The cave under the mountain: Can Ráfols dels Caus

In 1979 Carlos Esteva decided to buy from his brother and sister the part he did not own of his grandfather’s run-down estate, Can Ráfols dels Caus. Moreover, he intended to live there and start a winery.

The estate, located in the Garraf massif in the southern part of the Penedès DO, had come a long way, with evidence of winemaking since Iberian and Roman times, and being documented as early as the 11th century. In the hands of the Ráfols-Caus family since the 16th century, it had passed into the Estevas after the ruin of the former. It has some 500 hectares, 50 of which grow vines.

Already in the beginning Carlos was revolutionary in many ways. He was among the first in planting many different, often foreign, grape varieties, and tying them up in trellises instead of letting them grow as bushes. There were plenty of opportunities to match the particular features of the vineyard and the needs of the specific grape variety. The Garraf is a hilly stretch between the plain of Penedès and the sea; in fact, a huge limestone carved by millennia of water erosion offering a choice of vineyards with a shallow soil layer. Soils are poor, and Dolomitic fossils and limestone prevail, adding a touch of minerality to most wines; in zones closer to the plain, more clay can be found. Average elevation is ca. 300 meters, and the closeness of the sea, which can be seen from some vineyards, helps to cool down and dampen the hot summer afternoons, helping the ripening process.

Farming processes are ecological, with no use of herbicides or insecticides. From 2011 on they will be certified by the Catalan Council for Ecological Production (CCPAE). They respect the local herbaceous flora, which helps to fix the thin soil layer, and the local insect fauna, to better control potential pests. In some vineyards and wines they also apply biodynamic principles.

The top of the new winery

The wonderfully refurbished country house and premises, where for many years wine was made, are now replaced by a brand new winery, built into the mountain after carving a huge hole in the limestone, and covered again with soil where the normal vegetation grows again; from afar, only the glass windows scattered among olive trees, aromatic shrubs and pines hint at the structure below.

The Moria gate

Underground, after having passed through a 5-ton stone gate worthy of an entrance to the Moria mines, limestone, concrete, steel and glass dominate in a winery designed with open kitchens in mind: all activities can be seen by visitors with the natural light coming from the ceiling. The latest technology is available, combined with intelligent use of gravity to minimize pumping. In the end of the cave, barrels and bottles bide their time.

In this state-of-the-art equipment grapes from different plots are processed separately. Most of the grapes are hand picked and many selected in the vine. Fermentation comes from yeasts naturally occurring in the grapes.

Can Ráfols dels Caus grow up to 20 grape varieties, including some quite rare in Penedès: Pinot Noir, Caladoc, Incroccio Manzoni, Chenin Blanc, Marsanne.

Wines from this winery are typically balanced and elegant. Very few (perhaps only Caus Lubis) have the enormous structure and tannins frequent in other wines of nearby zones.

We can pick four groups of wines:

The Petit Caus range (white, rosé, red) includes wines for everyday consumption, easy to drink, and each normally coming from several grape varieties.

Under the Gran Caus label we find also white, rosé and red. The white is a blend of Xarel.lo, Chardonnay and Chenin, with no oak ageing. The rosé, the best in Catalunya imho, is a single Merlot with rich fruit, body and a refreshing acidity. The red Gran Caus is a “Bordeaux blend” of Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. After 12 months in Allier oak and ca. 4 years in the bottle (most Caus wines leave the winery ready to drink) the wine is round, elegant, with fruity and balsamic notes, making it a very versatile wine to match most types of food.

There is a third group: the monovarietals. Some very special wines here.

Xarel.lo Pairal comes from 60 year old vines and is fermented in traditional chestnut barrels, that have less impact than oak.

The chestnut barrels

El Rocallís comes from the plot of this name, planted with Incroccio Manzoni, a crossing of Riesling and Pinot Blanc. The complexity of floral and fruity aromas is surprising.

El Rocallis

La Calma is a Chenin Blanc with the richness and opulence typical of this grape.

