The future of Sparkling Wine in Catalonia

Since Josep Raventós first convinced his friends to invest in an adventurous replanting and rebuilding project in the 19th century, Catalonia has been the Spanish home of sparkling wine. With the vineyards of the Penedes devasted by phylloxera, Josep saw an opportunity to replant the higher ground with grapes better suited for sparkling wine production, with an intention of taking on the might of Champagne. An unlikely proposition, considering the warm Mediterranean sunshine, the complete lack of specific wine-making equipment and an entirely unproven market. Today Cava production stands at a cool 250 million bottles a year. Kudos, Josep.

Yet for all the success of Cava, all is not well along the Catalan coast. The lack of geographical specificity in the appellation (Cava from Extremadura, anyone?), the influx of international grapes, excessive yields and heavily imbalanced production to 3 giants of the industry are all worrying signs. Worse still, the constant disagreements between producers and the appellation have caused fragmentation, with no fewer than 5 separate classifications of sparkling wine now working separately in the same territory. On the surface, it´s looking like a terrible moment for the local industry and one not easily solved.

On the other hand, it might be exactly what the local industry and consumers desperately needed; a shake up. Cava has for so long been sold as a commodity on supermarket shelves, with its very best producers condemned to share the same name as €3.99 bottles of hastily produced fizz. One of the newer classifications, Corpinnat, consists of the cream of the crop; wineries with real history and a track record of producing consistently delicious wine and with a focus on indigenous grapes and long ageing. Another, Classic Penedes, has a focus on sustainable agriculture and allowing for flexibility and innovation under their appellation. Projects like Navazos-Colet exist here; adding Sherry as an element of dosage? It sounds crazy but it’s absolutely delicious! How about using raw honey as the fuel for the second fermentation? That too, and it works!

Regardless of whether it’s a focus on tradition or innovation, the future of sparkling wine in Catalunya inevitably lies in the premium end of the market, with room for both approaches. There is exceptional land here, carefully and responsibly tended for decades, with old vines of Xareŀlo, Macabeo and Paralleda at the heart of it all. Theres the experience of decades and the energy and creativity of youth. Most importantly, theres a desire to produce truly exceptional wines to rival the best in the world which is, of course, how it all started almost 150 years ago.

Xareŀlo as a still wine

Xareŀlo, like so many indigenous Spanish grapes, often flies beneath the radar of the international fine wine world. Native to Catalonia, Xareŀlo is probably best known for its role in Cava production, providing much of the refreshing acidity and crisp, green fruited and subtle herbal flavours to the base wines. However, for those in the know, it’s greatest expressions arguably come in the form of still wine.

You can find Xareŀlo all across Catalonia, including its predictably complicated synonyms. To the North in Alella, it’s known locally as Pansa Blanca, to Tarragona in the South as Cartoixà and as Premsal Blanc on the island of Mallorca, to name a few. However, few would argue that its spiritual home is in the Penedès wine region, a short drive from Barcelona. Xareŀlo thrives here, particularly at the higher altitudes of Penedès Superior where cooling breezes, deposits of limestone soils and old vines combine to create the perfect eco-system for quality grapes. Excitingly, the potential for Xareŀlo as a still wine has only just started to be realised, with few producers known outside of local circles.

In the vineyard, Xareŀlo has few defining factors; it neither ripens early or particularly late, it produces evenly formed bunches and perhaps most importantly, it performs well on a variety of different soil types. Is it any wonder that it’s beloved almost as much in the field as it is by winemakers? It has some sensitivity to poor fruit set and both downy and powdery mildew, though in the Mediterranean Springs of Catalunya, this is rarely an issue.

At its simplest Xareŀlo has a signature aroma of green apples, fresh herbs and a lemony, citrus character. Combined with the naturally high acidity levels of the grape, these fresh flavours make for a very refreshing wine. However, Xareŀlo also responds well to time in oak and many of the more ambitious wines have sought to pair the natural energy of the grape with extra depth and texture provided by a careful oak regime. Producers like Can Rafols del Caus have even experimented, with great success, with less aromatic woods such as chestnut whilst others have looked towards amphorae and clay vessels. It would take a very skilled blind taster to pick the best wines out of a line-up of quality White Burgundy, with the same undertow and verve found in some of the famous villages of the Côte d’Or, with perhaps the subtle, herbal character the main point of difference.

