“There might have been over 150 grape varieties in Cataluña before phylloxera,” says Ramón Jané of Mas Candí. Since they set up in Penedès in the 2000s they have been looking back to the past in search of authenticity. “Apparently, Sumoll was one of the most widely grown red varieties 70 years ago but it was later rejected because of its low quality,” Jané adds. Sumoll fell out of favour for its light colour, high acidity and low alcohol but in the current context of climate change, it is these features that have made it appealing. It is no coincidence that a majority of Catalonia’s indigenous grapes show high levels of acidity.
According to Jané, grapes worth recovering include Mandó (which is the same Garrut discovered by Torres and better known for the wines made by producer Celler del Roure in Valencia); Roigenc (“a light-coloured Garnacha, but different to Garnacha Gris”); Trobat (a white grape which INCAVI, the Catalan Institute of Vines and Wines, established it is the same as Alcañón, grown in Somontano near the Pyrenees in Aragón); Malvasía and other varieties currently grown in Sardinia which could have originated in Catalonia and were taken there when the island was ruled by the Kingdom of Aragón. This could be the case of the Mónica variety, which Jané thinks it is related to Morenillo grown in Terra Alta, although according to Jancis Robinson’s Wine Grapes no parentage has been proved between Catalan grapes and those grown in Sardinia.
As Raventós i Blanc proudly blends its Sumoll and Bastardo Negro (which could be a variant of Graciano) in their new serious, bone dry sparkling Textures de Pedra, Torres has gone from being the leading advocate of international grapes to tracking Catalan vineyards in search of ancient grape varieties. Their choice for Penedès is Forcada, a white variety found in the Garrotxa area near Girona and the Pyrenees, which stands out for its marked citrus acidity. Torres is already to growing it on their highest vineyards in the appellation.
For a Cava-oriented wine growing region (most of its 25,000Ha under vine are destined to the well-known Spanish sparkling or end up as DO Catalunya), only 10% — around 2,500 hectares— is sold as DO Penedès. This is the reason why most grapes are grown thinking of Cava instead of still wines. “Except for Torres, the market for still wine grapes is almost non-existent in Penedès,” explains Jordi Arnán from Celler Pardas, who still sells a significant quantity of the grapes they grow. In this regard, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the small varietal revolution going on in the area is being spearheaded by winemakers who see themselves firstly as winegrowers.
It has open the way for indigenous varieties in the area, helped in no small way by the prestige of extended aging Cavas which include Xarel.lo in their blends. When it is used for still wines, Xarel.lo displays herbaceous aromas (fennel, aniseed notes) and a serious structure on the palate making these wines suitable for aging.
Carles Esteva from Can Ràfols dels Caus pioneered high quality still wines made from Xarel.lo. He started experimenting with oak in 1996 and released his Xarel.lo Pairal in the 2000 vintage. Grapes are sourced from the oldest vineyard in the property, dating back to 1948. Wisely enough, Esteba usually pours mature vintages of this wine in tastings to show how well it stands the test of time.
The new generation of wine producers who started in the 2000s (Enric Soler, Pardas and Mas Candí among others) have fiercely focused on Xarel.lo —Loxarel was even named after it. Most of them use natural yeasts and try to reflect terroir aided by the limestone quality of many soils in the area. Some well-known Cava producers have made good use of their experience with sparkling wines, as is the case with Gramona and its three Xarel.lo wines fermented in cement (Ovum), barrels (Font-Jui) and large wooden vats (Roent). For its part, Recaredo is involved in a still wine project called Can Credo which includes some natural wines and producer Raventós i Blanc (no longer part of the DO Cava) makes two white Xarel.lo wines: Silencis, and the natural Extrem. The Torres family has also followed the trend with the launch of a single-varietal Xarel.lo in its Jean Leon operation.
Xarel.lo is Penedès’ most widely grown grape and probably the one that copes better with draught, as it became clear in the 2016 harvest. Enric Soler, who makes three different Xarel.lo wines, refers to it as “the grape of the sun” and says it thrives in the lower areas of Penedès and the Garraf Massif. However, climate change has encouraged him to plant a vineyard at 500m above sea level in Torrelles de Foix (High Penedès), an area almost exclusively planted with the light, subtle Parellada, where his single-varietal Espenyalluchs is sourced. Recaredo has also planted vines in the Montpedrós area in the village of Sant Quintín de Mediona with altitudes ranging from 400 to 450m.
Xarel.lo’s recent popularity has helped its pinkish mutation to gain visibility despite the fact that the surface under vine it occupies is not really known as both are usually mixed in the vineyards. It is a late-ripening variety, with thick skins and higher acidity than the standard Xarel.lo. Loxarel not only makes a single-varietal white wine, but it also blends it with Pinot Noir for 999 (a rosé) and MM (a blanc de noirs), its Clàssic Penedès sparkling wines. Since it can be white, rosé or sparkling, versatility is Xarel.lo Vermell’s greatest strength.
