There is one road in and out of Ametlla de Segarra. At first, I thought the GPS was broken. If another car tried to pass I would have had to pull into a farm field. Plus, there were no vines to be seen--only olive trees, cereal fields, and almonds. There's a winery here?
So I parked in the small village (Population: 14) and went to 40 Calle Major and knocked on the door. Two delightful young women, sisters Eva and Nuria Bonet, bounded out the door to greet me, filled with energy and enthusiasm, and our 4-hour visit commenced. It was a great day.
I usually visit vineyards in a truck. Here, we walked. I often get treated to fancy tastings at a polished table. Here, we stood in the doorway and spit wine into the street. There was no gourmet meal. Here, we nibbled local cheese and sausage and then went for an 11 Euro lunch in the next village (Population: 30).
This is the way buying and selecting wine used to be, and probably still should be...
I was interested in Celler Comalats from reading about their work as organic farmers ("always have been, always will be") and because they do something unusual for vineyard owners--they work with just one grape variety. In this case, Cabernet Sauvignon.
In 1989 Jaume Bonet decided to replant his family's entire vineyard. But he did it in an unusual way--entirely to one grape variety--Cabernet Sauvignon. His decision was risky but over lunch recently he told me he was never worried. He thought he had it right from the beginning.
And he did.
Over 25 years later the Bonet vineyard in the far outreaches of the Costers del Segre, northern Spain in the beginnings of the Pyrenees foothills, is to my mind the jewel of the whole appellation. Divided among four parcels, the Bonet vines are farmed organically (and always have been), are filled with life, and yield pure and magnificent grapes. If you believe in this sort of thing, the positive energy here tacks off the charts.
From 1992 through 2005 Jaume made only one wine from his vines--a Reserva Cabernet that he aged in oak for one year then held back for another two before introducing to the market. But in 2006, during the beginning of Spain's economic crisis, Jaume decided to stop making the Reserva and instead concentrate on a more youthful, expressive, juicier style to take to market. The decision also coincided with his two youngest children entering the business--Eloi to manage the vineyards, and daughter Eva to run the winery and commerce.
The 2005 Reserva was the last wine ever made in the old style--and it was magnificent. A "vintage of the century" as many put it at the time, yielding 25000 bottles of structured, powerful, commanding Cabernet that today tastes as if its only 3 years old.
Jesus del Rio Mateu
Not long ago, the New York Times published a piece as part of their wine school extolling the virtues of Montsant, a part of Catalonia about 90 minutes southwest of Barcelona. I have just been there for maybe the fourth time in the last two years, and everything in this statement is correct:
"Among the most interesting to me has been Priorat, a craggy, isolated hillside territory in Catalonia. Its best wines, sometimes made from old vineyards of garnacha (grenache) and cariñena (carignan), can be magnificent, full of distinctive mineral flavors. They also command some of the highest prices for Spanish wines.
...But fortunately, Priorat has a less expensive neighbor, Montsant, which offers wines made from a similar set of grapes that can be quite delicious in their own right. The relationship of Priorat and Montsant is not unlike that of Châteauneuf-du-Pape and Gigondas."
I know the locals might take exception to the whole comparison thing, but the reality is that these are two VERY intertwined regions. So much so in fact, that the separation between a winery's Montsant vineyards and those in Priorat can be nothing more than a tractor path or small creek.
Jesus Maria di Mateu is a retired college professor of anthropology and history at the University of Barcelona. Ten years ago he began his second life (at 51) and returned to his boyhood home to renovate his families 6 hectares where Priorat and Montsant have their geologic meeting. (separated by the river just below his property) For years Jesus sold most of his wines to Mondavi, but this project ended about 3 years ago. Our timing was excellent as Jesus has been wishing to get back into the US market but not quite sure where to start.
The Mas de L'Abundancia Montsant Fluminis 2015 is an incredible counterpoint to Ramon's bottle-aged wine. Here you'll find a succulent, youthful, rich Grenache and Carignan blend that stains the teeth, and is just downright silky and wonderful. At $25 it smokes lots of Priorat at twice the price!
Josu Egoitz Zubiaur
When I first contacted Egoitz Zubiaur last fall to request an appointment he responded quickly. "Yes, please come. My English no good. You want meat or fish for lunch?"
Such is life in Basque country, Spain's foot of the Pyrenees near the Atlantic. This was my first visit to this wonderful region, and won't be the last. It's beautiful, sure. But it's people like Jesu and Egoitz Zubiaur, that make it real.
I was in this part of Spain searching for Txakoli (Chock-oh-lee), the low alcohol, thirst-quenching, slightly spritzy white made famous in the pintxo bars of San Sebastian. But what I found at Txakoli Garate, about 30 minutes from Bilbao is an altogether different story.
When I first explained to Jesu and Egoitz that I had visited a few wineries earlier that day that made the spritzy kind of Txakoli they rolled their eyes. That is modern Txakoli they said, ours is traditional, as if to say, it is the REAL way to make wine here.
