"Where the fuck are we?" I say as my friend and I turn off a small highway in northern Catalonia. We are about 10 minutes away from the French border, in the foothills of the Pyrenees, darting towards a small village called Els Vilars d'Espolla, which we need actual longitude and latitude coordinates to find as it isn't on Google Maps.
A dated, yellow plastic banner drapes a medieval wall right at the entrance to the village. "Wine tasting here!" it announces to nobody. A stone house with a red tiled roof sits above the wall, which turns out to be the home of our host, Carles Alonso, who looks like the Catalan version of David Crosby with a balding head, long grey hair and a big, bushy mustache. He's the winemaker behind Carriel dels Vilars, a natural wine label whose claim to fame is that absolutely nothing is added to the wine. Beyond that, his vines are also tended to with minimal intervention--he prunes them aggressively in the winter, allowing for greater sugar concentration in the grapes, and sprays a little caldo bordeles (Bordeaux mixture, a combo of slaked lime and copper sulfate) in the spring, after the vines have flowered, but that's it.
Carles is the only year-round resident of his town, which is made up of less than 10 houses total and got electricity only in 2012. He moved to Els Vilars in 1990 and hasn't left much since then, except to fish in the nearby Mediterranean Sea. Instead, people come to him, seeking his fabled fermented grape juice and, if they know him personally, his famous paella, which he cooks in an old stable nestled in his vines.
From those vines, which grow wild right out of the ground, come the wines of Carriel dels Vilars. Carles first made wine in 1979, a natural sparkling wine made in the ancestral method, meaning he has been at this game long before it became fashionable. He subsequently planted vines throughout the eighties, making some of the best and also what he calls "truly shit" wines during that time. Nowadays, he makes two wines a year—one red and one white or rose sparkling. He has found success by way of attention from international wine importers and exporters, many of them American and Japanese. Word of this got back to the village, both his immediate home of Els Vilars and the nearby town of Espolla.
"About six years ago I became, in quotes, 'famous,'" Carles declares, rolling his eyes. "People in France and in my country, which I don't know whether we are in Spain or Catalonia, started to hear other people liked my wine. They used to think, 'Ah, this stupid fucking guy doesn't know how to work vineyards.' I sell the same wine in the town store every year. Do you believe since I became famous the wine suddenly became good? Everyone said, "Whoaaaa, now you make good wine! How different!'"
His process is largely non-mechanized, save for a few mechanized gyropalettes he employs to turn the bottles as the wine ferments.
While examining bottles, I ask if he disgorges the sediment, a process necessary for certain kinds of sparkling wines, just to be sure we're talking about the same thing. He looks at me like I'm crazy and I realize we're on the right track.
"Of course, I'm going to do it now!" he yells as he grabs a giant knife and slices bottles open one by one, freeing the sediment and pouring glasses to taste. He freely admits which vintages he likes (2007, 2008 and 2014) and which he doesn't as much (2013), mostly owing to whatever the weather was doing that year. Lately, he laments, it's been too hot with too little rain. It doesn't matter—he is such a skilled winemaker that all of his vintages sell out, mostly thanks to international importers, despite how he regards them.
Besides adding nothing to his wine—something reflected on his labels, the back of which displays a laundry list of things the wine doesn't contain—Carles also doesn't age or store his wine in anything but stainless steel. "All my wines are fruity, you find only the grapes in there," he claims, talking with his hands as much as his mouth. "Oak is a contamination of wine. All those stupid people of the world, drinking wood? What does that have to do with the grapes? People are stupid in Rioja and all over the world, but especially in Spain."
His wines are excellent, complex and high in alcohol. We taste his 2008 Rosat Escumos, a sparkling rose whose primary grapes are macabeu and xarel-lo. One whiff reveals brioche, another sweetness and several layers of ripe fruit. It has a malty flavor akin to a Belgian sour, like a lambic, and there are notes of leather, smoke and plum. Carles admits that it took him time to get used to the variety of smells and flavors, adding that once you've had wines this alive, it's impossible to go back.
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He is critical of how fashionable natural wine has become, though he thinks it's the only way wine should be produced. "Natural winemakers make lots of mistakes. Since I made every mistake, I know every defect," Carles confesses. "I notice at once when someone messes up. I always respect other winemakers, but if someone asks me my opinion, I tell them, 'Your wine tastes like you got it from your hole. Your asshole.'"
We trekked up to the vines, which sit atop a foothill overlooking the vines, fields and villages of the Baix Empordà and the glittering beaches of the Costa Brava. "There is a reason I live here," he says. "There are provincial mentalities in the village. People who are not very standard are not always understood. So that's why I am on my own up here. I can be whatever I want."
Those looking for Carles' wines can inquire with Trumpet Wine.