Public wine tastings

As in most winegrowing zones, in Catalonia amateur wine tasting is an activity not only to be done individually or around a dinner table. There are many options, from the private wine tasting group or visit to small cellar, to the public wine exhibition with thousands of wine lovers.
My general position in this case is, yes, I like to attend these exhibitions. It is a good opportunity to:  
  • know interesting new wines
  • taste different vintages of those I already know
  • perhaps most important, chat with winegrowers.
The extent to which these three activities can be done depends on several variables: cost of the fee, popular appeal, and focus of the exhibition. In the very popular, unfocused events like the Mostra de Vins i Caves de Catalunya (Catalonia Wines Exhibition), held annually in Barcelona, the selection of wineries is not very rigorous, being official and, therefore, political. Also part of the large numbers of people who attend are not always interested in the quality of the offerings but rather in its alcoholic content. Catavins in Sabadell is less crowded and with a better selection.
However, often this bigger exhibitions include smaller events, often labelled as "for professionals", with greater interest (and price), such as a sideline of the Priorat and Montsant Fira del Vi (Wine Exhibition) in Falset: the Tast Presentació. In this case the top wines of ca. 60 wineries from Priorat and Montsant can be sampled just after leaving the barrels; in 2010 the wines from the 2008 vintage. All wineries complain that thewir wines should not be tasted yet, but all share the same problem and that evens things out.
The Fira del Vi in Falset is similar to other DO events, held in the DO capital, like ViJazz in Vilafranca del Penedès, Mostra del Vi  de l'Empordà de Figueres , or Festa del Vi Gandesa (DO Terra Alta). They are often paired with other food exhibitions, like olive oil or cheese. Local restaurants are also on display.
Other opportunities arise in the local festivities. I have already written about the event in my own town, Sant Cugat de Vallès (Wine in the cloister) and in many winegrowing villages a wine tasting is one of the highlights. I was recently in Porrera (DO Priorat) for the TastaPorrera (TastePorrera) where over thirty wines of sixteen local producers could be tasted.

There are also specific wine festivities, especially around grape harvest. One of the nicest is Poboleda’s Festa de la Verema a l’antiga (Old Way Harvest). Apart from actually harvesting and treading grapes (a method no longer favoured by Poboleda’s wineries), more than 25 Priorat wineries offer their wines from the large halls of the beautiful houses that line the Carrer Major (High Street).

And then there are focused events, like the Fira dels Vins de Torrelles de Llobregat, with many small, organic producers.
Needless to say, these are not opportunities for what I may call scientific wine tasting, but wine must be seen as a source of happiness and merriment, and it is good to let go of the tasting notebook and just enjoy the infinite variety of the fermented grape juice and the sound, enthusiastic people that perform the miracle.
I would like to close this post with a wish of happiness and luck (and nice wines!) in 2011 for all of you that have taken the time to go through my clumsy prose and travel with me in this exciting adventure in the net. Thanks for your support and till next post.



