Day 17: Els Jelipins & The Future of Spanish Wine(?)
If i grew up in Winnipeg, Canada i suppose i would someday want to live someplace warm like, say, San Sebastien. After a stint at American culinary institution Charlie Trotter’s sommelier Linda Milagros Violago did just that, settling down as executive sommelier at Mugaritz. Not too bad.
One thing about me is that I can be stubbornly single-minded about things. A great example would be how one day, I showed up at a restaurant in Spain, in the middle of the Basque countryside and just before sitting down for lunch I said, “I want to work with you.” Roughly eight months later (including two months of Spanish lessons), I started work in said restaurant. It was all I wanted; all I could think about. Unfortunately, on my first, jetlagged night I suddenly realized that I hadn’t thought about what the hell I was supposed to drink once I settled into my new home. I knew going in (though conveniently forgot) that my options would be pretty limited. I thought that I was screwed. There, I said it. And I won’t take it back. (Note to reader: Before anyone fires off a nasty email to me at said restaurant thinking I’m dissing Spanish wine, just remember, the theme here is “natural wine”.)
And then I came across this odd, fat, dark, bottle with scribbles on it for a label, with a tiny back label written in Catalan. I was told it was “raro” – odd – and reductive. Well, reductive it was. At first. Ah, but when given a bit of air, it was – and is – like no other Spanish wine I have ever met. She is Els Jelipins. And with this bottle, came renewed hope for the future of Spanish wine. At the very least, for me, it was love at first sight.
For the 2003 vintage, only 1500 bottles were made. Roughly an hour west-ish from Barcelona, in Font-Rubí, in the middle of nowhere – literally – is where you find the modest home of Glòria, Oriol and berta, set in a clearing on a hill. The winery is adjacent to their house and both buildings function on solar power. The wine is a blend of Sumoll – one of the few indgenous varietals still cultivated in Catalunya – and Garnacha. The 80-year-old vines of Sumoll are growing with a majestic view of Montserrat, about 45 minutes from their home. I’ve seen some gnarly vines in my travels, but none quite like these. In total, there are four hectares of vines in rocky, calcareous clay, tended for by people that they trust.
When I first tasted this wine two years ago, it was very reduced and funky and I had fears about being able to move this wine, let alone about its ageing potential. I soon realized that it just needed some more time. Three months after that first taste, I couldn’t stop thinking about it, the change was that dramatic. I fired off an email to the address listed on the charming website (www.elsjelipins.com) and what I received was some sort of stream-of-consciousness diary entry written during their first harvest. I was intrigued: just WHO were these people?! Everyone is included in the project. That’s just how it’s been and that’s how I’ve come to know them: GOB.
I did finally meet Oriol shortly after this initial exchange of emails. He is a young, tall, handsome Catalan, appropriately disheveled and talking about soil and wines of Burgundy. Anyone who knows me knows that at this point, there was no looking back. I made a pilgrimage to their land to meet the “G” and the “B” of “GOB” and was welcomed into a home full of light and fancy and life. Walking through the woods to the bus stop to pick up young Berta from her school bus, we picked wild asparagus that later accompanied our dinner. It was the kind of experience that, if I were not such a product of the city (she says, as she types in her modest apartment set in an old Basque town, pop. 6000), I would move in with them, tend the garden, take care of the dog, practice yoga on the side of the hill and live out my days working with my hands. I am also realistic and know that I wouldn’t last more than a month out there. But I digress…
Els Jelipins is a project of love and passion of Glòria Garriga and Oriol Illa and la Berta (their shockingly bright and effervescent daughter). There could be no other way to describe it, especially upon meeting them. When you hear them talk about wine, about their garden (all the vegetables they eat come from this garden) and about their life in the hills it just all makes sense. There is no mention of Parker, points, IPT, or even mention of “biodynamic”. They just do what seems to come naturally. There is only a hint of sulfur just before bottling. Obviously, given the 1500-bottle production, they have day jobs. Glòria is an agronomist consultant working out of home and Oriol works in a facility dedicated to the care and transition back into society of people struggling with chemical dependency. Berta is their daughter who goes to school, studies piano and violin and offers impromptu concerts to brighten up the day. She also has a cool teddy bear (yet another winning point in my book).
A brief word on Sumoll: Indgenous red grape variety found in Catalunya that generally yields wines of high alcohol (I suspect this is compounded by the crazy heat of the area), etc. etc. It is not allowed in wines with the DO of Penedés (where the vines are located) and so their wine has been declassified as a Vi de Taula, or Table Wine. Which is just fine by me. FYI, DO Penedés permitted grape varieties include Cabernet Sauvignon, Grenache, Tempranillo, Carignan, Muscat, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay…. Get my drift?
In my two years here, I have only sold two bottles to Spanish guests, so contrary is it to the palate of the average guest who asks for a full-bodied wine or a Parker points wine. The rest have been shared with guests from Australia, Sweden, the United States and France. It is with those who already have some sort of connection with nature – chefs who forage, other natural winemakers, just about anyone who eats food from their garden – who respond to this wine. We probably open at least one bottle per week. With such regularity, I can’t help but notice its evolution.
Els Jelipins is light-ish in body in spite of its 15% alcohol (with all that sun in 2003, it was unavoidable) and earthy and, depending on the lunar phase, either leaning more to ripe red berries or to more leathery, silky, dried berry notes. I am not one to follow the biodynamic calendar, but I do watch my moons. Often I can see it out the window during service. And I am not one to say that there is a better time than others to drink a wine. That’s the beauty of what is a living beverage and not an industrial concoction: just like humans, wines like these express different things at different times. That said, this wine, sipped under the light of the full moon, is one of the sexiest, young wines that I have ever had. Also, with the full moon, decanting is made so easy: the fine sediment remains stuck to the bottle rather than being in suspension and drifting into the decanter. I have just tasted the 2004 (in time for today’s full moon)and it is showing to be a bit more brutish off the start, but after a couple of hours it opens up to the silkiness that I know Jelipins to be. Give it a few more months and I’ll be purring.
Sadly, this wine is not yet available in North America, but it is available retail in various places in Spain and also in Paris (but since I don’t like that store, just come to Spain, I’ll hook you up!). If you get a chance to try it, please do! This IS the future of natural wine in Spain!
Follow day by day here: https://saignee.wordpress.com/31-days-of-natural-wine/
Up next: Joe Manekin talks to importer Jose Pastor about the future of Spanish wine; or: Old world?