Let's SPRING into Modern Winemaking...
Updated: Apr 8, 2021
Sometimes passion is so powerful that you can actually feel it, or in this case, taste it...
Last week, I had a lovely time attending a virtual wine tasting with Alex Virgili of Democratic Wines. This Catalonian company’s main focus is making the world of wine, 'fun, easy and accessible to everyone.'
As I have mentioned before, the wine world can sometimes be a snobby and stuffy place. However, in the case of this brand, snobbery is definitely not the case. Ran by three brothers, the younger generation have taken this old school winery and made it their own.
During the virtual wine tasting, Alex, one of the three Virgili brothers, told us the history of the family business, the trials and tribulations of taking over the family company and veering it in a very different direction. He spoke about the importance of great marketing and branding but if the wine quality doesn't match, it won't be successful. The rebranding of the old school winery has helped put the Virgili brand on the map. They are especially popular with millennial, hipsters and modern wine drinkers, a change from their previous clientele. One thing has not changed in their 50 year history, the passion and love they share for their Catalan heritage.
In the politest way possible, I would describe their brand to be crazy...crazy branding, crazy parties and crazy smart. The way the brothers have made their business so sought after by "young souls" through their innovation, brilliant marketing and approachable brand, it is no wonder it is such a success.
The brothers actually have many other brands, all following the same philosophy. Democratic wines is the umbrella for El Bandarra and Organic & Orgasmic where as Can Virgili, the original family brand, is the umbrella for Cava Mo, Sorbet wines and the delicious wines we tasted.
In 2013 El Xitxarel·lo was launched, Alex described this as the companies 'big bang.' In modernising the brand, the brothers took a 'tongue in cheek' approach. Sometimes their campaigns can be close to the bone, but this wine isn't for the faint hearted anyway.
'El Xitxarel·lo' (the name of the bottle) translates from Catalan to 'stupid young guy.' 'Xarel·lo' is the indigenous grape of the area, most popular in Cava production.
Single varietal Xarel·lo is rare, especially quality bottles. This one is delightful, harvested manually, fermented in stainless steel at 16°C for three weeks and left on lees (the dead yeast cells) for 4-5 months depending on the vintage. This process adds body, freshness, complexity and sometimes bread-y notes to the wine. These lees are stirred with a big paddle for added roundness and elegance. This is a dry wine with high acid, low abv at 11.5%, medium body and medium + finish. Characteristics include green apple, pear, peach, apricot, lemon, lime, grapefruit and a slight delicate pastry note from the lees ageing, although this is very subtle. This wine has a great capacity to age, sticking a bottle in your cellar for a few years will result in a delicious summer treat!
As you can see, the bottle is truly unique showcasing 60+ different logos which are all naughty sayings, swear words or 'tongue in cheek' phases. Nothing is hurtful, just funny and slightly risky. These illustrations are replaced every vintage, the most recent additions being "Trumpos" = liar and "Boig" = crazy guy. "Pixa Pins"= a crazy hipster from Barcelona who drives to the country to 'pee' in the vineyards.
After the Xarel·lo's success, 'El Cabronet' was launched in 2015. Again a play on the grape, Cabernet Sauvignon but meaning, 'little bastard.' This wine is 100% Cabernet Sauvignon which is known as an 'international variety' because it is not native to the region. Plantings of this grape started in the 1980/90's in Penedes as an insurance for the future. Cabernet was big on the market at the time and these vines take 3-5 years before they harbour any fruit. It was the Virgili brothers father who first planted these vines in their vineyards.
The grapes are manually collected, fermented in stainless steel at 16-17°C for 25 days. The wine is then placed in oak barrels to mature for 3-4 months. The warm Mediterranean climate influences this wine by making is smooth, easy to drink and fruity.
It is a dry wine, deep ruby in colour with medium + acids, medium tannins, high alcohol, medium body and a long lingering finish... truly delicious. Characteristics are classic to Cabernet Sauvignon, blackcurrant, blackberry and other juicy dark fruits, cedar, graphite (like pencil sharpening) with beautiful richness. These dark fruit flavours are enhanced by a exciting winemaking technique. This is a technique that, in short, includes adding Co2 (it helps prevent oxidation), pumping the wine juice over itself and rapidly chilling the wine to -70°C. This is complex process which mimics a process called Carbonic Maceration which is common in Beaujolais to get juicy fruit and a fresh finish.
The stainless steel fermentation tanks used to covert the base must into wine were a big topic of conversation. Alex told us about the brothers plans to make the winemaking side of the business more fun for guests visiting the winery. In order to do this they have gained planning to create a large slide which will go inside of a tank (empty presumably) to show guest the journey the wine takes. When asked about the size of these tanks and the likely hood a person could fit inside, Alex replied in his typical risky way, "yes, they are pretty big, size matters."
"Yes, they are pretty big, size matters..."
The 'El Cabronet' bottle is also covered in slang, saying and swear words. One of the most noticeable illustrations is the large arrow going up the bottle, already in place for playing 'spin the bottle' which unlike the British game, doesn't involve kissing but the person whom the arrow lands gets stuck with the bill!
The branding, marketing, party persona and overall excitement of these wines is still
communicating an important message about protecting the climate and doing your bit to help with the current situation. This message is obvious when you look at the brothers innovative ideas regarding sustainable and renewable packaging. A twin pack was created with the two bottles, which after use instead of binning, instructions are given on how to transform into a light! Again with another Catalan saying "Com un llum" scribed over it.
The brothers practice organic and vegan grape growing and winemaking (viticulture and vilification). Organic wine is made using organic viticulture methods including, not spraying the crop with chemical fertilisers, using natural interventions and pretty much leaving the grape to grow itself without outside help or enhancements. However, organic viticulture is easier in warmer climates with little rain, like the Penedès region. Not having damp or humid weather helps reduce the risk of fungal disease which need lots of spraying to keep from infecting whole vineyards.
The idea that wine is vegan can be confusing, but animal proteins are often used in the clarification and filtration process. This is when proteins/large enzymes are added to the wine to bind to the remaining yeast and other floating particles. This helps make the remaining particles in the wine bigger so when they are fed through a sieve like machine they are big enough to be stopped and not fall through the holes leaving behind a lovely clear wine. Often the protein used is from fish, meat, egg and other animal products. There are however, alternatives such as a type of reformed plastic and what the Virgili Brother use, 'Bentonite' a compound deriving from clay which is often used in beauty treatments to leave skin looking younger and help remove toxins from your body.
The overall story behind this brand, the deep family history, passion for winemaking and love for their heritage all contribute to making this wine truly unique and successful. This excitement among "young souls," millennials and people who would not normally choose to drink wine is fantastic for the wine community all together. Moving away from the old school traditional methods and creating a fun, exciting persona around wine is what the industry needs. The Virgili brothers took a risk in making this tongue in cheek, sarcastic and funny brand but it has clearly paid off. The wine world needs more of this modern winemaking to ensure the industry has longevity and moves away from the stuffy, snobby image that has been created over the years. These wines are fantastic and I urge you to go and buy a bottle to support this cause but also... because, in the spirit of the Virgili brothers, it's bloody delicious.