Two expressions of Catalonia

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  • Monday 21 February 2011

The Catalan regions of Empordà in north-east Spain and Roussillon in south-west France are divided by the Pyrenees, but winemakers share a common heritage and language.

It was only after a few days in Empordà, Spain’s most northeasterly appellation, that I began to understand the effect the wind has on people. The northerly tramuntana blows more or less the year round, at certain seasons reaching gale force 8 and speeds nearing 100km per hour, whipping the sea into a furious white froth. At other times it’s a mild breeze. The locals seem very proud of it.

Empordà is separated from Roussillon in south-west France by the Pyrenees (see map, p54) – the border between the two countries runs along the ridge of the great mountain range – but many see that as no barrier at all. ‘There is no “other side” of the Pyrenees,’ Diego (‘Didier’) Soto Olivares, proprietor of the remote Mas Estela in Empordà told me. ‘It’s just an administrative barrier. We share the same country – Catalonia – and the same language – Catalan. We eat the same, dance the same, make wine in the same way…’

Well, to a point. Empordà and Roussillon may have politics and regional pride in common, but they are very different indeed when it comes to wealth. Roussillon is one of the poorest regions of France, while Empordà has the highest per-capita income in Spain – and more Michelin-starred restaurants per head (including Ferran Adrià’s elBulli) than anywhere in Europe. As for winemaking styles, and attitudes, they are intriguingly dissimilar.

Vignerons either side of the Pyrenees are faced with some of Europe’s most unforgiving vineland – mainly granite and schist, with areas of clay and limestone, quartz and marble, changing to silt, sand and clay in the coastal areas. The wealth of minerals in the soil, together with more than 320 days of sunshine a year, cool, almost cold, nights, and, on
the south side of the mountains, the wonderful cleansing wind, makes for wines that are celebrated for their freshness, bracing acidity, and, in many reds, alcohol and tannins that ensure longevity.

Road to Roussillon

It is when you come to discuss grape varieties, and the politics of what is traditional and what is a usurper, that you begin to see how different the regions are – and how their wine styles differ.

In Roussillon there is a real sense of custodianship. There are five permitted red grapes for AC-level wines – Grenache, Mourvèdre, Cinsault, Carignan and Syrah – of which at least three must be used. Of all the wineries I visited, only a few would advocate anything other than these traditional varieties.

At Château Planères, in St-Jean-Lasseille, central Roussillon, Gilles Jaubert told me: ‘We try to express and channel our land’s characteristics. When you open a Planères wine you have to discover the country, the limestone and clay of the soil.’

All winemakers, of course, talk like that, but there is indeed an earthiness to his wines; a saltiness that seems to root them in the ground we’re standing on. There’s Jaubert’s La Romanie, for example a classic Mourvèdre-Grenache-Syrah blend that, after a maceration of 40 days, produces intense meaty flavours, mixed with spice and rose petals, white pepper and precise tannins. Above all, Jaubert’s wines are fresh – the minerality of the soil ensures that, and the acids that develop overnight when average summer temperatures can dip to 6°C.

At Domaine Pouderoux in Maury, Robert Pouderoux, a winemaker with faith in the primacy of ‘place before process’, will use only traditional grapes. He shows us the effect on his vines of height, wind and garrigue shrubs – that scent of crushed rosemary, thyme, sage and juniper so redolent of the south of France. His hunched and wiry Grenache, Mourvèdre and Syrah vines struggle for sustenance in the schisty soil at between 300m and 400m of altitude, constantly exposed to wind.

Towards the coast, there’s another producer that, in many ways, is just as typical of modern Roussillon. At his eponymous family domaine, Jean-Marc Lafage farms three properties in three very distinct terroirs: Agly, the Perpignan plain and Aspres. Lafage (who has joined with UK importer Bibendum on a cross- Pyrenean wine, Els Pyreneus) is no sentimentalist. ‘Why plant Chardonnay?’ he asks. ‘Because wherever you go, you get a good result. If you want citrus character, plant Chardonnay.’ But is it suited to the region? ‘What is the character of Roussillon?’ Lafage replies. ‘Do you want fresh wines or 14.5% Vermentino? In my opinion you want freshness.’

