I recently asked a few Spanish friends what they thought of the wines of the Empordá region of Spain . Most of my inquiries were met with blank looks. A couple of people mentioned the scenic Costa Brava, home to numerous small beach towns, secluded coves and at least one world famous restaurant, El Bulli, but few had a perspective on the wines of this area that lies up along the French border on the Mediteranean coast of Spain. So it was with great curiosity that I accepted an offer from The Spain-USA Chamber of Commerce to visit this region with a group of American wine merchants.
Flying in to Barcelona, I was met at the airport and immediately whisked away in a taxi, traveling an hour and a half all the way up to the French border. At the last freeway exit before crossing the frontier we left the main highway and drove up a twisty little road into the rocky, sage colored hills, stopping suddenly at a small inn perched on a hillside overlooking the little village of Cantallops. The air was warm and scented with the aromas of flowering
rosemary and wild thyme. Yellow forsythia in bloom was joined by a landscape of dusty green, lavender and brown hues tinting the steep, rocky hillsides. Cicadas buzzed in the gentle breeze.
“So this is Empordá” I said to myself as I gazed out across the valley from the hotel terrace. “Nice, very nice”.
Soon the rest of the group, wine buyers from New York, New Jersey, Chicago, Texas and California, had all arrived at the same destination and we got down to the business of learning about the local wines.
The primary grape of Emporda is Garnacha, with the local version of Cariñena (known here as Samsó) playing an important secondary role in the production of red wines. Macabeo is the primary grape for white
wines, supplemented by Garnacha Blanca. Other varieties are allowed (Cabernet, Merlot, Syrah, Chardonnay, etc) and some wineries are now using these better known grapes in larger proportions.
Empordá winemakers are a mix of old school traditionalists and new wave innovators. Established wineries, including several cooperatives that have historically served the needs of the local community (both by buying the fruit of the local harvest and by selling wine to the local market) are now experimenting with alternate varieties and styles. Young winemakers are, on the other hand, returning to their roots (literally) by rejuvenating old vines and relearning ancient practices that were all but forgotten. This diverse group of winemakers, regardless of their differences, shares an unwavering belief in the Empordá region as a source of great wine. These cross currents of tradition and innovation create a dynamic environment for winemaking that is just now starting to capture the attention of wine drinkers here in the USA.
A major factor in determining the character of Empordá wines, the infamous ‘tramontano‘ winds, did not make an appearance during our visit but we witnessed the result it can have on grape vines. Torn and tattered leaves and stunted gnarly vines are the result of (almost) continuous buffeting by the wind that comes whipping down the valleys from the mountains to the north and west.
The wines we tried over the course of three days of formal tastings, visits to several bodegas and numerous meals were, as a whole, lean and mineral driven, expressing the dry, rocky terruno of this ancient region. In addition to red, white and rosado table wines, the bodegas we visited also make some other type of wine as well. Late harvest dessert wines, and sparkling cava are joined by sweet fortified mistelas and the local vi ranci, a traditinal oxidized wine that ages for years outdoors in glass demijohns.
Most of the wines we tasted have yet to make it to our part of the globe but The Spanish Table carries several Emprodá wines that you can sample right now to get your bearings on this distinctive region of Spain.
Floresta Blanco 2007 The white Floresta from Pere Guardiola is made up of 50% Macabeo, 42% Chardonnay and 8% Muscat. The wine is fermented in tank, not barrel, and thus displays a fresh, lively character with abundant floral aroma unobscured by heavy barrel notes. $10.99
Floresta Rosado 2008 This blend of 50% Garnacha, 40% Merlot and 10% Syrah displays pale pink color, tangy citrus and gentle strawberry fruit character. This light, breezy,well priced wine is refreshing and perfect for hot summer afternoons. $10.99
Floresta Tinto 2007 The red version of Floresta is a blend of 55% Garnacha and 45% Tempranillo. This wine is dark in color but light in character. Tart berry fruit character reinforces spicy black pepper and mineral notes. $10.99
Espelt Coralí 2008 This 100% Garnacha rosado is bright coral colored (thus the name) with fresh berry aroma and tart fruit character. This is a dry rosado that expresses some of the rocky minerality of this region. $12.99
Espelt Sauló 2005 This traditiona Empordá red is a blend of 60% Garnacha and 40% Samsó that spends just a few months in oak before bottling. Tart berry fruit meets lean minerality to produce a wine that combines youthful freshness with a firm structural foundation. $12.99
At the recent TAPAS tasting of American wines made from Iberian grape varieties I was impressed by the wines of Ron Silva’s Alta Mesa Cellars. Ron is sort of the Godfather of Iberian varietals in the Central Valley. He started planting Portuguese and Spanish varieties (he is of Azorean extraction himself) decades before most local winemakers even considered the possibility of using Iberian grapes here in California. His Silvaspoons vineyard in Galt, just north of Lodi has become the source of fruit for numerous other winemakers, many of whom were at the TAPAS event. His knowledge about growing these grapes ins unsurpassed. Tasting through the various iterations of Silvaspoons fruit vinified by different winemakers it became clear to me that the grape grower here knows best what to do with the product of his own vineyards.
In the spirit of American independence I bring you two Alta Mesa wines made by Ron Silva himself. The white is made from the Azorean variety called Verdelho (supposedly not related to Verdejo) and the red is a Tempranillo varietal.
Alta Mesa Cellars Verdelho 2008 Bright lemon yellow color with floral aromatics and more citrus character on the palate supplemented by ripe melon and peach notes.The wine has more texture and weight than the scent and flavor would lead one to expect. $12.99
Alta Mesa Cellars Tempranillo 2007 Dark mulberry color and aroma encounter berry-like fruit character that never overwhelms the gentle mineral back note. Brief barrel ageing adds a touch of tannic depth. $14.99