Jean León: from Santander to the White House

In 1941 a terrible fire turned into ashes most of the centre of the city of Santander, located in the Atlantic coast of Spain. The Carrión family, all its property lost, had to emigrate to Barcelona. A few months later, the father and the eldest son died when their boat was torpedoed.
In this difficult environment, the remaining family struggled along somehow, and in 1947 young Ceferino packed his meagre belongings and left for Paris first and then stowed himself away to New York. One step ahead of immigration authorities, he crossed the US till he reached Hollywood. He enlisted in the Army and served in the Korea War. He then obtained US citizenship and started working as a waiter in a famous Italian restaurant, Villa Capri. As a finishing touch he changed his less than glamorous name  of Ceferino Carrión to Jean León.
Jean León or perhaps still Ceferino Carrión?
He made good friends in Villa Capri; to start with, the owners, Frank Sinatra and Joe DiMaggio, to whom, according to some reports, he provided with an alibi when they assaulted a suspected lover of Marilyn Monroe, married at the moment to the baseball superstar. This was one of the shadowy moments of Jean León’s career, marked by the friendship with the Sinatra clan.
Aided at first by James Dean, and in spite of the young actor’s untimely death, he opened in 1956 his own restaurant in Beverly Hills, La Scala. Very soon the place was a favourite of the Hollywood star system, with some actors even dining in the kitchen if there was no table available.
Jean León at La Scala
In 1962, in another sensational moment of his career, he served a take away dinner to Marilyn Monroe in her own house. The next morning she was found dead. Jean León never commented on what or whom he saw there.
At the same time, Jean León was a very discerning wine lover, and he wanted to craft his own wines to match his recipes. So he started searching world wide for a suitable place to establish his winery. Finally in 1963 he settled in a 150 hectare estate in Torrelavit, Penedès. In another bold move, he replanted most of the land with Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Chardonnay reputedly bought (others say stolen) from Lafite-Rothschild and Corton Charlemagne. This was unheard-of in Penedés at the time-he became arguably the first to plant foreign varieties in Catalonia. He hired a gifted young oenologist, Jaume Rovira, who built the winemaking facilities in the middle of the estate, following the pattern of Bordeaux chateaus, and they started production.
Jean León and Jaume Rovira
His wines, always a limited production, steadily improved as vines aged, and were, for instance, served in 1981 in the celebration of Ronald Reagan’s accession to the White House, one of the five US presidents he got to meet.
Cancer claimed Jean León’s life in 1996 as he was sailing in Thailand. A few years later, the giant Torres bought the state and has continued with a similar philosophy; in fact, Jaume Rovira is still at the helm.
The property is generally oriented towards the south, with a gentle slope and an average height of 300 m. Soils are sandy, with limestone and clay in variable proportions; this is a vital factor in the comparative quality of the different plots. The four main vineyards are:
  • La Scala, with the highest proportion of limestone and planted with the oldest Cabernet Sauvignon vines. 
  • Le Havre, planted with Cabernet Sauvignon and Franc. 
  • Gigi: less limestone, more clay and Chardonnay vines. 
  • Palau, with lowest limestone / clay ratio, and Merlot vines.
Wines presently produced start with Magnolia, the introductory range. The white, Magnolia Blanc, is Chardonnay/Xarel.lo, lightly oaked, young and fresh. Magnolia Negre is Cabernet Sauvignon / Merlot, also lightly oaked, fruity, to be drunk still young.
Next comes the oak fermented Chardonnay from the best grapes from the Gigi plot. Five months in oak and six in bottle round it off.
The Merlot spends 12 months in oak and 6 in bottle before leaving the cellar and offers the red fruit aromas typical of the variety.
Cabernet Sauvignon Reserva spends 18 months in oak and 24. The last I tasted gave me the impression that perhaps a little less barrel would have produced a more lively wine; it tasted tired. Wrong bottle?
Selected Cabernet Sauvignon grapes from La Scala plot are used for the Cabernet Sauvignon Gran Reserva, aged for 25 months in barrel and 36 in bottle. The label is specially designed each year by a different, well-known artist. The wine is dark red, with the ochre overtones of long ageing, tertiary aromas of toast and spice. Wide, well structured. 

And last of all, Zemis is a special blend of the three red Bordeaux varieties, with 20 months of oak and striving for balance and that elegance that Ceferino had in himself and showed as Jean León.


Cava Llopart: leopards never change their spots

As early as in the 14th century, records in Latin show that a Bernardus Leopardi owned vineyards in the present Llopart estate. Wheat and olives were grown there, too, until by end of 18th century the Llopart family focused on wine. One century later, they were among the first to start Cava production, but emphasizing quality over quantity. To this date, and after more than 600 years, this remarkably resilient family continues to do what must be engraved in their DNA, like the leopard’s spots.

The Llopart estate is located in the hilly countryside south of Sant Sadurní d’Anoia, the Cava capital, and within the boundaries of the village of Subirats. Its 60 hectares of vineyards have been divided into 3 sub zones according to microclimate and soil features. They have an average altitude of 340 m and enjoy, being protected from harsh North winds by the Montserrat massif, mild winters and sunny, not excessively hot summers. The vines receive an average 500 l / m2 of rain per year.

The fancy shapes of Montserrat are a barrier to North winds
Soils are generally poor, a mixture in different proportions of sand and lime, with clay here and there. Farming methods are reportedly organic, although there is no official certification.

The main varieties used are the three classical for Cava, Parellada, Xarel.lo and Macabeu, plus Chardonnay, Monastrell, Pinot Noir, Subirat Parent, Garnatxa negra, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Ull de Llebre. Grapes are picked by hand and selected in the vineyard. Thus Llopart produce yearly ca. 450’000 bottles of eight Cavas and three still wines.