Freshness is the holy grail of winemakers the world over, and in Roussillon the best reds – even with 15% alcohol and strong tannins – have a superb racy character. I found the whites less successful.

Lafage recognises the drawbacks of non-local varieties. He is cutting back on his Chardonnay and has also stopped production of Cabernet Sauvignon. ‘It doesn’t give the right expression here. It’s difficult to handle – it’s too vigorous in the heat, and the grapes don’t mature properly.’

Across to Empordà

Across the Pyrenees and into Spain and Empordà, where at first sight you would think you were still in Roussillon. It’s the same ochre-coloured landscape, the same beguiling, spice-laden sea-breezes. The same, only different. Instead of pulling up in farmyards next to rusting tractors, we park on aprons of sun-blasted concrete in front of steel and glass bunkers.

Our first stop, Terra Remota, looks like it’s expecting a visit from UN weapons inspectors. Its owner, the charming Marc Bournazeau, assures me he’s going to grow greenery to soften some of the harsher angles of his multimillion-euro winery.

Bournazeau runs an ultra-modern ship. He has 23ha – 6ha each of Grenache (Garnacha), Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon plus a few fields of Tempranillo. Then there’s 1ha of Chardonnay, some white Garnacha and Chenin Blanc. Vines are biodynamic and irrigated, and the winery is entirely gravity-fed.

So why does he plant Cabernet? Because it’s the most resistant to water stress. Bournazeau’s not from a family of winemakers, he says, so he’s not beholden to traditional varieties. ‘What matters is what’s in the glass: if Cabernet Sauvignon gives the best result, why shouldn’t I plant it?’

At the opposite end of the spectrum is Lavinyeta, started by the Serra Pla family in 2008. Rather than a huge, gung-ho project, this is winemaking run on pure enthusiasm, from a single, modern barn-like structure. ‘Local grapes are our pillar,’ winemaker Josep Serra Pla says, ‘though I believe in looking for new varieties to play with.’ He has 17 different
grapes planted. Cabernet Sauvignon gives more concentration to Garnacha, he says. I constantly hear that Cabernet has more concentration than Garnacha or Carignan, so will last longer. ‘These wines will be in barrels for a very long time.Garnacha is great for elegance but it doesn’t have the concentration for a long life.’

As in Roussillon, Empordà has its share of hard-core purists. In Cadaques, Celler Martin Faixo’s owner Rafa Martin’s intense local chauvinism drives him to seek the purest expression of his land: he’s giving up on all international varieties and achieving more concentration by closer planting of vines. He’s also convinced the land is rejecting the
non-native vines: ‘Look at vines. The Cabernet and Merlot isn’t taking well. The Garnacha is vigorous.’

Sense of place

Vigorous it may be, but for every Rafa Martin – or Didier Soto, the charismatic owner of Mas Estela, who forges magnificent wines out of his mountain retreat – there is a Castillo Perelada, Empordà’s multinational, with a E37m turnover in wine. Perelada exports energetically, and has a highly motivated research department which publishes, along with the EU, a best-practice manual covering everything from how to plant in mountains to the effects of wind on vines.

It is a formidable operation and it makes some formidable wines with equally daunting price tags. Finca Garbet, for example, retails at £100. It’s a fabulous wine with a nose of garrigue herbs and a metallic tang of blood. Extraordinary – but local? No more so than the winery’s flagship 3 Fincas and 5 Fincas. They are excellent wines: full and fresh, ‘very attractive and approachable’, I wrote in my notes.

But ‘attractive and approachable’ is not the same as ‘charismatic’, and selling millions of bottles worldwide is, of course, not the same as making interesting wine. There is nothing meretricious about Perelada. The winemaker Delfi Sanahuja is highly respected and the company’s dedication to research is laudable. But somewhere along the way
their wines have lost their sense of place.

I don’t know if it’s due to the grapes they use, or the simple fact that if you invest millions in your business, then you’ll need a return: from Norway to Nashville, these wines must offend no one. And eagerness to please doesn’t sit well with the Catalan character. Nor does it make fascinating wines.

In the end, the thing that lends a wine real interest is its sense of place. These are two distinct regions whose winemakers share so much in terms of history and politics. But their wines are very different. The only thing the best of them share is a dedication to the tiny squares of land they farm to produce some of the most compelling, idiosyncratic
wines in Europe.

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