I won’t be presumptuous and start treating Catalan wines as if they are from a separate country; not yet anyway. But, Catalunya is on fire and I’m not including Priorat in the mix which I often find disappointing. Other areas though are doing really cool stuff, mostly from indigenous grapes that prove Spain is about way more than Tempranillo.
Carriel dels Vilars
Thirty-five years ago, Carles Alonso left a position as director of investments at Caixa Catalunya and moved to Els Vilars, a very old, small village in Empordá. His decision to relocate was not just about breathing fresh country air; he completely changed his life and embarked on a path toward self reliance, building his house from stone, growing his own food and not least, making his own wine. From the beginning Alonso knew he wanted to integrate other plant and animal life, and promote a healthy environment, without the use of chemicals. While the arid climate had its challenges – he does not and has never irrigated – there was also an upside and Alonso saw its potential. All of his wines go through spontaneous fermentation and he doesn’t add SO2 at any time. The results have been astronomical. This is not to say that Carriel del Vilars’ wines are crowd pleasers but their complexity is hard to dispute and I think that those people who like the wines will really dig’m.
Carriel dels Vilars Brut Nature, 2011
Vins de taula (Empordá), Spain
Macabeu (40%), Xarel-lo (30%), Parellada (15%), Garnaxta Blanca (15%)
Grown on slate, this sparking wine has a very different terroir from other Spanish sparkling wines, most which are made in Penedès. Made from 17-year-old bush trained vines, it veers off in a very different direction from just about any sparkling wine I’ve tasted. Ever. And I’ve tried my fair share. Alonso co-fermented the four grapes in cement vats and bottled the wine in recycled Freixenet bottles where it underwent its secondary fermentation. Méthode ancestral, it was not disgorged or filtered. There is a lot of fennel grown near Carriel dels Vilars and that might explain the prominent licorice note in the wine. It’s amazing. It truly taste like black-strapped licorice, interwoven with almonds and minerals. This is not a sparkling wine you gulp down in a 20 minutes and that’s a good thing because it take a couple of hours to fully open up. You’ll think about it while you drink so my advice is to share it with someone equally geeky, adventurous or enjoy it by your lonesome.
Carriel dels Vilars “Negre,” 2012
Vins de taula (Empordá), Spain
Garnatxa (45%), Syrah (30%), Cabernet Sauvignon (20%), Cariñena (5%)
Grown on slate soil 800 feet above sea level, Alonso co-fermented the four grape varieties in cement vats with a 2% stem inclusion. It underwent a 21-day maceration and was transferred to stainless steel tanks for one year. Alonso’s Negre has an extraordinary labyrinth of flavor starting with a noticeable amount of black licorice, Chinese herbal medicine, spice, stewed and dried mushrooms and minerals. At 15% alcohol, there is plenty of body but it is also vibrant and balanced. There are few wines at this price with this level of complexity and quality but again, it’s out there.
The Puiggròs have been farming the same land since 1843 but did not make wine commercially until 165 years later when cousins, Vicens and Josep, renovated the property, introduced organic viticulture and turned an old farm house into a winery. Located on Odeña, at an altitude between 1500 and 2000 feet above sea level, the vineyards benefit from both continental winds and a late afternoon breeze that sweeps in from the Mediterranean. The soil is composed of iron rich calcareous clay, promoting body and acidity. Their philosophy is pretty simple: minimal intervention without sacrificing quality. The fruit from each vineyard is fermented separately in stainless steel tanks, with indigenous yeast. The wine is transferred to fine grain French oak barrels and aged anywhere from a year to a year and a half. Minimal SO2 is used and the wines undergo a very light filtration.
Bodegas Puiggròs D.O. Catalunya “Sentits Negre,” 2011
Made from 70 to 80 year old bush vines at an altitude of 2000 feet above sea level, the fruit is naturally primed to have both acid and tannin. After a 23-day fermentation, it was transferred to French oak for 13 months. Full-bodied but not clunky, with a firm chord of acidity, I bet this wine will make it to its tenth birthday without losing much along the way…it might even improve. With root beer, licorice, black cherries, violets and an array of spice, there is quite a bit going on here, indeed. Garnaxta is one of the most widely planted grapes in Spain (and for that matter, the world) but few are notable. This one is.
Bodegas Puiggròs D.O. Catalunya “Signes,” 2011
Sumoll de Grane Menudo (60%), Garnatxa (40%)
“Signes,” which means signs, is a blend of Garnatxa and Sumoll de Grane Menudo. Sumoll is pretty scarce. It is one of the red grapes used in Cava production but its contribution pales in comparison to the others. Sumoll de Grane Menudo is really scant. A smaller berried version of the varietal, it is more aromatic and tannic. Puiggròs’ Sumoll vines are 80 to 90 years old and as is the case with the Garnaxta, they are bush trained. The grapes were fermented separately in tank for 21 days, aged in two to three year old French oak barrels for ten months and blended. With raw mushrooms, dried herbs and pencil shavings in the nose, and structured berry fruit on the palate, this wine has equal parts earth and fruit. Again, I think it will get better over the next few years but even now, there is a lot to love, starting with the novelty of Sumoll de Grane Menudo and finishing up with its long, intense and pleasantly bitter finish.
I wish importers would co-ordinate with one another when they have tastings so that they don’t occur on the same day, often at the same time. Even when I was younger, I had trouble tasting over 50 wines in a 24 period and having to rush from one part of San Francisco to another does a disservice to the wines as tasters can’t give each bottle the attention it deserves. I say this here because the day that I “discovered” Vega de Ribes at the Bon Vivant Tasting, I was coming from the Rosenthal tasting and that is something you don’t want to miss. Rosenthal has managed to stay relevant for 37 years so…SO, by the time I made it to the Bon Vivant tasting, I had about 30 minutes to make my way through nearly 100 wines. Good luck. People, coordinate! There needs to be a Google Calendar for wine importers and distributors. After trying a bunch of orphan wines – those that did not have a winemaker present – I made my way to Spain and hit up Enric Bartra of Vega de Ribes for some sips. Noticing that he was pouring sparkling wine made in the ancestral method, I figured ok, here should be something at least interesting. And the wines were.