The charm of Xareŀlo won’t stay undiscovered forever. There’s a huge opportunity here for adventurous drinkers to explore, whether it be adding an extra dimension to a wine list or opening the eyes of their Francophile friends; serve a top bottle without revealing its identity, and see where people think it’s from! It’s a truly exciting time for fans of Spanish wine.

Why the goat?

Eagle eyed browsers have spotted a slightly disheveled looking goat in our logo and wondered why she was there. Well goats are very interesting creatures and can teach us a lot about our attitude to wine.

Goats are insatiably curious. They will poke and prod at everything within their environment. Often this prodding comes in the form of looking for weak links in their enclosures (if domesticated). Goats encourage us to engage and entertain our own sense of curiosity. These creatures are also amazingly intelligent. In the words of Alistair Cooke, “Curiosity is free-wheeling intelligence.” So often curiosity and intelligence go hand-in-hand (or, hoof-to-hoof in this case, lol). The goat is a grand reminder of this, and urges us to be inquisitive.

So why not try something “Different” today?

Hmm, well the aroma is very different…

SITT Autumn

Although we have been regular visitors to the bi-annual Specialist Importers Trade Tastings, Autumn 2017 was our first attendance as an exhibitor. The show is now run by Agile Media, publishers of Harper’s Wine & Spirit and Drink Retailing News. In one major change to the format of the two day / two location show, the non-London location was chosen as Bristol. The autumn shows are normally smaller than the spring shows, and some 40 or so exhibitors were present when we set up for the first day in the Bristol Museum and Art Gallery.

We were showing wines from Celler Alimara, Giró del Gorner and Celler Piñol. Details of the wines are available elsewhere on this site. Attendance at Bristol was a little below our expectation, but it was great to chat to locals about the state of the market in the area, and to hear what types of wines they were on the lookout for.


Attendance at London was significantly better, and it was good to connect with faces old and new, including a number who had made it down from our home base of Oxford. All the wines got a good level of interest, although the stars of the shows were undoubtedly the luscious Josefina sweet red from Celler Piñol, and the ten year old Cava Gran Reserva from Giró del Gorner.

If you were there, then thanks for coming. If you asked us to follow up then expect to hear from us very soon! If you were not able to make it, then I suggest it would be worth checking back regularly for the dates for SITT Spring 2018 which should be published in the near future.

Stylish Spanish Wines

You will know if you have read any of the other posts on this site that I am a lover of the wines of Terra Alta, an up-and-coming wine region in the south of Catalunya, in Spain. The region produces 50/50 reds and whites, mostly from the Negra and Blanca types of the Garnatxa/Grenache grape. The regulator for the DO for the region, and many producers, see the whites as the region’s main point of difference. To help promote these wines the DO introduced the 100% Garnatxa Blanca campaign which guarantees the provenance and quality of the wines.

However if you try a number of these wines, you will find this is very much not a guarantee of style. Some wines are very young, fresh and fruity with lemon and stone fruits to the fore and intense minerality. Others have been fermented or raised in oak and show the typical richness and hints of vanilla that oak brings. This huge diversity of styles to an extent undermines the value of the promotional campaign. I suspect this is something that the regulator will have to address over time, if these wines are to establish an international reputation.

All of which is a prelude to a small horizontal tasting of three of Terra Alta’s more widely known wines, all of which feature oak to a greater or lesser extent. The three were Selecció Blanca 2014 from Edetària, Els Amelers 2014 from LaFou, and L’Avi Arrufi Blanca 2014 from Celler Piñol. Although all from the same region and year, these exhibited significant differences.


The LaFou was the freshest wine, showing great acidity and a predominance of citrus fruits, white peach and pear. The use of oak was subtle, adding some background spiciness. The lemon was complimented by good minerality, but the overall effect may be a little too acid for some. Food-wise, this could be paired with seafood, especially shellfish

The Piñol had the heaviest oak influence, having quite a lot in common with many burgundies, or perhaps even more so, with some white Rhones. Here there was markedly less acidity and more obvious ripeness, with touches of banana, pineapple and honey. I would happily drink this on it’s own or pair with lightly sauced food such as pork with mushrooms.

The Edetària sits nicely between the other two. It retains its freshness thanks to its great minerality and conveys a wide range of notes on the nose and the palate including almond and fresh bread alongside the ripe stone fruits. This is a wine that can cover the menu, from seafood to nuts and cheese, and holding its own against milder pates and creamy dishes.

