all this organic material to conduct the terroir from the root system to the plant and into the grapes and the yeasts. It’s fundamental. We’ve made a small change, everything is organic obviously but then we apply some biodynamic techniques like infusions or teas. We still have to discover many things because biodynamics is coming from the north, it’s a continental technique so we can apply some of these in the Mediterranean climate but we cannot apply 100% of the biodynamic concept. It’s also too dogmatic I think.


Frida the Mule

How did you locate these sites?

I spend my weekends on my old motorbike riding around searching for sites and going to the cafés and bars talking to farmers. There were lots of old people in the Priorat who had difficulties farming their vineyards and at the time we were renting many sites but decided if we wanted to continue we had purchase our own. This is how we found Tosses in 2003 and just a few years ago we found Arbossar.

How do you make your wines?

 I think it is very important that we work in a reductive way. The grapes and the vines suffer in July and August so they require a closed fermentation with very little oxygen, and very little movement throughout the vinification. We take the whole clusters and layer them into the tank and gently push them to avoid too much air between them and then we just cover the tank and a natural fermentation starts. We don’t pump over, no pigeage, no mechanical extraction. It’s like buying a nice tea – you find the best quality water but not too hot and you try to get the perfect infusion that captures the essence of the flavors and aromas of the tea but without squeezing or stirring.

How long are your macerations?

Short. We’ve done cold macerations, we’ve done long macerations but now we do a very short maceration of only two weeks. The wine isn’t even dry when we press. We press half-way through fermentation so we are getting rid of the skins which means half of the fermentation is happening without the skins.

You have a preference for fuders, the large Austrian upright ovals, is there a benefit to using them versus the French style of foudre?

 In the large round foudre the wine has more contact with the lees, if it is oval there is less contact.

Why do you want to minimize the lees contact?

 Because I want the wines to be as pure as possible. As clean and pure and precise as possible.

Terroir al Limit barrels

Stockinger Fuder in the cellars of Terroir al Limit

When do you add sulfur in the process?

 We try to minimize our use of sulfur until right before bottling. It depends on how clean the fermentations are, how active the bacterial material is, on how the grapes come into the cellar and it depends on the year. My perfect vinification would be without any sulfur until bottling.

Since you’ve travelled a lot and have sampled many different cuisines, what are the most compelling pairings you’ve had with your wines?

 We are making a wine from Xarel.lo and it’s a bit like an orange wine so it goes very well with vegetables. And I’m not talking about vegetarian dishes that just leave out the meat but the new approach that a lot of chefs are now taking with vegetables to emphasize their flavors.

With your recent travels to the US have you been able to change people’s impressions of what the Priorat can be?

 The States are the most important and interesting place for me as a Priorat producer. They used to be the largest market for Priorat but I could see them becoming more critical towards the style being made there but I think they are open to a second chance so I think it’s a very important market for me.

Do you see yourself making any more changes or just perfecting what you’re currently doing?

 I’m done with the changes in the cellar. I believe we’ve found our style. Now it is just fine-tuning. There is a huge potential still in viticulture. I think we’ve just begun to understand the soils and there is still a lot left to do. Our customers have followed us with great patience and passion through all our changes in the past ten years and I think it is important now to have some stability.

I loved the Priorat from the beginning, then I had a really bad time struggling for many years when the passion turned into a business but now I can see my original passion for the Priorat returning. I often find myself driving around and falling in love again with the landscape and the vineyards and the wines. In the beginning it was a dream of a couple of guys that became a hobby, then a small company and each year there were more problems. While I still have problems to deal with everyday, I’m at the point where I’m starting to enjoy again what I’m doing. This is the source of making great wines, if you only have struggles you may make good wines but happiness allows you to make great wines.

Dominik Viticulturalist

Dominik tending his vines in Les Tosses