Wednesday, May 12, 2010
Rafael Sala is an opinionated man. A partner of the Vega de Ribes winery, located in the Garraf national forest area just several miles from the Mediterranean, Rafael meets me in Vilafranca de Penedes to drive me to his house and few hectares of xarel-lo vineyards. It does not take long for him to notice the wire trained xarel-lo vines from the road, thus beginning a continuous commentary on all that is wrong about winemaking in the Penedes.
"These vines are all wrong. Goblets are best here, and everyone wants to train their vines en espaldera, like they do in France."
According to Rafael, this Mediterranean influenced, warm sunny region in Spain should not imitate some of its neighbors to the north, most notably Champagne and Bordeaux, likely role models for both the styles of wine made (sparkling wine and cabernet based blends, respectively) as well as for a model of proven commercial success.
"Many parts of France do not get that much sun and warmth. So it makes sense that they train the vines in a way to maximize sunlight. Here, we get plenty of sun; the vines should be low to the ground. We have the perfect climate and soils for grapes in Penedes, we have hardly any work to do at all to produce beautiful fruit. Yet people mess it up."
How do they mess it up? Rafael cites various no-no's: irrigation, trellising, harvesting unripe fruit, chaptalizing. It's a littany of practices so common in the wine world, particularly in regions such as Napa, Penedes, Bordeaux and Champagne, all large regions with a high capacity of production, captive markets and large commercial opportunities. On the contrary, Rafael's 60 year old xarel-lo vines are all en vaso, Spanish for goblet or bush vines. This fruit will go into the Vega de Ribes Clar de Castenyar Xarel-lo. The vineyards were still verdant, with a natural cover of indigenous plants, weeds and herbs growing everywhere. Rafael mentioned that he will cut these back a bit, but that there is no need to do much else. A plant knows exactly what it needs to do to survive, Rafael points out, so why intervene during the growing season?
Once the fruit is mature and ready to be harvested, Rafael believes in bringing the grapes into the cellar well chilled, and maintaining these cold temperatures throughout the fermentation process. Fermentation takes place in used barrels of chestnut coming from Galician forests, and then the wine is cold stabilized in stainless steel before resting a bit longer and bottling. Given the organic bent of his viticulture and his positions on wine, I expected Rafael to be a big fan of natural wines, and sympathetic to some of these positions. Surprisingly, though, he does not seem too loyal to these concepts. Regarding yeast, he says that they experiment with both cultivated and indigenous fermentations, and do not notice much of a difference between the two. And as far as sulphur, he reckons that there are 15 mg/l free sulphites, perhaps 60 mg/l total - perhaps a bit lower than the norm but too high to be amongst the "vin naturel" set.
We then go inside his house to taste a few vintages of the Clar de Castenyer. 2006 is still a pale straw yellow, with almond paste, golden delicious apples and white fruit aromas leading to a palate showing just a trace of an oxidative quality. Fresh stone fruit flavors are more prominent than the nutty oxidative ones. 2007 is more intense, with ripe fruit, some red fruit sneaking in. Though it tastes riper than it's 12.5% alcohol, the flavors are strong though nicely balanced. 2008 seems to lie somewhere between the 2006 and 2007, showing qualities of both. So yes, good xarel-lo, from older vines which are allowed to produce fully mature fruit, appears to age nicely.
After this mini vertical, Rafael, his wife and I head to his partner Enric's house, a structure dating back to the 1400's, with its most recent major renovation taking place in the early 19th century. Here there are some additional xarel-lo vines (curiously, trelised) which go into the Ancestrale Brut, as well as sauvignon blanc, sumoll and a rare type of malvasia known as malvasia de sitges, which they believe came from original malvasia cuttings brought over from Turkey in the middle ages. These grapes go into their methode ancestrale sparkling malvasia.
We head to Cal Xim for a typical Catalan lunch. Pan amb tomaquet, marinated anchovies and a terrific assortment of olives open the meal. We then dig into a tortilla, followed by simply grilled fish, turbot in my case. Crisp skin, moist flesh inside, and nothing other than some capers, lemon and sea salt on top made this a welcome, fresh, satisfying entree. In the land of chorizo, jamón iberico, tortillas, flavorless bread and atún topped iceberg lettuce salads, the
freshness and vibrancy of this meal was well timed and thoroughly enjoyed. Throughout the meal, Rafael was keen to show his Ancestrale sparkling wines. Both of these are fermented in the methode ancestrale, though the secondary fermentation finishes in bottle. Unlike what he dislikes in his cava, there is no chaptalization, no liqueur de tirage, no liquer de expedition: these are true brut nature wines. Though given the ripeness of the fruit, they are really generous and do not taste nearly as dry as many other Brut nature cavas out there. Both the brut and brut rosé wines are quite good. The rosé in particular, with the intensely flavored, spicy, indigenous sumoll grape contributing to the flavor profile, is very interesting. Rafael likes to boast that the technical director of Freixenet is a huge fan of his sparkling wines, especially the sparkling Malvasia. In his mind, he's got something up his sleeve, a sparkler that is much tastier, more natural, and healthier than anything else being produced elsewhere in Penedes.
"If you're going to do something," says Rafael, the former technology consultant, with a bit of a glimmer in his eyes and a friendly competitive air, "do it well."
*CORRECTION: Rafael has informed me that the TOTAL sulphites in his wines are typically around 15 mg. The free sulphites are 0.
Up next: Further south and inland in Catalunya, vigneron and natural wine proponent Laureano Serres Montagut, of Bodegas Mendall, complains of high sulphur in Rafael's xarel-lo, claims that drinking txakoli might kill you.