As we were heading to the DO Priorat region, the now world famous premium wine appellation about an hour and a half south of Barcelona, we stopped over at the DO Montsant, the Appellation that practically encircles famous DO Priorat.
A bit about DO Montsant
Montsant is a relatively small DO that produces very high quality wines but that was not admitted as part of the DO Priorat because the soil is significantly different. The terraces and slated soils that make Priorat so unique are not as predominant in the Montsant DO and so it became a DO of its own.
In Montsant, there are a few great wineries but the area is also know for several Cooperatives. We visited the Celler de Capcanes, one of the oldest Cooperatives and also the first and one of only few Kosher wineries in Spain.
As we approached the village of Capcanes we barely saw any vineyards. We wondered, “Are we in the right place?”. In The intense DO Penedes area, where we had spent the previous two days, vineyards are almost flat and cover the entire territory save for some cereals and olive groves but here, in Montsant, vineyards are hidden and located in small estates that need to be hand picked because they are on steep slopes or are impossible to reach by machinery. There is also a green cover of forestry and, of course, the mountain ranges that give the area its name “La Serra del Montsant”.
This geography and agricultural conditions make organic practices in Montsant much easier to carry out because plagues take time to spread and find many hurdles in the thick forestry that acts like a natural barrier.
The origins of Celler de Capcanes
Celler de Capcanes is a winery located in the DO Montsant but it is only 15km from the sea and circled by mountain ranges. This peculiar geography and soil composition give the area the benefit of an almost microclimate.
The Celler de Capacanes cellar was built in 1933 by five local families who were looking to achieve economies of scale and be able to produce competitively priced wines. At that time, steel was not used in fermentation and keeping of the wine so many of the deposits we saw in the main production building were still made of cement. The winery enters every year around one million kilos of grapes making it a relatively small winery in the largest scale of Spanish wineries, but a relevant player in Montsant where production is quite small.
The old winery still has the basement cement deposits that were used in the past for fermentation because under ground the temperature could be maintained cooler during the hotter Spanish summer months. Today the are only temporary holding deposits when wines need to be transferred from steel to oak barrels.
Today, Celler de Capcanes has 250 hectares under management and 80 members bringing their grapes to the cooperative.
The role of Kosher wines in Judaism
As Celler de Capcanes puts it, “Wine represents the holiness and separateness of the Jewish people. It is used for the sanctification of Shabbat and Yom Tov and at Jewish celebrations. In the Beit Hamikdash (Holy Temple) wine was poured upon the Altar together with the sacrifice. Since it is used in many forms of idolatrous worship, it has a unique status in Jewish Law, which places extra restrictions on the making and handling of wine. This includes wine used for non-ceremonial purposes.”
Therefore wine is very important in Judaism, almost an imposed requirement of many celebrations and so it is key that it follows Jewsih Law.
What are Kosher Wines
The word Kosher means “pure” in Hebrew. During Sabbath, Jews must drink a little bit of wine and that wine must be certified Kosher. Any wine can comply with Kosher requirements as Kosher wines are largely made the same way as any other wine but must fulfil certain criteria. Usually, these criteria mean that Kosher wines must be produced separately from the rest of the wine so, although any winery can decide to start making Kosher wines, a lot of them decide to turn fully Kosher because the requirements of space and added cost of maintaining two separate production area are too high. In truth, full Kosher wineries are rare outside of Israel.
Although the processing of the grapes needs to follow strict rules, grapes can be picked by anyone because the fruit is integer and has not been processed.
There are three requirements for wines to be Kosher certified.
Firstly, the grapes used must be from vines that are at least three years old. This is not a problem as most vineyards do not yield any grapes before that. Vineyards also need to be organic so no chemical pesticides can be used. And every seventh year the vineyard needs to rest.
Secondly, some of the components used to fine and clarify wine cannot be from animal origin because vegetables and meat cannot be mixed. Hence, things like egg white fining powders used for clarification, which is an animal protein, cannot be used. That also means that Kosher wines are vegan friendly and that they do not need to be organic certified because they are by default.
Thirdly, Kosher wines need to be produced and handled from beginning to end by a Sabbath-observant Jew and nobody else. In the case of Celler de Capcanes, that means that, from the moment the grapes reach the winery, only the Rabbi from Barcelona or his helpers can handle the grapes and wines. The process is the same as for the rest of the wine only the handling of the production must be done by themselves with the instructions and guidance of the winemaker. Every time that the wine needs to be moved, when fermentation ends and the wine needs to be clarified or when it needs to be moved from the steel deposits to the oak barrels, the Rabbi needs to come from Barcelona and do it himself.
Because ensuring that the wine is Kosher is very important, the Rabbi seals every single part of the wine elements with his personal seal and signs with his signature and date. As we walk through the winery we see steel deposits where every single aperture is sealed, we see barrels locked inside a room that is sealed. The kosher mark is present throughout the winery.
Kosher wines must also follow strict cleaning processes of all the elements used in the production of the wine with extra washing, water being poured several times in intervals of 24h, etc. This adds significant time, effort and cost to the final price and is the reason why Kosher wines are more expensive than non-Kosher wines.
