The Catalans seem to be taking conservation seriously. To the extent that an entire Club Med holiday village is removed to restore the geologically unique northeastern tip of the region to its natural state. Taking down more than 400 buildings, which admittedly looked just as integrated into the landscape as a caravan site, is surely taking a new level again.
This dramatic decision was inspired by the designation of Cap de Creus in 1998 – the rocky backdrop of the coastal town of Cadaqués and the famous restaurant El Bulli – as a protected nature park. By 2010 the resort was cut out of the landscape and today the extraordinary rock formations of Tudela, where the club once was, are back as nature intended.
On the Saturday morning in August I visited, the carefully laid out paths were littered with shiny Lycra, while runners and cyclists resolutely walked down on them. My host was the energetic Anna Espelt, who runs her family’s Espelt wine business, with the most vineyards, 172 ha, in the local name Empordà (although the extensive Perelada operation sells more wine).
The tourist-friendly modern winery of Espelt in Vilajuïga is located quite far inland and comes from different vineyards, but I feel Anna’s heart is most moved by those she encouraged to plant in Cap de Creus, within sight of the sea. “I feel very good in this place,” she smiles as she looks at the deep blue Mediterranean Sea, the resort of Roses in the distance and a menhir from the age of her source dug up by her father at the foot of her vineyards.
Before the phylloxera aphid, which is deadly to vine roots, returned in 1879, Catalonia was a wine country. By the turn of the century, a wine region with about 10,000 hectares of vines was almost wiped out. Today, evidence can be seen on many hills of the 30,000 km of carefully built stone terraces for vines. There are currently only 1,821 ha of vines in production in this recently revived denomination.
It was partly in honor of Cap de Creus’ viticulture heritage that Espelt planted vineyards there. The trunks of the vine were so sharp that I thought they were only a handful of years old, but they testify to the difficult conditions here for vineyards. The cold tramuntana whistling through the mountains from the north, and the vines are also plagued by winds from the sea. The guardian of the park wants to encourage biodiversity. They see vines more resilient than many other plants in a landscape that is dry in a ‘normal’ summer, let alone 2021, which according to Espelt has so far had only 153 mm of rain.
The precision of the number testifies to the pain caused by the drought, but also to Espelt’s scientific training. She was meant to be a biologist, but in 2000, the opportunity to continue her grandfather’s wine-producing heritage lured her back from California, where she was a cellar. She was thrown into the deep end. Nineteen years ago, they planted 25 hectares of vines on Cap de Creus, partly to encourage others. Her first mistake, she says, was the decision to pull the vines on wires rather than plant them as stand-alone bush vines, which might have been more resilient and less thirsty. Nevertheless, the single-vineyard wines they have produced since 2017 are quite impressive.
She named them after places on Cap de Creus that have a special meaning to her. The white, made from Picapolla, as they call spicy Clairette grapes here, is called Pla de Tudela, after the beach where she especially swims. The red is made from Garnacha, a grape called Lledoner Negre here, and it seems to relax and refresh with each successive vintage. It is called Cala Rostella after a view with a pine tree overlooking El Bulli.
These special bottles are offered at the same price and I wondered if the Spanish market was willing to pay so much for a white wine. I am assured that the white is sold faster than the red, although it is admittedly made in smaller quantities. According to Espelt: ‘We have thought for years that Empordà is a red wine region, but now we are learning that we should also focus on whites – especially from the local varieties Lledoner Blanc [Grenache Blanc], Lledoner Roig [Grenache Gris] and Carinyena Blanc [Carignan Blanc]. ”
Espelt also secretly converted the family’s vineyards into organic viticulture and says she waited to tell the news to her father, an agrochemical trader, until after a delicious Sunday lunch.
She was the pioneer in the local renaissance of Grenache Gris, which can undoubtedly make more interesting and perfumed wines than the Grenache Blanc with pale skin. I was previously quite impressed with the Carignan Blancs I tasted in the Pyrenees in France, and one or two of the Empordà versions confirmed it. But La Vinyeta’s Microvins 2019, aged for 14 months in old French oak barrels and tasted at the stylish winery, won me over. It was dense, lively and had quite an impressive grip. That said, both Josep Serra, co-founder of La Vinyeta, and Anna Espelt admitted that the grape does not have that much real flavor. Perhaps it will end up as a useful blending ingredient rather than a variety wine.
La Vinyeta, founded by Josep and Marta Serra in 2002, is another particularly interesting operation, much informed by the fact that Josep’s brother is a designer in Barcelona. The labels of Microvins are a lesson in providing useful, funny information in a smart, attractive way. And the team from La Vinyeta really showed the residents how to attract visitors with their outdoor cafe, sheep, cheeses and olive oil. La Vinyeta seems to belong in California.
Empordà is definitely underway. It is past its flirtation with international vines and now concentrates on the two most planted varieties, both local: Lledoner Negre and Carinyena Negra, or Grenache and Carignan. These are the same varieties that dominate Priorat, the wine region that achieves the highest prices in Catalonia. Empordà is perhaps too small to be appreciated in the same way, although the average age of these Empordà vines and their light mutations is impressively high. At a tasting of 73 Empordà wines recently, I was also delighted to see that some of the best wines include bottles in one vineyard through one of the handful of cooperatives — a welcome variation of everything thrown into the same barrel.
Some of the best wines of all are the strong, sweet ones, which are made in a wide variety of ways, and some of them are absolutely stunning (in terms of geology and climate, Empordà is a mirror image of Roussillon, home of Banyuls , on the other side of the Pyrenees). But I will not waste any more space to say more about it, because I know how rude such miracles are at present. I hope their day will come. Along with their dry peers.
Exciting Empordà wines
I have given all these wines at least 17 points out of 20, and I am very sad to see how few of them come to the UK.
Clos d’Agon, Clos d’Agon 2018 13.5%
Espelt, Pla de Tudela 2018 12.5%
€ 36.90 espeltviticultors.com, $ 75 European cellars in the USA
Perelada Castle, Aires de Garbet 2017 14.5%
Perelada Castle, Finca La Garriga 2016 14%
Espelt, Cala Rostella 2018 and 2017 14.8%
€ 36.90 from espeltviticultors.com
Masia Serra, Aroa 2018 14.5%
Mas Vida, Vida Nua 2017 14%
Roig Parals, Camí de Cormes Carignan Centennial Vineyards 14.5%
£ 60 Seckford, £ 70 fine + rare plus tax and VAT (2007)
Under the Angels, Under the Angels 2019 13%
La Vinyeta, Microvins Carinyena Negra Bota 2018 15%
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