Focus on interesting varietals: Xarel.lo
& Tasting with
Enric Soler, Vins Blancs, Masia Cal Raspallet, Catalunya, Spain.
Last September, Jancis Robinson ‘made no apology’ for her tasting theme for the FT Weekend Festival and Financial Times column about the demand for exotic grape varieties. Jancis Robinson. (2018) ‘On the Demand for Exotic Grape Varieties: Indigenous varieties thrive in their native region, as well as producing local, distinctive wines’ Financial Times.
We see strong evidence of this demand here in Green Man Wines too. While the best examples of the classic grape varieties will always be deservedly popular, the thirst for exploration of more obscure varieties is growing and growing. And we are in agreement with Jancis when she states: “Obscurity alone is not enough for a grape variety to be celebrated. The wine produced must be good and a positive addition to the conventional canon”. Catalonia’s Xarel.lo is one such varietal with potential and we were lucky enough to meet one of its champions, former El Bulli sommelier and Sommelier of the Year Spain (1997), Enric Soler and his partner Mercè García and taste two of their three expressions of Xarel.lo.
In 2004, Enric took over the family vineyards, which had been planted by his grandfather in 1945, in Sabanell (Font Rubí), in the Penedès D.O. in an area used as an airfield by the Republican Army during the Spanish Civil War. He knew he had a unique heritage in the old vine Xarel.lo planted in the vineyard known as the ‘moles’ vineyard (dels Taus). His mission was to show the quality and expression of which the grape was capable and in order to do so, he began to work the soils organically and biodynamically in order to restore them to full health and thus, terroir expressiveness. The estate is now a member of the prestigious Renaissance des Appellations. The 2ha estate is tiny by Catalonian, or indeed any, standards and his approach certainly makes sense given all the factors involved.
The context: Penedès D.O. and Xarel.lo
The Penedès D.O. (Denominación de Origen) lies southwest of Barcelona and stretches inland from the Mediterranean Sea, over undulating coastal hills up to a height of about 800 m above sea-level. The majority of wine produced in Catalonia comes from this D.O. which is a relatively large appellation in Spain, covering 37,500 acres (15,200 hectares). Most of this area is planted to white varietals, with Xarel-lo, Parellada and Macabeo (aka Rioja’s Viura) making up the vast majority. This trinity of grapes have long been used to make Spain’s sparkling wine, Cava.
Xarel.lo itself is the most widely planted (7000 ha under vine) and it is valued for its heat and drought resistance, important in such a hot, dry region and given the vagaries of an ever-warming climate. More importantly, from a quality point of view, research conducted by the University of Barcelona and UC Davis has found that Xarel.lo has “a high concentration of resveratrol, a powerful antioxidant that can be found in grape skins. This, along with Xarel.lo’s low pH and fresh acidity, is beneficial for long ageing….Xarel.lo’s flavour profile is best described as intense and reminiscent of dried camomile and fennel, adding a pleasant bitter tone to the finish. With long ageing on lees, these flavours can develop into honeyed acacia tones and notes of warm patisserie.” https://www.decanter.com/do-cava/cavas-grape-varieties-378712/#tgVAdtEmd8whigcj.99
We tasted two of Enric’s three wines: the ‘dels Taus’ (the original family vineyard, planted by his grandfather in 1945) and the ‘Impro-Visació’. His third wine comes from grapes planted in Alt Penedès at 330m altitude, believed to be the very limits of where Xarel.lo can successfully ripen.
Impro-Visació takes its name from Enric’s love of jazz music and is all about pushing the boundaries of the nuances that the Xarel.lo grape variety can express. This is Enric’s experimental cuvée, but is flawless – I loved it. 3 plots, 1.3 ha, 40-65 year old bush and trellised vines, organically and biodynamically farmed, calcareous soils, very dry, rainfall is less than 300mls per year. Very low yields. Natural yeast fermentations. 80% of the juice was fermented and aged for 8 months in 2nd, 3rd and 4th year French oak barrels of 300L (although for the 2016 vintage, he has changed to larger Austrian Stockinger barrels). The remaining 20% was fermented in concrete eggs. No battonage. Bottled with minimal SO2. 3360 bottles produced. 12.4% abv
Saline, fresh, brioche, complex, Dry, crisp acidity, great length, linear, lots of finesse. Will complement any firm fleshed white fish or shell-fish- perfect for oysters with its hints of saline acidity.
Nun loosely translates as ‘the origin of everything’ with the sense of something inexplicable and cosmic. 100% Xarell-lo from a 70 year old, 0.67 ha vineyard, at 260 metres above sea level. Soils are sandy (45%) clay (26%) and limestone (29%). The vineyard has little molehills throughout, hence the name (Taus is Catalonian for ‘mole’). Picking started 1st September 2015 (so approx 20 days earlier than normal). Barrel-fermented in 50% new oak Burgundy barrels of 300L for 8 months, spontaneous natural yeast fermentation, which was very slow to start this vintage, probably due to the heat and ripeness of the 2015 vintage. Zero battonage. 2678 bottles produced. 12.85% abv
Deep golden yellow colour. On first sniff, the new oak in very evident and for a moment dominates everything else. Then, lemon curd, hazelnut, white flowers. Slight oiliness and heather-honey character, just enough to add interest and complexity but not overpower. With about 5 minutes in the glass, it starts to open up and reveal much more. Dry, full and rich, round palate but with perfectly balanced fresh acidity. A touch of tannic grip, youthful, textured, saline and a long finish. This will easily continue to develop and age for 10 years. If you like powerful, complex Burgundy or Chardonnay, this is definitely one to try. It needs plenty of aeration and to be savoured with food and will work best with meaty fish like monkfish. It apparently was the best-selling white wine in El Bulli when Enric worked there.
Overall, these are fascinating wines, both food-friendly, gastronomic styles with lots of complexity and both very different to one another in terms of expression, the Impro-Visació all finesse and saline freshness, reflecting its calcareous soils; the *Nun powerful, rich, complex and capable of long-term aging, reflecting the very old vines. Both great examples of Spain’s new-found confidence in the quality of its more obscure indigenous grape varieties and exciting additions to the conventional canon.