The old engraving depicting the estate that is included in most labels

Still wines, under the DO Penedès label, are two whites, the Clos dels Fòssils (Chardonnay / Xarel.lo), and the Vitis (Xarel.lo, Subirat Parent / Muscat); and one red, the Castell de Subirats (Merlot / Ull de Llebre / Cabernet Sauvignon).

The winery

But the star in Llopart is Cava. Cava production follows, as it should, the traditional (aka Champenoise) method of second fermentation in bottle, closed with crown caps. Yeasts are local. Riddling is done manually, and degorjat mechanically (you may want to read my previous post about Cava production Is Cava a Catalan wine?). Degorjat date is not explicit, but the batch number is composed of the degorjat month and the last digit of the degorjat year. Most bottles show the vintage year.

Bottles biding their time
Nèctar Terrenal Reserva is one of the few sweet (in fact a semi-dolç) quality Cavas available, made from 50/50 Xarel.lo and Parellada with 18 months of aging, and appropriate for dessert.

Llopart Brut Nature Reserva is the workhorse of the firm: Macabeu, Xarel.lo, Parellada and Chardonnay 30/40/20/10, and 26 months of bottle give a fine, elegant and versatile Cava.

Rosé Cava is on the rise, and Llopart offer two different examples: Llopart Rosé Brut Reserva, from Monastrell, Garnatxa negra and Pinot Noir 60/20/20, and 18 months in bottle; and Microcosmos Brut Nature Reserva: Pinot Noir and Monastrell 85/15 kept for 24 months in bottle.

The Llopart Integral Brut Nature is the lightest of the range. Parellada, Chardonnay and Xarel.lo 40/40/20 and 18 months of aging render a lively, flowery Cava most suited to be drunk by itself or with light tapas.

Last but not least, three Gran Reservas complete the choice. Their long ageing shows in the tertiary aromas of bread and toast, and creamy feel. They are fit for pairing with a full meal, however strong it may be.

Llopart Imperial Brut Gran Reserva comes from Macabeu, Xarel.lo and Parellada, 40/50/10, and 15 % of the base wine has been aged in oak. 42 months aging in bottle.

Leopardi Brut Nature Gran Reserva has Macabeu, Xarel.lo. Parellada and Chardonnay 40/40/10/10, with 48 months in bottle.

Ex vite (from “Ex vite vita”, Latin for “Life comes from the vine”) Brut Gran Reserva  is the top wine of the house, coming from old Macabeu and Xarel.lo vines (40/60) carefully selected fruit. Base wine partly aged in oak and wild yeast selection. Expedition liquor based on 19th century recipe. All this to produce 5’300 bottles that age for over 60 months to yield a golden wine with small, slow bubble, complex nose and long finish.

What will the Lloparts be doing in 600 years’ time? Guess my bet?


Alella: vines vs. houses

Alella is the smallest DO in Catalonia, and also the closest to Barcelona. Indeed, the vineyards start some 10 km away from Barcelona’s centre. Eighteen villages are included, and they are placed at both sides of the coastal hills that run parallel to the Mediterranean.

This area attracted formerly holiday second homes from wealthy Barcelonese, and now is increasingly filling with permanent residents, seduced by the cool climate and the easy access to beaches. The building fever of the last twenty years has not been able to drive away the last winegrowers, heirs to a winemaking tradition that spans millennia. In fact, in the heart of the DO lands there is a Roman winemaking facility, Cella Vinaria, active from the 1st century B.C. till the 5th century A.D. The wines of this zone (laietanian wines) are mentioned by Pliny the Elder and Martial. Wine production continued successfully through the Middle Ages and beyond, to this day.

Alella DO villages

The DO has ca. 600 hectares of vineyard, with soils generally sandy (sauló) in the plots facing the sea, and with more clay in those facing the inland. Climate is Mediterranean, with hot summers and cool winters. Rain is relatively scarce (600 mm/year) and concentrated in spring and autumn. There are no important rivers, so humidity coming from the sea plays an important role. The hilly countryside gives plenty of opportunities for fulfilling the microclimate requirements of the different grape varieties.

