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X Marks The Spot
Why you're going to be drinking a lot more great Xarel·lo in the near future.
Last spring I wrote about the new wave of Spanish sparkling wine. For years, most sparkling wine from Spain had been labeled cava, and most American wine drinkers know cava as an inexpensive alternative to Champagne. But these days, the best producers in Catalonia don’t call it cava anymore. You’ll see it labeled as Corpinnat or Clàssic Penedès (or even “Conca del Riu Anoia” from producer Raventós i Blanc). As I explained in that post:
Cava is Spain’s best-known sparkling wine. The finest cava is Spain’s answer to Champagne. Unfortunately, in most markets across the world, cava competes in a race to the bottom with cheap prosecco. Within Spain alone, 90 percent of cava retails for under 10 euros. More than 75 percent of cava production is by two huge wineries, Freixenet and Codorníu, who control the Cava D.O. Yes, perhaps surprisingly, Cava is a Denominación de Origen, yet it’s one that’s not based on place. Cava sparkling wines can be made in over 20 different regions across Spain, as long as they’re made méthode traditionnelle (the key difference between cava and prosecco). There is an ocean of uninspiring, middling cava. “The sparking wine in this region was always supposed to be fruity and fun,” says Ana López Lidon of Gramona. “But we know it can be a serious wine.”
In 2019, after years of living under Big Cava’s thumb and its denial of terroir, producers like Gramona had enough. Nine estates from Penedès, the area of Catalonia south of Barcelona that is cava’s spiritual home, broke ties and left the D.O. to bottle their wines under the brand name Corpinnat (roughly meaning “heart of Penedès” in Latin). “We all quit on the same day,” says López . “The Cava drama!” (There are now 11 members)…
The following year, there was a secession of a dozen other producers from the D.O. to start a new denomination, called Clàssic Penedès (which is an official D.O., now with 18 members).
The rules for Corpinnat and Classic Penedès are strict. Grapes must be organic and picked by hand. All wine must be made at the winery, with no juice bought from outside, per Big Cava’s business model.
One of the most interesting developments I’ve seen on my recent visits to Catalonia has been the emergence of Xarel·lo as the region’s premier grape. Xarel·lo (pronounced chah-rell-lo) is the most uniquely Catalan variety—with its unique Catalan spelling: no that dot is not a typo.
Traditionally, cava is made from three white grapes: Macabeu (aka Macabeo, aka Viura), Parellada, and Xarel·lo. While the vast majority is a blend, some of the Corpinnat producers have begun exploring single-varietal bottlings, focusing on Xarel·lo. Xarel·lo has high acidity, low pH, and one of the highest levels of the anti-oxidant resveratrol. There is almost no Xarel·lo planted outside of Catalonia.
“Nobody knows how long a Xarel·lo can age. They used to think Xarel·lo was too rustic and too strong. No one ever did more than 40 percent in a blend. Why didn’t we look at this grape and give it the importance it deserves?” said Ton Mata, of the famed Corpinnat producer, Recaredo. When Recaredo released its legendary 1999 Turó d’en Mota in 2008, they were the first to do a 100 percent Xarel·lo. Now, they and others are in the process of selecting Xarel·lo exceptional vines and using those cuttings when they plant new vineyards.
Perhaps even more exciting is to see Xarel·lo popping up in still wines. Non-sparkling Xarel·lo has become a wine-bar staple in Barcelona and Madrid, and the wines are really good. Like all the world’s great grapes, Xarel·lo is site specific and can vary according to terroir, but in the broadest sense, I feel like it falls somewhere between chardonnay and chenin blanc.
We’re starting to see more still Xarel·lo here in the U.S. I recently tasted two great examples of Xarel·lo’s potential, Nadal X 2021 and Loxarel Xarel·lo d’Amfora.
Nadal is one of the original wineries who left the Cava D.O. to create Corpinnat, and they make wonderful sparkling wines. Their still wine, X, is made in the Pénedes D.O. from 100 percent Xarel·lo Vermell, a rare red-skinned mutation (think pinot noir in relation to pinot gris). Nadal X Xarel·lo Vermell 2021 is pressed and fermented as a white wine. It’s got a beautiful, fresh nose of apple blossom, lemon zest, and cut flower stem, and complex and lacy on the palate, with green apple, nectarine, and a dry talc finish.
At the moment, as so often happens, Nadal X is hard to find in the U.S. In my searches, I turned up one store, in New York state, who has it in stock (for $24, though they have it mislabled under “French” wine). But the wine is now imported by VOS Selections, and I’m sure it will find wider distribution soon. (If I hear of its availability at other stores, I will leave those in the comments).
Loxarel Xarel·lo d'Ámfora 2019, as the name suggests, is fermented and aged for five months in clay amphora. It’s made from the more common variety of Xarel·lo. This one veers more to the chardonnay side, with a creamy texture (with just an attractive hint of that amphora/flower pot thing), ripe white peach balanced by cool mineral notes.
Has anyone else been enjoying still or sparkling Xarel·lo-based wines? Let me know in the comments.