Ancient Soils of Alella
Oriol Artigas, Alella, Spain
We caught up with Oriol Artigas one very early morning back in Spring. He explains how the Alella appellation had been used since the Roman era for wine production. Still, the demand for seaside property shrank the size of the growing area down to 220 hectares, making it one of the smallest DOs in the Spanish state. But what it lacks in size, it more than makes up for in quality.
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So what's a day in the life of Oriol Artigas?
"I have many lives in one, family, teaching, winemaking - I try to do many things at the same time. I keep the evenings free for Erica and Sam. At the weekends, we go to the mountains; for me, the mountains is the balance with my life as a winemaker. When I'm tired, I climb the mountains around here, and the more tired I become, the higher I go. I come back, and it makes me feel energised, and winter is even better! Three days sleeping in a cabin in the mountains is the ideal so that you can disconnect with the world and connect with nature."
How would you describe your winemaking philosophy?
"To respect the wonderful place where we live. I have beautiful vineyards with magnificent views and I encourage the landscape to get into the vineyard. I capture this and put this in the glass. Over the years, I've become more focused. For a winemaker, the critical moment is at bottling - this is the point at which you can lose all of your hard work. You can do beautiful work in the vineyards and in the cellar and then lose it all at bottling. I learn year, by year, so that the following year - I can make a change from the beginning of the process. It's a case of learning at every step. It's a lot of little solutions that you have to work with; like when you go to the osteopath – the pain is localised, but the problem could be somewhere else entirely."
"With natural wine, you don't always find the direct solution to the problem; you have to go back, it's all connected, making wine is not one step two step – it's fluid – it's a flow. At harvest, we have to flow."
Tell us about your playful labels, what do they signify?
"La Rumbera is like our mothership wine, the matriarch steering us through choppy waters. All of the labels that show movement indicate that the wine is a blend from each of our different vineyards. In contrast, the static drawings indicate that the wine comes from a single vineyard like La Prat, which features a little fat bird, eating grapes. The birds help me to make the selection of the good fruit as they eat the overripe grapes. Some years the drawing of the bird gets fatter depending on how many grapes they managed to eat that year!
"La Bella and La Bestia (the beauty and the beast) are both single vineyards. La Bella has a northern orientation and is planted on white granite sand soils, and La Bestia – the beast of the sea, the captain of the boats is south facing with brown schist soils. The vineyards face each other so they have to look at each other every day!"
“We always put little jokes on the labels.”
What influence do the different terroirs have on taste?
"We have three terroirs…
La Prats has a very particular terroir, chalky and full of seashells. The main subsoil is granite, but the top layer has marine sediment full of old fossils like oysters and cockles, which gives a different expression to the terroir inland, due to the proximity to the sea. The texture and mouthfeel are softer and silkier, with more roundness, salinity and a soaring acidity - like when you get in the sea, and a wave hits your face! While the granite subsoil is very mineral, it doesn’t have much organic material, which helps retain humidity, nutrients and microorganisms in the soil.
Sauló is the main terroir that we have here, it is a mixture of granite and sand. The Sauló terroir is very clean and pure. We make La Rumbera and El Rumbero on these soils. The granite from the mountains is rich in minerals, it acts as a natural filter, so it gives a very pure and crystalline sensation. Direct with a deep focus, like a bridge across the palate that unfolds at the end of your mouth.
Licorella is brown schist - a very mineral volcanic soil that gives a bolder, more structured mouthfeel and is a bit shorter in the mid-palate—giving way to smoky aromas and vibrant energy. I think it produces a more concentrated style of wine. While, its south orientation has warm, dark soils that conduct heat. La Bestia is made here."
"The 2019 vintage has more minerality, more acidity; it's the best vintage that we've had. The health and quality of grapes, in all aspects - it's soft, gentle and balanced – it's fantastic."
What can you tell us about Pansa Blanca - known to most as Xarel-lo?
"Pansa Blanca retains acidity really well. When grown on granite, which is acidic soil, it gives a low ph – this gives you freshness, saltiness, with the granite's minerality.
The grape is part of the terroir; without the Pansa Blanca, none of it is possible. It isn't a very aromatic varietal like a muscat, it's soft and versatile and it can take on the essence of the terroir and can change a lot depending on each different plot. I think it has more roundness than chardonnay. Another excellent quality of this grape is that the wine develops very well in bottle. 2-3-year-old Pansa Blanca is the best. You get more aromatics. I prefer mine to be at least 18 months in the bottle."
"Pansa Blanca helps us to show the different landscapes that we have."
What's in store for the future?
"The main focus is on regenerative agriculture - we have several projects in the pipeline. Such as restoring old vineyards, and we're trying to preserve the genetics in the mountains by planting new vines as many were dead when we arrived.
Another focus is on subsoil - we are studying the organic matter and trying to imitate the process in the forest but in the vineyard.
I am also working with a friend in Galicia – to find ways to make the vine more resistant to fungus attacks. In 2020, I lost 90% of my crop. I only had enough to make one cuvée - Cuvée Total.
Thankfully, I have good friends who came to the rescue, such as Cosmic and Sicus, along with 12 other winemakers in Catalunya. I named the cuvées SOS because it is made from grapes that I bought from friends in a year when I had lost everything.
I realised I had lost a lot, but I needed to change my point of view and learn from it. I have friends in Galicia who are working with a similar terroir to me, with granite, near the sea. I visited them for two weeks to learn more from each other's experiences. To fight against the mildew by making acid lactic bacterias that eat the fungus is difficult because it can be too aggressive. The idea is to find a solution with life, not chemicals, if you use sulfur and copper, you can do it ecologically, but you are still adding, it's not the same as if you add bacteria to create more life and more flora in the vineyard, so we a trying out different experiments on this."
"In 2020, I lost 90% of my crop. I only had enough to make cuvée SOS."
If you could deliver a message to the people who drink your wines across the world, what would it be?
"The most important thing is to enjoy. Enjoy life; to be happy, it's essential. I do what I want, I have ideas and step by step, it happens, and I am enjoying my life."
What is your favourite food & wine pairing?
"La Rumbera with steamed mussels and bay leaves."
"The idea is to find a solution with life, not chemicals."
Gràcies per la seva hospitalitat...
What a pleasure to speak and learn from Oriol. I can only wish that I had been a student in his class. For a man juggling so many things, Oriol takes time to explain and answer all of my questions in great detail over a delicious lunch with Erica, Sam and friends.