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  • Lagravera: making wine in the land of erased vines
  • Lagravera: making wine in the land of erased vines
  • Lagravera: making wine in the land of erased vines
  • Lagravera: making wine in the land of erased vines
  • Lagravera: making wine in the land of erased vines
  • Lagravera: making wine in the land of erased vines
  • Lagravera: making wine in the land of erased vines
  • Lagravera: making wine in the land of erased vines
1 and 2. El Vinyet. 3. Pilar Salillas. 4. The winery. 5. Gravel. 6. Gypsum. 7. Mas La Parra. 8. The flock thay regularly grazes in Lagravera vineyards. Photo credits: A.C. y Lagravera.

Wineries to watch

Lagravera: making wine in the land of erased vines

Amaya Cervera | March 6th, 2023

Isolated and forgotten, El Vinyet (vineyard in Catalan) carries the DNA of wine in its very name. Located in Castelló de Farfanya (Lleida), its gnarled vines, each with its own shape and form, look towards the Montsec. This is the first great massif of the Pre-Pyrenees and it bears a striking resemblance to the Montsant mountain in Priorat to the south. This comparison makes greater sense when you see the monastery of Santa Maria de Bellpuig de les Avellanes, a reminder of the perennial connection between monks and vines.

Established in 1166 by the Counts of Urgell, Les Avellanes was the most important Premonstratensian community in Catalonia. It even precedes the foundation of Scala Dei by the Carthusian monks in 1194. But, unlike Priorat, where vines remained despite all the crisis and difficulties, it became a residual crop in this area north of Lleida. Phylloxera, the construction of the Aragón Canal at the beginning of the 20th century that made it possible to grow other crops and the rural exodus explain the gradual abandonment of the vines. 

The Serra Llarga

Even today, a visit to the vineyards of Lagravera is a quest in search of hidden vines. The Arnó family founded this winery in 2006 to reclaim the pit that had provided their construction business with gravel for many years.

Its own location with regard to the territory within the DO Costers del Segre (only their white Ónra carries the DO seal) is somewhat confusing. While the winery stands in the village of Alfarràs in the Segrià subarea, the vineyards are scattered throughout another region called Noguera. This is the case of both Vinya Núria, in the old gravel quarry, and Mas La Parra, their most elevated vineyard, which despite being situated a long distance away, is also within the boundaries of the Algerri district. Both vineyards, as well as El Vinyet in Castelló de Farfanya, are part of the Artesa del Segre subarea. But Les Pedrisses, a plot with beautiful old vines in Ivars de Noguera, lies beyond the borders of the DO. 

Hence Lagravera regards the Serra Llarga, the narrow mountain range that extends to the north of Lleida, as a gentle prelude to the Pyrenees and a more significant influence. Pilar Salillas, managing director and winemaker, draws attention to the whitish gypsum-rich patches in these mountains, and its abundant presence in the vineyards. The mineral adds freshness and flavour to the wines in an area with extreme continental climate and isolated from the influence of the sea. She is also positive about the suitability of the soils for grape growing: "This area has always produced good fruit [Lleida is one of the main sources of sweet fruit in Spain], grapes are fruit and we have the same sapidity for them here."

A legacy of forgotten grape varieties

Old vines have survived thanks to the commitment of the local families who owned them. Rather than a source for selling grapes, they regarded vines as the basis to make wine for home consumption.

When talking to the oldest farmers in an effort to recover the region's vine-growing history, Marcel "de Cal Pau", as he is known in Algerri,his village, exhibited considerable poetic bluntness when he described his land as "the land of erased vines." Often, the only evidence of past grape cultivation are place names such as El Pla de les Vinyes (Plain of Vines) or Botella (Bottle). Much more telling are the old wine presses dug into the hills on the outskirts of the village: they reveal the need to process grapes quickly and suggest that the cellars had not enough capacity to handle the entire harvest. A small group of restored and protected wine presses date from the 17th century.

