Spain: Catch Up on Cataluña – Priorat, Penedès, Sparkling Wines and the Other 10 Appellations
30th Sep 2022 | The Wine Advocate | End of September 2022
They had created a parallel association to promote quality within the appellation, but the appellation considered it non-compatible. So, they left. The issue was that they were some of the top quality producers in the appellation, and I’d say that group probably included the top three. The appellation was wounded for good… Today, Freixenet is part of the giant sparkling wine producer Henkell from Germany, which bought a majority share in 2018 and renamed itself Henkell Freixenet. Codorníu was sold to US asset management Carlyle Group. Very few quality producers remain in the appellation, most notably Mestres.
As most of the vineyards for sparkling wine fall within the geographical limits of the Penedès appellation, it was natural that many would go under its umbrella (the appellation is quite accommodating when it comes to grapes varieties and styles), which created a special category for sparkling wines, Clàssic Penedès. Others went their own way, and the six families created Corpinnat; for now, Corpinnat is only a common brand name that they use, and they sell their wines with no appellation of origin, as a varietal wine from Spain audited by an external body to be able to mention grape and vintage.
Corpinnat has grown with new members—Júlia Bernet, Mas Candí and, more recently, Can Descregut. I spent time in Penedès and tasted their wines and visited and tasted with still wine producers and Mestres. To me, Mestres is the top quality producer in Cava, and they are somehow specializing in long aging and larger format bottles (magnums and larger). They are aiming at a segment of the market that has been neglected by the appellation: they look for drinkers of high-quality Champagne rather than trying to compete with Prosecco.
They produced the first sparkling wine in 1925, but the big change was in 1945, when Visol (vi = wine and sol = sun) appeared and the market moved to dry wines. They were the first to put the word Cava on the labels, and that's one of the reasons they remain in the appellation.
Nowadays, they have 20 hectares of vineyards, all organically farmed but not (yet) certified, and produce 175,000 bottles. They have moved toward more Gran Reserva wines and older wines, which is their niche. They now only do Gran Reserva wines with at least five years in bottle with the lees. Furthermore, they have kept some older vintages they considered very good and have a project to release them now. All of the wines except Coquet spend some time in barrel with the lees and no bâtonnage. They also specialize in large bottles, magnums and double magnums. To me, they are the best Cava producer today, with a great balance between acidity, oxidation and bubbles.
Recaredo Goes Green
- 100% grapes from their own vineyards in the Alt Penedès
- 100% organic and biodynamic viticulture
- 100% manual harvest
- 100% aging in bottle with the lees under natural cork
- 100% minimum aging of 30 months sur lie
- 100% hand turning (remuage) of the bottles
- 100% manual disgorgement without freezing the lees
Some wines are offered under the personal project Mas del Serral de Pepe Raventós, produced in his basement from the grapes from the oldest vines on their property in Penedès. He also makes the Can Sumoi wines from that property, which have changed toward more freshness and precision, fermenting in smaller volumes, and they now add a little sulfur at bottling time but still within the limits of some “natural wines” associations, below 30 milligrams of sulfur.
To complete the sparkling wines, I also found time for a long-overdue visit to the family of Agustí Torelló Sibill, who left the family winery and now has a new project with his son, Agustí Torelló Roca. With this new project, called AT Roca, they want to make fresh, single harvest, terroir sparkling wines in the Clàssic Penedès appellation. They have 16 hectares, rent a further six and have contracts with growers for a further 24 hectares, all certified organic, all brut nature. From 2019, they used concentrated must from their own organically farmed vineyards for the second fermentation. They produce 280,000 to 320,000 bottles per year.
For now, he only vinifies his own grapes and makes mostly white wine. All of the wines are certified organic; he does biodynamics too, but he's not certified. He has no press, so it's all macerated. He uses no added sulfur, and the wines are all between 10.5% and 11% alcohol. The wines are precise, clean, balanced and fresh and are sold without appellation of origin, very gastronomical. They reminded me of the wines from Celler Credo, a project he started with Ton Mata in 2011. It's not easy to do this; you need to start with pristine fruit, operating-theatre clean winery and then a lot of care in all the processes.
Enric Bartra from Vega de Ribes is probably the most knowledgeable person in the world when it comes to the Malvasía de Sitges grape, and Josep Queralt from MontRubí is considered the guru of the Sumoll red grape. While Malvasía de Sitges (and to a lesser extent Malvasía Rosada) is enjoying a revival, the local red grape from the region, Sumoll, is trickier and difficult to manage and is still a work in progress. The thing about Malvasía de Sitges is that it keeps very good acidity, and in this mild to warm climate, that is very valuable. Sumoll is a delicate grape that has a pale color, grainy tannins and thin skins and is prone to disease. It also exists in the Canary Islands under the name Vijariejo Tinto or Negro.
