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'Inside Look' at Vega de Ribes

Bryan Hinschberger
Jan 17, 2012 12:32 PM

Here's our latest "Inside Look" at Bodegas Vega de Ribes in the Penedes D.O. of northeastern Spain.  These two amazing winemakers are producing some of the most exceptional white wines you can find throughout Spain, while remaining entirely organic, natural, and following in the footsteps of 16 generations of the Bartra family!!

THE HISTORY OF THE BODEGA & REGION

Vega de Ribes is a small family bodega in the D.O. Penedés region of Spain, within the Autonomia of Catalunya.  Just outside the outskirts of the southern side of Barcelona, this Catalan wine region is split into three main areas: the Alt (or Upper), Central, and Bas (or Lower) Penedés.  As the titles infer, the region is quite mountainous, and the elevation is key to the different production throughout the region.  Furthest west and inland is the Upper Penedés, which is known for its small production wines high in the mountains, and for producing several red varietals.  Heading towards the nearby Mediterranean Sea, the hills get lower in elevation and more influenced by the water in the Central and Lower Penedés, creating a phenomenal microclimate for the famous white wines of the area.  Spain’s renowned sparkling wine, Cava, is produced predominately in and around the Penedés and draws much attention for the wine region.  Historically, vines and production date back to the 4th century B.C., while boasting many stories of how different varietals came to be in the coastal region. 

Vega de Ribes sits only 4km from the water, and is nestled in the foothills and forests of the Garraf Massif (the local coastal mountain range).  Since 1540, Enric Bartra’s family has been making wine in the same small bodega, pulling from many of the same vineyards sites, and practicing the same natural and organic methods that were instilled from the beginning.  Only once has the bodega been updated, and since then (late 1980’s), more modern technology has aided some of the production.  Sixteen generations of experience and tradition has been passed along in order to create the amazing wines from this bodega. 

The house takes its name from Vega, the famous star in the summer night sky, and Ribes, a nearby village in the Penedés.  As stars were guides for traveling ships long ago, the bodega finds the old local stories of the region very important to its heritage.  In the 13th century, when wines of Penedés were still made from whatever field grapes were found, a man from Sitges (another predominant coastal town of the area) traveled to Greece to find more grapes.  At the time, Malvasia was a highly acclaimed varietal for quality wine, and the town of Sitges (and surrounding areas) wanted to get their hands on this grape since their soils and climate were very similar to Greece’s.  The man traveled to the source, Monemvasia Greece (from where the name Malvasia derives), and brought back clippings to plant in the area.  The grape proved to be very fickle to grow, had very loose clusters, was easily susceptible to disease, and eventually it bordered on extinction by the early 1900’s.  Although its adaptation to its surroundings had made it not an ideal grape variety to make wine with, when it was cared for properly, the resulting juice was exquisite and delightfully tasty.  In the late 1970’s, the Bartra family found a stone in their vineyards that had an engraving upon it discussing this great story of the Malvasia.  With some inquiring to the local farmers, they found a gentleman with a few cuttings of the clone down in Sitges, and planted them on their estate.  After years of efforts, Vega de Ribes has revived this varietal, and now produce two incredible wines of differing styles with their 3 hectares (8.1 acres) of vines.  In 2005, the international group of Slow Foods was visiting a local restaurant to award it for their philosophy and vegetable upkeep, when they got wind of the Malvasia de Sitges story at Vega de Ribes.  After investigation and complete enthrallment with the story and results, the bodega was awarded for their work with this varietal in Turin, Italy in 2006.  To this date, this event is the only time when a grape varietal has ever been awarded with this honor.   

 

THE WINEMAKERS

Enric Bartra is the owner and winemaker for bodega Vega de Ribes.  It has been through his family that this winery has thrived for nearly 500 years.  He is a humble man with incredible class and an amazing intellect.  His appreciation for those around him is evident in his warm smile, and his passion for his family tradition of wine making is motivating.  In the past few years, Enric has extended an invite to a good friend of his named Rafael Sala, to join him in his winery in order to broaden their portfolio.  While Enric focuses on his Malvasia de Sitges, Sauvignon Blanc, and a few other varietals, Rafael pulls from his 80 year old Xarel-lo vineyard to make a single wine called the Clar de Castanyar.  Rafael is a witty and very kind-hearted gentleman, who had never even considered the wine business until the 1990’s when he and his wife moved to the hills of Penedés.  They found a gorgeous piece of property that was planted with old-vine Xarel-lo in a very natural environment on a southern facing hill.  His dedication to the natural production of his grapes, and the wine that results from them is fantastic and exciting, and with the help from Enric (less now as Rafael learns more and more), he is able to create stunning wines from this breath-taking varietal.

