The oenologist Miquel Palau has been wandering around the vineyard since 6.30 a.m. to taste grapes and select some for Abadal’s laboratory. The Chardonnay harvest has been moved a week earlier due to the heat. Throughout the 50 hectares of this winery in Bages, a region of central Catalonia, more than 10 varieties of centuries-old grape have been recovered with a lot of patience, research and red tape. The soul of this winery, which was instrumental in creating one of the 12 “designations of origin” for Catalan wine — a quality label similar to France’s appellation d’origine contrôlée — is tied to the roots of a region that used to be a wine-growing power at the end of the 19th century. Palau does not lose sight of a very special hectare, located 18.5 miles from where he is standing. It only represents a couple thousand bottles of the 300,000 that the estate produces a year, but it holds a national rarity: the Arboset vines.
Among olive trees and oaks, there are several 80-year-old vines that guard an 18th or 19th-century construction made of dry stone and typical of the area, called a tina and used back in the day to make wine directly on the estate. It was given to them by local farmer Miquel Gibert, whose father made wine in it after it had been abandoned for nearly a century. Encouraged by the Roca brothers’ sommelier, Josep, the Abadal family revitalized this forgotten patch of land to use it as a laboratory. Since 2011, several vintages have been produced here, but the family waited until 2017 to market this very artisanal Arboset wine. The ones from 2017 and 2019 achieved the highest score in the Peñín Guide (94 points) as well as that of the American wine critic James Suckling (92 points).
The tina, which is 10-foot tall and 6.5 feet in diameter, has a capacity of up to 22,000 pounds of grapes, but the Abadal winemakers only fill a third of the space. Between its glazed clay walls, they blend 10 native grape varieties, mainly Mandó, Picapoll and Sumoll. First they crush them the old-fashioned way: with their feet, to preserve around 30% of the stem. This method lets them keep that part of the grape without breaking it, to avoid bitterness. Then they use a stick for the first few days before letting the product ferment for months, when it becomes covered with a layer or “hat” that separates the skins from the pulp. This layer, produced by the carbon dioxide of the grape, explains Palau, is so strong that it can hold a person. Finally, they extract the liquid with the “bleeding” method, where the cork stopper at the bottom of the deposit has been replaced with a tap. Above all, Palau explains that this wine has “the essence of the wines from the past, but it is not like the wines from the past.” If they pressed the entire contents of the vat, including the skins, it would result in a very bitter, hard drink. However, “we want a wine with identity, not a weird wine.”
That tina is one of the 100 that remain in an area of four square miles between the towns of Manresa and Terrassa, and it is the only one that has been restored to make wine and is surrounded by vines. This region once had 30,000 hectares dedicated to wine in a sort of “wine boom,” when the Bages area exported to the north of Catalonia and France. Then, in the late 19th century, a phylloxera plague contaminated all those vineyards. The region ended up converting to textile production. The tinas were very useful in their time, because it was more profitable to work the grapes on the hill and then transport them in a liquid state than to transport the grapes for processing elsewhere, considering the state of the roads back then. For Palau, however, these historical constructions are much more than that: “They are the most important wine legacy of the Bages,” structures common throughout southern Europe, but which in this particular region have been “a dead heritage,” unknown to the locals for many years. He applauds that the Barcelona Provincial Council recently decided to restore them.
Rather than using the trendy label of “natural wine,” Palau prefers to refer to Arboset as one that is “very little intervened.” After removing it from the tina, it spends a year aging, half of it in clay vats – a more porous material that leaves a lighter aroma – and then in an oak barrel. He believes that the sector has “gone too far with industrialization” and the preponderance of the stainless steel tank, although he does not fall into pure romanticism either: “We didn’t recover the ancestral method just because; we believe it adds value for the future.” He speaks in a scenario marked by climate change that will generate more alcoholic, acidic and mature wines. Still, he does not want to believe that the only alternative for the winemakers of tomorrow is fleeing to the hillsides.
The Bages forest is the differentiating element that Abadal fights for with all its products. The land is “not as fertile as the Priorat, somewhere between the heat of the coast and the coolness of the Pyrenees,” but it provides a unique balsamic touch that is enhanced by mixing several native grape varieties. Their vineyards are on a “more stressful” clay and limestone terrain where they have to make the most of every drop of water.
Palau has closely followed the achievements of this 40-year-old winery, which is just two years younger than himself. He has seen recognition awarded to their red Mandó variety, which took a decade, and praise bestowed on their white Picapoll. However, before Valentí Roqueta created the brand, his family had already been making wine in the same farmhouse in Santa Maria d’ Horta d’ Avinyó for 800 years. Like any good Catalan farmhouse, it has a room with thirteen barrels to defy droughts, plagues and any bad luck that comes its way, explains Ramón Roqueta, the current general director. In those same chestnut barrels in their basement they make a vi ranci of up to 70 years, which they sell along with their exclusive, sophisticated 3.9 estate wine, which received accolades in 2016.
The hours go by and the thermometer reads 102 degrees Fahrenheit. In the middle of the heat wave, Miquel Palau describes the vineyards of Abadal and tells the story of the tinas, sounding as fascinated as if he had just discovered them. He has been Abadal’s oenologist for 14 harvests, but he maintains the same enthusiasm as the first time, when he arrived as one of the first graduates in this discipline after studying agricultural engineering. “There is a lot of craftsmanship involved, but also some science and a lot of method.” Many months must pass before he knows if he was able to improve any aspect of the previous season, but patience is an essential ingredient of his job. And never forgetting about his roots.
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