Comalats: the accidental winery
“It was a potential catastrophe:” Eva explained on our first visit. Her father had 12 hectares of grapes just ready for harvest and suddenly the buyer had pulled out. What were the family to do? Jaume Bonet had only planted the vineyards with the then fashionable Cabernet Sauvignon on advice that this was the way forward - to sell on an international variety to a larger producer. In the past the family had made wine from indigenous grapes for home consumption or to sell on draught, just like every other Catalan farming family.
The answer lay in a farmyard on the outskirts of L’Ametlla de Segarra, a village of narrow, shady streets and cool stone houses perched atop a hill deep in the remote countryside of the D.O. Costers de Segarra region: build your own winery! And so a modest building rapidly went up, fermentation tanks were installed and the first vinification of Bonet family Cabernet Sauvignon was under way.
Today, Eva continued, the family are still making wine. We were standing in a vineyard in the May sunshine, a skylark in full song overhead. The same Cabernet Sauvignon vines, now 30 years old and deeply unfashionable in the region, were just about to flower, the clusters of green buds like tiny bunches of grapes. We were twenty kilometres from the nearest main road and the peace was palpable. “It’s good for you, being in the fields”, continued Eva, “You can disconnect and just concentrate on the work you’re doing”. She deftly pulled unwanted leaves from around the flower shoots. The Bonet family have been farming in L’Ametlla for 800 years; the village has become more and more depopulated, currently having only 14 permanent residents but Eva, her brother Eloi and sister Núria have decided to keep the tradition alive.
Eva had a suspicious twinkle in her eye as she led us out of the vineyard into a small grove of evergreen oaks. We rounded the corner and there was lunch - a table laid out for three and a gas burner just ready to put the finishing touches to the main course. A warbler broke into song just above our heads.
It was a perfect opportunity to taste the Comalats wines, which have always been grown organically. The nightly “marinada”, or breeze from the sea, brings moisture to the vines but by the morning the air is so dry that the family have never had to resort to herbicides or pesticides.
The first wine up was a brilliant cherry red rosé, “Gavernera” (the wild rose of the field margins). This was the exception to the family’s wines, made with Syrah grapes from young vines. A summer wine with juicy plum and cherry flavours, it also had excellent citric acidity - Eva reckoned grapefruit. Best served not overly chilled, the aromas and flavours just kept developing in the glass as we lingered over the first course (a traditional catalan salad with cured meats and cheeses).
Next up was the family’s young red, Alosa (the lark), 100% Cabernet Sauvignon (what else?), inky purple and smooth. Eva explained that as the vines are grown at 720m altitiude they appreciate the temperature differences between night and day and the long ripening season - harvest is unusually late, in October.
We moved onto the main course - a wild mushroom paella which required second helpings - and cracked open a bottle of “Isarda” (the wild one), Comalats natural, no added suphite wine. This was quite a different matter, despite being made from the same Cabernet Sauvignon grapes. There were still the same blackcurrant and plum flavours but also herbal notes and a savouryness absent in the Alosa.
By dessert (locally made yogurt) we’d moved onto Cuprum (“coppery”, in reference to the colour of the wine), Comalats reserva wine, which undergoes a lengthy 35 day maceration (very unusual for the region) before spending a year in stainless steel tanks and then a further year in oak. The result is sensational - rich blackberry and blackcurrant flavours with pepper, vanilla and almonds. Smooth and silky, it was hard to move onto coffee.
We returned to the village, where Eva explained that the name “Comalats” refers to the landscape of gently rounded hills. She disappeared out of the afternoon heat into the new cellar - an unassuming building close to the original 1989 winery. After a quick tour we walked round to Cal Bonet, the family house which she’s restoring for her own use (it having been shut up for a decade) and where the reserva is laid down. The old village houses have walls up to a metre thick to keep out the heat in summer and the cold in winter and the cellars keep an even temperature all year round. In the fusty, cool, dampness, the Cuprum was sleeping in its rows of oak barrels.
Our next visit couldn’t have been more different. It was February and below zero, so cold that fermentation of the 2017 harvest had come to a halt and we were still shivering wrapped in multiple layers of woolies. This time the thick stone walls kept us cosy as the woodburner crackled and we discussed the latest developments over another of Eva’s exquisite lunches. It was our first tasting of of “Esparver” (the Sparrowhawk), a moreish and fruity blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah and we were impressed.
There was lots of talk about. The family have been experimenting with another natural wine, a blend so far only available in limited quantities in Barcelona. There was also news in the vineyards. Everyone in Catalonia is worried about climate change and with such low rainfall L’Ametlla de Segarra is already at risk of crop failure. For the first time in thirty years some of the vineyards are being replanted with local, hardier, grape varieties; white Picapoll and red Garnatxa, with the old vine Cabernet Sauvignon destined for the production of reserva wines only (just as Jaume originally intended).
We visited the new plantings in the clear, cold sunshine, struck again by just how much care and attention to detail goes into hand-made wines. Eva showed us that farmers are going back to more gentle pruning techniques as research has shown how much damage can be made to the growing points of the vines. It’s possible, she said, that modern plantings never will become “old vines” because they’re so weakened by the harsh techniques made possible by using powered secateurs. The Bonets prefer a much gentler approach, avoiding causing too much stress to the plants. Like many other wineries, although they wouldn’t classify themselves as “biodynamic” they work with the phases of the moon, both in cultivating and bottling wines. This is the way things have always been done.
Our time to leave came too soon and we said our goodbyes and set off once more. Esparver is now here in the UK, together with Cuprum but we’re having to wait for the 2017 vintage of Alosa and Isarda, which were so held up by the intense cold over the winter. Good things just can’t be rushed.