There are lots of places to read about the history of Txakoli as well as other Basque beverages and food so I won't bore you today with historical stuff. The Zubiaur's are fourth generation farmers and winemakers but they only began bottling their own wine in 2007, preferring to either sell in bulk, or drink the wine themselves. They cultivate just four hectares in a steep valley about 30 minutes from the sea. It's a simply wonderful place.
So, back to meat and fish. I requested fish and when I arrived Egoitz was cooking fresh cod in a terra cotta pot over the stove, a traditional Basque recipe to accompany the Txakoli. It was simple and perfect and the wine did the trick. I asked on the spot if I could purchase some wine (sometimes you just know right away!) and we agreed to move ahead. Egoitz had never exported before, selling all is wine in Bilbao, (and was nervous about it) but we seemed to hit it off and agreed to go for it.
The Garate Txakoli is a bracing but rich wine that makes me think one part Muscadet, one part Albariño, and one part Sancerre. It's a complete white wine.
But then, Egoitz father, almost apologetically, pulls out a bottle of pink wine and tells me, "you need to taste this too. We serve it only for friends."
Sometimes there's just not much to say, and over the next 30 minutes I went silent, drinking this pure, expressive, garnet-tinged bottle of rosato (rosé), unlike anything I've maybe ever had. I positively gushed over this wine, probably embarassingly so. I think they noticed.
Egoitz' great-grandfather planted red grapes, a local variety called Hondarribi Beltza, on their farm in 1910 because he was sick of drinking Rioja, the nearest, and typically unreliable, source for red wine. But alas, he coudln't ever get the grapes ripe because of the high elevation and maritime climate. However, he found that they made beautiful rosato and when blended with just a bit of white grapes created a lively, complex and refreshing alternative to their white. Incredibly, that small parcel still lives, and the Zubiaur's still make that same wine, now from century-old vines!
They drink this wine at home, share it with customers at their small winery, or sell a few to bar and tavern owners in Bilbao that buy their white. That's all folks.
So about a month ago I finally got the note from Egoitz that the white would be bottled soon and ready for me to order and ship. Included in the note was this: "My father wants you to have some of the Ojo de Gallo (the Rosato wine) to sell to your customers and tell its story. We've put aside 20 cases for you."
That's 20 cases of only 80 produced. Woah.
Marc & Emma Bournazeau
When I first made the turn into the driveway at Terra Remota I almost immediately turned around and continued on my way. Staring at me was an Architectural Digest winery, very sleek and modern. This usually doesn't add up well for me, especially when many of the wineries I visit are situated in machine sheds or in the cellar under the winemaker's house.
But the little devil on my other shoulder convinced me to plod along. And I'm glad I did because this day was among the top 2 or 3 highlights of my recent buying trip.
Terra Remota is a relatively new operation, begun in 1999 by Marc and Emma Bournazeau, a warm and welcoming French couple from just across the border in the Roussillon.They discovered the land, with absolutely nothing on it, about 20 years ago and over the subsequent two decades have turned it into the gem of the Costa Brava. There was no expense spared, and the results are just astonishing.
The vineyards sit on a unique geography for the region, pure Granite. Most of the soil types in this part of Spain are clay and sand, but not here. And as such, their wines, especially when compared to their neighbors', feature unusual complexity, minerality, and structure.
I toured the vineyards and winery for almost two hours, all the while thinking to myself, "self, are these wines going to suck or will they really truly reflect all the capital that has gone into this place?" And, more importantly, will they be worth it?
Um, well, yes. The wines were magnificent. And, uh, yes. They're worth it.
The leadoff hitter at Terra Remota is called simply Camino ('road' or 'street' in Spanish) and I love the naming convention with Road Cru. But what's in the bottle is far more important. Here we have Grenache, Syrah, and Cabernet Sauvignon working harmoniously together with one year of aging in French oak. The wine is so mouthwatering, clean, pure, extracted, and pretty. My notes say "is this the wine of the trip?"
Ramon Almazora is a dental technician by day. By night and weekend, he runs the minuscule 1-hectare Corbatera vineyard, located in the small village of Cornudella de Montsant. Ramon's grandfather established his magnificent parcel, co-planted with Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, and Grenache in the 1930's. For more than 80 years the wine has been made just one way--Picked all on the same day and fermented together to make just one wine--a Montsant of remarkable depth and purity.
Ramon Almazora took over the the winemaking from his father in 1999 at Corbatera, but his father's presence looms large. Ramon's father began working their parcel in the 50's and trudged from the village everyday for almost 50 years to tend their wonderful plot of Cabernet Sauvignon and Grenache, plus some olive trees. It is a 3km hike, often with a horse and some equipment. Then, back to the village for lunch, and after, another 3km back to the vineyard. For half a century!
All of what the senior Almazora grew was sold to the cooperative wineries and then returned to the family as generic wine. But...it paid the bills and along with the production of olive oil, the tending of bees, and a few other crops, provided a living for the family. When Ramon returned to the family "farm" at the turn of the century he was determined to make more of what he knew was a special place.