Caus Lubis, named after a Roman wine produced in this zone, is probably the best Merlot in Catalonia. Full bodied and fruity (blackberries) after 12 months in Allier oak and 4 years in the bottle.

Ad Fines is one of the rare Pinot Noirs grown in Catalonia. It is no secret that this is a difficult grape to work with, even in its native Burgundy. To grow it here, in the limit of its potential area (that is what Ad Fines means in Latin) is a juggling act in which Carlos Esteva succeeds most of the years.

Last but not least, Can Ráfols dels Caus, as many other wineries in Penedès, produces also Cava. Two Gran Caus, white (mainly Chardonnay) and rosé (mainly Pinot Noir), and white Parisad (again Chardonnay). These are all Gran Reserva, with at least 3 years of bottle aging (10 for Parisad, which is also fermented in Allier oak). They are complex, with small and persistent bubble, and can match perfectly a full meal.

Some fond memories

I have been an eager drinker of these wines for a long time. Each of them offers something different from other wines. Only recently have I visited their premises and understood what is underneath. I should have done so much earlier...



Wine cathedrals

Rocafort de Queralt
Probably many of you will be acquainted with the works of Antoni Gaudì. In the first quarter of the 20th century he was the top Modernist (Art Noveau) architect in Catalonia, and designed beautiful, improbable buildings like La Pedrera or La Sagrada Familia, the unofficial icon of Barcelona.

Rocafort de Queralt

Pinell de Brai

In that same period the Catalan government (la Mancomunitat) promoted setting up farmers’ cooperatives. In many cases, the cooperatives erected their own buildings (cellers) to make wine and olive oil, and it became the fashion to employ the best architects of the time. The resulting cellers were unmistakably Modernist. Many of them have survived to date, and are regarded as “wine cathedrals” on account of their configuration and size. A typical layout is having one central, higher aisle flanked in some cases by two lower ones. Vats stand in these aisles, and presses and destemming equipment are placed where the altar might be. In the would-be crypts not bishops but oak barrels rest.

Pinell de Brai

Pinell de Brai

These magnificent buildings can be found mainly in the DOs of Terra Alta (Gandesa, Pinell de Brai), Montsant (Falset), Conca de Barberà (Espluga de Francolí, Sarral, Rocafort de Queralt, Barberà de la Conca, Pira, Montblanc), Penedès and Tarragona (Nulles). A few more are scattered over the rest of Catalonia, some of them in towns very close to Barcelona (Rubí, Sant Cugat del Vallès) where the agricultural past is far, far away. Some non-cooperative wineries have as well modernist buildings; the most interesting are Codorniu (DO Cava) and Raimat (DO Costers del Segre). My personal favourites? Pinell de Brai, Nulles and Espluga de Francolí. All three have undergone extensive restoration and can be seen at their best.

Pinell de Brai
A first glace at their often fancy structures and embellishments may give the wrong impression that the artistic side had taken preeminence over the functional. Usually that is not the case, and the state-of-the-art winemaking technology of the time was used in the design and execution. (By the way, that also holds true about Gaudì’s work. However fantastic La Pedrera may seem, layout of the flats and internal structure are surprisingly modern and comfortable).

Espluga de Francolí

Pinell de Brai

Gaudì designed only one winery, in Garraf. The main figure in this field was one of his disciples, Cesar Martinell, who built more than forty of these edifices, and many other outstanding architects had celler design as one of their sidelines.
Pinell de Brai

Espluga de Francolí

Unfortunately the pioneering spirit is long gone from most cooperatives. Excepting a handful of cases, cooperatives are dominated by conservative majorities that do not want to take risks and fall back on traditional winemaking, with average to poor equipment and techniques and a lower quality range output. Sadly, the words “Celler Cooperatiu” or “Cooperativa” are not usually a signal of quality in a wine label. It is to be desired that cases like Capçanes (DO Montsant), that jumped into state-of-the-art winemaking with excellent results, encourage the rest to modernize and improve.