Which are they? For whites, there are two recommended grapes: Garnatxa blanca and Pansa blanca (aka Xarel.lo). Other accepted: Chardonnay, Chenin blanc, Macabeu, Malvasia, Moscatell de gra petit, Parellada, Picapoll blanc and Sauvignon blanc. Red varieties: Garnatxa negra (recommended), Cabernet Sauvignon, Carinyena, Garnatxa peluda (hairy) Merlot, Monastrell, Pinot noir, Sumoll negre, Syrah and Ull de Llebre. Many vines of the local varieties are over 50 years old, and grown as bushes. International varieties are younger and usually trellised.

With this range Alella winemakers (7 in total) elaborate an assortment which is surprisingly wide for a zone of this size: whites of all kinds, rosè, reds, sweets, and, as other Catalan DOs, Cava in its full choice.

The most well known type is the white made from Pansa blanca, the local name of Xarel.lo. It can be young or with oak aging. Chardonnay is the second most important white grape, and the others are usually complements in the blends, with the odd monovarietal. Excellent sweets, both red and white, and some outstanding soleras.

Alella wines, with their mild climate, tend to be lighter and more elegant than wines from other Catalan DOs with harsher climatic conditions.

My favourite wineries: this is difficult. Quality is generally high and with only seven winemakers…Anyway:
  • Alta Alella, with organic production 
  • Marqués de Alella, mainly whites 
  • Alella Vinícola (Marfil), attention to the soleras
Let us hope that these seven stubborn, resilient groups will resist the alluring offers for their land and continue to produce these wines, with a very defined personality within the Catalan wine world.


Clos Dominic, vines on the face of the pyramid

Porrera is one of the leading Priorat villages. Placed in the East of the DO, its labyrinthic streets hide more than a dozen of wineries and, for whatever reason, a similar number of sundials.

One of the more singular of these wineries is Clos Dominic. With the (tiny) winemaking facilities in the ground floor and underground of a village house, its real heart lies elsewhere: 2 km away from the streets and sundials, la Tena stands.

Dominic and Paco grew in Priorat. Paco had a tradition of winemaking in his family, but no land. Finally, in 1998 they purchased one of the best properties of Priorat: la Tena.

La Tena from the bottom
La Tena is a plot composed mainly of two pieces: a great coster, or sloped vineyard with vines planted unevenly and grown as bushes, with the form of a triangle and resembling the face of a huge pyramid; and a flat part at its feet, close to the riverbed.

The flat vineyard is planted with Garnatxa negra, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, around ten years old. The coster is home to very old vines, from 60 to over 100 years old, mainly Garnatxa and Carinyena, but with a sprinkling of Picapoll negre and white varietals: Garnatxa blanca, Macabeu, and even the odd, newer Riesling. In the sometimes impossible slopes of the coster, the old vines cling precariously to the slatey llicorella soil adopting outlandish shapes, and fighting for dear life as they stubbornly yield an average of 300 grams of grapes per plant. Meagre harvest in quantity, but the quality more than compensates.

Vines in the coster
Farming and winemaking are organic, with biodynamic overtones. Sulphur addition is kept to the lowest levels, and no other additives are used for clarification or other purposes; so much so that an allergy patient association recommends Clos Dominic wine to its associates. Fermentation is achieved with the yeasts naturally present in the grapes. And all the work is undertaken by members of the family.

This non-intervention policy yields wines with a defined personality that highlight the terroir and each vintage circumstances. Indeed, vintage to vintage variation is probably higher than in other wines with more “technology”.

Clos Dominic blanc is a very limited production (300 bottles) of a complex white, made from the white grapes of la Tena. It is fermented and kept for five months on its lees in new French oak.

Reds usually undergo ageing in French oak for 12 to 16 months. That lends them a suitable wood touch, without hiding the intense fruit and the minerality, typical of Priorat.

Younger vines in the flat plot
Clos Petó is the basic red, from Cabernet Sauvignon and Garnatxa negra grown in the lowest plot.

Flat plot at the bottom

Vinyes Baixes (literally Low Vineyards) comes from Merlot from the lower vineyards and some older Garnatxa negra from the coster.

