They met in 2007 at a biodynamic seminar in Granja Laya in the province of Tarragona (Catalonia). Carles Ortiz was a winegrower who had been selling organic grapes in Priorat for 10 years and wanted to add extra value to his crop. By then, Ester Nin, winemaker at Daphne Glorian’s Clos i Terrasses in Gratallops, followed biodynamic principles and was making her own wine, the red Nit de Nin, since 2003.
This first encounter eventually led them to bring together their vineyards, efforts and lives. Now they are family with two children (their own son and a daughter from Carles’ previous relationship) and a small company called Familia Nin Ortiz, S.L. that manages 13 hectares of vines, 12 in Priorat plus another one in a high altitude part of El Pla de Manlleu, Ester’s hometown in Penedès. The ground floor of their home is packed with wooden vats, amphorae and barrels. There isn’t a great deal of separation between work and private life.
Ester and Carles think of wine as an organic soil-yeasts-fermentation cycle. “Only a living soil creates the conditions to obtain yeasts capable of developing fully spontaneous fermentations”, they say. They plough their vines with their four mules and pick grapes in late August, which is rather early for the area. Harvest dates are set based on pH levels —their ‘top commandment’— and they never tweak with their wines. “Rectified wines are soulless wines,” says Carles.
They are not dogmatic, though. Ester has always believed that Priorat could have not survived without herbicides –the difficulty of growing vines when grapes were worth 20 cents per kilo left little margin to do things in a different way. They themselves have neighbours who still use herbicides –the photo above shows how soil colour changes from biodynamic growing to herbicide-treated vines. Carles acknowledges that he drinks many Priorats sourced from similar vineyards. Style and expressiveness are obviously different, but he says that with their sunshine, poor soils and low yields it is relatively easy to make clean wines in the area: “It’s almost impossible to get more than one and a half kilos per vine”.
What do they like best from Porrera? “It’s a magical area; that lovely sea breeze blows in the afternoon,” Carles says. “The terrain is extremely hilly and we have tough schist soils mixed in with clay thus providing good balance between freshness and structure,” he adds.
Apart from experiencing what a biodynamic vineyard looks like, visiting the plots of Ester and Carles proved an enlightening session on the evolution of winegrowing in Priorat. Located in Les Sentius valley, a narrow line stretching from Porrera to the road linking Falset to Reus, Planetes de Nin is the couple’s largest vineyard. Carles planted four hectares of Garnacha in terraces between 1988 and 2001, some Cabernet in the valley bottom which was later regrafted with white Cariñena, an one hectare of red Cariñena later in 2008 —this time he planted it directly on the slope (in coster) as it was done traditionally in the area.
“We have realised that costers are the future of Priorat,” Carles explains. Terraces leave space between plants, so we have dense vegetation. To obtain high-quality grapes we have to go through the vineyards up to four or five times — we need to do green pruning, leaf thinning, shoot thinning… while in costers we’re done in one go”, he says. In terms of production, the coster is more profitable: Yields from 1,500 terraced vines planted on one hectare stand at around 2,500-3,000 kg against 4,000 kilos from 8,000 plants in one hectare of coster.
Ester and Carles would love to see some kind of conservation status for this traditional winegrowing practice, the most respectful with the region’s landscape. “As with village (vi de vila) and single-vineyard wines (vi de finca), it would make sense to establish a coster category,” Carles points out.
More significantly and given that Nin-Ortiz champion whole bunch fermentation, stems are only used when sourced from vineyards in costers. Their experience in the region has shown that stems ripen fully only in vines enduring difficult conditions —be it very old vines growing small-sized berries or high-density young vines. “We don’t achieve this in terraced vineyards,” they assure.
Ester and Carlos both like how stem-fermented wines develop over time and how acidity becomes naturally integrated in the wine. They were inspired by French producers and the old Scala Dei and Masía Barril wines prior to the revolution that the region experienced in the 1980s. “Despite the fact that stems push pH levels higher, the wines feel fresh and have extra structure and tannins so that wood tannins are not necessary”, they add.
Other winemaking techniques they favour include the use of cooling chambers to cool grapes down to -4ºC and grain-by-grain selection to ensure that no raisined berries make their way into the vats –up to 15% of the harvest is usually discarded. As for fermentation, 70% of whole clusters are blended with 30% of trodden grapes. They use their hands to gently soak the cap, a soft pigeage or a peristaltic bomb in the case of bigger tanks.
Three different wines are sourced from Planetes de Nin. The classic Planetes de Nin red (€32.60 at Vila Viniteca the 2014 vintage) is a blend of young Cariñena planted in coster with destemmed, amphorae-aged Garnacha sourced from terraced vines. Part of the latter is bottled separately as Planetes de Nin Garnatxes en Àmfora (€24.20 at Vila Viniteca). This is the only fully destemmed wine made by Nin Ortiz, and is also the freshest and most approachable; it is fermented in wood containers and spends around seven months in amphorae. The latest addition to the range is an exotic white Cariñena of which I wrote in detail a few days ago.
The original Nit de Nit (€68.50 at Vila Viniteca) launched originally by Ester is a powerful, structured red with bright acidity and minerality which benefits from some cellaring. Grapes are sourced from Mas d’en Caçador, a 112-year-old vineyard planted with Cariñena, Garnacha and Garnacha Peluda (downy-leaved Garnacha). A nearby plot planted with the same grapes has been added recently, yet the overall surface of three hectares barely yields 3,800 kg in a good year. According to Ester, Mas d’en Caçador’s greatest virtue is its north-northeastern exposure.
The name of the vineyard has been considerably enhanced on the label with the release of a new Nit de Nit single-vineyard red a few weeks ago. A 100% Garnacha, grapes for Coma d’en Romeu (€68.50 at Vila Viniteca) are sourced from an 80-year-old plot with southeast exposure. Carlos says it has taken them five years to obtain the freshness they were looking for. With its nearly aerial quality, the wine provides a fantastic contrast to the restrained, structured Mas d’en Caçador and is a fragrant, delicate red capable of capturing the herbal complexity of the Mediterranean scrubland.
Familia Nin Ortiz is one of the few Spanish producers who are members of La Renaissance des Appellations, the biodynamic association led by Nicolas Joly (La Coulée de Serrant) with strict quality criteria for its affiliates. Ester and Carles also promoted a group of biodynamic producers in Penedès.
The couple is deeply attached to this wine region near Barcelona. From a vineyard grown at over 500m of altitude in her hometown of El Pla de Manlleu, Ester makes Selma de Nin (€59.65 the 2013 vintage at Vinissimus). A really intriguing white, it blends Rhône grapes (Roussanne, Marsanne, Viognier) with Chenin Blanc and the indigenous Parellada, locally called Montònega –some producers defend that Montònega has developed distinctive features in the highest areas of Penedès; smaller berries and significantly lower yields. Using this rare variety, they make a limited production wine called Terra Vermella (€38.30 at Vinissimus). While Ester and Carles are better known for their Priorats, these whites, none of which are part of any appellation, are probably their most secret wines.