Vega de Ribes
What is now called Vega de Ribes dates back to 1540. Certified organic, chemicals have never been used on the land outside of the permitted doses of sulfur and copper. Beyond standard organic practices, they go to great lengths to ensure that the property works at one with nature, even if that means using bats to combat other pests. Enric studied at UC Davis yet he hardly typifies what people think of as the “typical” technology driven UC Davis enology grad, not that such a thing really exists. Following in the family tradition, he made still wine receiving lots of props for his work with Malvasia. In 2008, a neighbor, Rafael Sala, who has an 80 year old Xarel-lo vineyard, joined Barta and together they launched the ancestral sparkling wines with 2010 being their inaugural vintage. Located on the Garraf Mountains, not terribly far from the Mediterranean, the climate is fairly temperate, with warm summers. There is a lot of limestone, a soil type that helps promote acidity in wines, as well as deep sand. Bartra was showing seven wines at the tasting. These three stood out:
Vega de Ribes Ancestral Rosado, 2008
Garnatxa (60%), Sumoll (40%)
This is a blend of Garnaxta (Grenache) and Sumoll, an indigenous grape to Penedès that was widely grown in the 1800’s. The Sumoll comes from two vineyards, one that is on average over 50 years old. The fermentation began in chestnut barrels from Galicia and was arrested when it had 24 grams per liter of sugar. It completed fermentation in bottle and, par for the course with méthode ancestral, was not disgorged so don’t worry about the cloudy appearance, it won’t hurt you. Minerally with an herbal component, apples and strawberry fruit, the acidity gives it some freshness but it also has an oxidative quality that lends character.
Vega de Ribes Ancestral Xarello, 2008
I had this wine at the tasting, after it had been opened for a while but was still fizzy. Then I tasted it another time after it was freshly popped and it did not show as well. My feeling – hope – is that it just needs time to breathe. I find this to be true with other ancestral sparkling wines. All of the grapes come Sala’s 80-year-old Xarello vineyard grown on limestone. Fermentation started in chestnut barrels, was stopped when it had 24g/liter of sugar, bottled and left to finish fermentation. Going with my tasting notes from the first encounter, there is an apple cider like nose and palate, with tarragon, spice and nuts.
Vega de Ribes Sauvignon Blanc, 2013
Fermented and aged in stainless steel tank, you might think that this would be a crisp, sleek Sauvignon Blanc but quite the opposite is true. It is completely envelopes your senses with a conglomeration of guava, citrus, apples, fennel, white flowers and bread dough, having enough varietal character to be recognizable but much more personality than you might expect.
Mariona Vendrell and Albert Canela met at Rovira i Virgili University in Tarragona where both were studying enology. They got an extremely big break when they were chosen to join the Viver de Celleristes de la Conca de Barberà, a winemaking cooperative of sorts. Along with five other very small growers, they work in a shared space, using the some machinery and equipment for a period of five years. For such young winemakers – both Vendrell and Canela are younger than Madison Bumgarner – that is huge as it provides access to very inexpensive if not free resources. Success Vinicola makes two wines, both from Trepat. An indigenous grape to Catalunya, Trepat has been chiefly used to make cava. In total there are about 3,700 acres planted with the overwhelming majority residing in Conca de Barberá, which borders the Costers del Segre. The grape makes light-bodied, light-colored wines, a good part of the reason why it has been favored in sparkling and rosé production. Vendrel and Canela source their fruit from several older vineyards. All of the land is sustainably farmed, without chemical additions outside of copper and sulfur when necessary. The grapes are hand harvested and go through a natural fermentation. Less than 800 cases are made in total.
Succes Vinicola “La Cuca de Llum,” 2013
Trepat Conca de Barberá, Spain $18 Cuca de Llum comes from 35-year-old organically farmed vines. It underwent a 25 day maceration in tank before being transferred to 300 – 500 liter oak barrels. Vibrant, tart and delightful with freshly cut violets, white pepper and perfectly ripe cherries, it’s what some call glou glou, others just a bloody righteous quaffer.
Succes Vinicola “El Mentider,” 2012
Conca de Barberá, Spain
In Catalan, “mentider” means liar, so it is only fitting that the man pictured on the label would have a long, Pinocchio-like nose. The intention is to dispel the myth that Trepat is not capable of making highly aromatic red wines and the proof is in the bottle. Composed of Trepat from 80 to 114-year-old vines, it is fermented in stainless steel tanks and aged in barrel for nine months. Intense but not heavy, with black pepper, blue and red fruits, and a firm mineral undercurrent, It is playful but not shallow.
The Foraster family has been farming grapes since the mid 19th century. Many old grower families sold grapes rather than make wine for a variety of reasons including cost but Josep Foraster took a gamble and started bottling under the family name in 1998. Today, his nephew, Ricard Sebastia, runs it. They practice integrated pest management in the vineyards so other than sulfur and copper, no chemicals are used.
Mas Foraster Trepat, 2012
Conca de Barberá, Spain
Mas Foraster debuted its Trepat with the 2009 vintage. Sourced from a 50 plus year old vineyard 1600 feet above sea level, the fruit was hand harvested in late October. It underwent a 10-day cold maceration, 22 day skin fermentation and five month elevage in French oak barrels. With plum and raspberry tea notes in the nose, a touch of spice and juicy red fruit on the palate, it is clean and fresh.