Overall these were exciting wines, showcasing that Spain is not only white Rioja and Albariño. Once the DO has sorted the region’s Garnatxa Blancas into a couple of distinct styles, the future is very bright.

Rare Red Squirrels



I recently attended a tasting held by Nik Darlington of Red Squirrel Wine for the Oxford Wine Club. Nik’s philosophy is pretty much 100% aligned to mine, and the tasting entitled “Rare & Native Grape Varieties and Forgotten Wine Regions” sounded exciting.

We had four whites and four reds to get through, ranging in price from £11.99 to £24.99 at list, so all should have had something to offer.The first white was a 100% Xarel.lo from Alella. To my taste, the strong citrus tones were at the cost of a slightly unripe feel, and I didn’t mark it particularly highly. Xarel.lo is a key component of most Cavas, and I was expecting more on the nose and the palette. Nonetheless a well made, clean wine that would accompany most seafood.

The second white was an Encruzado from Dão in Portugal. I hadn’t had an Encruzado before to my knowledge. This had subdued pineapple, citrus and rose petals with a mineral finish that stayed around just long enough. It was interesting, but not revelatory.

Which contrasted with the third white which was very exciting. Again it was my first experience of the grape – Pigato – from Liguria. I’ll leave the experts to argue the Pigato vs Vermentino origin of the grape. It had bags of crisp acidity, great length and would hold its own with the richest seafood dish. This was a new-born star that the Italians have obviously been hiding.

From such heights we dipped a bit to the final white – a Mauzac from Gaillac. I love “standard” Gaillacs and reckon them under-rated. This wine caused highly polarised views around our table, with some loving, and others, me included, not convinced. Apparently the secret is to drink it with cheese to see its best side.

The reds started with a real novelty. A Cabernet Gernischt from Inner Mongolia. We were all on new territory with this one. To me, green stems predominated and a general feeling of unripeness. Whether that was due to the grape, location or year I have no idea, but I’m sure China will do much better.

Not in the order posted, the next red was a Tannat from Mendoza in Argentina. The reference was Uruguay, but I had also tried other Angentinian Tannats which gave me another reference point. This was deep ruby, with licorice, plums/prunes and a heathy level of acidity fending off any flabbiness. A very pleasant drink, but unlike the other wines on show, perhaps not as unique.

The Nerello Mascalese from Mount Etna however, was unique in pretty much every way. Standing out for me was stewed strawberries and cream, red cherry with nice ripe and smooth tannins and really good length. There is no doubt that volcanic soils are capable of producing some really interesting wines, in this case coupled with a little known grape variety, albeit a relative of the well known Sangiovese.

For the final wine we were back in Liguria, but this time for a refugee variety – Touriga Nacional. What the great grape of the Douro was doing this far east I’m not sure, but the result was really enjoyable. A bit of farmyard, bubblegum and boysenberry with reasonable length left a very good impression.

My thanks to the OWC and to Nik Darlington. I am always delighted to try truly novel expressions. Amongst the wines presented there were many more hits than misses, and all deserved a hearing on account of their producers taking the risk of trying something different.

Nature vs Nurture?

I was lucky enough to be given two books on wine for Christmas. At first glance you would think they come at things from totally opposite points of the spectrum. The first was Isabelle Legeron’s Natural Wine. This book gives a great introduction to wines that are created principally by nature. Here grape growers and winemakers choose to concentrate solely on creating the conditions where the processes that create wine can take place in the way nature dictates, rather than being made to bend to the knee of man. The second book was Jamie Goode’s Wine Science. Jamie documents the recent advances in our understanding of the processes of wine production. He makes the topic accessible in the way PhD-level authors rarely achieve, and gives some great insight into what is happening in the vineyard, the winery and even in the consumer’s life, and what therefore the wine industry can do to “nurture” wine.

I am a scientist, and my natural (pun intended) inclination is to look for the scientific explanation behind everything in the belief that with knowledge will come control. However, I am a physicist, and although the physical world is complicated, in the end it does come down to the application of some fairly simple rules. As I have grown older, it has become obvious to me that biological systems are almost infinitely more complicated, and our level of understanding much less developed.

So are the two approaches compatible? Well to give Jamie Goode credit, he addresses the question head on in paragraph 5 of the book, and dedicates whole sections to approaches such as biodynamic viticulture. The point that is often made in Wine Science, which also matches my personal experience, is that many great wines are produced with organic, biodynamic or natural wine philosophies. If scientists don’t like the “anti-science” feel of some of the explanations provided by natural wine advocates, then it is science’s job to explain why the results are often so good.