The story of Kosher wines at Celler de Capcanes
As we go on the tour with Anna, the Business Development and Sales Director at Celler de Capcanes, we can’t help but wonder how it all started, especially in a country where Jews are a minority and in a village which has 200 inhabitants. Celler de Capcanes was the first winery in Spain to make Kosher wines. The story behind and the journey the local farmers undertook on to decide to produce Kosher wines is a fascinating and brave one.
Historically, in Spain there were lots of Jewish colonies. In fact, in Barcelona, and other cities, there are neighbourhoods that are still named Call which is the Catalan name for Jewish neighbourhood. But nowadays, there are very few as the Christian Reconquista expelled most other religions.
The idea of producing Kosher wine came from the Jewish community of Barcelona who, at a fair, tried Celler de Capcanes wines and and told one of the members, “If this was a Kosher wine it would be excellent”.
Upon his return home, the discussions started with the rest of the Cooperative around taking this leap of faith. It was 1995.
Luckily, Celler de Capcanes Kosher wine was not just another type of wine but also an awarded one. The first bottles were taken to international competitions and awarded with high recognition, which helped promote the wine forward. For Celler de Capcanes, Kosher wine is not a large quantity, only 5% of the production, but because most of the Kosher wine is exported, this opened the doors for Celler de Capcanes other wines to succeed internationally.
As their success started to take off, the separate production of wine in the same old winery from 1933 was not enough so the Jewish community requested the Cooperative to modernise the winery. At that time, the vintners and vineyard owners members of the Cooperative in a town of 200 people had to take a loan against all of their assets and livelihood and go for it. In 1995. The risk was high, but the winery succeeded. The renovation and modernisation allowed for the brand Celler de Capcanes to become more premium and for small production vineyard exclusive wines to be possible. Today, all vineyards are produced separately until the coupage stage.
As a curiosity, Celler de Capcanes also produces the wine for the Archbishop of Tortosa so, in Anna’s words “It seems that they have a guaranteed ticker to Heaven!”
Tasting Celler de Capcanes Wines
After all the explanations and tour, we were ready to taste the wines. Were they really the fabulous wines we had been told about?
At the tasting room we are surrounded by the different types of soils that exist in Montsant, a very educational journey through thousands of years of tectonic movements and volcanic eruptions.
Celler de Capcanes has a wide range of wines available although reds dominate although there is a white, a rose and a Blanc de Noirs made with garnatxa. Because there are 80 members, there are a lot of different varieties, even those that may not be admitted in the Montsant DO, like Pinot Noir. Some of the members used to have some old vineyards with these grapes and so they bring them in. In cases of varieties that are not admitted to the Montsant DO, they are grouped under Catalunya DO.
Aside from the Kosher wines there are young wines, half-aged wines, aged wines, organic wines, single vineyard wines and singular wines. Although Celler de Capcanes has veered away from selling bulk wines, they still sell table wine in tetra brick style, though that is a small volume. Lastly, an interesting experiment that ended as a wine range is what they call the Terroir wines, a range of four garnatxa wines made 100% of the grape and elaborated the same exact way but made from grapes from four different vineyards each in a specific type of terroir typical of the Montsant DO.
The most premium wine Celler de Capcanes sells is the result of an error. The wine was supposed to be Kosher but one of the transfers from steel to oak barrels needed to take place on a specific day when the Rabbi was busy with a funeral so the wine maker had to decide whether to wait for the Rabbi risking the wine spoiling or going ahead and therefore for the wine to not be Kosher anymore. And they decided to go ahead to avoid the wine going off. As it was a different wine to the rest, it was decided to be bottled on its own and called Cabrida. This is today the most premium wine from Celler de Capcanes and receives the name from the path that reaches the vineyard it is made of which is a rocky “goat path” where goat translates to “cabra” in Catalan.
One of the most interesting ideas in the wine range are the Garnatxa single vineyard young wines. Every May, when the first wines of the year are released, the winery organises a festival called “The night of the Gatnatxa” where people can taste the garnatxa grapes from the different four soils that had been produced in the exactly same way. Because of the success of such event, these wine are now bottled and sold. Because Sommeliers and waiters at restaurants don’t have the time to explain the origin of these wines, the bottles are wrapped with a newspaper style comic strip that explains the story of the soil and the wine. The comic strip includes caricature images of all the staff members of Celler de Capcanes.
We tasted a garnatxa, a carinyena, another local variety, and a dessert wine. The wines were very expressive of the area, you could truly taste the soil and they were very fruity and aromatic. As opposed to other areas, DO Montsant, like DO Priorat have very high degree of alcohol. The regulation allows alcohol levels up to 15% and it gives a margin of 0,5% up or down so if a wine is 14,5% you can mark it as 14% or 15%. Despite the high alcoholic level the wines were very well balanced and the alcoholic level did not throw the wines off. Carinyena is more of a red fruit wine whereas the garnatxa is more of the black fruit type.
Celler de Capcanes offers guided tours in Catalan, Spanish, English and French. Just call ahead to organise one.