Summer Vacation(s) Ep. 2

How do wine regions work?

We’d like terroir to be all about slope and soil and the angle of the light—but money, and what it wants, is frequently the reason things look the way that they do. Landscapes get reshaped towards commercial ends.

Take Penedès, the river valley on the other side of the coastal range from Barcelona. Two hundred years ago, it was polycultural, with olives, orange groves, and grains in addition to vineyard. Most of the grape varieties planted were red.

Today, it’s wall-to-wall vineyard, with widespread machine harvesting and chemical farming, almost entirely planted to white grapes: local varieties like parellada and xarello, but also lots of chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, even riesling. And the wine that comes out of it, from a highly consolidated industry dominated by three companies—including the world’s largest producer of sparkling wine—is cava.

Cava: an affordable substitute for champagne in toasts; a bottle of Freixenet Black Label to bring to a baby shower; a mixer for your mimosa. In short, cheap bubbly.

Cava is one of the most widely-recognized examples of much more widespread historical moment: the mass export of the champagne method as beverage technology in the 1800s. People would work for the Champagne houses, which back then weren’t shy about buying grapes from many places, including Germany and Algeria, and then they’d go back home and set up shop making similar wines out of what was at hand. Champagne-method sparklings came out of Ukraine, Hungary, Switzerland, Italy and Germany, the Ohio River Valley, grand cru pinot noir vineyards in the Côte d’Or—and Catalunya, specifically Penedès. The method arrived in 1872. Fifteen years later, Penedès, reeling from the impact of phylloxera, would double down during its replanting, and by the early 1900s Spain’s domestic sparkling consumption had outpaced imports.

The wines were called xampán (the x sounds like a ‘ch’) until Franco was almost dead and Spain was gingerly rejoining Europe, at which point the French were insisting champagne (TM) could only come from the region that shared the technology’s name. (Beer styles whose fermentation techniques came out of specific places—pilsener from Pilsen, kölsch from Köhln—have gotten less precious treatment.)

Today, what was once Spanish champán is named instead for the underground cellars, cavas, where bottles aging on the lees rested.

Meanwhile, Penedès’ grape growers are caught in the trap of the category’s commercial success. Cava’s widespread brand recognition is tightly tied to price expectation—how much a bottle of Cava ‘should’ cost—and to a general vagueness around origin—Cava can technically be from almost anywhere in Spain, even if in practice 90% of it is grown in Penedès.

It’s that background that makes the region’s flowering over the last 20 years so striking. Penedès is a deliriously exciting place to drink wine in Catalunya right now. The children of multi-generation grape growers are bottling their family’s wine for the first time, or for the first time since their great-grandfathers. The local grapes of cava that every intro certificate candidate recites—macabeo, xarello, parellada—are increasingly being made into still wines across a wide spectrum of style.

That’s the context for the interactive remote tasting we held on June 23, 2022. We tasted three (still) bottlings from the same grape, xarello—a variety that’s been embraced and championed by the region in general, and that has many local variations and names.

Questions to ask yourself while you taste:

1. What are your expectations of cava? How do these wines challenge it?

2. These three wines are all from different sub-regions and all made in slightly different ways, but they’re all the same grape variety. Are there common threads of texture, structure, and aromatics? Are there significant differences? If you hadn’t known, would you think these were the same grape?

3. Which version of xarello did you like the most and why? Do you think it was winemaking style, site, or something else?

These were the wines:

How it might look on a wine list
MAS CANDÍ, xarello, “Desig”, Alt Penedès

In one sentence
Surprisingly complex entry-level from an emblematic producer of Penedès’ post-Cava landscape.

Who made it? Four friends from oenology school—Ramón Jané, Mercé Cuscó, Toni Carbó, Ana Serra—who pooled their family vines together in 2006. (The fruit had previously been sold to the cava houses). Ramón & Mercé also have their own independent lineup (Ramón Jané), as do Toni & Ana (Celler La Salada). All in all, their family land pooled together comprises about three dozen hectares, farmed at minimum organically with biodynamic methods employed, and out of this across the three labels they make a large range of sparkling, still white or skin-contact, and a little bit of red and rosé.

From where? Alt Penedès, the heart of what is now Cava country, a clay-limestone river valley over the coastal range from Barcelona. 

Out of what? Xarello planted in 1961 on a 300-meter high limestone ridge overlooking Saint Sadurní d’Anoia, just near Enric Soler’s “Espanyalluchs.”

Made how? Pressed, cold-soaked for 24 hours in stainless steel and then fermented in same, racked off the gross lees to age over the winter in tank and bottled in the spring.

How it might look on a wine list
PARTIDA CREUS, cartoixa vermell, “CX”, Bonastre

In one sentence

Wild macerated pink-skinned xarello from a pair of Italian renegades that moved here to grow vegetables.

Who made it? Massimo Marchiori and Antonella Gerosa moved to Bonastre from Italy 22 years ago with the dream of farming local foodstuffs. They had trouble finding the kind of minimal-intervention slow food wine they wanted to drink, so they started making their own, working with nearly-abandoned old local vines of unfashionable native varieties. In 2007, they made the project commercial, and named it after the cross-shaped markers used to demarcate boundary lines in their region.

From where? The Massif de Bonastre is a jutting little plateau in Baix Penedès, where the river valley opens up towards the ocean. The vines are lower elevation and close to the sea. In their tiny village of Bonastre there is now also young Edouard Pié of Sicus, as well as another local natural winegrower whose name I’m forgetting, a pretty noteworthy concentration of talent considering as of 2021 the village’s population was 727 people.

Out of what? Cartoixà vermell, aka pink-skinned xarello (pansa rosada in Alella), an almost extinct local variant that has been brought back from the edge of extinction by a few champions.

Made how? A couple of days on the skins (a little longer than rosé, much shorter than most orange wine), fermented and aged in tank, bottled without added SO2 or filtration.

How it might look on a wine list
DE LES AUS, pansa blanca, “Tallarol”, Alella

In one sentence
Seaside white from the natural wine cellar of the daughter of a tiny cava producer.

Who made it? Mireia Pujol-Busquets, who is slowly taking over from her father, Josep, who started the family winery (Alta Alella) in 1992, taking their organically farmed vines and beginning to make their own cava. Celler de las Aus came out of experiments he’d begun with low-intervention and zero-SO2 wines that were made in a different cellar and, in the end, were given a different name to separate them from the main estate. All of the bottlings are named after birds that live in the nearby natural park, Serralada de Marina.

From where? Alella is the tiniest wine appellation in Catalunya and closest to Barcelona, along the coast. Most of the production is controlled by the local co-op, and its lowest-elevation vines are on igneous rock just a couple of hundred feet above sea level.

Out of what? Xarello, known locally in Alella as pansa blanca, organically grown on different sites at up to 1,000 feet elevation (higher up into the coastal range).

Made how? Fermented in a mixture of concrete eggs and amphora made from local clay called sauló. Bottled without filtration and with zero added SO2.

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