Espluga de Francolí

In the meantime, a visit to any of these cellers as an architectural site is perfect to complement wine tasting in a good winery in the surroundings.
Pinell de Brai

Pinell de Brai


Songs with wolves: Vinyes dels Aspres

Wolves (llops) are almost extinct in Catalonia, but have their fair share in the popular mind, and even in the name of Catalan villages. Indeed, there is perhaps a link between wolves and winemaking; in at least two of the villages with wolfish names there are outstanding wineries: Gratallops (Priorat) and Cantallops (Empordà).

From Catalan, Cantallops translates literally as Singwolves; others opt for Rock of the Wolves, from Latin. Visiting the village, in the Alberes hills where the Pyrenees get ready for the Mediterranean, the Latin alternative looks more reasonable, whatever the appeal of the notion of a full moon chorus with the canines.
Both wineries from Cantallops (Masia Serra and Vinyes dels Aspres) reward inspection; today we will speak of the latter.

The property comes from at least the 17th century and has since been producing wine, olive oil and cork, with ups and downs. In the 90’s the family, led by David Molas, decided to invest in the latest technology and dive into the 21st century producing wines with marked personality, not forgetting ancestral techniques in spite of the steel vats, French oak barrels and state-of-the-art presses.

Vineyards spread over some thirty hectares, distributed into fourteen plots. Soils come mainly from granite disintegration with an addition of black slate. Main varieties grown are: Garnatxa (locally called Lledoner) in its usual white and black varieties, and the rarer red (gris in France) as well; Carinyena; Cabernet Sauvignon; Merlot; and Syrah. Yearly production hovers around 40’000 bottles.

Blanc dels Aspres is a white made out of Garnatxa blanca from 30-year-old vines It is barrel fermented and has remained on its lees for 7 months, with bâtonnage every two weeks.
There are three reds: 
  • the young Oriol Negre, with Garnatxa negra, Ull de Llebre (aka Tempranillo), Carinyena, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot
  • Negre dels Aspres, from Carinyena, Garnatxa negra and Cabernet Sauvignon, and 17 months in Allier oak
  • S’Alou, the top wine with an output of 2400 bottles: Garnatxa negra, Carinyena, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah, with 18 months in oak. Dark, concentrated, with structure to age properly.

All these wines are good examples of the quality Empordà production, and deserve attention. Their rosé, Oriol Rosat, is outstanding because of being aged in oak for some months, something very few rosats can offer. However, the more original proposals of this winery are the natural sweets, Vi de Panses and Bac de les Ginesteres.

Both start in the same way: Garnatxa roja grapes hadpicked and left to dry. Thanks to the Tramuntana wind, in around 60 days the grapes lose half their weight. They are then pressed and the concentrated must is left to ferment slowly. After several months the Vi de Panses is ready for the bottle. It honors its name: raisin wine, with aromas of dried fruit and nevertheless a very winey character in the mouth, with balancing acidity and a long finish.

When you approach the Vinyes dels Aspres winery, the first thing that catches your eye is a row of round glass demijohns filled with a dark liquid resting on a balustrade that runs the width of the façade of the old building. The dark liquid is the Bac de les Ginesteres wine: when the Vi de Panses is bottled, the Bac de les Ginesteres is filled into these 20 liter demijohns and left for four years and a half a sol i serena, meaning sitting there through wind, sun, storm and occasional snow. The wine is oxidized slowly to a deep amber, and the flavor of the Vi de Panses receives additional nutty, sherry-like shades.

Pity that less that one thousand bottles reach the market!


Is Cava a Catalan wine?

This question, coming from a Swiss friend of mine some years ago, is entirely appropriate. The official answer is “not always”. The Cava DO growing area is scattered all over Spain as well as in Catalonia, usually overlapping other DOs.

However, over 95 % of Cava is produced in Catalonia, and most prestigious brands are Catalan. And a last detail: only in Catalonia it is widely regarded as a wine fit not only for celebrations but also for drinking with a full meal or standalone.

