With the imminent announcement of the first Cavas de Paraje Calificado, vineyards have become the centre of attention for Spanish fizz producers. If you were to visit Gramona five years ago, you would have probably been told about their ability to age Cava for extended periods under cork (never crown caps) or about Xarel.lo, whose cellaring potential makes it the backbone of their sparkling wines. My visit took place just a few days ago, and this time we spent most of the time on the vineyard.
On a stormy November morning, we stood by a pit dug by French soil expert Claude Bourguignon on the ground of one of the Gramona’s vineyards in the outskirts of Sant Sadurní d'Anoia, near Barcelona, while Jaume Gramona explained his radical shift in terms of how he views vine growing.
Everything started after he attended a course in Burgundy led by Claude and Lydia Bourguignon. Founders of Lams, a laboratory focused on soil tests, they are indefatigable soil scientists, no matter whether the crop is vinous or not, and have repeatedly alerted about the dangers of soil compaction and the loss of microbiological life on the ground.
“Thirty years after I finished my studies in Dijon (Jaume Gramona holds the Diplôme National d'Enologie from this university), I returned to Burgundy to discover that I was the only winemaker among vine growers on the course,” he recalls. Jaume soon clashed with Lydia’s strong character and she referred to him as ‘the chemist’ of the group. Despite the initial disputes and the shock of facing a completely different approach to vine growing, Gramona’s winemaker completed the course and eventually asked the Bourguignons to consult for him and for some of his grape suppliers.
Like many other producers in Spain, Gramona switched from conventional to integrated vine growing and then took the leap to organic farming. Their commitment to biodynamics (Demeter certified) starts in 2014 in the plots destined to Enoteca (€128 at Lavinia or via Wine Searcher) and Celler Batlle (€54.40 at Lavinia or via Wine Searcher), the house’s top Cavas, the white wine Font Jui Xarel.lo (€12.90 at Vinissimus) and the red Bru (€21.95 at Vinisssimus), made from Pinot Noir. In the 2015 harvest, grapes used in their Cava III Lustros (€27.90 at Lavinia or via Wine Searcher) were also biodynamically grown. “Bourguignon told us that there was little life in our soils, but thanks to his advice we have managed to push roots further down so that the plant can feed by itself instead of relying on fertilizers,” he explains. Undoubtedly, Jaume Gramona’s main concern, in terms of the ground under his feet, is its biological life rather than performing physical and chemical analysis.
“The early stages of the life of a plant are decisive, but our approach is usually wrong because we create stressed living creatures. We should adapt ourselves to the plant rather than the other way round,” he adds. That’s probably the reason why all new plantings in Gramona are bush vines directly grafted on the field. “Creating robust plants” is their new philosophy.
The vineyards surrounding the winery, on the outskirts of Sant Sadurní d’Anoia, perfectly reflect Gramona’s story. There is an irrigated, trellised plot planted with Riesling (this variety wouldn’t survive here without extra water) destined to Vi de Glass, a sweet wine made from frozen grapes which forms part of what Jaume currently considers his “techonologic wines”, but also a parcel planted with Chardonnay following Claude Bourguignon’s advice and all the vineyards destined to the family’s top Cavas: 18 hectares named L’Origin de Gramona which have been submitted to be part of the new Cava de Paraje Calificado category.
The estate has new tenants living alongside the vines: a donkey, a mare, some chickens, sheep trained to eat just grass (not leaves or grapes) and Albera cows —which do not produce milk nor meat— whose role is to clear the forests at a rate of 10 hectares per animal per year. A defiant looking bull ensures the reproduction of this breed, which originates from the north of Girona. According to Jaume, it is in danger of extinction.
“The ‘masía’, as traditional Catalan farmhouses are called, entirely meets Steiner's requirements for a farm (Rudolf Steiner is the Austrian philosopher who develop the principles of biodynamics in the first quarter of the 20th century)”, says Gramona. “These days they are kept apart, but animals and plants are meant to be together.”
Animal manure is used to make compost and biodynamic preparations. In the large shed destined for this purpose I saw horns, crumbled blocks of quartz in a container which are later turned into fine silica powder with the help of a bottle as Jaume himself showed us (see photo), and various containers to make biodynamic preparations.
Is biodynamic viticulture more expensive? “The initial investment is considerable, particularly if you use animals, and there is a marked drop in yields at the beginning," says Jaume Gramona, whose production has dropped from 8,000-10,000 kilos per hectare to 4,000-6,000 kilos. In the medium to long-term he hopes to improve the average quality of the wines so that they can produce their top-of-the-range Cavas in more vintages.
Another element that has drastically improved quality is the new tilted plate press, says Jaume Gramona. Thanks to this machine, which is able to identify three different types of must based on their quality, can work with whole clusters and avoids racking. The first must, with higher levels of acidity and a lower pH, can be destined directly to the premium Cavas.
In fact, III Lustros, Celler Batlle and Enoteca share the same blend and are, in fact, the same wine aged for eight, 10 and 14 years respectively, even if those extended aging periods cannot be achieved in every vintage. As a result, Gramona has requested that the three wines are considered for the Cava de Paraje Calificado category. A second site, comprising six hectares and called Mas Escorpí, is also in line to join the category. Grapes from these vines go to the Argent range, which includes a Chardonnay Blanc de Blancs aged for 48 months and an extremely pale rosé made from Pinot Noir and aged for 36 months.
While spontaneous fermentations are the norm in Cava base wines, neutral, selected yeast are used in the second fermentation in bottle. “Biodynamics allows the use of selected yeasts in sparkling wines: it is the only exception”, explains Jaume while he shows me a naturally harmonious sensitive crystallization of the yeast (a graphic imagen indicating organic balance in wines and other elements) that would surely be applauded by biodynamics followers.
A week after his passionate defense of biodynamics in the farm, Jaume Gramona conducted a three-day course on sparkling wines along with sommelier Custodio Zamarra in Madrid’s Chamber of Commerce. The programme was very concise compared to the six-month module he regularly teaches at the University of Tarragona.
I was especially interested in attending a tasting of seven Cavas with extended aging times ranging from two to 14 years. He previously handed comprehensive data explaining the process of autolysis provoked by the cellular degradation of the yeasts inside the bottle plus the different elements, proteins and nucleic acids among others, which both provide specific aromas and fix the carbonic gas throughout this complex process.
Jaume encouraged the audience, which included a majority of sommeliers, to keep the wine in their mouths for almost a minute and experience how the carbonic aggressiveness of the youngest sample turned into a gentle and creamy feel in the extended aging Cavas.
It was interesting to notice the lack of a linear quality improvement. While the III Lustros 2007 (eight years of aging) was at its peak, the previous sample (six years) showed such vitality and vibrant acidity that made me think it could very well surpass the ageing potential of the 2007. The difference was more marked in the oldest Cavas. The 2003 (12 years) showed the first signs of tiredness and slight oxidation, but the the equivalent of Enoteca 2001 (14 years) was complex and in great shape —a magnificent combination of citrus notes and creaminess.
“Surpassing the six year barrier is much harder than reaching that age,” said Jaume, fully aware that very few wines manage to gracefully reach certain stages of aging. Gramona’s top cavas are all biodynamically made now but, given their extensive aging times, we will have to wait a good number of years before we can see what they are capable of.