A few years back, both Enric and Rafael decided to start a joint venture with their talents, and in 2008, they began a wine project called “Ancestral.”  Pulling from the true Ancestral method of Champagne production (before Méthode Champenoise), they create three sparkling wines of different grape varietals and ranging in sugar levels, and were able to release their first bottling in 2010.  The wines are incredibly complex, with exquisite and fine bubbles, a range of flavors, and of course, all organic and natural as can be.  The two make quite a pair, and the wines go to show what fantastic feats they can accomplish.

 

                                  

                             Vega de Ribes Team                                               Rafael Sala (pink shirt)   Enric Bartra (far right)

 THE EARTH & WEATHER

Situated to the south of one of Spain’s most beloved cities (Barcelona), the Penedés D.O. straddles the Garraf Massif coastal mountain range alongside the Mediterranean Sea.  Steep hillsides that turn throughout the region are home to rolling hills, ravines, and a variety of different plants.  These unique hillsides create varying microclimates that are ideal for the different grape varietals that grow near the coast.  The limestone is rich in these parts, and has streaks of silica, chalk, and many marine deposits mixed throughout the land. There are portions in the Penedés with such pure sand, that local bottle makers gather the sand to make their glass with; proving to be a great local source for the wineries in the area. As for the vineyards, these soils have excellent drainage capabilities that encourage the vines to struggle just enough to dig their roots very deep, giving the older vines not only strength and stability for years to follow, but also giving a true sense of complexity in the structure and minerality of the finished wines.  The vineyards for Vega de Ribes sit between 50-100 meters above sea level and have excellent southern exposure to the sun for the most part. There is one vineyard of Malvasia de Sitges that faces north, and it has a sandy base with many marine fossils, sediments, and oyster shells; making for a portion of the final wines to have a different ripeness, as well as a unique mineral note.

Due to the close proximity to the Mediterranean Sea, the climate is greatly variable throughout the Penedés.  As Vega de Ribes is closer down towards the water, the weather patterns in the summer are drier and warmer than the neighboring vineyards further inland.  The mountains, hills, gullies, and ravines not only create differing soil types, but also many microclimates for the region.  For the most part, the mild and warm summers are exceptional for the unique varietals of the area, giving reason for the amazing white grapes to retain such beautiful depth and acidity.

 

 

 THE PRODUCTION

Vega de Ribes creates wine in the most earth-conscious and sustainable way that they know.  Producing only 2500 cases of wine in the most fruitful of years, their focus and dedication to the earth and the wine it brings them, is inspiring.  The bodega is certified organic, but they go well beyond the standards in order to ensure the vines and their surroundings are treated in the upmost respect.  Enric Bartra’s family has always sincerely adhered to the details of natural winemaking traditions, and when Rafael Sala joined in the production, he was merely an extension of this family’s wonderful ideology.  Drawing from great sources such as: an indigenous bird book that Enric’s great uncle made, which details the roles that each bird has in the local ecosystem; actively utilizing a local network of information on weather patterns and growing measurements; and being at the forefront of monitoring the local natural diseases; Enric and Rafael are at the top of the game in using organics to work in harmony with their surroundings.  They encourage bat reproduction in order to combat many of the flying insects throughout the vineyards.  They plant numerous varieties of native fruit and palm trees that attract certain insects and animals that would otherwise feast on the vines and grapes, including a particular palm that produces a special kind of date that the pesky foxes cannot resist.  Stone walls surround many of the vineyards, giving a firm foundation to hold the water and soils safe under the vines from erosion, as well as protecting the vines from natural elements, aiding in a great diversity for the vineyards.

Being that Enric oversees the production team and winemaking of the Malvasia de Sitges, Sauvignon Blanc, and a few red varietals, and Rafael’s home actually sits on the land with his old Xarel-lo vineyard, their immense involvement in the vineyards is fairly similar, and backed with the same organic philosophy.  From centuries of experience with the family vineyards, Enric knows exactly how to tend to his grapes with as little intervention as possible.  Pulling from only .5 hectares of Sumoll, Xarel-lo, and Garnatxa each, as well as 3 hectares of Malvasia de Sitges, the team carries out three prunings throughout the winter, and the vineyards never see a green harvest during the growing season, as they find keeping the plants as natural as possible retains the healthiest growth overall.  Sulfur treatments are limited to only once per year, and only of the purest sulfur found on the market.  Depending on the rainfall for the year, once seven leaves have grown on a single vine, pure copper oxide is utilized to prevent any possible rot.  These treatments are made at Rafael’s Xarel-lo vineyard as well, and this natural approach is crucial in creating all of the deliciously unique Vega de Ribes wines.  The vineyards are surrounded by wild fennel which not only attracts the snails in this maritime climate keeping them from feeding on the vines, but also imparts a faint anise note in several of the finished wines.  Rafael’s estate is quite a site to see when graced by his dozen-plus dogs that keep an eye on the grounds to ward off any dangerous boars or other common pests.  According to Rafael’s simple approach to his vines, “when the grapes are ready, of course,” is his determining factor for calling his large extended family to come harvest all of the fruit.  Once collected in the early mornings, the grapes travel gently to the bodega for their evolution into wine.