In this context, El Vinyet is not only a glorious exception but the most impressive vineyard in terms of location, age (it dates from 1889) and surprising diversity of plant material: 24 different varieties analysed and cataloged by Incavi, the Catalan vine and wine institute, in just 1.41 hectares. Grafted on Rupestris de Lot, this must be one of the first plots planted on American vines. The fact is that Catalonia was the first region in Spain to restock and this led to the creation of prominent vine nurseries in Vilafranca del Penedès and Lleida. 

For Carme Domingo, researcher at the Incavi who carried out the varietal identification, El Vinyet is truly fascinating. "Not only because of the old age of the vines, but the wealth of what has been preserved. There are various Hebén plants, a prolific variety that has spawned a considerable number of grapes in the Iberian Peninsula, like Macabeo or Xarel.lo; two other individuals that match plant material from the Pyrenees, and an ancient Italian variety: Uva de Fantini or Granadera. Furthermore, the vines were intermixed and trained as big bush vines. It appears that the owner was involved in grafting and was a keen preservationist," she adds. In her experience, sites named with wine growing terms in areas close to monasteries are good places to find ancestral grape varieties.

The Orpella family preserved the vineyard until the team behind Lagravera discovered it in 2011. They rented it and almost straight away and developed the range of wines La Pell (skin in Catalan) to showcase its many singularities. The name refers to the seemingly hollow appearance of the trunks of some plants (there seems to be nothing but skin), which, miraculously, come back to life with each new budding. The wines have evolved as the understanding of the vineyard and its varieties has deepened. The arrival of Pilar Salillas in 2018 marked a turning point in terms of capturing the full potential of these surviving vines (she introduced skin-contact in white wines), but also with numerous micro-vinifications to identify the most promising grape varieties for the region. 

Picapoll Roig, Trobat, X-8 and other varieties

Located close to the Farfanya river on deep clay soils with gypsum and limestone, El Vinyet benefits from a subterranean water stream that provides freshness and allows alfalfa to grow naturally. Three limited-production wines are made from this plot: a white, a rosé and a red. The white La Pell 2019 stands out for its depth and long finish and blends white grapes like Hebén, Trobat Blanc, Sumoll Blanc, Macabeo, Xarel.lo, Pansa Valenciana, Pansa de la Noguera, Moscatel de Alejandría and Garnacha Blanca.

The striking and extremely scarce (just over 200 bottles) La Pell Clarete 2019 has a wild edge, with tangy red fruit (pomegranate), mint and orange peel aromas and a delicious sweet-acid-bitter balance on the palate with an original spicy finish. In terms of style, it is probably similar to what the Orpella family used to drink -22 varieties were blended in for this vintage. The red La Pell 2019 (339 bottles) is fermented with destemmed grapes and aged in a 400-litre tinaja crafted by Juan Padilla. Both red and rosé varieties are blended: Trobat Negre, Monastrell, Garnacha Tinta, Mandó, Picapoll de la Noguera Rosado, Isaga, Moscatel Rosado or X8. The latter is one of three varieties that, after cross-checking with the database, are unique to this vineyard. This is more Mediterranean in style with substance on the palate and notable length.

I also tasted several microvinifications made from El Vinyet grapes including a sapid, tasty blend of equal parts of Trobat Blanc (Alcañón) and Macabeo; a herbal, salty rather than sapid Picapoll Roig that reminds of wines made with whole bunch fermentation, although, in this case, bunches were destemmed; a truly exciting X8 that smell like Garnacha but displays superb acidity (grapes were picked in late October), tension, length and citrus notes; and a Mediterranean Trobat Negre with blue flowers, sweet fruit, minty notes and a dry palate.

At the other end of Serra Llarga, close to the border with Aragon, lies Les Pedrisses de Ivars, a vineyard planted in 1935 and preserved by the Majos family. Genetic analysis has brought to light oddities like Albana Blanca. Since the 2019 vintage, La Pell range has expanded to include a Mediterranean-style red wine made from red (Monastrell, Trobat Negre, Sumoll) and rosé varieties grown here. The 2020 vintage displays blueberry and aromatic herb aromas, fully ripe fruit which contrasts with the sapid notes provided by the abundance of gypsum. On this vintage, La Gravera produced a new La Pell white blending Macabeo with Trobat Blanc and Albana.