The first Sumoll to reach the market was not allowed to be sold as part of DO Penedès. “We had to overcome many obstacles at the beginning,” explains Josep Queralt, winemaker at Heretat Mont-Rubí in L’Avella (Alt Penedès), the first producer to release a single-varietal Sumoll in the 2001 vintage. Eventually, this grape described by Queralt as multi-faceted, has become the winery’s flagship. “We make the pale Gaintus One Night’s rosé, a sparkling rosé, a young red called Gaintus Radical which aims to reflect Sumoll just as it is: pure, rustic, incisive and crystalline; the complex, deeper version of Gaintus Vertical and the sweet Gaintus Sobremadurado.”
Celler Pardas also had to release its first Sumoll (a rosé) outside the appellation. Their current range includes the entry-level red Sus Scofa and the premium Collita Roja. While Jordi Arnán describes Sumoll as “the most masochist grape on earth” for its robustness and rusticity, Ramón Jané from Mas Candí compares it with Nebbiolo. According to Josep Queralt, the name comes from the Latin word submollaire which means ripening or drying grapes (sumollar in Catalan). It appears that the grape was a key ingredient in wines destined to long ship voyages. “Its high acidity, low pH, rusticity and wild tannins ensured that the wines withstood the journey,” Queralt explains.
Both Josep Queralt and Jordi Arnán agree on the existence of three types of Sumoll with significant differences in size and shape. Queralt advocates for preserving as many biotypes as possible of this variety which had a major presence in Catalan vineyards until the 1950s but now accounts for just 150Ha, according to Catalonia’s Vine Register. In contrast with the neglect in its homeland, Josep proudly reminds that the Australian CSIRO (Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research) came up with four new drought-resistant grape varieties by crossing Sumoll with Cabernet Sauvignon.
Sumoll, which is the same grape as Vijariego Negro grown in the Canary Islands, was finally approved by the DO Penedès Regulatory Board in 2010 and is now allowed to be grown in the appellations of Catalunya, Pla de Bages and Tarragona. Unlike Cava, where it is not accepted, Sumoll can be used for Clàssic Penedès, the sparkling wine designation in the region –Clos Lentiscus makes a fine example of this type. In fact, if managing tannins and rusticity can be an issue with reds, acidity and tension are great assets when it comes to sparkling wines and rosés.
It’s worth noting that white Sumoll has nothing to do with the red one. According to INCAVI, it is synonymous with Merseguera and only 4Ha are grown in the whole of Catalonia.
The historic and reportedly hard-to-grow Malvasía de Sitges, which was renamed Malvasía Aromática a few years ago, was progressively removed from the coastal vineyards of the region after phylloxera in favour of other Cava varieties. In Sitges, Sant Joan Baptista Hospital preserved one hectare and kept the tradition of making a fortified sweet wine thanks to the legacy of diplomat Manuel Llopis i de Casades. Producers like Vega de Ribes, near Sitges, or Jané Ventura in El Vendrell (Baix Penedès) have pioneered its recovery and started making dry versions.
Its elegant nose, far more complex than the Muscats in the area, and its tremendous acidity which can bring tension and length, could well turn Malvasía into the new star of Penedès. According to the Catalan Vine Register, there are around 50Ha under vine, but interest is rapidly growing given its ability to thrive both as a single-varietal white and bringing in extra aromatics and freshness in Xarel.lo blends. Celler Pardas works both ways: it blends around 15% in its Xarel.lo-based Rupestris and made a single-varietal Malvasía, called Blau Cru, in the 2014 vintage with production hardly reaching a few hundred bottles.
Malvasía’s main drawback lies arguably in its difficulty to grow. Most producers regard it as an extremely demanding variety, prone to mildew and oidium, hard to prune and with an unusual vegetative growth which doesn’t even stop in September or October.
There are still very few wines available —Clos Lentiscus sparkling is one of them— but judging from the work being carried out by many wineries in the region, I’m positive that we will witness in Penedès the rebirth of Malvasía over the next few years.
Here comes a controversial issue: some producers form Alt Penedès talk about a variety, which they call Montónega. They claim it is not Parellada as it has lower yields, smaller grapes and pinkish skin. In their view, Montónega is more consistent than the traditionally light, smooth Parellada.
This is rather confusing as Montónega is, in many areas, a synonym of the common Parellada. INCAVI argues that it is not a different variety, so it may just be a singular clone.
Among the producers defending the singularity of Montónega is Llopart, which uses it as a base in its Cava Original —its longevity is proven after 60 months of extended aging with the less. In terms of still wines, the variety has found a big advocate in Mas Rodó. This winery, based in Sant Joan de Mediona in Alt Penedès, makes an unoaked 100% Montónega (and they state so on the label) from its oldest vineyard located at 500m above sea level.