Each wine sees different treatments once inside the bodega, but all see very gentle mechanics throughout their process.  Stainless steel is utilized for the amazingly complex Sasserra, and the Ancestral wines and Clar de Castanyar Xarel-lo are all fermented in 225 liter chestnut barrels.  They use this particular wood from the Galicia region of Spain because it gives the perfect amount of oxygen during fermentation, as well as imparting a faint but unique flavor component to the finished wine.  A very local cooper does a minimal toast on the wood before it is used for fermentation.  Light filtration is carried out for all Vega de Ribes wines, and then bottling begins for each to start its proper aging.  The wines are truly released when both Enric and Rafael decide they are ready, a prime example being the Sasserra, spending an average of 5 years in the bottle before release.  The Ancestral wines are done in a very traditional old method for sparkling wine, experiencing only a single fermentation from start to finish; merely cooled to a slow pause when entering bottle, and then raised back to temperature in order to continue its fermentation in bottle, thus creating CO2.  Both the Xarel-lo and Sumoll/Garnatxa Rosado enter the bottle at 24 g/l of sugar to result in a bone-dry sparkling wine; as the Malvasia de Sitges starts its progression in bottle at 102 g/l of sugar, resulting in a semi-sweet sparkling wine.

LOCAL CUISINE & FOOD PAIRINGS

The Penedés D.O. sits just south of Barcelona and right up against the Mediterranean Sea.  The marine influence not only directly affects the freshness of the local wines, but also influences heavily the cuisine of the region.  Great seafood dishes are a staple here, and put up against the fresh acidity of the delicious white wines of Vega de Ribes, food pairings are quite magical.

Vega de Ribes Sauvignon Blanc: True to its varietal integrity, this Sauvignon Blanc has clear characteristics of lemongrass and citrus fruits, but is accompanied by the freshness of the nearby sea- showing salinity and minerality obtained from the marine lavished soils; an ideal match for firm cheeses, green salads, and grilled shellfish. 

  • Idiazabal cheese & membrillo
  • Frisee salad with lemon-thyme vinaigrette
  • Grilled oysters & mignonette; grilled prawns & spiced remoulade

Vega de Ribes Sasserra: This rich and robust white wine is made from 100% Malvasia de Sitges.  After a year of lees aging in stainless and 5 years in the bottle to mature, this wine can stand up to a crowd of delicious and intense foods.  Try it with strong flavored cheeses, rich and fatty dishes, or even chocolate!

  • Epoisses cheese (seriously amazing!!)
  • Torrija (egg battered & fried toast) with Foie Gras
  • Pan-seared pork belly & apricot marmalade

Clar de Castanyar: Made from 80 year old Xarel-lo vines, this wine exudes utter freshness and agility, yet holds complexity and unbelievable structure.  Fermented in chestnut barrels, the exciting nutty flavor and bright tree fruit expression from the Clar is suitable for a plethora of appetizers, fish, and white meats.

  • Salt cod stuffed squash blossoms, ratatouille, and squid ink sauce
  • Slow-baked white beans with Jamon Iberico

Ancestral Xarel-lo: A dry sparkling wine made of 100% Xarel-lo, packing wonderfully robust fruit as well as a creamy toastiness that lingers perfectly on the palate to accompany many types of cuisine.  From salads to meat courses, this Xarel-lo holds its own.  

  • Cured meats, olives, Foie Gras
  • Skin-seared dorada, oil & salt rubbed potatoes, & asparagus

Ancestral Rosado:  A blend of the native Sumoll grape and Garnatxa, this dry Rosado sparkling wine is exceptionally earthy and deep.  Loaded with dark fruit as well as freshness, this is a fun pair with anything that ends up on the table.

  • Braised baby root vegetables & romesco sauce
  • Roasted lamb rack & whipped potatoes

Ancestral Malvasia de Sitges:  A sweet and sparkling wine made of 100% Malvasia de Sitges, this bubbly can be very versatile at the table.  Try it as a delightful aperitif with light bites, or as the perfect complement to a sweet finish.

  • Anchovies, olives, & cured yellow hot peppers
  • Peach ice cream & almond cookies
General

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