Yes we Catalan

Image of Jancis Robinson

Ancient vines, stunning landscape (if currently smouldering in parts), balmy climate, the best restaurant in the world – it is hardly surprising that the north-eastern corner of Spain has been getting its wine act together. El Bulli may have closed its doors, but there is still a host of great places to eat that have reason to be increasingly proud of the local wines.

The recent evolution of the official denomination – known as Ampurdán-Costa Brava, but now restyled in Catalan as the breezier Empordà – reflects what has been happening throughout so much of the wine world. Local varieties make rustic wines of local interest only, so the locals decide the future lies in importing the same varieties that everyone else has. They then start to see the virtues of indigenous plants transformed into distinctive wine with newfound skill and respect for local character.

Empordà has perhaps been slower to evolve than more cosmopolitan wine regions, but had it been faster, more of its old vines of traditional varieties would have been ripped out to make way for inappropriate, “international” ones. For many years, the wild hillsides of the Costa Brava were planted mainly with the variety known in French as Grenache, in Castilian as Garnacha and in Catalan as Garnatxa, and ancient stumps of the variety known variously as Carignan, Cariñena, Carinyena and Samsó. (This last name was dismissed as “made up in Priorat” by my principal Empordà informant, referring to another, much more fashionable, Catalan wine region.)

For most of the 20th century Empordà struggled to recover from the predations of the phylloxera louse. Abandoned vine terraces can still be seen following the contours inland from Cadaqués and Roses. Such wine as was made was either strong local pink rosado or strong sweet wines based on Garnatxa in various shades, just like wines such as Banyuls and Rivesaltes made across the Pyrenees in France’s Roussillon. Empordà and Roussillon are both Catalan first and foremost, and share terrain and climate too, down to seams of schist and granite through the landscape, so it is hardly surprising that their wines are similar.

Roussillon has been a hotbed of table wine revolution in recent years, so it seems logical that Empordà to its immediate south should wake up and realise its potential for fine table wine, too. And among the new generation of ambitious producers there are some who worked in Roussillon during the week and brought back techniques to be applied to their homeland.

In Empordà recently, I had the pleasure of tasting more than 50 wines from some of the more dynamic producers and found they varied hugely in style and winemaking competence, but that the raw ingredients could hardly have more personality. Some of the best-value examples are made from ancient Garnatxa vines by the Espelt family winery. These are particularly valuable because, while it is not too difficult to find very old Carinyena vines (a variety that produces good wine only from very old vines), Garnatxa was much more likely to be ripped out because it is so much less productive than Carinyena.

Espelt red old-vine Garnatxa is based on vines that were planted in 1920 on granite and sand. Although it was aged for three months in large old oak barrels, the 2009 can be found on sale in the US for a derisory $8.99. Someone really ought to import it into the UK. Please. Bibendum Wine already imports the hugely impressive, full-bodied white version, which it calls Mar d’Avall Garnatxa Blanca 2009 and sells at £10.80 (see left) as part of its Els Pyreneus range of Catalan wines.

My favourite red was much more expensive, but then Roig Parals, Camí de Cormes 2007 is made from a single vineyard of very old Carinyena, the oldest vines dating back to 1896. It’s clearly stuffed with character. It even has a slight smell of curry powder, like the dried grass or herb you find in southern France. It sells at the cellar door for about €20 a bottle, the same price as a reasonably smart red Bordeaux. Roig (pronounced “Roitch”) Parals was set up by a young couple who had a beach restaurant, then acquired some vineyards. Their other headline red is the Finca Pla del Molí blend of the Bordeaux grapes Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, which is capably made but tastes like a host of reds made in the Catalan region of Penedès to the south.

For a while they shared a consultant with the most prominent new wine in the south of Empordà, Clos d’Agon, a project involving Peter Sisseck, the Danish winemaker behind the wildly expensive Ribera del Duero wine Pingus. The red is a Bordeaux blend, with Syrah, and the white is based on varieties imported from the Rhône, so the wines – sold mainly at sky-high prices in Switzerland, homeland of Clos d’Agon’s owner – are less obviously local than some. But they are extremely skilfully made, as one would expect.

They are not, however, the most expensive wines of the region. Finca Garbet is the flagship wine of one of the best-known Catalan wine producers, based in and named after the turreted Castillo Perelada. Part of its single vineyard range, it comes from slate terraces overlooking the Mediterranean in the Cap de Creus natural park. The first few vintages were a blend of Syrah and Bordeaux varieties, but from 2005 it has been 100 per cent Syrah. The cellar door price is €100 a bottle, which strikes me as ludicrous. But there are always people prepared to pay for “the most expensive”, rather than the best.

Empordà’s white wines may constitute less than a third of total production, but they are certainly no less interesting than the reds. The local Picapoll grape (not Piquepoul but probably Clairette Blanche of southern France) can add nerve, the Garnatxas add weight and Carinyena Blanca can add interest. My only criticism of the wines of Empordà, in fact, is that virtually all the labels look the same – smart black type on white – though Espelt tries to jazz it up a little, as will, presumably, the many representatives of a younger generation currently taking over.

Tasting notes on Purple Pages of

For Costa Brava restaurants, see Nicholas Lander

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