For the first weekend in may Falset becomes the wine capital of Catalonia when it celebrated their 14th wine fair. Priorato and Montasant are the remote and arid areas which became one of the poorest parts of Spain after the lead mining industry closed down in the 1970's and agriculture was always marginal at best.
Until a few brave and visionary souls decided to recover the old vines and plant new ones in the 1980's and 90's there was very little reason to come here other than for the mountain scenery and general tranquility of the villages.
Now it is recognised as producing some of the most exciting wines in Spain, with prices, in some cases, to match. Like most luxury goods, the last ten years has seen some real booms and these fashionable wines were leading the pack. Now comes the reality that from a dozen wineries to 82 registered with the regulatory body there is bound to be a pretty brutal shakeout process.
None of this seemed to worry the crowds who poured into this sleepy farming town for the festival to try the wonderful olive oils, varied local foods and of course the wines.The weather was truly summery and added to the festive spirit. Salud as they say here!
Penedes is only just over an hour away from Girona but it feels more like France with impressive wineries (Bodegas) dotted around and vines everywhere. They are better organised than in our local Empordà wine area where wine routes and visits are strictly for those that are well informed and have a good guide (which I am so you will see winery visits here over time.)
Vilafranca is the capital of the Penedes and has an interesting old town and a wine museum as well as a tourist information office which can provide all the maps and recommendations you will need.
We headed for the biggest Spanish brand for wine, Torres, which is only a few kilometres outside Vilafranca surrounded by vineyards and with a well organised tour which leaves every hour. The Bodega itself is massive but more interesting is walking around the grounds following one of many marked paths past an old mansion which emulate the great French chateaux and is still lived in by the family.
The main problem with the Penedes is that climate change may make its wine producing capacity decline, something that Torres has been anticipating by planting new vineyards in the Pyrenees foothills a few hours north.
For passing a few pleasant hours wandering around vines, stopping to eat in a good restaurant and trying some of the local wines, this area is perfect, SALUD!
To find where “ambrosia” the food/drink of the gods comes from a visit to the Empordà is needed. Not only are some of the produce wines which get the highest ratings (Parker 93/94 points etc) but the location of some of the wineries are sublime. Tucked in a valley within the Cap de Creus natural park and only 3 kms from the Meditteranean sea with it’s moderating influence and near the charming village of Selva de Mar make this a highly desirable place to get to know.
Access is not easy and this is not a place to turn up to uninvited as it is family run by Didier and Nuria and their sons who are always busy but not very welcoming.
A tour of the vineyard and as we climbed up the sides of the hill we saw all the work that has gone into clearing, leveling and planting the terraces with varieties like syrah, monastrell and garnatxa gris to complement the garnatxa and cariñena and muscat they already have. The other important point to note is that this is an organic vineyard, and also they apply the biodynamic principles which look at the cycles of the moon to interact with the soil or when to work on the vines or add natural fertilizer. This means that the environment is not polluted by any type of chemical and as such the whole variety and diversity of organic, insect and wildlife is preserved and encouraged creating a truly healthy environment. During this time of the year with all the wild flowers, fennel, wild asparagus and flowering yellow broome walking here is a real pleasure. The soil on the slopes is poor and made up mainly of brown slate which means that the young plants need to work hard and put down deep roots to look for any moisture they can. Eventually the roots could go down 5-6 metres and that is when you will really get the mineral flavours so much appreciated by wine lovers. The only animal that is not welcome, at least not in the vineyard, is the wild boar which roam these mountains and that can strip entire rows in hours when the grapes are ripe and ready for harvesting.
The next part of the visit is a little more technical: where the grapes come in to the Bodega, how they are destemmed and crushed into grape juice which is cooled to 8ºC from the 24ºC or so when they arrive to stop any fermentation, the filtering and then storing in the stainless steel tanks where they will undergo the first controlled fermentation to convert all the sugar to
alcohol. All this is thirsty work and when we are led down into the storage cellar where there are over 200 oak barrels with their precious content slowly maturing we are given glasses and the tasting begins with the white wine. This is a blend of Garnatxa gris (white grenache) and Muscat with its flowery aromas. From here we move on to the first red, a mix of mainly red Garnatxa and a small amount of both Syrah and Cariñena and up to 12 months in oak.This is a fruity wine with lots of body and just screams out for foods like the local cheeses and sausage with “pa amb tomaquet”soaked in olive oil-a meal in itself. Then comes the 01 which is more elegant and complex with notes of the wild herbs we saw and smelled on our walk around the vines earlier. From here we were told to bring our glasses since we were going to taste direct from the tanks the 06 . They were truly delicious and even though the red will now spend about 18 months in french oak to add body and complexity this wine will be great when it finally is released. The tasting finished off (and us) with a visit to the oldest part of the house and the cellars carved out of the rock below the main house (the old ruins) where the 500 litre casks of sweet garnatxa and moscatel reside. Here they operate a solera system which means that the wines we are tasting are nearly 20 yrs old and are light, tangy and wonderful.
As you might imagine when we emerged into the light we were all feeling pretty good but in need of adding some food to the alcohol. We headed down the road 3 kms to Port de la Selva and had lunch sitting outside with another bottle of the white wine we had first tried a few hours before while evaluating the pros and cons of setting up a bodega in the Empordà!