Rebellious Penedès: “Unrated”

This article originally ran on Harpers but, given space restrictions was nearly half of the original in length. Here I present it in its entirety.

The concept of rebellion in wine typically conjures up images of a winemaker taking a chainsaw to old, large barrels or flipping off the regulatory body and growing whatever grape varieties he or she pleases. Hardly grand acts of sedition in the greater scheme of the world but for wine, they’re earthshattering and even more so when discussing this within the scope of Catalonia, a region that has been actively trying to secede from Spain for the last 300 years. Catalans are nothing if not determined.

It’s the region of Penedès that is the largest in Catalonia. The winery Torres is responsible for a great deal of this by modernizing the winemaking sector in the early 20th century and pulling it out of the old, lower production approach to crafting wines. While this worked wonders to grow winemaking to the point we see today, it also grew a reputation for Penedès at large to be a region that produced more economic, low-end, heavily blended, and less interesting wines than others in Catalonia. While the wines were dependable and a go-to for the budget conscious, they were hardly unique. There have however been those who rebelled against this typical premise of how one makes a “Penedès” wine.

The “Crazy” Ones

Irene Alemany came back to Penedès after many years of working abroad in Australia, California, and most importantly, France. It was the latter experience in the Côte de Beaune that steeled her nerves to start up a new project Alemany i Corrio using vines that her father had planted some four decades previously. While Penedès favors and is indeed oriented towards large production, they purposefully starting doing a strict green harvest that reduced their final production by 50%. They also started fermenting with native, ambient yeasts as opposed to using selected yeasts that yield a much more controlled fermentation.

“My father thought I was crazy for this change to the viticulture. Other enologists–including young ones–thought that I was crazy to attempt natural fermentation. There were even those who told me it would be impossible in the cellar without having used selected yeasts previously.” Such were the obstacles in terms of mentality that she came up against. She has of course been proven right in her thinking. The reds, while made with international grapes varieties of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and the native Carignan are impressive. Sot Lefriec, their top cuvée with a base of Merlot, holds a broad, elegant palate and luscious herbal notes. The Pas Curtei, while being their more introductory red still holds its own with wonderful balance, fluidity and sense of place not previously found in the region.

Naturally, these are not budget wines. Sot Lefriec is 55€ and Pas Curtei 15€ but they represent a changing of ideals of which Irene Alemany and her French husband, Laurent Corrio were some of the first to attempt. But, others have fallen suit as well.

With a mere 7,500 bottles, Enric Soler easily has one of the smallest cellars in all of DO Penedès. His grandfather passed away in 2004 and left an old vineyard and cellar to him. While originally a sommelier, Enric has been working to invigorate the old vineyards, plant new ones and have a keen, focused trajectory on creating wines in the same manner as the best of Burgundy with winemaker and winegrower being the same person.

vinyaOne of Enric’s resulting wines, Nun, is simply one of the finest white wines being produced in Penedès is not all of Spain. This has not been lost on others as it is often the highest scoring Penedès wine in annual wine publications. It comes from the old vineyard called, “Vinya dels Taus” (the vineyards of gophers) that sits across the road from the cellar. Planted with 70 year-old Xarel·lo–one of the workhorse grapes of the region–this vineyard was the airstrip for the Republican Army during the Spanish Civil War.

To summarize Nun is to call it a cross between Chardonnay of Côte de Beaune and the Syrah-Viognier blends of Côte Rotie. Insanely electric and vibrant, it’s an aromatic bombshell of dried white flowers, straw, and light buttery notes. Full in the mouth it holds excellent, fresh acidity and has a finish that lingers forever. As Enric puts it, “My wines are Penedès yet they resemble nothing of what most people know of the region.” This is no wine to mindlessly quaff with a paella in the heat of summer and it could easily stand to age another decade.

The Other Cava

lentiscusWhile larger in scope than Enric Soler, Clos Lentiscus is in a lovely spot near the village of Sant Pere de Ribes, just a bit inland from the beach town Sitges. Similar to the case with Enric Soler, this project was started in 2001 when Manel Aviñó’s father passed away. Previously, they had been selling their grapes to other wineries but Manel set out to recuperate the 7ha of old vineyards they lay claim to as well as plant others. He started working everything organically and gained certification.

Indeed, it is the case that organic viticulture is nothing new to sparkling wine production, they make the wines in one of the more unique manners I’ve found which in turn adheres to their general idea to make unique, locale-driven wines. The wines go through natural fermentation for the primary, alcoholic fermentation, but when they add the liqueur de tirage, it is a blend of honey from their own bees on the property as well as yeast that they have harvested from the primary, natural fermentation. Simply put, while there are now producers of Cava who are organic and even biodynamic, there are none with this fixation on closed-loop production. They even go so far as to release the wines without any added sulfites.

The opposite of Convention

Of course, Clos Lentiscus seems fully sane when you come to Ton Rimbau who readily admits, “Absolutely everyone thinks I’m nuts.” Ton started his winemaking project in 2001, for much the same reason as Manel in that his father passed away in 2000. If there is one side of the winemaking galaxy that is “conventional” method, Ton would be on the absolute other end of it and then down a black hole.

There is an endless list of “unique” viticulture approaches that Ton uses. In the vineyards, he puts a resin rod that has been embedded with copper and aluminium bits which is then wired to a grounding rod to in order to absorb and then channel away mobile phone signals. He has a one-bladed, 80cm deep plow that he uses once a year to dig a deep channel to apply his in-house mixture of vineyard treatments; one of which is a blend of nettles, rosemary, and thyme along with horse manure. Some vineyards are exposed to certain colors in order to stimulate growth. Others are vineyards that he has “reconverted” from what were traditional methods to his own approach.

bottlesIt’s an endless list that can best be summed up when you try his wines, which are all primarily based on Xarel·lo, but are then aged and sold in ceramic bottles. As Ton puts it, “My wines are natural wines with no added sulfites. They’re very delicate and the ceramic bottles don’t allow any light to reach the wine, thus preserving them. Glass and even porcelain bottles are inadequate.”

