Llopart – fine bubbles from Catalonia
The Llopart winery in Catalonia is just 40 minutes away from the bars and cafés of Barçelona. This is the heart of sunny Penedès, an ancient and thriving wine region. Here, the still wines made under the Penedès DO co-exist with sparkling wines all made, (until recently), under the famous name of Cava. While Cava DO is not a specific region, 95% of it comes from Catalonia, and 75% is made in and around the town of Sant Sadurní d’Anoia. Sant Sadurní is to Cava what Èpernay is to Champagne.
Llopart occupies the high limestone of Subirats, rising above Sant Sadurní, just 3 km away. They make around 400.000 bottles each year, 25% of which is exported. Until this year, Llopart was a Cava House. After all, 90% of Llopart’s production is sparkling, and they are also the second oldest sparkling wine producer in Spain. (Before you ask, nearby Cordoníu is the oldest).
The Corpinnat and Cava context
Now Llopart is one of the nine producers in the Corpinnat group that have recently broken away from Cava. Corpinnat roughly means “rocky heart”, which describes this area well. While the countryside is peaceful and Sant Sadurní bustles with wine commerce, there is a long-running turmoil in Cava that will in some part determine the future of Spanish bubbles. It’s not the time or place to discuss the details of the Cava-Corpinnat rift, which finally happened earlier this year. The central issue is about increasing quality versus quantity and so enhancing the image of Cava. After all, Cava is a sparkling wine made by the long and expensive método tradicional, just like that used in Champagne.
Mention Cava and the name is instantly recognised. Unfortunately, Cava has become associated with cheap bubbles that only compete on low price. Indeed, in the UK, the market for Cava is contracting at a time when we’ve never loved bubbly more. According to the WSTA, UK sales of sparkling wine have almost doubled in volume and value in the last five years, with new records set in 2018. Meanwhile, research by the IWSR shows Cava consumption down 6.8% over a similar period.
Hence this context cannot be ignored, because Llopart (and other Houses, whether Cava or Corpinnat) make sparkling wine of fantastic quality. A re-evaluation is overdue; to reveal those sparkling wines that are an authentic taste of Catalonia. In terms of wine quality, scenic beauty and warm hospitality, there’s no better place to start than Llopart.
Llopart’s history of fine bubbles
The Llopart family can trace their roots here to a document from 1385 when family ancestor Bernardus Leopardi was granted vineyards at Subirats. Eventually, the family farm became dedicated to wine. Sparkling wine started in 1887 when Llopart adopted sparkling wine methods from Champagne. Those early years were commercially successful, being before phylloxera crossed the Pyrenees from France. The French, with their vineyards already devastated, bought wine from nearby Catalonia and there was a ready market in cosmopolitan Barçelona. Eventually, Catalonia suffered the same fate but by then sparkling wine had become established.
In the early 1950s, Pere Llopart I Vilarós began his lifelong journey to take Llopart’s sparklers to a whole new level of quality. So influential was he that he gained the Creu de Sant Jordi for his life’s work. Given this history, it’s perhaps not surprising that Llopart joined the Corpinnat group of producers, which formed in April 2018 and broke away from Cava in February 2019.
Working with nature’s gifts
Llopart today has 95 hectares of vines spread over 167 different plots and surrounded by 375 hectares of protected natural forests. The vineyards are between 250 and 510 metres in altitude, with steep slopes and rocky limestone outcrops. Catalonia is hot, and climate changes mean temperatures are increasing. However, the high altitude and proximity to the Mediterranean mean cooling afternoon breezes (called the Llebrieg) and significant day/night temperature variation. Also, the vineyards face north, away from direct sun. Those factors preserve aroma and crisp freshness in the grapes, especially when they are picked early for sparkling wine. Low humidity also means that fungal diseases are rare, so organic viticulture is the norm.
There are grape varieties planted for red and white still wines, but the most significant plantings are of the “classic three” Catalonian white grapes for sparkling; namely Xarel-lo, Parellada and Macabeo. There’s some Chardonnay for sparkling, but Llopart has field-grafted much of it to Xarel-lo. For Rosé, there are red varieties; Monastrell, Garnacha and Pinot Noir.
All these vines are mature, averaging 35 years. Some old bush vines are up to 80 years of age. Due to roaming wild boar, electric fences are necessary to protect the ripening grapes! Yields are low from organics and old vines, reduced further by hard pruning and a harvest selection. This selection, bush vines and the terrain necessitate hand-harvesting. There’s also harvesting at night, preserving freshness and avoiding the risks of oxidation.
