Stand by for a very excellent wine fair coming up this weekend in Catalunya, on Spain’s Costa Brava. Called Arrels del Vi, it takes place annually in the stunning village of Sant Martí d’Empúries, this year on 14th and 15th May.
The brainchild of Dom Abernethy, local resident and one-time owner of the [late, lamented] Celler Petit wine shop in the village, its objective is to showcase the best wines from Empordà, the northernmost part of Catalunya which reaches right up to the border with France – and which, btw, is one of the region’s buzziest, for both wine and food (El Bulli was here; El Celler de Can Roca still is – plus plenty of other, less ambitious, places where you can eat disgracefully well).
Empordà as a wine region is worth keeping an eye on. It boasts a bunch of young, highly motivated winemakers, fresh from their oenology studies, who are busy renewing centuries-old terraces and dry stone walls, resurrecting old vines – principally Garnatxa and Carinyena – and planting new ones. Their wines have bags of character and a strong sense of place, marked by the Mediterranean and given a good dose of tough love by the tramuntana winds that blast across the mountains from the north, stressing and ventilating the vines in equal measure.
The fair sprang to life 10 years ago with just 12 winegrowers present and around 400 tickets sold. The whole event that inaugural year was squeezed into the tiny Plaça Petita on the edge of the village.
Over the years it has increased steadily in size – these days over two thousand visitors wander the narrow, traffic-free streets and main square, Riedel glass in hand, to taste the wines of more than 25 different wine makers. (There is now also a one-day, pre-fair event at the end of April in Barcelona, in the fabulously restored Mercat del Born.) But the spirit of the original fair has remained the same. “It’s a professional wine fair that’s open to the public”, explains Dom, who targets his audience accordingly and makes good use of social media to publicise the event. Among the growers present there’s a refreshing spirit of cooperation and openness: for them all, the key is to be part of an all-Empordà endeavour and to present their wines shoulder-to-shoulder with one another, not simply to sell wine (though they do that too).
Here are a few of my favourite producers whose wines we’ve especially relished over many years of visiting the area and the fair. If you’re anywhere near Sant Martí this weekend and can stop by at the Arrels, you’ll find them all there.
David Molas is the talented wine maker at Vinyes dels Aspres in Cantallops, working with 30 hectares of vines planted on slate and granite. Top of the range is S’Alou, an impressive Garnatxa/Carinyena/Cabernet Sauvigon/Syrah blend while Blanc dels Aspres, an old-vine Garnatxa Blanca, is one of the region’s best-value and most distinctive whites. Oriol dels Aspres, their entry-level young red, is a Merlot-Garnatxa blend with a little help from Carinyena, Cab. Sauvignon and Syrah – and a gorgeous label graced by the golden oriole that haunts the vineyards.
Just to the south in Capmany, Carme Casacuberta at tiny Vinyes d’Olivardots is one of the new generation to have swelled the ranks of DO Empordà members from 26 to 50 in recent times, harvesting her first crop in 2006. Be sure to get a taste of her Gresa wines, made in both white and red versions from 90- and 100-year old vines planted on sandy-gravelly soil (= Gresa) right in front of the winery. The white combines Garnatxas Blanca and Gris with some Carinyena Blanc; the red, which regularly snags the top award at Arrels del Ví, is a four-grape blend including some from gnarled old centenarian Carinyena vines.
Joan (Catalan for Juan) Fabra at Marti Fabra makes a full range of whites and reds at his tiny bodega in Sant Climent Sescebes. You can find their wines (look out for Masia Carreras, both white and red) on the lists of the top restaurants in the region, including the admirable Pera Batlla in L’Armentera, top of our faves list of good spots to eat in Empordà. I love their Verd d’Albera, a crisp, fruity white fruit salad of a wine and L’Oratori, a Garnatxa/Carinyena/Tempranillo blend, a snip at around €6.
Another faithful visitor to the fair is Mariona Parals from Roig Parals in Mollet de Peralada. Top of their range is Camí de Cormes, a muscular wine from 120 year-old Carinyena vines (known here as Samsó), whose 15% alcohol is tempered by the grape’s natural acidity. More accessible is Tocat de l’Ala, a stylish, young-at-heart wine with a crazy label (the name means “touched in the head”) from old-vine Carinyena and Garnatxa made in a joint venture with Montsant winemakers Coca i Fitó.
One of the newest kids on the Empordà vine block is Celler Hugas de Batlle. Visits to the bodega are prefaced by a bone-shaking tour in a 4 x 4 of their four dramatically sited vineyards, carved into the hillside high above Colera with sweeping views out to sea. Edu Hugas de Batlle, who is a fervent fan of the fair (“We love it: it’s a serious one, the people who come have a certain poder aquisitivo (purchasing power) and are really into their wines”), reminds visitors of the four key elements the bodega has to play with: vines, sea, mountains and tramuntana winds, all captured in the bottle.
I find their rich, flowery Moscatel/Garnatxa blend (30-50, representing the respective proportions of each grape) well nigh irresistible – a thoroughly Mediterranean full-bodied white, and also love the deeply coloured, spicy, brambly Coma Fredosa (Cabernet Sauvignon + Garnatxa).
On the whole, the producers present at Arrels del Ví are the smaller ones. Two exceptions are Terra Remota, an impressive organic winery (first vintage 2006) between Capmany and Sant Climent Sescebes, created by French couple Marc and Emma Bournazeau. The entry-level trio of Caminante white (Garnatxa blanca, Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc), Camino red (Garnatxa, Syrah and Cab. Sauv.) and Caminito rosé (Garnatxa and Syrah) make a good introduction to the house style. Top of the range are Usted and Clos Adrien, a feisty pair based on varying proportions of Garnatxa and Syrah, aged in new and used oak barrels.
The other exception to the small-bodega rule is the grand, old-established Castillo Perelada in the village of Peralada. They make a comprehensive range of totally reliable wines, from cava (be sure to taste the Gran Claustro) through to highly age-worthy bottles of oak-aged reds, grown in some of the region’s most stunning vineyards situated high above the sea. For decent everyday drinking their red 5 Fincas (Garnatxa/Syrah/
Merlot/Cab) blend from five of their top vineyars is hard to beat.
And last but not least, don’t miss the super range of affordable wines made by the Cooperativa de Garriguella. Their 100% Gerisena Blanc (from white Garnatxa) is a simple, flowery, quaffable delight.