Cousins Roc and Leo Gramona are the sixth generation at Gramona, but while they wait for the generational change at the family winery, they created their own project called Enclòs de Peralba to produce still wines from Penedès. They started in 2017 and work with some of their own vineyards (five+ hectares) and purchase grapes from growers in different zones of Penedès (whose names are mentioned on the labels). All of the vineyards are certified organic and some biodynamic, but the wines carry no seal. They are sold without appellation of origin, 40,000 to 45,000 bottles per vintage. I tasted some impressive wines, especially the white Xarel.lo Betzinera and the red Garnacha Els Escorpins. Look them up in the database.
Enric Soler also produces some of the best white wines from Cataluña. He's in Penedès but left the appellation of origin some time ago. He works 3.4 hectares of vineyards and produces around 12,000 bottles per year. I tasted his wines from 2018, 2019 and 2020, which gave me a good idea of the character of each vintage. 2018 was rainy, and they even got snow and mildew, a year of moderate alcohol and good freshness. 2019 was more of a “normal” year with good potential for elegance and depth, and 2020 was a year with frost and mildew that resulted in low yields. Improvisació is the wine that reflects the vintage more faithfully, and Espenyalluchs and Nun are more homogeneous—they cushion the effect of the year more, especially the old vines from Vinya dels Taus.
La Salada is the name of the family house from Toni Carbó, a grape grower from Penedès who is also (informally) part of Mas Candí. He started his personal project in the family house in 2012 (in Mas Candí) until 2017, and in 2018 he started making some wines. He works 28 hectares, all certified organic, and they have experimented with biodynamics, but he sells a lot of wines. The current production is 30,000 bottles. The wines are quite radical and are sold without appellation of origin, so the vintages and grapes cannot be printed on the labels.
Mas Candí is the family project of Ramón Jané and Mercè Cuscó. They have 37.6 hectares of vineyards from their families and produce some wines and sell grapes to other producers. The sparkling wines are in Corpinnat, and there's also a range of still wines, a total of 60,000 bottles. Toni Carbó is a family friend, and everybody thinks he’s a partner here, but he only helps as a friend.
In fact, they help each other and are always together, so that’s why people think they are business partners. When I visited them, the vines were suffering from the very warm 2022 summer and the lack of rain. The plants looked stressed and sad. Unfortunately, during the harvest a few weeks later, they suffered one of the worst hailstorms I have ever seen: it killed a girl in the village of La Bisbal d’Emporda, a little further north in Cataluña.
After many years, I visited Can Ràfols dels Caus again. They are one of the main names of the Massis del Garraf zone of Penedès, where they have 85 hectares of vineyards inside a large estate. They have a new range of sparkling wines and two new wines from a mountain, Montombra, which they share with Mas Candí. The second generation is getting on board now. Production averages 250,000 bottles per year, produced from an impressive winery next to the beautiful farmhouse (masia) from Carlos Esteva, who defines the style of his wines as austere.
Talking about the Garraf, a rocky, steep and forest zone over a huge limestone rock with influence from the sea, it’s officially a subzone within the Penedès appellation (well, it’s really two subzones), but the grower’s association there thinks it’s not enough. There are some 20 producers there, and they believe the Garraf has such a different and strong personality that it greatly differs from the rest of Penedès. Some wines have a very strong personality, like those from young grower Jordi Raventós. They advocate for a completely separate and new appellation altogether.
In 2022, we had one of the longest heat waves in the whole of Spain, and Cataluña was no exception. When I visited the vineyards in Penedès at the end of July, the vines were getting stressed from lack of rain and looked tired and sad. Things got even more complicated with crazy hailstorms during the harvest. It’s still too early—we have to see how the wines develop—but it’s clearly a very challenging year.
Priorat, Montsant and the Rest
In Priorat, many are adapting and changing their labels (and sometimes their wines too) to the new structure of site-specific wines from the appellation. In some aspects, it’s the most advanced in the country, but in others, like the minimum alcohol required in the wines, it is lagging behind. The requirement to have at least 13% alcohol for whites and 13.5% for reds has turned into a problem, and some of the most avant-garde producers have issues to achieve those minimums in their wines and get the approval to wear the name of the appellation. This is one rule from the past that doesn’t make sense anymore, and they should be able to see it and remove it.
Monastrell is coming out of the closet. They are in the process of approving this grape that exists in some of the old vineyards and has been used without saying anything, but now many producers are pushing to get it included in the list of grapes allowed by the appellation. It’s a Mediterranean grape that makes very much sense to me, that adapts well to the climate and challenging conditions of the region and can deliver freshness that contributes to make blends more streamlined and balanced.