Light and color plays a great deal in to his thinking, which if you spend even five minutes with him, you can see how, instead of figuring out how to maximize production like the larger wineries in the region, he is trying to figure out how to transport the territory and true essence of the grapes. The wines are indeed unique, although they do fall under the umbrella of “natural” wines and thus you need to approach them with a bit of a different mindset. While there can be slight oxidized or nutty notes to them, the wines are wondrously vibrant. His Vi Xarel·lo stands out as one of the stars with a full structured body in the mouth but light, with a lingering crisp acidity in the finish. His dessert wine, Vi Dolç Natural is simply brilliant with notes of caramelized almonds, light salinity, and mouthwatering acidity to provide a backbone and counter to the sweet notes of the wine.

While Ton represents the extreme end in terms of winemaking, he is overall using the traditional grapes of the region. There are however others that are making use of varieties that have long been disregarded as too “rustic” when compared to international varieties such as Chardonnay, Merlot, and Cabernet Sauvignon to name a few. This recuperation of these old varieties is playing in to the larger sea of change being brought on by those who have been bucking the status quo.

Those Other Grapes

toni-ramonMas Candí is a winery started by co-owners Ramón Jané and Toni Carbó, the latter of which also makes his own line of wines in Mas Candí called, Celler la Salada which are stictly “natural” with no added sulfites. Both Ramón and Toni have been viticulturists in the Penedès region. After several years of experiments, in 2006 they started their project in order to reclaim these older varieties and go back to what Penedès used to produce in the past when there were, as Ramón puts it, “One hundred different varieties or at least variety names, before Cava arrived.” They have small vineyards of grapes rarely heard of such as Mandó, Rogenc, Turbat, Malvasia de Sitges, and Sumoll, as well the Grenache clone from Sardinia where it’s known as Canonau.

While all their wines show that there is indeed potential with these older grapes, one that they seem to have made the greatest strides with is Sumoll. “Sumoll is Nebbiolo. It’s tannic and strong initially but can age for years and has great acidity.” Indeed, while other limited bottles of this wine produced in Catalonia can be excessively tannic, they’ve managed to wrangle the grape in to a more fruit-forward and friendly wine to drink that’s balanced while also showing no end of aging potential.

massimoIn addition to Mas Candí, there are other wineries working with older grapes as well. Italian Massimo Marchiori is making wines in the village of Bonastre which sits at the far southern limit of the appellation in his cellar, Partida Creus. His wines are however without DO certification as he is using grapes that aren’t approve for use such as Vinyater which is an ancient white variety that he uses to make an elegant, full-bodied sparkling wine. This grape also makes an appearance in his white blend called, Vinel·lo which is an excellent wine. While a bit turbid in the glass due to being “natural”, it holds fantastic stone fruit aromas, is fresh and lively to drink while only holding 10% alcohol.

Also in this village of Bonastre which seems to be a hotbed of such things is Sicus whose owner, Eduard Pié works with only local grapes including Penedès’ stalwart, Xarel·lo, as well as a not often seen mutation, Xarel·lo Vermell, Sumoll, Malvasia de Sitges, and Garrut (aka Mourvèdre.) He takes his definition of terroir to the extreme as he does spontaneous fermentation via amphorae buried in the vineyard. It’s an elegant process that produces extremely nuanced wines and while “natural” in his methods, he sees wines that show what are typically deigned to be flaws exactly as such.

All of these winemakers, while going their own way (especially in the case of Rimbau) share a commonality in that they aren’t doing what had long been deemed the “Penedès way” of making wines. They’re not making wines with an eye towards scalability. They want to carry the soils and unique minutia of the region in to the bottle your drink as opposed to making a wine “product”.

A Word from the President

No one in this group would be one that you’d pick out of the crowd and say, “Yes, that’s obviously a troublemaker.” Oddly enough that person would more likely seem to be the president of DO Penedès, Josep Maria Albet i Noya. On first glance he looks as if he were originally the Stones first choice to fill in on bass for Bill Wyman when he left the group. Josep Maria isn’t one to back down from a challenge and he was one of the first Cava producers to leave that appellation to eventually join Clàssic Penedès. It’s this ponytailed, exuberant man who now leads the region.

When asked about these various rebel cellars, he happily states, “Mas Candí? Alemany i Corrio? Enric Soler? These are some of our greatest wines in Penedès these days.” It’s an interesting thing to hear from the head of what is seen as such a commercial wine production region and is well-known for cheaper wines.

“This image of cheap wines from Penedès isn’t true now. It’s become a very different region than what it was just a few years ago. It’s all been part of a plan that we started around 2006-2008 to increase the quality of the wines that come from this appellation. Keep in mind that while there are 27,000ha of vineyards registered within Penedès, the great majority of that emerges as either DO Cava or DO Catalunya and it’s in the second where you’ll find these lower-priced wines.”

Josep Maria continued on this topic stating, “Look, of the 140 cellars registered with the DO, 50 are now practicing organic viticulture. Every new cellar that’s starts, starts organic. This change to the region as a whole is coming, but like with everything in winemaking, it is simply a question of time.”

So, these winemakers who started out as being the crazy newcomers are readily becoming part of the overall New Penedès as it seems the rebels were foreshadowing changes that were to come. This change, like everything in Catalonia is continuing. Much like the drive to leave Spain, it is and will take time but Catalans are nothing if patient, the winemakers even more so.