 After three weeks of skin-contact, the wine was aged in glass demijohns under a light layer of yeast for nine months. With hints of beeswax, white and stone fruit and a subtle skin contact character, the palate is fluid and sapid. Compared to the 1,200 bottles of the red, the white is practically experimental, with just over 200 bottles produced. 

According to Pilar Salillas, these field blends served to produce clarete, a local style of rosé for everyday consumption. This year an old vineyard nearby was added to the project. While they eagerly await the first harvest, variety identification is already underway.

Garnacha, gravel and biodynamics 

In addition to ancient vines, Lagravera is firmly focused on Garnacha. Its presence is particularly significant in Vinya Núria, the vineyard where the project began and a veritable testament to the extraordinary efforts involved to transform a barren piece of land into an organic vineyard that has subsequently been certified biodynamic. Today, in fact, the wines carry the Demeter seal, except for the entry-level organic red L'Altre, as it may include purchased grapes in some vintages.

The many rocks extracted from the old gravel quarry to prepare the soil for planting are now part of a wall surrounding the vineyard. As they had to dig deep, the roots are close to the bedrock, which, according to Pilar Salillas, intensifies flavours in relatively young vines. Vinya Núria is the most distant vineyard from the Serra Llarga and the one that escapes its influence, as soils are loam to sandy-loam with some gravel.

The Cíclic range captures this character with two single-vineyard, Garnacha-based wines. Grapes for the white (fewer than 2,500 bottles) are sourced from two small plots planted to Garnacha Blanca which are fermented and aged on their lees in an Slovenian oak foudre. With smoky hints evolving towards petrol notes, it displays the variety's classic white fruit notes, some volume and moderate acidity. The spicy red (over 6,000 bottles) comes from a massal selection of various Garnacha biotypes. After a long maceration in foudre with fewer than 3% stems, it feels savoury, fruit-driven rather than floral, and with interesting dry stone notes on the finish.

The Ónra range (it means honor in Catalan, but it is also the surname of the owners spelled backwards) is made from Garnacha and other varieties (Sauvignon Blanc in the white; Malbec, Monastrell or Cabernet in the red) as well as grapes from Mas La Parra, a 10-hectare estate at 700 metres elevation in one of the highest parts of Algerri. Thanks to the new plantings in this enclave, production will jump from 80,000 to 100,000 bottles. 

Surrounded by forests, Mas La Parra is located in a relatively isolated area and enjoys excellent natural aeration, which prevents the development of mildew. Soils are loamy, with gypsum outcrops and rich in limestone. When it was purchased in 2017 there were several hectares of Tempranillo and international varieties. The new plantings are predominantly Garnacha Blanca, grown on the sandier soils of the vineyard, as well as the 24 varieties recovered from El Vinyet. At Lagravera, the past is helping to shape the future.


An agricultural engineer and oenologist with extensive professional experience, Pilar Salillas has been at the helm of Lagravera since 2018. Following an internship at Nuviana, Codorníu's cellar in Huesca, a six-month stint in Sonoma County (California) opened her eyes and set her firmly on the winemaking track. During the three and a half years she spent at Celler Piñol in Terra Alta, she specialized in Garnacha and developed an interest in the recovery of minor varieties like Morenillo. Still, she feels that the ten years she worked in Raimat in DO Costers del Segre were her best learning experience. "I was able to carry out hundreds of vinifications, almost anything I could think of: skin-contact, sulfur-free wines, etc.".

Another consistent feature in her career is the reluctance to use chemical products. Pilar was a regular attendee at the seminars of French producer Nicolas Joly, the first leading proponent of biodynamics in the wine business. She also started her own biodynamic vegetable garden at home and trained herself thoroughly in this discipline.

Salillas forms a great team with Miquel García, head of viticulture, who trained as a forestry engineer and also worked at Raimat. Both have a deep understanding of the land and hold it close to their hearts. Miquel comes from Almenar, a small village in the area and Pilar comes from Binéfar, in the province of Huesca (Aragón) just 25 kilometers from the winery.


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