Vinyes Altes (High Vineyards) is Clos Dominic’s top normal wine, the product of the old Carinyena (70 %) and Garnatxa vines of the coster in la Tena.
La Tena from midway up

Paco and Dominic adore their children (one girl is already on track to became Oenologist and Sommelier) and have given their names to special, selected bottles coming from the oldest Carinyena and Garnatxa vines. Look out for Selecció Andreu, Míriam or Ingrid; the production is minuscule and price high, but concentration of colour, aromas and flavours is stunning. Ingrid is Garnatxa negra 100 %; Andreu and Míriam, Carinyena 100 %.

Like a number of other small wineries, a visit to Clos Dominic, starting with a hike up la Tena among the old vines, ending in tasting their very special wines, and under the enthusiastic guidance of the Castillo family, is one of the “must-have” experiences for a wine lover.


Paco gazing up la Tena


Albet i Noya, the organic pioneers

Albet i Noya is a winery in Sant Pau d’Ordal with the typical mixed production of DO Penedès and DO Cava, as so many others in the area. This is a medium-sized enterprise, with a production of some 2 million bottles per year, out of their 76 hectares.

The estate of Can Vendrell, where the winery is located, lies in the first slopes of the Ordal mountains. The Albet i Noya family have been managing this estate for four generations, but it was the present one that bought the estate in 1986 and established today’s structure.

Vines grow in sloped plots or in man-made terraces. Soils are poor, with a calcareous bed and a thin layer of clay. All grapes are hand picked, and in some cases selected grain by grain. White varieties grown include Chardonnay, Macabeu, Xarel.lo, Parellada, Muscat, Viognier, Sauvignon Blanc and Garnatxa Blanca. As red varieties they have Cabernet Sauvignon, Ull de Llebre (aka Tempranillo), Merlot, Syrah, Garnatxa Negra, Caladoc, Arinarnoa, Marselan and Pinot Noir. This large variety is quite normal in Penedès.

It produces a wide range of wines: white, rosé, red, sweet, sparkling (Cava) of uniform good quality, and at reasonable prices; however, there are no really outstanding wines, no Parker ratings higher than 90, so to speak. The main brands are Lignum (white and red), la Milana red, Reserva Martí red, and the Col.lecció line, monovarietals of Chardonnay and Syrah.

What is special, then? Is this just another honest, unremarkable, upper-middle class winery?

There are mainly three features that make Albet i Noya remarkable.

The first one is that, in 1978, they were the first winery in Catalonia to embrace organic farming and winemaking, and have remained a benchmark ever since. Since 2004 they are also starting to grow grapes byodinamically in a part of the estate.

The Cava line also has some special things to offer, starting with manual degorjat and the date of this operation in all labels, to permit timely consumption.

Barrica 21 is a Cava with Champagne-like composition, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, and base wine fermentation in French oak barrels. This lends a special body, enough to match the richest meats.

Also the Cava Dolç de Postres is one of the handful of sweet, quality products that are on the market. As happens with other quality sweet wines, low quality sweet Cava has created a bad reputation that is difficult to overcome, yet good sweet Cava is a perfect match for most desserts.

The third point is their program of recovery of ancient, perhaps pre-phylloxera grape varieties. They have dedicated one hectare to growing vines of obscure descent, often found by chance in the neighbouring mountains, and with DNA that does not match known varieties. A part of the cellar is dedicated to vinification in small quantities, including a metal press similar to ancient wooden, manual ones, and then samples of the resulting wines are distributed to experts around the world to assess quality. In this way they have already identified three grape varieties, two white and one red, which they deem worthy of producing commercial scale wines.

The red grape has been christened as Belat, which is at the same time an anagram of Albet and sounds like the Catalan velat, which means hidden or shrouded as becomes to this elusive grape. White varieties remain unnamed for the time being.

Hopefully in a few years these new grapes, and others to come, will have hit the market (I have a bottle of Belat to be poured sometime soon) and enlarged the choice for the discerning wine enthusiast.


Cava or Champagne?

In the November edition of Decanter there is an article signed by Andrew Jefford that has stirred a degree of debate in the Cava world. Jefford, a reputed wine journalist (in fact the 2010 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the year), writes under the somewhat jaded title of “Homage to Catalonia” a well reasoned praise of Cava, or, rather, the potential of Cava when quality and not price is the driving factor both in the winemaker and consumer mind.

His main point is that the critical difference between Champagne and Cava is not grape varieties, or the production method (which is the same for both, unlike Prosecco and most of Sekt, that use the Charmat large tank method), but lies in the opposed climates.

