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Where is DO Ampurdan-Costa Brava?

She’s back! My wife and blossoming wine enthusiast, once again, adds a bit of her growing knowledge to my humble blog. Hope you all enjoy, and let her know you want more!

Till soon, Ryan Opaz

Last September, I had the privilege of spending two weeks biking throughout one of the most picturesque and culturally rich regions of Spain called Catalunya, located along the Mediterranean coast bordering France. And of those two weeks, approximately five days were spent in D.O Ampurdan-Costa Brava, also called the Emporda in Catalan (the local language of the region), containing some of the most various landscape in Spain ranging from spectacular mountain vistas to isolated coastal beaches.

Now, take a moment and imagine getting up at 6am in the morning, donning your long-underwear, biking shorts and gloves and heading out to a brisk and chilly 30 degrees. Sounds a bit ridiculous doesn’t it? If I wasn’t so taken by the area, I think a nice cup of hot chocolate in my warm cozy bed would have sounded much more appealing; however, I chose to climb onto my hard rubber seat and peddle as hard as I could praying that my body would warm up before my muscles gave out. As I wound my way up through the Pyrenees, passing thick woolen sheep, golden fields of hay and lush vineyards, I pondered how a region so steeped in a rich culinary and wine making tradition could be so seldom mentioned in wine circles.

As I climbed higher, I could feel my lungs struggling to get enough oxygen. I coasted up and down through the valleys, the typical autumn and winter rains sprinkled on my back, I made a note to research the terrior of the area. How does this climate effect the vines? What types of grapes can grow in such steep mountainous regions? It turns out that most grapes couldn’t survive in such harsh surroundings, but due to the unique microclimates carved out of the mountains like a half-moon, called cuevas, the grapes are protected from the Tramontanas – vicious northerly winds that blow during the winter and spring reaching speeds up to 120 miles an hour. Whereas during the summer, the southeasterly winds hit with a slightly less force, creating equal damage to unprotected vines.

The morning rolled into afternoon and the temperature rose approximately 15 degrees. The sun slowly crept out from behind the clouds, and I began to shed my several layers of clothing drenched from the morning rain. All around me stood small squares of rainbow colored fields filled with grapes, almonds, olive oil and herd sheep for their wool rose up against the sharp peaks and the clear blue skies. At times, the sight was so astounding that I found myself not breathing, completely frozen in astonishment. After coming from the searing heat of Madrid where temperatures can still creep up to 105 degrees in September, here in D.O. Costa Brava, the dry cold crisp air felt invigorating.

A few days later, I was approximately 50 km from the bone-chilling moutainous region right on the Mediterranean coast where a warm gentle breeze came in with the waves. The temperature was mild and the air was filled with a slight salty flavor. For the few days we stayed near the coast, I made it a conscious priority to dash down to the beach and take a quick dip in the sea before breakfast. On several occassions, I found myself wondering if I was even in the same country, because not only was the climate completely different, but so was culture. The majority of the people were tourists from both Germany and England who buy up property all along the Spanish coast. Which in effect, changed the northern laid back atmosphere to a more lively festive one. Whereas, the climate was considerably more temperate allowing for fresh artichokes, green beans and asparagus to be sold along the side of the road, while the valleys were spotted with fields of sunflowers, red delicious apples, almonds, figs and, of course, fields of lush vines.

So what types of grapes hide in cuevas to withstand the intensely strong winds or bask in the sun while snuggling up to the coast? The primary white varietals are Macabeo and Garnacha Blanca; whereas, the red varietals are Garnacha and Cariñena. Interestingly, because of the diverse climate, several varietals not native to the region are increasingly being experimented with including Muscat, Gewürztraminer, Chardonnay, Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Temranillo.

As for the types of wines that are produced, vanguard reds and whites are now being made, but rosés made with both Garnacha and Cariñena are still the primary wines made in this region. And although I didn’t have the opportunity to try some of their traditional wines, including Garnatxa – a sweet red varietal made from grapes dried on straw mats creating a sweet orangy-red wine, I was able to try a white wine made by blending Garnacha (and usually Cariñena) with some white grapes. The traditional red wines are usually a mix of Garnacha and Cariñena. In regards to labeling, the following rules are adhered to as they are in most regions within Spain:

Crianza- 6 months oak, 12 months bottle
Reserva- 12 months oak, 24 months bottle
Gran Reserva- 24 months oak, 36 months bottle

One particular wine I savoured while staying in an 18th century farmhouse restored into a one of the several Relais & Chateaux hotels was the Vinya Selva de Mar, 2002. It was a Muscat Chardonney blend paired with grilled lobster drizzled with a lemon and artichoke aioli. From what my memory serves, which can be patchy if you question my husband, it was a perfect pairing with the meal. Honey, melon with a light citrus flavor lingered on the palate without overshadowing the strong vinegry flavor of the artichoke.

What else can I say about this region other than it’s diverse, beautiful and holds some of the greatest food and wine in Spain? I would highly suggest picking up a bottle from this D.O. and see if you can imagine yourself standing up in the mountains, or smelling the salt air, as you take your first sip. Pair it with some fresh lobster or shrimp, or see if your local gourmet cheese shop sells the native sheep’s cheese called Garrotxa. You might find yourself as suprised and impressed with this D.O. as I was.

Gabriella Opaz

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