He convinced his father that they should begin making their own wine and began renovating a small old bakery next to their house into an intimate winery. I counted 9 barrels and would put the whole thing at about 600 square feet. They make just one wine and at the elder's insistence, they pick co-ferment all the grapes on the same day. Tradition dies hard.
When I tasted his Corbaterra Montsant 2011 just last month my eyes bulged from my head. What a wonderful and complete red wine, ready to drink right now and perfect during wintertime. And at just $22, hard to beat!
The Finca Mas de L'Abella is an old farm located near the village of Cornudella de Montsant. Before WWII Ramon Alzamora's grandmother was taken to L'Abella when she was a little girl in order to protect her from what was to come. In later years he often heard her speak of the "Abellars"--the place where the bees are kept, but he never knew precisely where it was.
In 1999 Ramon learned that L'Abella was available for purchase and was surprised to find out that it was only about 10 minutes from his village! All those years he had never actually known that the farm was literally in their backyard.
Such is the pace of life of and the movement of information in Catalunya, and specifically in the Priorat. This is a rugged, high elevation place only 90 minutes from Barcelona by car, but seemilnglya world away--full of peacefulness and tranquility. (if it wasn't so darn hot in the summer we could happily live here)
Last year I drove with Ramon to Abellars from Cornudella village. The 10 minute trip was mostly on a one-lane dirt road with lots of potholes and barely suitable for a tractor. Then lo and behold we came to a small old farmhouse (a finca) that Ramon had not long ago converted to a winery. Here, he makes about 8000 bottles of Priorat from four hectares of vines. To call this a micro-winery would be a stretch.
The vineyard is a dry-farmed wonderland of black slate--locally called licorella--and grows Garnatxa (Grenache), Mazuelo-Samso (Carignane), and Cabernet Sauvignon. At 400 meters of altitude one might imagine a cool climate red wine, but no, these Priorat are inky and glass-staining, with great concentration and depth of flavor. Ramon makes this wine to drink young, a youthful counterpoint to his more powerful, barrel-aged Priorat.
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.
Xavy Bacarra & Michele Negron-Gonzales
Since I began importing, I have wanted to add a winery to our portfolio from the Priorat town of Gratallops. Why? Because it is breathtaking and magnificent, and probably one of the most extreme places to grow wine in the world. Not long ago, I read about a project started by a first-time-in-the-wine-biz young couple called Sao del Coster and sent off an email. Michele Negron Gonzales got right back to me, and agreed to a visit--right in the middle of harvest!
She and her husband met the same way--on the internet! Michele was an English teacher living in Madrid, and Xavy a journalist from Barcelona. She taught him over Skype and, um, one thing led to another. When they finally met face-to-face at a wine tasting, their fates were sealed. Within a year, they quit their jobs, moved to nearby Falset and purchased two small vineyard plots on steep hillsides near Gratallops. Now THAT's a love story!
They make their wine in a renovated 3-story townhouse in the village and use a mule, that's right--a mule, to work their vines. (Steep is an understatement here)
There are a few other wineries in this magnificent village, all with precious wines that start at $50/bottle and move north from there. But Michele and Xavy want to make wine for the people. Even though they do in fact make some "elite" blends (more on those in years to come), I was thoroughly smitten with their two "entry level" wines, if you will. This is a really small winery--they make just about 5000 bottles total--and I managed to talk them into a tiny introductory purchase. I'm offering these especially to you and just a few dozen other people today.
We have a study in Priorat style here. The Pim Pam Poom is youthful, exuberant, juicy, and fresh--a Priorat meant for everyday drinking, which I didn't even know existed. The 'S' is a far more rich and complex wine, powerful and dense, yet filled with gobs of fruit and layering. Four people over for dinner might start with one, and finish with the other!
Juan Garcia & Ana Fernandez-Bengoa
I had just stopped for a coffee at some run-of-the-mill rest stop in France when my phone rang. It was a call from the lovely and affable Ana Fernández Bengoa. I'd been hoping to hear from Ana since Saturday, when I had tasted a whole mess of Rioja. Ana and her husband Juan's wines stood out far and above the rest. I wanted to begin working with Bodegas Paco Garcia immediately, but felt I should bide my time before asking, or begging.
Finding good Rioja is hard. Too much Rioja on the market today is mass-produced crap. It comes from expansive vineyards and wineries that look like oil refineries. I'd had four strikeout visits, and they weren't "swing and a miss" types. They were really bad wines - the kind you would hesitate to use for sangria. But with Ana and Juan I tasted lively, vibrant, juicy Rioja that made my eyes pop from my head. It had me thinking "what do we have here!?"
I've chosen Juan and Ana's superbly delicious Crianza to introduce you to their fine work. It was aged for one year in oak (as all Crianza must be) and then another two years in bottle before release. It technically classifies as a Reserva but they've chosen not to confuse the issue. There are Rioja of two and three times the price for sale in Spain, Europe and elsewhere that would get smoked by this bottle.