The cool climate in Champagne produces barely ripe grapes that will give a highly acid base wine that sugar, long ageing in contact with lees and skilful expedition liquor design complement to render one of the world’s outstanding wines.

In contrast, warmer climate allows grapes to ripen to a less aggressive acidity and higher sugar content that enable producers to avoid any sugar addition, other than for secondary fermentation, in most of the top quality Cavas and still offer a nose, different from Champagne, but equally attractive.

He humbly pleads guilty of not knowing a handful of smaller producers that he visited last summer, which showed him the real potential of Cava. He proposes Cava as an equal competitor to Champagne and reasons that sparkling wines of other warmer regions may wisely model themselves on Cava rather than Champagne.

He blames British supermarkets for obscuring these wineries from the general view; I would also finger bigger Cava companies that dominate exports based on a low price strategy.

I have browsed through the webs of two of Britain’s more conspicuous supermarket chains to assess differences between Champagne and Cava, with telling results.

At Tesco, Cava offerings (excluding the Tesco brand) ranged from £3.05 to £6.50; 12 bottles from 4 big companies. Champagne: from £9.97 to £125.00; 37 bottles from 19 companies. Additionally, in the Fine Wines section 7 more champagne bottles, from £36.00 to £145.00, were available. Clearly, two different niches with no overlap.

At Sainsbury’s, Cava from £8.99 to £11.99: only 3 bottles and all from 2 big wineries. Champagne? From £14.99 to £43.99. Again no overlap.

This is, for me, the great success of Champagne (and to a similar degree, of other French wines): there is Champagne, the only and one,... and there is a riff-raff of substandard imitators that can only compete for the low price range substitution. For great occasions, Champagne; for everyday use, the rest. This is the reading, even in Catalonia: I have heard from people, posh or otherwise, that “Cava is nice, but Champagne is the real thing!” or “Cava is too acid and gives me heartburn; Champagne does not”. Further questions often show that their experience is restricted to cheap Cava and have never heard of the high quality products.

Does all this mean that Cava is better than Champagne and should sit on the throne? Certainly not. I only ask to wine lovers to try and know Cava better, striving to unearth bottles from the smaller wineries (see a previous post or the Internet addresses below) and approach them from an unprejudiced standpoint, not comparing them to Champagne.

Imagine tasting fine Burgundy for the first time after a lifetime of avid Bordeaux consumption. Is one better than the other? No, they are different, both excellent and only personal preference should matter. It is nice to know that somebody like Jefford, prestigious and obviously not prejudiced against Champagne (see his 2010 prize) shares this view.


Wine in restaurants 1.2: Lasarte, Can Boix and Cal Gabriel

In the last two weeks I have enjoyed two top-level restaurants (due to special celebrations; unfortunately this is not the average for the rest of the year) and a basic, popular one, and all three deserve some comments about their wine management.

Lasarte is a Barcelona-based restaurant with 2 Michelin stars, located in the Condes de Barcelona Hotel, and managed by the Basque chef Martín Berasategui, owner of the 3-star restaurant of the same name in Donostia.
Martín Berasategui

Its wine list includes most of the world’s remarkable wine regions. Local focus is adequate, as is the balance between famous workhorses and original, less well-known proposals. Prices are reasonable for this level, at perhaps 50% over retail price. They offer matching wines for their special menu, suggesting also selected beers in some cases. In the only mistake I could detect, this is not shown in the menu, but mentioned by the service. In our case we were not told, and took instead a bottle of Sot Lefriec 2004, a red Penedès by Alemany i Corrio winery. Dense, closed at first but opening later to show red and black fruit, toast and vanilla, and a long finish.

The sommelier is very knowledgeable and sensitive, and when I pointed out that we would have liked to get the wines that were being served to nearby tables, he offered us two samples: one glass of excellent Belgian beer and one glass of an Alella Marfil Generós Sec, which matched perfectly their two dishes.

Our wine was decanted and served at appropriate temperature in excellent glasses. To round things off, we were presented at the end with a printed menu including the wines and beer we had drunk.

Summarizing, wine management quite close to what should be expected in a restaurant at this level.

In a very different environment, at the feet of the Pyrenees and close to the road from Lleida to La Seu d’Urgell, the Hotel Can Boix boasts, among other attractions, a restaurant of creative cuisine that attracts gourmets from all over Catalonia. However, wine management is in some aspects a step below.

