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A visit to the historic Cava estate of Gramona

I had the opportunity this week to visit one of the top cava producers, Gramona, for the unveiling of the current release of their tête du cuvée wine, Enoteca. This one being from the 2002 vintage – not released for 15 years!

After an easy 60 minute drive to the estate, we started with a few great hours in the vineyard.

The Philosopher Vigneron

We started with meeting Jaume Gramona, and he started with a discussion of his philosophy of viticulture and oenology.

He is a philosopher vigneron filled with passion and drive who is also very much a proponent of organic viticulture and biodynamics. But he stressed that the goal for him of these methods of raising grapes was rooted in sustainability. He feels for the vineyards to be sustainable that they must be tended to in these ways. He pushed the sustainability beyond the vineyard and into the winery. But what does he mean for a winery to be sustainable? He explained that they have taken measures to reduce their energy consumption – they have 12 bore holes outside the winery, 140 metres deep, all for geothermal; they have photovoltaic panels – enough to take care of 17% of the winery’s electricity needs; and have converted all lights to LED, which has the complimentary benefit of reducing the risk of light-shock, something he feels is particularly important especially with sparkling wine. All these methods I’m familiar with at wineries that are trying to go “Green” or “Carbon neutral”, etc., but I like how he described it as making the winery “sustainable”. It sort of encapsulates the ideas and methods in a holistic way, rather than in a seemingly “green-washing” way.

Crazy Press

There were some really cool things in the winery, including a traditional champagne press. Not one of the cylindrical ones we’re all used to seeing, rather this was a horizontal press, manufactured by Les Pressoirs Coquard.

It has a 8,000kg capacity, and the full cycle takes 4+ hours! With time for cleaning and loading they can only do 4 loads a day, limiting them to 32,000 kg a day. And that means 24 hour running, pushing the sorting work to take place in the middle of the night. Not optimal, for sure, so he’s getting a second one!

We continued through the winery to even more surprises.

Press Fractions

Jaume is a serious scientist (he’s also a professor at the university in Tarragona), and dare I say a tinkerer. He wasn’t happy with the press fractions coming out of the press settings, so he decided to make his own, based on turbidity!

The particular problem Jaume has with the press fractions is that the first 200-250 litres coming out of the press contain too many solids for him. Jaume has the press set up so that the first bit of liquid to come out gets diverted to a less-than-desirable tank. He uses the above contraption to measure the turbidity and as soon as the juice thins out enough, he diverts to a this-is-the-good-stuff tank. (The first too-turbid litres get filtered and turned into a light and easy every-day lightly sparkling, not too dissimilar from a pet-net.) He can use the contraption to make as many fractions as he wants. He feels that for the long aged wines (like the one we were going to taste later – 15 years!), the must has to have a very low pH. So for those wines he takes the first press fraction, which has a pH of about 2.8. The next fraction, at a pH of 3.0 goes into wines with “less” aging, like 4-5 years. You might be wondering why he just doesn’t acidify – well, biodynamics does not allow for this, he said, just as it doesn’t allow for the use of enzymes.

Yeast

I’ve known that the Champenoise generally use cultured yeast to inoculate their must, often with a yeast aptly called “Champagne yeast”.  It is thought that the yeast should not impart it’s own flavors so as not to overwhelm the delicate aromas of the pretty underripe grapes. But Jaume was challenging the use of cultured yeast and allowing the ferments to start naturally. This got me thinking and challenging my perception of Champagne needing to be inoculated. Does it really need to be? I can’t wait to ask some Champagne winemakers!

Light Shock

Ever had a beer that was “skunked”? One that really just stinks, you know, like skunk! Well, that’s likely the result of light shock, and is more likely to occur in a clear bottle. The UV rays from light can deeply affect wine or beer.

Every wonder why Cristal champagne is wrapped in orange plastic? Well, that’s because Cristal is bottled (inexplicably!) in a clear bottle, making it highly susceptible to light shock. The orange wrapping provides 85% protection from the UV. Gramona uses a clear plastic that only gets 15% of the UV, but they have a green bottle so that probably is sufficient.

Did you know each one is hand wrapped?

I’ve been in a lot of wineries in my life. And while I truly believe you learn something at each visit, I can’t remember the last time I learned so much in one visit!

Visiting the Vineyards of Gramona

But then it was off to the vineyards! And we travelled in this beast! Super fun!

Well, at least until the battery ran out!

But then we got picked up in the back-up Gramona vineyard vehicle. Stylin’!!