But then here comes 2020, a year of extremes: for some it’s their worst vintage ever, and others consider it an exceptional year. It was exceptional indeed, as they had rain like never before! 2020 was the year of mildew (700 liters of rain!). Some produced very little to no wine, and some vineyards were lost completely, as people couldn’t tend all the sites at the same time. We have to realize that on top of the crazy weather, we also had the crazy pandemic, and some people couldn’t get the manpower to work all their vineyards and had to decide which ones were saved and which ones were getting abandoned. The 2020 mildew attack was more severe for the plants that were affected by the 2019 heat wave, and the mildew also had a more devastating result in Cariñena than Garnacha. It’s the most heterogeneous vintage I have experienced in Priorat, with some bizarre and ultra concentrated wines and others that are elegant, light and floral like never before.
I went to see the new Solanes vineyard from Clos i Terrasses overlooking Gratallops from within the natural park just below Montsant. As I mentioned last year, as I see in other old-vine regions like Bierzo and Gredos, the most avant-garde producers in Priorat are also planting new vineyards for the future. Daphne Glorian is also doing it. Technically, the place belongs to the village of El Lloar, and it’s mostly Garnacha and some Syrah, with a magnificent view of the village of Gratallops. She bought the property in 2010 but never got around to planting it until now. She needs to increase volumes because there is a lot more demand than supply.
When it comes to the wines, the 2020s were a big surprise. Yes, 2020 was a challenging year, and everybody will remember it as the year of mildew. But Glorian’s explanation was that because they farm organically, they are constantly working in the vineyards, and so they reacted as soon as the mildew appeared. But they soon realized it was a different strain that gave them a lot of work, and they treated the vineyards every four days. They ended up losing maybe 10% of the crop, but not much more than what she lost from the heat wave in 2019. The wines from 2020 benefited from the spring rains in terms of freshness, and the wines are superbly balanced and have lots of finesse. The 2020 Clos Erasmus was exceptional, floral and ethereal, fresher and lighter, better balanced and elegant. A very different Clos Erasmus that made my head spin. Or, as I say, it made my heartbeat faster.
Another highlight from recent years has been the new Mas de la Rosa from the Torres family in Priorat. I told you about it from may armchair last time: how they keep planting more vines on their Els Tossals property in Porrera, the highest and coldest area in Priorat, between the villages of Porrera and Poboleda at 750 meters in altitude.
They had already planted one hectare in 2018, and they now have another one, all in costers and head pruned, a mix of Cariñena, Garnacha and a small percentage of red Picapoll. The property is slowly being recovered; it has a total of 15 hectares, often little slopes of llicorella slate soils that have to be worked manually. I went to see this impressive vineyard with Miguel Torres Junior, and we also went to Mas de la Rosa, one of the historic properties in Porrera, from which they now produce a stellar single-vineyard bottling from 2016.
They are an example of a small project of hardworking people that has reached the top. They have been relentlessly improving their viticulture, vinification and aging and really walk the talk. They do all that is necessary to make great wines. They have great vineyards where they work very hard, they believe in what they do, they enjoy doing it, and they travel and visit other producers and drink widely, the best wines from the world. They question everything and don’t give up.
They have built their winery in their Planetes vineyard in the limit between Falset and Porrera. When the whites are harvested, they keep the boxes with the bunches in a cold storage for one or two days, then press the bunches and let the must settle, and then they fill the barrels the next day. They started experimenting with some skin contact in 2019 (one barrel) and continued with a little more in the following vintages, varying the length of the maceration—they started with five and went up to 15—and then the wines are in barrel for eight months. They use barrels of different ages and from different coopers.
The reds are produced in different ways, but all old vines are 100% full clusters; the young-vine Garnacha is destemmed, and the Cariñena is full cluster. Each parcel has its fermentation vat: the young one in stainless steel and the rest in oak. All of the wines are fermented with indigenous yeasts, and they us as little sulfur as possible. All of their vineyards are certified organic, and they don't buy any grapes; but they don't have the seals for the certifications, because it's a lot of paperwork (and money!).
They did their part, and in 2020, nature did its part too. 2020 was the year of mildew (700 liters of rain!), but they saw it coming and doubled the team of people to work in their vineyards. As a result, they “only” lost 25% of the crop; for them, working a lot in the vineyard was the key. It’s a year that they say they'll never forget. For them, 2020 is not a warm year; the skins were perfect, and the wines were super aromatic from the day they started fermenting in the winery. They consider it an exceptional vintage, the most Burgundian vintage since they started. Many wines shone, but the 2020 Nit de Nin Mas d’en Caçador stole the show and merited the highest score possible. “Did they make magnums?” That was the only unanswered question in my mind…
I also have to mention that Ester Nin has long been the winemaker at Clos I Terrasses, whose 2020 Clos Erasmus also gets a three-digit score from me, so double congratulations to Ester for it!
Cataluña is a prime tourist destination—the cities, the coast and the mountains. I happened to cover the region in the middle of the summer and beginning of the (early) harvest this year. Every year, I spend some time in the Costa Brava with wine friends, so it was a good opportunity to combine work and holiday, something I often think about but rarely manage to do.