Wine in restaurants 1.1: La Cooperativa, El Racó, Can Travi Nou

In the Priorat village of Porrera the restaurant La Cooperativa is one of the best choices, with what I may call fusion Mediterranean food, and offers a good example in wine service.

When opening the wine list, the first page holds only two phrases, which say more or less:

• “Our prices are those of our shop plus 2 € per person for service”

• “Remember that the wine and bottle are yours, as you have paid for them, and you are welcome to take away any remaining wine”

As bottle price in the shop is already competitive, this is a restaurant that really is not bleeding their guests by means of wine. Does the rest meet expectations, or is it just a low cost option?

Their wine list is, not surprisingly, centered on Porrera and Priorat wines, with a wide range of producers, big and small. The owner, Litus, is knowledgeable and gives sound advice. Glassware is adequate, as is wine temperature. They willingly decant your wine (once they actually suggested decanting only part of a bottle, as we were going to a tasting in the afternoon, to be able to take away the rest of the wine in the bottle). Also some special wines are on offer for dessert by the glass.

In the medium price restaurant range, La Cooperativa is very close to my expectations in terms of wine service; a list of wines by the glass would be the icing of the cake.

Another interesting restaurant is El Racó, in the village of Sant Climent de Llobregat, close to Barcelona. This used to be a popular eating house and is now evolving into a blend of traditional cuisine and more sophisticated food, devised by the son of the owners.

This is not a wine producing area (rather, cherries are the specialty) and the wine list shows a nice balance, with plenty of interesting Catalan wines and a good selection of wines from other regions. Riedel glassware, properly cleaned with reverse osmosis water. Big and tidy cellar that ensures correct wine temperature. A choice of sweet wines by the glass, including Sauternes for foie. And all this at fair prices. Clearly in the good direction.

Within the city of Barcelona, there are still some masias, or farm buildings, although most of them are dedicated to other businesses (such as the famous one that hosts the FC Barcelona young football players). Some are now restaurants, and one of the nicest is Can Travi Nou.

Unfortunately, the premises and food are let down by wine service. Wine list is attractive, with a good balance among wine zones and producers, and prices are competitive, but glasses are small and of inferior quality, and the last red I asked was so warm that I had to request an ice bucket to cool it down. I know that in some places the excuse can be that they only keep at controlled temperature the more expensive bottles (a poor excuse, especially if they charge 300 % the less expensive bottles), but this one was in the higher price range.

I hope that the management realizes the potential improvements to their service and eventually bring it into line with their otherwise pleasant offering.

I will open a short parenthesis; I’m off to Burgundy, Alsace and Switzerland. By mid-August I’ll be back.



Wine in restaurants 1.0

What would be my “blue sky” in a restaurant about wine?
  1. A wine list that has a strong local wine assortment (if in a wine growing country)
  2. In spite of point 1, a wine list that also has a suitable range of wine from other zones. This can be excused in restaurants located right in the middle of a winegrowing area. As a rule: the closer to the vines, the higher the proportion of local wines. Nobody goes to Burgundy to drink Bordeaux.
  3. A wine list that includes not only well known wines but also “hidden gems”. Especially if the restaurant is specialized in creative cooking, I am disappointed if I choose to eat, say, “lamb with liquorice and baby octopuses”, and the most original wine in the list can be found in the nearest discount supermarket.
  4. Good glasses and service, including decanting when indicated, and adequate wine temperature.
  5. A sommelier or waiter that know their wines and give good advice, taking risks and recommending unfamiliar bottles.
  6. Encouraging (or at least not frowning upon) taking away any remaining wine. As a matter of principle, it is the guests’ wine, as they have paid for it. On top of that, if they can take it away they may open another bottle. Additional motivation is given by the ever stricter laws on drunken driving; in a dinner for two, if one person can only have a glass to avoid sleeping in jail, the other had better not empty the bottle.
  7. Opening up the range, and offering wines for aperitif and dessert.
  8. Including an assortment of wines by the glass, with some specific cases (as Sauternes for foie).
  9. Suggesting for each item of the menu a matching wine.
  10. And all this at attractive prices! I can understand a hefty mark-up in the case of old vintages, but it is ridiculous to charge three times the producer price for a bottle that has been in the restaurant only for a few weeks.

I do not include such basic things as well kept wines and a service that does not spill the wine all over. Most restaurants are above that.

There are some other things that I consider an added bonus (as keeping old vintages which are unavailable otherwise), but these 10 points, adapted to every restaurant circumstances, should be a must.

From time to time I intend to post comments on restaurants about in which degree the preceding items are met. I know that it is difficult to meet all these requirements (there is some tension between the 9 first ones and the last) but I find that many fine restaurants regarding food are sadly behind in matters of wine. Fortunately, there is a positive tendency of improvement that cannot be ignored.

Although I am also crazy about food, I will usually not make any comments. Only if I feel that the food’s price-quality ratio is poor will I mention it.

Let us hope that the present trend will continue!