Biodynamics

We spent alot of time talking about the benefits of different parts of biodynamic viticulture. Like manure. Steaming piles of manure!

And biodiversity …

And about protected species of cattle (no they don’t milk or eat these young ladies) …

And plowing with horses …

The plowing is actually very important. Repeated tractor runs over a vineyard, or any farmland in general, will compact soils due to the weight of the tractor. This makes it harder for the roots of the vines to penetrate deep in search of water and nutrients. The common belief is the deeper the roots, the better the grapes. Hence the use of horses to plow.

But then we had a new-for-me visit to the building where they work on some of the “preparations” that are required per biodynamic rules.

Like the ground quartz …

And the cow horns (part of preparation 500)

And some crazy manure that was growing what looked like tiny mushrooms, in a dark room …

Jaume talked about how he’s working with some of his growers to become biodynamic. To assuage their fears of potential yield decline, he’s agreed to pay his growers by hectare rather than by tonne. Turns out this is *very* unusual for Spain, and for EU in general. Strange for me, because this is very common for higher end grapes in California. It’s a basic easy premise to understand. If you want to buy better grapes, at the sacrifice of yield, then buy on acreage rather than tonnage!

The wines!

We had an intermezzo in the vineyards …

… where we had a chance to taste some of the still wines of the estate.

One of the standouts for me was a pre-release sample from Jaume’s son’s doing, a wine made from Incrocio Manzoni (on the far right in the picture). This is a very rare grape, a cross of Pinot Bianco and Riesling.  Elisabetta Foradori makes a beautiful example in the Dolomites in Italy, but other than that I’ve not had much opportunity to try the variety. I hope I get a chance to buy the young Gramona’s bottling when it’s released!

Then it was off to the cellars for a quick tour …

Interestingly the wines are aged on lees with natural cork, rather than crown cap. (See the top row in the above stacks of shinners.) I applaud the desire to the age the wines under the best scenario possible (there’s possibility that crown caps aren’t stable after 8 years), but the labor costs of manually disgorging each wine from cork must be huge. And I wonder if they have twice the TCA risk, given that the wine is in contact with two corks in it’s lifetime in the bottle.

Then it was time to go upstairs to a beautiful dining room to taste the cavas!

Not a bad day when you get to taste 6 vintages of a producer’s tête du cuvée, with the oldest one having spent 20 years on the lees! Think about where you were 20 years ago. That’s when they put these bottles down in their dark cellars for the long rest. Not many Champagnes with that length on the lees, that’s for sure!

So how were they? The short answer is superb. The longer answer needs more nuance and observation.

The first thing you notice when tasting a sparkling wine with this length on lees is that they look like they’re still wines. There are very few bubbles evident in the glass.  But on the palate it is clearly fully sparkling! With a mousse that is very delicate and fine.

There was also an obvious autolytic character on both the nose and palate. In my experience, at least in the US, it’s the rare cava that gets a clear autolytic character. Since moving to Spain and experiencing more higher end cava, it’s much more common that I have seen previously, and it looks like it’s related to having a super long time on lees, like minimum 8 years. So if you like that style, like I do, it’s worth searching out cavas with a very long time on lees.

These cavas were also all very elegant. I often like to ask myself if I think a specific wine is more masculine in style or more feminine. These Enoteca wines didn’t fit either really. They showed good characteristics of both (sweepingly generalized, I know) categories.

Fernando Mora MW, who was there as well, observed that he thought the common thread through all the different vintages was a similarity of tension in the wines. And I have to agree. They were all brut nature, but they weren’t in the least bit austere, and the balance on the palate lended them to a beautiful tension, common to all vintages we tried.

Probably a good place for me to address residual sugar. These Enoteca wines are all brut nature, meaning they have no sugar added in the liquor d’expedition after disgorgement. But there is a sense of roundness, almost a noticeable RS on the palate. I queried this and Xavier Gramona discussed how it’s his scientific opinion that it’s caused by the yeast during the final time of it’s rest on it’s lees. He feels that if you give the dead yeast long enough time in the bottle, it will continue to have affects on the wine, and eventually it comes to a stage where it releases elements that give the perception of sweetness. Because the Enoteca wines spend such a long time on lees, the action of the dead yeast will eventually cause a non brut nature sensation on the palate. It certainly doesn’t come from the liquor d’expediction itself. Theirs comes from an ancient solera that they keep feeding every year …

All in all, a fantastic day in Penedes, visiting one of the top producers of cava. Gramona has had a reputation for the extraordinary quality of their super long aged cavas, and it was a treat to try 6 vintages of them!

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