I'll bet many of you reading this have never even heard of the DO Tarragona, a small wine appellation in the heart of Catalunya situated just to the north of the city of the same name. It was there, at the direction of Elisa Ribé, I was given a master class in what's happening in this little-known area a few hours south of Barcelona. And also had the lunch of lunches.
This is a day we'll have to replicate. We began the visit on a vineyard tour with Elisa's brother David. He explained that in Tarragona many wineries are fooling around with new and international grape varieties like Cabernet and Merlot. But they're among the few still growing the local Ull de Llebre, or Tempranillo to the rest of us. I guess when you're making only 10,000 bottles of wine you can stick to tradition and hold your head high. I like that.
As we toured the vineyard I sensed a little tension among the brother and sister and learned later that about four hectares of their vines had been recently taken by eminent domain by the government to build a highway right through the middle of their property. I asked about it and they sloughed it off as if to say, "What can we do?" Bummer that kind of stuff, but when we returned to their tiny, hidden winery in the village, they seemed to rebound. (seeing a backhoe rip out vines must suck for a vineyardist.)
The tasting was terrific. The whites were refreshing, floral, and juicy, and the reds were concentrated, silky, and complex. But, it was Elisa's smallest production wine that really resonated. Each year she dedicates their best and oldest Tempranillo vines to making a Negre Criança, aged for one year in oak, and held for two years in the cellar. In 2011 there were only three barrels produced. That's no joke--only about 1000 bottles. The wine is full of life--dried black fruits like figs and dates, with a succulent and silky texture. It is oh-so-good.
I knew almost immediately that Mas Bella was a keeper but then I was treated to a lunch that demanded a photo just so you know I'm not making this stuff up. The area is the spiritual home to Calçotada, a gastronomic tradition in Catalunya that originated in the nearby town of Valls. For our purposes let's call it the feast of the green onion. It began just a week ago and will run all winter. There is an astonishing restaurant literally 10 meters from the cellar door of Mas Bella that specializes only in Calçotada and this is where we sealed the deal.
Green onions (locally Calçots) are grilled, burned really, directly on grapevine wood and then served in huge bunches inside u-shaped roofing tiles to stay warm. The eater then makes a deft maneuver to remove the very inner, very sweet portion of the onion and swipe it through a huge bowl of romesco sauce. We ate about 5 lbs. of these things between three of us. (and notice, when one wears a light-colored shirt, one must wear a bib)
Eight hours later, I still felt good.
Afterward, a small grill of lamb chops and sausages are served with white beans, artichokes, and morcilla, a local blood sausage. The meal is then washed down with Creme Catalan and strong coffee. The locals drink wine dramatically from a porron. Elisa's wines were off the hook during the straight up tasting but even better during this nap-inducing feast. Holy mackerel.