Andrew Jefford feels the blast in Catalonia’s Empordà.
Through travel comes understanding. An open mind, of course, is essential, as is the readiness to tear up preconceptions. I had a little tearing up to do recently.
It was one of those visits which (like the journey from Italy’s Collio to Slovenia’s Brda) makes you realise how pointless national borders can be. The wine region in question was Empordà. I had previously always thought of it as classic Catalan hill country with a distinctive Mediterranean beauty and identity, like Alella or Penedès.
That’s not right. It is, perhaps, best seen as a part of Greater Roussillon: a sister vineyard to Maury and the Agly Valley, to Collioure and Banyuls. These French appellations are just 20 minutes’ drive away from Empordà’s northernmost vineyards. In terroir terms, the French-Spanish border here is an irrelevance: the five belong together.
Taste the best wines of Empordà, and you’ll see a drama, a stoniness and an austere, almost aching bittersweet beauty which is common to this northern Catalonian cluster of vineyard zones.
The eastern Pyrenees comes clattering down into the Mediterranean at this point via a fistful of ranges and valleys. What divides the Empordà plain from the Perpignan plain is the chain of the Albères (Serra de l’Albera), with Collioure and Banyuls sewn on one side of it and the Northern Empordà vineyards stitched on to the other, sharing the same acidic brown schist soils (there are granites further inland). The Albères push on to the sea via the exposed Cap de Creus and its own hill chain, the Serra de Rodes. Roussillon’s 2,784m-peak of Canigou is visible throughout, clouds allowing.
It’s tough country, not least because of the flagellation of the Tramontane, the northwesterly wind which hurtles southwards here with unbridled force. What I discovered about the Mistral in Châteauneuf is every bit as true for the Tramontane in Empordà: it’s hard on humans, but all the signs are that the vines thrive on it.
Organic and biodynamic cultivation is relatively easy here, and old vines common (most Empordà vineyards are older than 30 years); it mitigates the fierce summer heat; and it helps bring the drama and concentration that are a feature of the wines (as well as a saline character on the exposed Cap de Creus). It’s even said to have been responsible for the creative madness of Salvador Dalí, who was born, lived and died in Empordà.
The Tramontane was blowing icily during my visit in early February – though somehow the almonds managed to flower in its teeth, leaving pink smudges in the wide perspectives and the crystal air.
Empordà’s vineyards today occupy about 2,000 ha. As in Priorat much further south, that’s just a fragment of the pre-phylloxera total, thought to have exceeded 25,000 ha here: the abandoned terraces are everywhere visible. There are two vineyard zones: a very windy northern part (Alt Empordà) close to Figueres and the Albères, and a distant southern zone (Baix Empordà) of more clay-rich vineyards loosely clustered around Palafrugell, where conditions are less windy. Some 90 per cent of production is from Alt Empordà.
After phylloxera, by the way, many of the hill farmers replanted their old vineyards with cork oaks, and some 15 per cent of global cork production now comes from the Costa Brava, with a particular emphasis on sparkling wine and Champagne corks. Empordà cork is said to be high in quality thanks to the slow growing conditions here.
As elsewhere in Catalonia, French varieties like Cabernet, Merlot and Syrah were planted in Empordà during the last decades of the twentieth century, but it wasn’t always a good idea. ‘We have some Cabernet vines,’ says Oriel Guevara from the steep, exposed vineyards of Hugas de Batlle, ‘which have never produced a berry in fifteen years. It’s just too tough. Wind, stone …’ he shrugged, and smiled.
The great varieties for red wines here (and red wines occupy 60% of plantings) are Carignan and Grenache; indeed the finest Empordà Carignan strikes me as some of the greatest I have ever tasted. Whites (based on Grenache Blanc and Gris, Carignan Blanc and Maccabeu) can be superb, too. There are, though, nomenclature problems.
Not so much with Grenache, generally known either as Lledoner here and on labels in its Catalan form Garnatxa, but certainly with Carignan. This is usually labelled Samsò here, despite this being more properly a Catalan form of the name Cinsaut.
Mazuelo (the name under which this variety is listed in Robinson, Harding and Vouillamoz’s Wine Grapes) is not used here, nor is the Catalan form Carinyena. Cariñena, meanwhile, is unavailable due to disagreements with the DO of the same name. (For simplicity’s sake, I have used the French versions of grape variety names in the notes which follow.)
The problems with Carignan Blanc are worse. “We’re in the land of surrealism,” said Gemma Roig of Mas Llunes, “and the surreal fact is that no one ever entered Carignan Blanc on the list of official varieties for Spain. So it doesn’t officially exist, and we can’t officially refer to it on labels.”
As in the rest of Greater Roussillon, there is also a tradition of fortified-wine production here, including rancio wines. These fascinating, complex, cultural wines are locally much treasured, though on my own scoresheet they struggle to compete with the unfortified wines, which are often clearly outstanding.
The Empordà renaissance is a relatively recent phenomenon; many older growers remember the difficulty of selling wines even to local consumers, most of whom were once unthinking Rioja-drinkers. All of that has now changed utterly, not least because of the extraordinarily high standard of local cuisine (ElBulli, remember, was a restaurant in Alt Empordà).
The sense of pride in Catalan identity has a gastronomic as well as a political dimension, and great food is usually predicated on a substrate of fine local ingredients, wine included.
The dynamic Josep Serra and his wife Marta Pedra of La Vinyeta, for example, were showing a group of local chefs around the property on the day I called; in addition to fine wines, they also produce olive oil, free-range eggs and are about to open a small cheese factory. ‘Girona has more than 20 Michelin stars,’ Josep pointed out, ‘and most of our sales are to restaurants.’
In the end, though, it’s the terroir that counts: the potential which ambition and effort can uncover. On the basis of this short initial visit, my view is that Empordà has a great future. Two months ago, I didn’t know that.
In addition to the thirteen wines for which notes are given below, look out for others from Celler Martin Faixo, Celler Hugas de Batlle, AV Bodeguers, Cellers d’En Guilla, Celler Gerisena, Celler Terra Remota, Clos d’Agon and Mas Soller.