17 May From Numbers to Grapes: The Intrepid Project of Josep Grau
Josep Grau is a man who likes numbers. Before he became a winemaker, he worked in finance for 18 years.
“It isn’t that I didn’t love finance.” he says. “I was actually very passionate about it. My parents were always very supportive of me. When I got a job in a bank, they were very proud. Yet, instead of discouraging my pursuit of wine, it was the reverse. My father said: ‘In this work, you believe something, you construct something, but in reality it’s nothing. It’s smoke. Nobody is going to thank you for the work you do.’ It’s simply that, that at the end of the day, my work was about nothing.”
It’s a sobering thought, one which he reflects on while we talk. We’re ensconced in his cozy tasting room one spring evening, nestled in the heart of the Born neighborhood in Barcelona, a stone’s throw from the port. Josep opened this space less than a year ago. Intended to be part office space, part gastronomic space, this is where he holds private wine tastings for journalists, buyers, and friends.
Josep didn’t come to wine as most do, through family. Rather, he began to learn about wine as a hobby. When he first began, he didn’t really consider that it would change his life. In the beginning, it was a way to relax, an opportunity to escape the city for the countryside, a means of detaching himself from the “brutal stress” of his work life. In 2000, he enrolled in the Enology program at the Catalan Institute of Vine and Wine in Vilafranca del Penedès. Then in 2003, he went to Montsant, the small designation of origin that curls around the well-known region of Priorat, about two hours south of Barcelona, to look for land where he could begin to put all the theory he had learned into practice. He found an abandoned vineyard in Capçanes, and despite his doubts, plunged forward, purchasing his first hectare for only 18,000 euros. He was lucky because many of the vines were already between 50 and 70 years old. “Vines that old are self-regulating,” he explains. “There isn’t much to be done to recuperate them.” It made getting started fairly straightforward. “I didn’t need to plant a vineyard and wait ten years for it to produce,” he explains. “This gave me the potential of starting big.”
Along the way doubts continued to plague him. Not long after he purchased the land, he went into the village and encountered a man there who warned him away. “‘Are you the guy that bought the land here?’ he asked me, and I said, ‘Yes, I bought it to make wine.’ And he said, ‘You should not be here. You should not stay even three minutes more in this village. There is no future here,’ he told me. That was 14 years ago. It was the moment in which I thought I’d made a terrible mistake.”
Nevertheless, for five years, he traveled one day a week to Montsant to practice making wine while continuing to work full-time in finance. During this time, he delved into a deeper understanding of wine, its language and its nuances. “I approached winemaking with a lot of respect and admiration, because most winemakers have been doing this for generations, and I came to it from zero,” he explains. Little by little, he improved his craft. