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Catalonia: Leading the Renaissance in Spain
By Michael Apstein
Sep 26, 2006
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Spain, a country with a long history of wine production, is seeing an unparalleled renaissance in its wines.  In the past few years, Spain has leaped to primacy among wine producing countries in putting exciting new wines on the market.

In some respects, the current renaissance in Spain resembles the remarkable resurgence witnessed in Italy during the 1970s and 1980s.  However, Italy's great strides during that period consisted largely of steps taken in Tuscany.  By contrast, the Spanish revival seems notably more broadly-based, with several regions leading the charge simultaneously.  In addition to Catalonia's recent path-breaking efforts, a rebirth of sorts is also taking place in Rioja, new plantings are sprouting in Bierzo and Toro, and investment is booming in Ribera del Duero.  As a result, new wines are arriving so fast that it is difficult even for intent observers of the Spanish wine scene to keep up. 

Although many regions are making important contributions, Catalonia's recent performance has been particularly impressive.  Situated on Spain's northeast coast below France, Catalonia has always been fiercely independent politically, which may help explain its leading historical role in the innovation of Spanish wines.  Over a hundred years ago, Catalonia gave birth to Spain's sparkling wine, or Cava, industry.  During the 1940s and 1950s, Torres introduced estate bottling and temperature controlled fermenters.  In 1969, Jean Léon produced Spain's first Cabernet Sauvignon in the Penedès, a Catalonia DO (Denominación de Origen-a quality wine producing area comparable to France's AOC-Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée).

Today, wines at all price levels from other DOs in Catalonia, such as Priorat, Empordà, Montsant and Pla de Bages are capturing the world's attention with an unusual combination: Old World structure and complexity coupled with New World power and ripeness.  Wines coming from a wide range of sources (ranging from small family wineries to large companies and co-operatives) are requiring consumers to learn about new areas and producers, but are also providing an opportunity for discovery:

Priorat

Priorat, a small area about 80 miles southwest of Barcelona, is home to Spain's most expensive wines.  Aside from Rioja, it Spain's only DO to have been promoted to DOC (Denominación de Origen Calificada), the highest quality category.  Although monks made wine in the area since the Middle Ages (the name of the region is derived from the Spanish word for priory) and it had over 40,000 acres of vines (similar to current plantings in Napa) as late as 1900, it is only since the 1990s that the wines have received international acclaim.  In barely 15 years, the wines from Priorat have gone from obscurity to the most expensive in Spain.

In the 1980s, the five founding winemakers, Álvaro Palacios, René Barbier, Dafne Glorian, Carles Pastrana and José Luis Pérez made wine sharing one facility-a garage-like structure-but managed to put their individual signatures on the wines. Their properties- Álvaro Palacios, Clos Mogador, Clos Erasmus, Clos Obac and Clos Martinet, respectively-remain leading producers in their now separate facilities.  Other dedicated producers whose names are worth remembering include Buil & Giné, Mas Igneus, Mas d'en Gil, Mas Perinent, Porrera, Scala Dei, and Vall Llach.

The consensus in Spain at the outset was that the original five winemakers were nuts, because 'everybody knew that Priorat was only good for high alcohol wines.'  True, the wines are high in alcohol (the DOC regulations require a minimum 13.5 percent), but they are well-balanced and wonderfully layered-at least when made by talented producers. 

Far from crazy, these five winemakers were visionaries judging by the popularity of the wines and resulting growth in the area.  According to a spokesman for Wines from Spain (a branch of the Trade Commission of Spain), as recently as a decade ago there were only six wineries in Priorat.  Over the next five years that number increased five-fold to thirty and more than doubled again in the next five years.  Vineyard area practically doubled to just over 4,000 acres during the same five-year period, as did export sales. 

The blend of grapes used in Priorat has changed over the last decade, according to René Barbier, Jr., who has succeeded his father at Clos Mogador.  Initially, the founding five felt that it was important to have Cabernet Sauvignon included in the blend with Garnacha and Cariñena because they sensed that consumers and critics would be skeptical that really great wine could be made exclusively from local grapes.  Now that they have the world's attention (with Cabernet having helped to bring notoriety to the region), René Jr. and other winemakers are moving away from Cabernet in favor of Garnacha.  (The amount of Cabernet in Clos Mogador has decreased by one third-45 percent to 28 percent-from 1998 to 2004.)

Salustià Àlvarez, the President of the governing body for Priorat (Consell Regulador de la Denominació d'Origen Qualificada), echoes Barbier when talking about the blend.  'Ten years ago when the area of Priorat was undergoing its renaissance, producers didn't have confidence to exclude Cabernet, Syrah, and Merlot, but now they do.'  He still believes that, 'there will always be a part of Priorat that is Cabernet and maybe even Syrah and Merlot, but it will be less important than in the past.'