Can Boix Hotel
The wine list, indeed a book, includes a wide range of wine regions, with interesting information about each of them. But in many cases only a small number of wines of that zone are available. Wine vintages are not shown, except for a small list of bottles that appear at the end of the book and which I nearly overlooked. No wine matching was possible.

The sommelier was on long sick leave and his deputy was extremely pleasant and active, but had some ideas about wine service that could improve by training. He showed us the cellar, kept at a surprising 20ºC, and we discussed at length about wine.

Our bottle (at wine shop price) was decanted and served in glasses perhaps too wide and short. Anyway, the Penedès red Caus Lubis 1998, that I had tasted some years ago, was impressive in its maturity, with tannins present but perfectly rounded and complex aromas of mineral, red fruit and old leather.

Probably the absence of the sommelier was being felt a trifle too much; but the deputy, with some development, may well have the potential to upgrade wine management to match the cuisine performance.

Playing in another league altogether, Cal Gabriel is the restaurant of a bed-and-breakfast holiday cottage in the village of Tuixent, in the middle of the Cadí-Moixeró Natural Park. No starred chef here, but honest, nourishing, local product based cooking.

Cal Gabriel
What about wine? They propose some 20 references, from different zones, and with a surprising and welcome absence of run-of-the-mill best sellers, at moderate prices.

When we selected a bottle of Costers del Segre Bregolat red, (well structured, somewhat short in the nose) they changed the stemware ready for the house wine by glasses that were not Riedel, but nice and suitable. They apologized that the wine might be too warm (only marginally so, imo) and suggested to cool it down a little. And at the end of lunch offered us a bag to take home the remaining wine.

For a restaurant with a 14 € menu and in a remote village in the Pyrenees I felt that few more things could be asked...that’s the way to go!


Celler de Capçanes, to modernity through tradition

As I have explained in a previous post, a vast majority of the cooperative wineries in Catalonia are dominated by conservative thinking that hinders the much awaited modernization they need, both in commercial and technical terms.

The most important model for these outdated wineries to copy is the Celler de Capçanes, located in the village of Capçanes, DO Montsant. This cooperative followed the trodden path at the beginning: founded comparatively late in 1933, they produced and sold bulk wine till 1980, when they stopped wine production altogether to just sell their grape to other producers.

But in 1991 the oenologist Angel Teixidó started production of wine again and even barrel aging. A few years later, contacts with Barcelona’s Jewish community culminated in a bold move: the decision to produce kosher wine, that is, wine elaborated following the strict rules laid out in ancient Jewish law.

The beauty of the idea was its power as motor of change. Though ancient, the kosher rules drove the winery to purchase state-of-the-art equipment to be able to fulfil the cleanliness and materials requirements. And then the production of other fine wines came along naturally. The grape varieties in production are Garnatxa blanca and negra, Macabeu, Carinyena, Merlot, Syrah, Ull de Llebre, and Cabernet Sauvignon. Some of the Garnatxa vines are ca. 100 years old.

After the years, the kosher wine, Peraj Ha’abib of Flor de Primavera, enjoys a high reputation in its market sector. But there are many other wines from Capçanes to consider:
  • the Mas Donís range (blanc, rosat, negre), easy to drink, fresh 
  • Mas Collet blanc and negre, with some oak aging 
  • Vall del Calás, Costers del Gravet and Mas Tortó, coupages of several varieties with 12 months of oak 
  • the Carretell sweet/fortified wines from Garnatxa negra: a ranci, oxidized by a long stretch in old oak; a mistela, in fact must with alcohol added, and a vi de licor, with alcohol  
  • Pansal del Calás, the wine from overripe Garnatxa negra and Carinyena grapes  
  • the Garnatxa negra wines: Lasendal, with slight oak aging, Cabrida, from old vines and 12 month oak aging, and Cabrida Calissa, from special limestone soil vineyards. To visit the Cabrida vineyard in a sunny morning and later have a bottle with a nice lunch in El Cairat restaurant in nearby Falset is a rewarding experience.

It is really a luxury to visit Celler de Capçanes, especially going to see the vineyards. They are scattered around the countryside, not grouped together, doubtless due to the diverse owners. In this way, some are just surrounded by forest that lends flavour to the resulting wines.