Perhaps the way to view these two books is this:- Natural Wine sets out the evidence for great winemaking under the benign control of Mother Nature, and Wine Science starts to lay the foundations to understanding what conditions Mother Nature needs to do her best work. In my view both books are worth a read, and are by no means incompatible approaches.

Humbly Spanish

The stunning terraced vineyards of Priorat

I recently attended a tasting of a Spanish wines from the great team at Humble Grape. Although proprietor James was otherwise engaged, Jessica and team took us through an interesting selection from some of the known and less well known Spanish regions.

The tasting was held at the Haciendas Club near the Millennium Bridge – a great venue for a Spanish themed event. We were a little early so we tried some cava and tapas from the excellent Zorita’s Kitchen directly below the Club.

We enjoyed a couple of glasses of Marques de la Monistrol ‘Reserva de la Familia‘ cava while the group gathered. This subtle rosé was also our favourite from those served downstairs. Cava is so under appreciated. These Spanish sparklers share the “Traditional Method” of production  – second fermentation in bottle – with those from Champagne, resulting in wines with much more depth and finer bubbles than those of the currently fashionable Prosecco.

We were then served a 2013 Vedejo from Marques de la Concordia, from the Rueda region. This was a great drinking wine – it serves the same purpose as Sauvignon Blanc without being Sauvignon Blanc.

We then sampled a couple of wines from Bodega Vinessens. The first was a “cool climate” chardonnay. It was plugged as a “burgundy substitute”. I wasn’t convinced – if I was looking for that vibe I’d seek out a Spanish barrel fermented Garnatxa Blanca, ideally from Terra Alta. But it was certainly different, and a very welcome addition to the Spanish interpretation of Chardonnay. Probably star turn of the night. The second was a Monastrell (known to most as Mourvèdre) made in a lighter style. This one is known as ‘Scandalo‘ to reflect its interesting provenance. We noted significant variety amongst our tasting group, who sampled different bottles. The conclusion was that this wine was indeed fine but a little one dimensional – a classic case of where a blend could perhaps have made a more interesting wine.

Next up was an old (2007) Rioja from Bodegas Rioja Santiago Reserva. At £14 it was good value and showed many of the characteristics that you would want from a Rioja. Better this than many a supermarket Rioja, but don’t expect distinction at that price.

We then turned to the latest “hot” Spanish region for a Gran Clos “Finca El Puig” 2001 Priorat. I’ll declare an interest – I think some of the most interesting red Spanish wine is coming out from Catalunya. This was no exception, but perhaps a bit too young to show its best. One for the cellar.

The next wine was trailed as a revelation. The Pico Cuadra from Ribera del Duero had everything going for it, including a winemaker who learnt his trade at Vega Sicilia, but the wine didn’t deliver on the night. Perhaps this was due to the frantic journey it had to go through to get there due to some “unforeseen circumstances”. One to taste again at another time, perhaps.

All round, an interesting selection, and certainly some different wines from those I would have expected. If you don’t know them already, I suggest you check out Humble Grape – they have some good stuff.

The Only Way is Ethics


I have been in business for over 30 years and in that time I have met the entire range of “business people”. Many I would happily trust in all matters, but sadly there are also too many that I would put in the “dodgy” category. Unfortunately the deregulated nature of the internet makes it harder to determine the good guys from the bad. One area in particular that incenses me is the area of “remunerated blogging”.

I love the idea that on the internet, anyone can easily publish their opinion and invite comment. Interesting bloggers and tweeters can build up a significant following that sometimes exceeds that of the established press. So far, so good. The problems can come when bloggers seek to “monetize” their followers. It is fine if you put a bit of Google advertising on your page, or offer an enhanced subscription service. Readers can tell the difference. Sadly though some bloggers write opinion pieces about a certain product in order to be rewarded by the producer in some way, and without telling the reader about the financial connection. Such behaviour is rightly not allowed in print media. However on the internet it is a veritable industry – “affiliate marketing”.

The answer is simple. If people want to blog for reward, they should just make sure the reader knows whether they are reading an opinion piece or what is, in effect, a paid advert.

That is why on this site any blog will only be tagged with “opinion” when we have no financial interest in the matter, and will be tagged “connected” when we have a direct financial interest in the subject being written about. That is the only ethical way to blog.