The rugged, barren terrain makes one wonder why anybody planted grapes here in the first place.  The slopes are steep.  The soil-if you can call it that-is quartz filled rocky slate called llicorella that is chiseled rather than plowed.  Some vines are planted in what appears to be solid rock.  Mules still work the steep terraces.  Not surprisingly, harvesting and other vineyard work is all done by hand.

The ever-enthusiastic Álvaro Palacios credits the soil for the distinctiveness of the wines. 'The soil makes the difference; it makes the singularity of the wines.'  In between layers of slate is powdered clay, which Palacios credits with hold water during the hot dry summer.  During times of excessive rain, the steep sloping slate provides excellent drainage.  The acid soil imparts an uplifting verve to the wine, which, along with minerality-a graphite character-results in an elegance and brightness that balances the intense fruit character. 

Palacios says the vineyard is responsible for his-and arguably Priorat's-greatest wine.  Hence the wine goes by the name of the vineyard, L'Ermita, whose five acres is planted with 70-year-old Garnacha vines.  Unlike most prized vineyards in the Northern hemisphere, which face south and capture maximum sun and heat, L'Ermita faces northeast.  Adequate sun and heat is never a problem in Priorat.  Quite the contrary, the northeast exposure means the shade of the afternoon protects the grapes from the intense heat of the sun.  The elevation of the vineyard-about 1,500 feet-and its exposure to the sea also mitigate the heat and deliver an almost unbelievable elegance to this intense wine.

Carles Pastrana notes that along with the popularity and acclaim of their wines comes an increase in visitors even to this barren and remote area.  He estimates they received about 6,000 visitors in Priorat last year-up from 1,000 five years ago-one third of whom were from the U.S.  Judging from the quality of the wines and the uniqueness of the terrain, they will need more hotels in the very near future.

Montsant

Jqrgen Wagner, one of the winemakers at Celler de Capçanes, a leading producer in Montsant, describes the relationship between the Montsant DO and Priorat as the 'the peach and the pit' because Montsant surrounds Priorat.  Montsant has also been called a 'poor man's Priorat,' because the wines are made from the same grapes (Garnacha and Cariñena) and have a similar intensity, but are less expensive, partly because the terrain is less rugged and easier to work.

According to Wagner, the major difference between Montsant and Priorat, in addition to the terrain, is the soil.  Montsant has more silica, iron and clay, whereas Priorat is pure slate and schist, which may explain why the wines from Montsant typically have less complexity and elegance.  But considering the price, wines from Montsant are a great find.

Celler de Capçanes must be one the best wine cooperatives in the world, along with La Chablisienne in France and Produttori del Barbaresco in Italy.  Founded in 1933, it currently has about 80 members who own 700 acres of vines.  The co-op, however, has total control over all of the viticulture.  Wagner attributes part of the co-op's success to working closely with and educating each member farmer.  They provide technical help in the vineyard.  They sent a group of members to a major international wine fair so they could see-and taste-their competition.  They harvest every vineyard separately and demonstrate to the individual grower how they sort grapes and stratify different grapes for their different cuvées.  The farmers stand at the sorting tables to see and understand the objectivity of the sorting, and hence the payment system, which varies by a factor of 12 depending on the quality of the grapes.

Wagner notes that the real strength of the co-op is their access to grapes from old vines, which usually produce the best grapes.  Generally, the farmers who joined the co-op were poor, had the least accessible land, and could not afford the expense of replanting.  Hence, 25% of the co-op's vineyards are over 50 years old, and another five percent are over 75 years old.  Capçanes has the largest holding of old vines in the entire Priorat-Montsant area, according to Wagner.

The old vines and Capçanes' compulsion with stratification have paid off.  The wines from the Celler de Capçanes offer excellent value across the board.  Other producers in Montsant that I recommend are Agricolá, Falset-Marçá, Celler els Guiamets, Celler Laurona, Ficaria Vins and Mas Perinent, whose vineyards straddle Montsant and Priorat.

Pla de Bages

Halfway between Andorra and the Mediterranean is the DO called Pla de Bages ('Plain of Bacchus' in the Catalan language).  In the pre-phylloxera era, it was the most important wine producing area in Catalonia.  Gradually, textiles replaced wine as the major industry during the 20th century and the vineyards were abandoned.  Now the DO is small-1,500 acres-and only recently, have the few growers (there are only eight wineries in the entire DO) focused on quality wines.

The area is the unique home to a grape Picapoll (not to be confused with Picpoul de Pinet grown in the Languedoc-Rousillon just across the border in France), which makes a creamy and vibrant white wine.  In addition, winemakers are experimenting with varying success with international varieties, such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Pinot Noir and Syrah, as well as the indigenous Tempranillo. 

The Roqueta family has been selling wine from this region since the 12th century, but these leading producers have ultra modern facilities and are always experimenting.  In 1982 they built a new cellar and started resuscitating the winery.  In 2000 they replanted with the knowledge of which vines thrive best in which location.  Juxtaposed in their estate, Bodegas Masies d'Avinyo, are 17th century terra cotta fermenters and a modern humidified barrel cellar containing 1,000 barrels made from French, American, Hungarian oak.  Their winemaker, Joan (Juan) Soler, explains that he likes to use different barrels because they have different porosities and the wine ages differently in each.  Soler, a passionate young winemaker, has the perfect definition of complexity in wine: 'a little bit of everything and not too much of nothing.'  The Roqueta family wines, sold under the Abadal label, fit his definition perfectly. 

Bodegas Bernat Oller exemplifies the focus on quality and future of the Pla de Bages.  In the shadow of Montserrat, a jagged saw-like mountain ridge reminiscent of the Dentelles de Montmirail in southern France, the family estate (a 10th century castle on 1,000 acres) is being painstakingly renovated.  Over the last 20 years, the family has planted only 75 acres of vines-mostly Merlot and Cabernet Franc.  From the 1,000 acres Francisco Oller, who is in charge of the project, wants to select only the best sites for the vineyards.  Since the Ollers wait six to eight years before using the grapes from the newly planted vines, they plant slowly as they see how the vines perform.  They have separate consultants for the vineyards and for winemaking.  Oller currently sells off 75% of their grapes, keeping the best for their still small-1,200 case-annual production. 

Empordà
 
Empordà, formerly known as Empordà-Costa Brava, is an old DO.  However,  based on what Peter Sisseck is achieving at Clos d'Agon, Empordà could turn out to be the new Priorat.

There are only a few wineries operating now-perhaps as many as fifteen-but many people are buying land and planting because Empordà's 8,000 acres is a hot area for investment, according to Sisseck.  The region has a dry, Mediterranean climate and, like Provence, has its version of the mistral, the Tramuntana, which keeps the grapes free from disease.  The soil is heterogeneous, with plains composed mostly of sandy soil and clay, whereas the hillside and mountains are mostly schist.
 
Empordà peaked as a wine area in the 19th century when phylloxera destroyed vineyards in France and eliminated much of their competition, according to David Parker, Export Manager of Castillo Perelada (one of the leading wineries in the area).  Abandoned terraces across the region offer silent testimony that the land must have been covered with vineyards in the past.  But then, in the early 20th century, phylloxera hit the area and, like the rest of Spain, the region suffered from two World Wars.  The wine industry shrank further as farmers left the area for more profitable jobs in the tourism boom of the 1950s and 1960s.  The wine industry here, as in the remainder of the country, withered under the Franco regime, and is just rebuilding itself over the last decade. 

Clos d'Agon:

Sisseck, one of Spain's foremost winemakers, has been managing the Clos d'Agon project since 1999.  When he arrived there the soil was 'tired and exhausted from use of pesticides.'  His first priority was to save the vineyard by plowing to reinvigorate this dead soil.  He then cleared forest from the mountainside and planted an additional 10 acres of Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Syrah (which he introduced to the area) in addition to the 25 acres of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Viognier, Marsanne, and Roussanne that were already planted on flat ground.

Part of the magic of the red wines from this area comes from the elegance and freshness imparted to them by the acidic granitic soil.  The downside is that the same soil accentuates the tannins in the wine.  Sisseck's aim is to find grapes with softer tannins to balance the wines.  Surprisingly, Cabernet Franc and Syrah produce softer tannins when grown in mountain vineyards, due to slower ripening because of lower temperatures.

Sisseck is equally excited-maybe more so-about making white wine in this region.  He would like Spain capture the world's attention with white wines, just as it has with the red wines of Priorat and Ribera del Duero.  Although the whites-which are quite delicious-are made from typical Mediterranean varieties, the reds are basically a Bordeaux blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, and Petit Verdot with a little Syrah added.  The red blend is not so surprising after looking at a map.  Although the map distinguishes Spain from France, the terroir doesn't respect the border.  The landscape in Empordà and in France's Languedoc is contiguous and, at least superficially, identical.  Mas de Daumas Gassac proved long ago that remarkable red wines come from a Bordeaux blend of grapes planted in similar terrain.
 
The recently completed winery at Clos d'Agon is as striking as the wines.  In function,it is state of the art gravity flow, but in form, it is contemporary architecture at its best.  Several of the exterior walls are reminiscent of a Modrian painting with different blocks of color, contrasted against other walls that are beautifully wooded and still others made of beige sandstone or granite.  The contemporary effect is particularly stunning because the approach to the bodega is a very narrow, winding, dirt road-lined with gnarly old olive trees-that seemingly leads backwards in time. 
 
In typical Sisseck fashion, yields at Clos d'Agon are low, 20 to 30 hl/ha, and production levels are low, 600 cases of white and twice that of red, annually, which means they are hard to find in the US.  The search is well worth the effort.

Cellar Espelt:

Cellar Espelt, a family owned winery, is an example of the changes occurring in Empordà.  Although the Espelt family has farmed in the area for decades (and, with over 500 acres of vines, is the largest vineyard owner in the area), they just started making wine in 2000.  They are still buying land for additional planting to augment their 130 acres of old Cariñena vines planted in the 1930s.  Surveying the area from one of their mountainside vineyards, the abandoned terraces and decaying stone retaining walls remind you again that the area was very popular for vines in the past.

The Espelt family is experimenting with a host of grape varieties ranging from traditional Spanish ones such as Macabeo, Xarel-lo, Garnacha and Cariñena, to international ones such as Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah, to unusual ones such as Marselan (which is a cross of Cabernet Sauvignon and Garnacha created in the 1990s).   Only a small amount of Tempranillo, Spain's best-known variety, is planted because 'nothing exciting comes from Tempranillo in the region of Empordà' due to the low elevation, according to Xavier Cepera Yeste, Espelt's General Director.

The winery is rather deceptive.  It sits unimpressively in the middle of nowhere, and, on the day of my visit, expectations were lowered further by a the presence of a tanker truck in front loading wine like gasoline.  Inside, however, everything is cutting-edge modern, from the winemaking facilities to the fanciful, child-like drawings that adorn their labels.

While Sisseck at Clos d'Agon is producing small quantities of excellent upscale wines, Cellar Espelt produces what Yeste calls, 'volume wines' and 'image wines.'  All ofter strong value, and even the latter are priced below $30 a bottle.  

Castillo Perelada:

Castillo Perelada, the largest producer in Empordà, has great plans for the region.  Intending to capitalize on the region's anticipated growth and popularity, the directors are embarking on a new, state-of-the-art winery connected via a vast garden to a Relais & Château-type hotel.   Although Perelada makes a lovely range of Cava (they are Spain's 4th largest Cava producer) and produce another 2 million bottles annually in Empordà, I believe they will grab the world's attention with a Syrah from their 17-acre single vineyard, Finca Garbet, located two miles from the French border.

The Garbet vineyard, dramatically situated on a 45-degree slope adjacent to the sea, takes its name from the peninsula on which it is located.  >It has all the characteristics of a great vineyard: poor soil, a steep slope for excellent drainage, warmth from the ideal exposure, long hours of sunshine, reflective heat from the sea, and a drying wind that helps keep the grapes healthy.  Although the vineyard is planted with Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, the wine is comprised mostly of Syrah.  The stunningly beautiful setting is reminiscent of the great vineyards in Côte-Rôtie; only in this case, the terraced rows of vines plunge down to the sea instead of the Rhône. 

The idea behind Garbet came from José Luis Perez, owner of the famed Clos Martinet in Priorat, who has been a longtime consultant to Perelada.  The 2003 Finca Garbet, a magnificent wine, is only their second release labeled as such.  Amazingly complex, it has minerality, floral elements, and sweet, plum-like fruit surround by supple tannins that practically dissolve in your mouth.  So well balanced, you don't notice the 14.5% alcohol.  Production is tiny, about 400 cases a year, and when the 2003 arrives in the US it will probably sell for about $150 a bottle.  

The first vintage from the vineyard, 1999, was experimental, while the second vintage was labeled as a tribute to Salvador Dali, who hailed from Empordà.  They made no Finca Garbet in 2002 because it did not meet their standards. 

Perelada started planting the vineyard in 1997 and added more Syrah vines over the years as they saw how extraordinarily well it did.  The winemaker since 1998, Delfi Sanahuja, has been with Perelada for over a decade and before that was a student of Perez.  Sanahuja, an energetic 30ish year old is emphatic that the age of the vines is not important if the vineyard is well cared for and the yield is kept low.  He agrees that a 20-year-old vineyard will produce better wine, but he thinks that it is from experience of the winemaker working with the vineyard, not necessarily the age of the wines. 

As is often the case with new endeavors, the local consensus was that Perelada was crazy to plant Syrah in Garbet.  The locals assumed that, like Dali, Perelada must have been driven insane by the Tramuntana.  Crazy just like the five founding fathers of Priorat were crazy. 

Questions or comments?  Email me at mapstein@winereviewonline.com

Photos by Michael Franz