Monday, February 16, 2009

Winery Visits: Penedes & Priorat


Vilarnau & Mont Marcal
We got up early Tuesday morning and pointed the rental car (a 3-cylinder Opal with the bitchiest Brit-voiced, temperamental navigation system ever made. "Maggie" became the butt of many jokes and threats for the next two days) to the mountains of Catalunya. We had three visits lined up in the Penedes (Cava country). Our first was with the makers of Subirats Cava Rosat, a regular feature at RCC. We met the lovely Marta Molina Ballesteros, head of PR and "Enoturismo". She gave us a tour of the very impressive facilities: exquisitely modern and landscaped office/warehouse/production building overlooking vineyards. Rotating art collections and state of the art eco-design. Very new school but still family owned. The winemaker and viticulturist are both women. Since we were there in February, the only action going on was in the stacks of slowly maturing cava bottles. I'll have to get the pictures here from Dave because as much as I love my iPhone, it has no flash. The rose is made from 100% Trepat, matured in bottle for 18 months before disgorgement**. Both the Vilarnau and later Mont Marcal facilities are built for production on a very large scale--the international world has a never ending thirst for cava and there's no romance in hand-riddling* hundreds of thousands of bottles. Robotics and precise mechanization take over in these volume oriented facilities. But they still make delicious, drinkable bubbly and no one can complain about that! Mont Marcal was similar in many aspects, 4 million bottles produced annually (with a bottling line that moves 3,000 bottles per hour) exported to 22 countries. While I appreciated our tour givers and the sips of fun, quaffable sparklers, at this point I was itching to get out of the warehouse and actually see some vines!

*The process, after aging, of turning and upending Cava or Champagne so the yeast bodies deposit in the neck. A person takes two weeks to do this, a computerized geo-cage 2 days or less.
**When all the yeast is deposited in the neck, it is flash frozen, the cap popped off and yeast plug allowed to shoot out. It is then quickly topped off and corked and caged, labeled and packed, ready for sale.

Can Feixes
So Dave and I headed off to our last (and best) stop of the day: Can Feixes. Their red was the first Catalunyan wine I ever had, so I already knew I was biased. But after getting lost (failing to turn left in a town that maybe was 100 feet long with only one turn--thanks Maggie) we drove up to the 16th century family house high up in the hills of Alt Penedes. Out came Joan, one of the three Huguet brothers that run the family owned winery. We shook hands and he motioned to the battered Land Rover and said, "Let's go see the vineyards." I knew this was going to be good! Joan drove us all over the family vineyards--all organic, some with 80 year old vines--explaining their connection to the land, the history of the property, his father's simultaneous talent of honoring traditional land-based winemaking and embracing technology, and the passion he and his brothers have for long term stewardship of the vines. I think Dave was enjoying the 45 degree hill climbs in the old Rover as much as I was enjoying the history lesson. We talked about organic vs. biodynamic viticulture, crop rotation, climate change, water management, and the concept of a multi-generational family business--a topic his brother Josep Maria would go into at length later. At one point we hopped out and he pointed to a spot near the tires: "Wild Pork" he said. It took me a minute to figure out he was showing me how much the wild boars love the grapes (they prefer red, not because of the flavor but because they stand out more from the foliage than green grapes). Then we drove back to the house to meet the winemaker (Josep Maria) and taste some fabulous wines. I presented them both with a bottle of Barboursville's Octagon 8th edition as a present and they seemed really pleased. That's when I noticed the awesome motif on the wing of the house: a smiling pair of peasants about to club a smiling pig. Ah, Jamon, my old friend!

To give you an idea of the differences between this kind of operation and the larger houses, Can Feixes has 80 vineyards on 350 hectares and produces a total of 250,000 bottles a year (one-sixteenth the production of Mont Marcal). All the fruit is picked by hand, and instead of irrigation they cross-plant or dig up water-holding herbs to control how much moisture gets to the vines. The Cava they produce is made mainly from Parallada, plus Malvaxia Sitges, Macabeo, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Parallada grows particularly well in this higher region and the vines average 25-3o years old. Because there is a light wind and no mist, there are no issues with rot or insects. Anticipating the ever warmer summers, they have begun planting grapes that can handle the heat like Petit Verdot. They cull each harvest to maintain consistency and quality, hand-selecting each cluster before pressing. Half the production is white wine, and 25% each goes to Cava and reds. The vineyard patches are small and spread around according to slope and soil type, so if a hail storm hits one section they haven't lost all of that varietal. The vineyards are also lined with Arbequina olive trees (but sadly they only make enough olive oil for friends and family).

In the cellars Josep Maria showed us the "history" section: original barrels and riddling racks used for centuries. It provides a link to the modern winemaking processes and shows both the carefully planned growth of the winery and also their commitment to natural methods (temperature and humidity control come from design rather than electricity hogging HVAC systems).

On to the tasting! We went through quite a lineup: The Huguet 2005 Cava Brut Nature (Parallada+Pinot Noir+Macabeo), the 2007 Seleccio Blanc Can Feixes (Parallada+Chardonnay+Malvaxia Sitges+Macabeo), the 2005 Chardonnay (100%), the 2005 Negre (Tempranillo [known locally as Ull de Llebre 'eye of the hare']+Cab+Merlot+Petit Verdot), and their elegant and ageable 2000 Reserva Especial (Cab+Melrot). We'll be tasting many of these out at the shop Friday 2/20 5-7 if you'd like to experience them yourself!

Next up...Priorat!

Mas Igneus
The next morning we headed into the steep hills of Priorat, home of deep gorges and hearty reds. Curving along the winding roads we were amazed at how barren and wild the region was, with only small groupings of rocky, terraced vineyards poking out between rock formations every quarter of a mile or so. We met with Ian (the first of two Scottish expats I would encounter) the viticulturist and Franc the winemaker to tour the winery. Mas Igneus was the first certified organic property in Priorat, and their small (ten hectares total) but well edited selection is clearly terroir-driven. Primarily they grow Garnatxa Negra & Carinyena, but there are also small areas of Cabernet, Syrah, Merlot and native white varietals. The grapes are hand harvested (which, when you see the angle of the vineyard slopes is no surprise), hand selected, and the winemaking involves minimal intervention. The "FA206" is an intense, barrel aged red made from Garnatxa, Carinyena, Cab and Syrah with brambly fruit on the nose and balsam, spice, and plum notes on the finish. But don't take my word for it...come by Friday night and taste it yourself!

After leaving Mas Igneus we had time to kill and empty bellies, so we drove into neighboring Morela Monsant. This town was so small we dubbed it a "three dog town" (and all three followed us around hoping for snacks). We ended up eating Jamon y Queso Bocadillos in a smoky little bar full of local construction workers and two of the dogs (who were rewarded for their vigilance with pigs' trotters), watching Spanish Wheel of Fortune. This would be in stark contrast to the exquisite eight-course tasting menu we almost missed later that night back in Barcelona because I thought "20:30" was 10:30. Sheesh.