In Toní Carbó’s Barrio: A Visit to Cellar La Salada in Penedès, Spain

Visit October 24, 2017

 When I first met Toní Carbó, a winemaker who went from virtually unknown to an instant cult classic—his wines are found at Bar Brutal in Barcelona; Maurice in Portland, Oregon; Bar Ordinaire in Oakland, California—at H20 Vegetal, during the heat of late summer in Spain, I was captivated by the energy of his wines, their attractive labels, and his humble attitude. A few months later, I was in Barcelona visiting some friends, and took a short train ride out to the Penedès, the heart of the Cava region, where Toní is the latest in his family lineage to grow grapes.

Toní greets me in a 4×4 wearing a t-shirt, shorts, and flip-flops. Since H20, he has cut his hair, which then was a bit shaggy, grown past his ears. He takes me directly to a vineyard in an area called “La Salada,” where we stand before gnarled bush vines (untrellised) in beige-brown clay soil, on a flat piece of land with mountains in the distance.

“My grandfather was a shareholder, from a familia muy humilda—a very humble family, says Toní in perfectly clear Castellano Spanish, even though Catalan is his first language. I appreciate the effort particularly in the current political climate—later, I will return to Barcelona to catch the tail end of the latest protest against Madrid’s crackdown on the independence movement, getting lost in crowd of flag-waving marchers after an afternoon of showing their regional pride.

In a bold move, Toní’s grandfather broke away from the señores feudeles (the feudal lords), and formed a bodega (winery) with other growers—a sort of cooperative. They purchased a few hectares of vines, specifically taking plots that were on poor soil, very difficult to cultivate, and made bulk wine, probably sold in barrels.

The past two years in Northern Spain have been very, very dry, and some vines didn’t produce even a single cluster of grapes—something he has never seen before, Toní tells me as we examine the 68-year-old vines. “You see how they respond to the heat and dryness—they are in survival mode,” he says. In this plot, Toní has Xarello and Macabeo—two of the grapes commonly found in Cava, that ubiquitous bubbly drink, Spain’s version of Prosecco, differing in that it’s made in the traditional method rather than Charmat.

The 1970s and 80s saw something of a “lost generation” in Penedès, because large houses paid tempting prices for grapes, so people didn’t bother to bottle their own wine—but this changed in the 90s with the formation of the Cava D.O. and, concomitantly. As small growers lost their best customers, many of them stopped operations, sold off their land, and moved away to urban areas to work in factories. Toní’s family also closed their bodega, called Cellar La Salada, for a time. “Every year, my father thought they would have to tear out these vines,” he tells me.

In the early Aughts, Toní decided to restart production in the bodega. He began, he tells me, by making “vinos muy Parker”—wines in the Robert Parker style, with high alcohol and corpulent palates, something that should be easy to do in this dry heat. He and his friend and neighbor, Ramón Jané, hired an oenologist to help them restart production at their bodegas—but when he recommended levels of various additives that seemed high to Toní and Ramón, they simply added half of those amounts. Then came a turning point: Toní found his way to La Dive Bouteille, a large natural wine salon in France’s Loire Valley held every winter for the past decade and a half.

“And there a world opened to us,” he recalls as we drive to another vineyard—Toní holds over 20 hectares. In 2005, Toní began reducing the use of pesticides in the vineyard, and in 2012, he converted his vines to organic and made his first natural wine for the market, without any sulfites or oenological products added.

We are now standing in the “Les Perellades” vineyard, looking at Malvasia, Sumoll, Montanaga, and Xarello. “This is my barrio,” says Toní, gazing toward the nearby forest. “I’m born here, grown up here.”

We make our way to the small winery, built in 1911, where Toní’s Cellar La Salada wines are made without any sulfites at all. Because the wines have such playful labels, I had prejudged them as simple blends, but I learn quickly that expression of terroir is definitely a goal here. The wine called “Bufarella,” for example, is a Xarello with skin contact, made from one hectare of vines planted in 1982 on a north-facing slope that matures slowly and therefore maintains freshness. There’s another single-vineyard wine called “Hermot,” made from old-vines Macabeo.

Toní’s winemaking maintains many of the area’s traditional techniques. “My family, historically, did wine with skin contact—we called it vino brisat,” he explains to me. They foot stomped the grapes, and did everything by hand, without additives—and that’s what the family drank at home, Toní says. The winery has recently been remodeled a bit, but Toní has kept and still uses the underground tanks where wine was fermented, and he has also held onto one barrel that dates back to 1955. “I want reminders of what was here,” he says.In this cellar, one of Toní’s most popular wines is made: Roig Boig (“crazy red”), a pink-hued pét-nat full of freshness and savory notes, made from numerous red and white heritage grapes of Catalunya, including Sumoll, Roigenc, Mandó, Cannonau, Monica, Torbat, Parellada, and Xarello. The label, drawn by Toní’s partner Ana’s cousin, depicts a slightly wonky-looking guy with sparse hair, panting with thirst. “Drink me everyday,” is the message behind that label. Which one could certainly do—yet, later, we’ll have the Roig Boig with a rich turkey dish at lunch, and the acidity and bubbles cut right through the fat—this isn’t just an aperitif wine.

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Next is a visit to Mas Candí, the winery run by Ramón Jané, Toní’s unofficial “associate.” Ramón, like Toní, also broke the cycle of selling his family’s grapes to the large Cava houses, and began bottling his own label in the mid-Aughts. Toní explains that he and Ramón have only a “handshake agreement,” rather than any formal contract—they work together because they like to help each other, like the “agricultores de antes,” the agriculturists of a previous time, Toní says. It’s about both of them succeeding.

In Toní’s cellar, all the wines are made completely without sulfites; in Ramón’s, they may occasionally have small amounts added—this allows the pair to diversify their portfolio, while keeping a completely sulfur-free winery for certain vinifications. It’s the first time I’ve heard of anyone doing this, and it seems really practical.

The other popular bubbly wine from Toní and Ramón is actually made here, at Mas Candí—the Tint Sec, which means,“I’m thirsty” in Catalan, and is a white wine made of Xarello and Parellada. We taste the 2017 from a tank; the nose is fruity, peachy, and the palate delivers a healthy burst of acidity. After tasting, we head to lunch, where we meet Toní’s partner Ana, who he says is fully involved in the winery.

Lunch at Cal Xim is amazing; we have traditional Catalan dishes like trinxat, a cabbage and potato “tortilla”; roasted red peppers with anchovies; rovellon mushroom caps roasted and dressed in rich olive oil; alongside, we drink the still version of Tint Sec, which Toní and Ramón plan to rename “Baldidi” to avoid confusion—it’s very aromatic, with fresh, soft fruit flavors, and some tropical notes—plus 2016 “Ovella Negra,” a saline, bright white wine made of Garnacha Blanca and Malvasia with two weeks on the skins; and 2015 “La Fusta,” a Xarello wine made from a vineyard Toní’s father planted in 1985, which is fermented in 1000-Liter chesnut barrels, and is mineral, with overtones of white flowers, and a lovely medium body.

To finish, we have the aforementioned pairing made in heaven: dark turkey meat with stewed prunes, with the savory Roig Boig pét-nat. It could not be more perfect. This is what Cellar La Salada and Mas Candí wines are about—relishing the products of agriculture and viticulture, in humble but artful settings. It’s a celebration of Catalunya, without employing the political system or waving any flags, but rather acknowledging the unique history of this region, and the role of small farmers in keeping that history alive.

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