Empordà, wines from the wind
Historically, Roussillon and Empordà were much more joined as the former comprised what used to be the northern portion of a larger Catalonia some 350 years ago. And despite now being the last bastion of France before crossing the Pyrenees into Spain, the Catalan language still manages to hang on in Roussillon, not to mention many of the same grapes as Empordà, revolving around Grenache and Carignan, and the same styles of reds, whites, rosés, and sweets, just like their southern brethren. The ties aren’t always noticeable as crossing through a village such as Pollestres has little meaning to a French speaker, but to a Catalan speaker, if someone says they live in, “Chickens” it’s more than a little smirk-inducing.
Roussillon is perhaps better known as that French region after the hyphen in Languedoc-Roussillon. But, the argument could easily be made that a better hyphenation would be Roussillon-Empordà, making Spain’s Empordà appellation or Denomination of Origin comprising 2,000ha along the Costa Brava worth examining.
Roussillon is often overlooked for its bigger brother, Languedoc, but Empordà, despite its small size holds a special significance for Spanish wine in that it’s the first place on the Iberian Peninsula that wine was introduced by the Greeks in the settlement of Emporion, located next to the modern-day coastal town of l’Escala. From Emporion, which literally means, “market” the Romans spread winemaking far and wide throughout the peninsula and this makes for a sense of local pride.
Empordà’s wine history followed a similar trend as the rest of Spain in that despite the rise of Roman winemaking, it wasn’t until the arrival of the monks in the 10th & 11th centuries where the winemaking became much more of a craft. Following the ejection of the monks by the Kingdom of Spain in the early 19th century, the following years were a boom as the French were readily buying Spanish wine to use while they replanted following phylloxera. From 1872 to 1878, it’s recorded that wine exports from Empordà rose some 350%.
The French-Spanish divide
When phylloxera arrived to Empordà in 1879 the region fell into disarray from a winemaking standpoint. This is where the French-Spanish split between the historically-linked regions north and south of the border really took hold. If you drive out on the peninsula of Cap de Creus, on the Spanish side, there are just traces of old terraces that have been long abandoned. A few vineyards have been replanted here and there, but nowadays it’s mostly old olive trees and stories that cling to these weather-beaten slopes.
Once you cross over to the French side, the slopes come to life. Planted to supply the dry wines of Collioure and the sweets of Banyuls, the vineyards are verdant, plentiful, and continue as such through Perpignan and beyond. Why the vineyards of Empordà were left so barren is up for a great deal of debate but one of the main aspects is despite being the same style of wines as those produced in Roussillon (which was largely bulk, cooperative production as well), they didn’t carry that French pedigree. But this was largely true of Spain’s non-Rioja wine regions in the first half of the early 20th century in that they languished heavily. It didn’t help that Catalonia was also hard hit as it was the last battle front of the Spanish Civil War when the Republican forces fled to France, most never to return. Maintaining vines was a secondary affair to survival.
EU vine pull schemes after Spain joined the EU in 1986 did their damage as well given that people accepted money to rip out what were the hardest vines to work, the old ones. Cooperatives made little if any difference in payments for grapes at the time and for those who still existed on viticulture in the 1980s they saw it a good way to get out of a backbreaking and low-paying way of life. The coastal tourism boom that started in the 1960s helped to egg on the inevitable decline of viticulture as well.
The net result in all of this was that winemaking in DO Empordà was so basic in its goals, they had initially called it DO Empordà-Costa Brava when established in 1975 in order to cash in on the much more famous beach region that runs all along the upper and lower counties of Empordà. With the exception of the Castell de Perelada winery, which has been a regional stalwart for nearly 100 years, those who sought to do better were by and large starting from zero.
A new wave washes up
Given that what vineyards were in existence were being largely fed into the local winemaking cooperatives, the cellars that emerged from the late 1990s planted new vines, primarily on the Empordà Plain. There was also a heavy focus not on the local grapes of Grenache and Carignan but French varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, Chardonnay, and others. Local consultants pushed for this a great deal believing that not only would the vines be easier to cultivate, theoretically produce better wines after so many years of plonk from the local grapes, but then the resulting wines would also be easier to sell due to the international name recognition of the grapes.
The initial modern wineries to forge a new path for the region, namely Espelt and La Vinyeta had in their early wines a great wealth of these French grapes alongside a smaller degree of Catalan grapes. The wineries went along with this despite the fact that across the border, with the exception of Syrah, these Northern French grapes are only permitted in the most generic, non-appellation IGP wines such as Côtes Catalanes.
