Salvador "Salva" Batlle carries the countryside and nature in his veins. By the time he was nine years old he already knew how to drive a tractor and at just 16 he made his first wine with grapes from the 22 hectares of vineyards that his family, grape growers in Rondonyà (Tarragona), works in the Baix Penedès and sells to the large wineries in the area.
He could have chosen to stay in his native village, but his desire to follow his own path led him first to New Zealand and finally to Agullana, a small village in the Alt Empordà, 15 minutes by car from the French border. There he created Cosmic Vinyaters, where he makes wines with names like Libertad (Freedom) or Valentía (Courage), which are some of the values that inspire him.
"I didn't choose Empordà; Empordà chose me," says Salva, 36, who bought his small winery with a flat above it where he has lived since 2013. When the locals found out that there was a new guy in the village who wanted to make wine, they offered him a couple of old vineyards -there aren't many in the area- and he became passionate about Cariñena. "This variety has not come into my life by chance," says Salva. "The first vineyard I came across in Agullana is planted with Cariñena Blanca, Cariñena Tinta and Garnacha Gris (called Garnatxa Roja in Empordà); the first wine I made here was a blend of the three.”
Located 300 metres above sea level, about 20 km in a straight line from the Mediterranean, this first vineyard he rented is one of the highest in Empordà. It is planted with Cariñena Blanca, a local variety that needs poor soils without clay or humidity and which is one of Cosmic's greatest treasures.
"It is a fresh variety, with a lot of acidity and structure but it has always been ill-treated. It has been in this area for 300-400 years but it is not recognised by the European Union,” explains Salva, who points out that international varieties are fully accepted in the area. "It's a sad state of affairs, but unfortunately a lot of things happen because decisions are made in offices and they forget about tradition and the terroir".
That's why Valentía, his wine made from 60-year-old white cariñena vines, is outside the DO Empordà. “I don’t care whether or not Cariñena Blanca has an identity card, although the DO rightly does. They don't even know how many hectares are planted.”
Since his arrival in the region, Salva has focused his energies on several tasks: re-grafting the international varieties planted since the 1980s with local varieties, planting new vineyards, mainly of Cariñena Blanca, and recovering abandoned old vines to preserve the region's identity. "If no one plants more Cariñena Blanca in 20 years, this variety will be lost," he claims.
In this area, the vineyard is only a small part of the economy. "Life gave me this little piece of land but it was not like I arrived and I suddenly had acres of old vines at my disposal and grandparents telling me how to tend them," Salva explains.
One of the reasons why Agullana has few vineyards or wineries is that until the middle of last century, a good part of the population worked in one of the 54 cork factories in the region (cork oaks make up around 45% of the tree area in Baix Empordà and 25% of Alt Empordà). With the arrival of the train to the coast, the factories moved to Palafrugell and the people left. Today, only four cork factories are operating in an area where tourism is one of the main economic activities.
Salva, who is very spiritual, has high hopes for his new vineyards in La Vajol, a village to the north of Agullana with vines at 600 metres above sea level, the highest in Empordà. There, the song of the cicadas is heard and nature is palpable on a large scale. "This area has a special energy and is very important for the future of Cosmic. We are influenced by the sea, pristine mountain ranges and granite soils, which gives wines a sharp, pure expression," explains Salva, who has planted Cariñena Blanca and Gris here.
In this area of Mediterranean influence, with the Canigó mountain (2,800 metres) as the climatic and geographical reference point of the Pyrenees, the cold Tramontana wind is a valuable ally for Salva, who works his 6.5 hectares of vineyards organically. He also follows biodynamic guidelines, although he rejects the natural moniker. "There is so much confusion that I prefer to defend my work from the vineyard and with minimal intervention. I am an old school pagès (farmer) and vinyater (grower): I work the vineyards, I produce the wine, I sell it and I close the circle. What's important is the quality of my wine, that it evolves well and that people like it,” insists Salva.
In his small winery, where the statue of a small Buddha rests at the entrance, Salva ferments part of his wines in wood and stainless steel tanks, but amphorae are his favourite fermentation vessel, which he keeps in a heated room. "Mud is a fantastic system for the type of wine I make; it provides good micro-oxygenation, does not transmit aromas and lends a lot of elegance. But don't get me wrong, wine isn't worth more for the amphora. In the end, the vineyard and the grapes are the crucial elements".
At present, he has seven wines in his Empordà range, where he looks for freshness and tension, and which he has named according to the emotions he feels when making them. His Garnacha Gris wine, a variety sensitive to oxidation and which Salva macerated with skins for a few days, is called Confiança. "It was the first natural wine that I made being entirely conscientious of the type of wine I wanted. It is a delicate variety but I needed to be confident, accepting that a mistake could be made. It has citrus notes and good acidity, which is something I look for. It's a variety with a great future in Empordà,” says Salva, who believes it is particularly suited to making outstanding sweet wines.
Other wines in his range are Valentía (Cariñena Blanca), Paciencia (a Cariñena Blanca pet-nat that he disgorges in December), Llibertat (Cariñena Tinta) and Essencia, his sweet Cariñena Blanca wine that Salva defines as "a combination of extremes of sugar and acidity, a balance of imbalances.”
The latest to join the Cosmic family are Les Fades del Granit, an ancestral sparkling Garnacha Gris fermented in amphorae, and Encarinyades, which mixes three Cariñenas from the same plot: white (80%), red (15%) and grey (5%). "I saw the image on the label in my mind and asked an artist to interpret it. It is a wine that is difficult to classify because it is neither red nor white; it mixes the youth of Cariñena Blanca, the experience of Cariñena Tinta and the complexity of Cariñena Gris,” explains Salva, who ferments the three varieties in amphorae and chestnut barrels and macerates the Cariñena Tinta with skins and whole bunches to gain more depth.
Although he feels fully at ease working and living in Empordà, Salva has not strayed from his origins. In fact, he continues to make wines, mainly with international varieties, in four hectares that he manages in his family estate in Penedès plus some 80-year-old Macabeo that he buys from his friend Joan. "Philosophy is all very well but reality has to be taken into account," Salva says. "The wines I make in Penedès help me build what I have here.”
The grapes he harvests -all of them by hand- are transported in his van to the winery in Agullana to be vinified hence the fact that the wines are outside the appellation. With these nomad grapes, Salva makes five wines: Gratitud Sauvignon Blanc, “the wine that has brought income to my project”, says Salva, comes from a plot at an elevation of 600m in Serra de Montmell, and is fermented in stainless steel tanks, barrels and amphorae; Gratitud Cabernet Franc, a fragile, fresh wine aged in amphorae and barrels; Passió Marselan, a cross between Cabernet Sauvignon and Garnacha planted by Salva in Penedès, is a sort of bridge between his origins in Montmell and Empordà. Via Fora Macabeo, fermented with skins and Via Fora Sumoll "pay tribute to tradition and are wines of survival and joy,” adds Salva.
Year after year, Salva sees his project flourish. He recently expanded his winery, freeing him from the constraints of working in a reduced space and allowing him to increase production from 17,000 bottles in 2016 to 24,000 in 2017. His latest source of joy is Consciencia, his new Cariñena Gris wine (2018 is the first vintage) that is born in the granite soils of La Vajol, but at this point in time, he doesn't know whether he will grow further in the future. "We'll see. As Pitu Roca [sommelier and co-owner of three-Michelin starred restaurant El Celler de Can Roca] says, the main thing is to grow at an agrarian pace, and that's just what I’m doing“.