Llopart’s modern winery is almost entirely underground, buried in the hillside with a vineyard planted on top, so reducing footprint and visual impact. The winemaking here uses the traditional method, though the local grape varieties and terroir mean a distinctively Catalan interpretation, not an imitation Champagne. The base wines are fermented individually by plot, in temperature-controlled stainless steel, with blending afterwards. The secondary, malolactic fermentation which would soften the natural acidity is discouraged.
Once bottled for the second fermentation, long ageing on the lees is the norm at Llopart, for at least 18 months and up to ten years. Current Cava rules insist on only 9 months minimum, with 15 months for Reserva level, and 30 months for Gran Reserva. Riddling is still done by hand for the top wines, though there are also modern gyropalettes, a French invention pioneered in Spain. Rather than NV, vintage-dated wines are the norm thanks to the clement Catalonian climate. All the wines indicate their disgorgement date on the label, so the amount of ageing is also transparent. As there are no animal products used, the wines are vegan and vegetarian.
What better place to try these wines than outside in the Llopart vines or underground in their cellar? Their location is a special one, from whence the view is mostly downward and northward. In the distance tower the serrated outline of the Montserrat mountains, whose colour varies with the hour. There’s a pinkish glow in the early evening light. Meanwhile, ruinous old castles and watchtowers are historic reminders of past times.
Bibendum import some (sadly not all) Llopart wines into the UK. For the moment they still say Cava on the label, Corpinnat is too new to appear yet. As usual, there are representative UK stockists and prices.
Brut Reserva, 2016. 11.5%
Disgorged in September 2019 after 25 months on the lees, a blend of 40% Xarel-lo, 30% Macabeo and 30% Parellada. Made in the Brut style, with 6 g/l dosage. Fresh, crisp acidity, leesy aromas and flavours. Excellent balance, no sharp edges. Tangy apple and pear fruit. Almond-ish lingering finish and slow bubbles. Winebuyers, £14.96.
Rosé Brut Reserva, 2017. 11.5%
60% Monastrell, 20% Garnacha, 20% Pinot Noir. Nineteen months on the lees. Rosé is always made by the saignée method, where pink coloured juice bleeds out from the red vats. Blending white and red wines together isn’t an option in Cava. Brut style, with 6 g/l dosage. Attractive dark cherry coloured. Delicious raspberry scented and flavoured bubbles. Gentle silky tannins, ample volume in the mouth. All of a piece. Sipp, £15.95
Imperial Panoramic, Gran Reserva, 2013. 11.5%
50% Xarel-lo, 40% Macabeo, 10% Parellada, given 50 months on the lees, made in a Brut style with 6g/l dosage. Golden, slow bubble stream, gentle mousse. A gastronomic expression – some roasted almond and honeyed scents, reprised on the palate alongside yeasty brioche, apple and citrus. Creamy texture kept in balance by fresh acidity, with a long finish. All About Wine, £19.29
Original 1887 Brut Nature, 2008. 11.5%
1887 is perhaps the greatest expression of Cava I’ve encountered and one of the world’s great sparklers. Brut Nature, so no dosage, and ten years on the lees. 25% Xarel-lo, 25% Macabeo and 50% Parellada. Each of the three grape varieties is from a single plot. Original 1887 celebrates Llopart’s original sparkling wine, even replicating the label, with just 2,000 bottles for the 125th anniversary. Deep golden colour. A bone dry wine with a whole raft of complex tertiary aromas and flavours. Toasted almonds and walnuts, chestnuts, a lick of honey, hints of dried orange and candied apple. Lazy beaded bubble stream with tiny bubbles. Creamy buttered toast. New impressions and nuances appear with every sip. Combines power with a filigree delicacy. A breathtaking wine. All About Wine, £35.39 NB: This wine became my Wine of the Year 2019 on 1st January 2020.
If you are in Barçelona and can tear yourself away for just one winery visit, then Llopart should be your destination. Look out for other excellent cuvées that don’t get to the UK, such as the Ex Vitae and Leopardi Gran Riservas, plus the Microcosmos Brut Nature Rosé Riserva.
L’Heretat Can Llopart de Subirats
Carretera de Sant Sadurní an Ordal, Km.4
GPS: N41º24’29’’ E1º48’12”
PS I apologise to those readers less familiar with some of the many sparkling wine terms. I offer a little enlightenment here. Meanwhile, the Cava/Corpinnat split is ongoing – I promise a full report in 2020.