In 2006, they wisely dropped the “Costa Brava” from the DO’s name to just be DO Empordà. There was a collective breath of relief from those who held out hope for the region and thought that the local grapes shouldn’t be so disregarded. The vineyards of Vinyes d’Olivardots, while having a decent splash of French varieties, were producing their top, varietal, single vineyard wines from only Grenache and Carignan that were up in the foothills of the Aspres range. The winery of Martí Fabra, from a local family in Sant Climent Sescebes was also notable for working with the local grapes to produce excellent wines true to the region.
Both the emphasis on the local grapes as well as not planting on the plain was a point constantly revisited by Dider Soto and Núria Dalmau of Mas Estela. Out in Cap de Creus, where the vineyards had been abandoned over the last century, they bought a 10th century home and estate in 1989 where they planted vines on stony terraces surrounding a small valley. Working initially organically and then biodynamically, Didier has been one of the people in the region pushing the agenda to return to original varieties. His ideas didn’t fall on deaf ears.
Reaching the point
It’s worth nothing that in addition to ditching the “Costa Brava”, the DO also grew in size in 2006, adding a southern portion in Baix Empordà. This made the territory grow by 50% and stretch over a rather wide and seemingly incongruous area. The cellars reached a tipping point wherein the younger producers could see that with this expansion and the massive quantities of foreign varieties that everyone else in the world had been planting, they were either going to take the road of oblivion and be just another of Spain’s many DOs, or the road of quality. Thankfully, most took the latter at some point in the last decade.
It was the purchase of the failing Rabós Cooperative by Espelt in 2007 that brought with it a wonderful selection of old, classic vines into their possession. At the time, oldest daughter, Anna Espelt was still just an enologist in the winery as the family saw fit to have someone from the business world running it as well as making use of well-known outside wine consultants to decide their final blends.
Everything changed in 2012 when Anna assumed full directorial control of the winery and with it, she brought along her principles of the region that were based not only on being a local but on realizing you can’t make fine wine in a vacuum. She listened to Didier as well as other viticulturists and saw that there was a bright future for the local grapes and the region. She has since turned the direction of the winery to one that produces a number of varietal wines, including the underdog, Carignan. She has also been shifting over to organic production and re-grafting the French grapes in their possession to those from Catalunya.
This has been echoed in other producers as well. La Vinyeta, now that they’ve arrived at a sustainable level of production are making small-batch wines using the local varieties. In addition to Olivardots and Martí Fabra, those in the foothills such as Vinyes dels Aspres, Arché Pagès, Roig Parals, and Terra Remota have now been making varietal wines with less oak influence in order to allow more of their character to show through. Even some of the aging cooperatives such as Empordàlia and Espolla have started producing varietal and/or single vineyard wines.
It’s in the wind
The movement towards expressing the territory in recent years has been to put it succinctly, massive, especially as representatives of the smaller cellars have been voted in to run the DO, replacing years of oversight for those from the cooperatives. But, how does one describe the region of DO Empordà other than to say it’s “like Roussillon” which itself seems unable to be discussed without attaching it to Languedoc? Much like its big brother, Empordà is heavily affected by the Tramuntana. This is a wind that blows year-round and in the summer, making for hot, strong air currents. In the winter, it creates a cold that chills one’s bones brittle.
For the cultivation of the grapes, it’s ideal as it allows excellent air circulation that makes organic farming easier than other regions just even a bit to the south where the climate gets markedly more humid. In the summer, it’s especially crucial as it reduces overall temperatures and moderates ripening. On the downside, it can easily damage the vines (gusts well over 120kph are not unheard of) and so mindful viticulture is still tantamount.
Ultimately the wind gives a lift and at times a tang of saltiness of the sea, especially in the whites and it’s this that unites all of the wines of Empordà. In the hands of the most skilled producers, there’s a nod to the wines you find from similar grapes in Priorat and Montsant, but there’s a delicate nature to them that makes them decidedly “Empordà”. That and it’s a region that produces that best dessert wines in all of Catalonia, especially from Grenache, just like they do in Banyuls.
A generation of enologists have found their footing here in DO Empordà and in doing so realized that expressing what is special about the region is to simply let the wind blow as it may while making use of their traditional grapes. Doing so is allowing us to see that there’s more to the wines that simply being an accent to an admittedly lovely coastline.