Cava is a sparkling wine made with the traditional method (aka Champenoise) of double fermentation, the second one in the final bottle, using approved grape varieties grown in the Cava DO land. When the DO Cava was created, the de facto situation was officially recognized, granting Cava status to most quality sparkling wine produced in Spain at that moment, taking as the defining factor the use of traditional method.

How is Cava elaborated?

The traditional method starts with a dry base wine produced from approved grapes in a normal way, this being the first fermentation. This wine is filled into the Cava bottles (tiratge), together with a portion of tiratge liquor, containing must or sugar and yeast. The bottle is then closed with a crown cap or, in the more traditional houses, a Cava cork.

The yeast eats up the sugar in the second fermentation, generating the carbon dioxide that remains in the bottle. After second fermentation, bottles are left to age at least 9 months, with their necks down. They are then gradually moved (riddling) into an almost vertical position so as to deposit the lees in the neck next to the cap.

The last phase (degorjat) is freezing the neck and opening the bottle. The pressure of the carbonic (usually 6 bar) expels the frozen lees and the bottle is refilled with the expedition liquor, one of the best kept secrets of any Cava producer. It can contain sugar and other ingredients mixed with the wine itself. The final cork is then inserted and secured with a capsule and a wire cage.

Some selected wineries execute manually the degorjat, without freezing and with the aid of highly skilled personnel.

Lesser, easier methods used for the production of sparkling wine elsewhere include second fermentation in large tanks or simple carbonic injection into the still wine, the same process used for soft drinks.
What kinds of Cava can we find?

First of all, colour. Most Cava is white, but rosé is becoming increasingly fashionable, with some remarkable wines.

The amount of sugar present in the final wine is used to categorize Cava as Brut Nature, Extra Brut, Brut, Extra Sec, Sec, Semi-Sec and Dolç. Most prestige Cavas are Brut Nature or Extra Brut, and there are cheap sweeter Cavas of disappointing quality, but in principle sugar content is not a direct factor in Cava quality.

Another classification is according to aging, calculated as time between tiratge and degorjat. Standard Cava needs a minimum of 9 months; Reserva implies 15 months, and Gran Reserva 30 months. Gran Reserva Cava must come from a single vintage; standard and Reserva can be produced from wines of different vintages.

With such a geographical definition it is easy to understand that Cava is anything but uniform. The method may be the same, the grape varieties, to a certain extent, are also common, but the diversity of climates and soils is considerable.

On top of that, there are other variables, not mutually exclusive, that come into play to differentiate Cava producers. Let us examine the two main ones: 

  • Big vs. small: in the Cava world there are two giants, Codorniu and Freixenet, which dominate the market in terms of quantity. A handful of other companies aim to join them at the top, but usually through mass production of lower quality Cava. On the other hand, most high quality Cava comes from the smaller wineries.  
  • Innovative vs. traditional grape varieties: some producers use Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, while others stick staunchly to Parellada, Xarel•lo and Macabeu, the trinity of Cava varieties, on the grounds that the use of the Champagne varieties detract from Cava personality. Some other local varieties, like Trepat, are now finding their way to Cava bottles.

Which are the best producers?

Codorniu and Freixenet, the two giants, have interesting wines hidden among their vast medium quality range. However, best quality can be found in smaller wineries. This would be my personal selection of Catalan Cava producers:

When to drink Cava?

The first idea that comes to mind is a celebration with Cava. However, Cava is much more versatile than that. Not only can we drink Cava (perhaps a Brut or Extra Brut Reserva) with many fish-based foods; a Brut Nature or Extra Brut Gran Reserva will be excellent with red meat and fowls, respectively, and a quality sweet Cava is perfect for dessert as well. And in a hot summer day, a light, fruity, crisp Brut can be delicious and refreshing.

  • Drink Cava within the first year after degorjat. Some quality Cavas will show the date in the label
  • Check the cork. It should lose its mushroom appearance and revert to its original cylindrical shape minutes after opening (otherwise degorjat was too long ago, see picture below), and show a four pointed star in the face in contact with the wine
  • Use long, thin glasses, not short, wide ones
  • Experiment with different foods and Cava types