Empordà: wind, wine and genius

The DO Empordà is included in the wider Empordà district, tucked away in the northeast corner. Apart from its wines it is a fascinating area, with the incredible rocky coastal scenery of the Costa Brava (the real stuff, not Lloret) and the lower Pyrenees as they get close to the sea. As the legend goes, Empordà is the place where a mountain shepherd and a mermaid met and lived forever. Not less interesting are its monuments and museums, from menhirs to surrealist art.

This diversity is shown on its cuisine, with a defined personality and a vast choice of quality products from sea and land, further enhanced by the creativity generated by the Tramuntana, the North wind that is reputedly the cause of a degree of healthy madness (or genius) present in illustrious empordanencs like Salvador Dalí. Even El Bulli’s chef, Ferrán Adrià, born close to Barcelona, may owe part of his sparkling inspiration to living and working in Empordà.

Phoenician and Greek settlers in Rhode (now Roses) and Emporion (Empùries, hence Empordà) introduced winemaking 2600 years ago; and monk Ramon Pere de Noves from Sant Pere de Rodes abbey wrote a treatise on winemaking in the 11th century. Wine is certainly not a newcomer to these lands.

The DO is divided in two separate zones. The Alt (high) Empordà is at the extreme corner (in the precipitous and rocky Creus Cape part of the movie The Light at the Edge of the World was shot) of Catalonia; the Baix (low) Empordà is a smaller plain around Palafrugell limited by coastal hills.

Soils are poor, acidic and sandy, with some slatey mountain slopes. The frequent Tramuntana, that can be quite strong with gusts over 100 km/h, is very good for the vines health as it keeps them dry. Sea breezes help to soothe the heat in the summer months.

Empordà produces white wines with Garnatxa blanca, Macabeu and Moscatell as main varieties. The also local Xarel•lo, Gewurztraminer, Chardonnay and some other foreign grapes are used but less frequent. Whites tend to be fresh, light and aromatic, to be drunk young as a general rule.

Rosé wines are usually made from Garnatxa and Carinyena. These two grapes, very often from vines 30+ years old, are the basis of the reds as well. More recent Cabernet Sauvignon, Ull de Llebre (aka Tempranillo), Merlot, Monastrell and Syrah also find their way into the bottles. Reds can be dark, complex, with big structure and good aging potential.

Very remarkable are the natural sweet wines, mainly coming from Garnatxa grapes.

Castillo de Perelada (not the lower, mass produced range), Empordàlia, Espelt, la Vinyeta, Martí Fabra, Masia Serra, Oliver Conti, Pere Guardiola, Vinyes d’Olivardots, and Vinyes dels Aspres are for me the most interesting wineries of a zone that is steadily reaching a high level in most of the very diverse wine types it offers.

A visit to any of the wineries followed by a taste of its wines is a great addition to a stay in these crazy, wonderful lands and an opportunity to meet the progeny of the mermaid and the shepherd.



Mas Sinén: the masia at the end of the road

Mas Sinén is at the end of 2 km of dirt track starting from the village of Poboleda’s comparatively huge church (popularly known as the Cathedral of Priorat). This small winery, with the official name of Celler Burgos Porta, was started seven years ago by Salvador Burgos and Conxita Porta. Salvador has long experience in the wine world, having led the Poboleda Cooperative for several years and taken part in the Mas Igneus project, and comes from a family with winemaking tradition starting in the early 1800s.

The couple revitalized the estate, which included old vines in costers and a 17th century masia (country house), overhauled the main structure to house the winery and built a partially underground aging cellar. Wine goes from winery to aging cellar by gravity.

The old house is surrounded by the vineyards, with soils in which the slatey llicorella predominates. In the higher reaches, the steep costers hold the old Carinyena and Garnatxa vines while the lower grounds have been planted more recently with Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah. Vineyard management follows the rules of the Catalan Council for Ecological Agriculture Production (CCPAE) and bottle labels are stamped to that effect. They are now also embracing biodynamic farming practices.

Technical management is in the capable hands of Toni Coca, a well known consulting oenologist of several Priorat and Montsant wineries.

Production is small and self-limited, with a maximum of 25.000 bottles not yet reached. The remaining grapes are sold to other wineries.

In selected years they produce a white, Mas Sinén Blanc, 100 % Garnatxa Blanca with 5 months aging in French oak. It is well structured, round, with slight wood hints, buttery and with a lot of fruit.

As for reds, the Mas Sinén Negre is a blend of Garnatxa, Carinyena, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah, aged for 12 months in French oak. Moderately deep cherry red, very clean to the eye, with aromas of tobacco and black fruit. In the mouth it is velvety, without outstanding tannins, confirming the black fruits and with a long finish.

The top wine, Mas Sinen Coster, comes from the older vines of Garnatxa and Carinyena, growing in the steep costers, and is aged for 12 months in French oak. It is one step ahead of its brother in everything: deeper colour, more complex and intense aromas including red fruits (cherry) and leather notes. In the mouth is bigger, more powerful, with a very long finish and more mineral notes. I am not a fan of very old wines, but I am curious to see its development over 10 to 20 years.

It is a pity for us Catalans that a lot of the already small production is exported, boosted by high ratings from Parker. However, it is a good excuse to visit Priorat’s rugged terrain and hardy people and share a bottle.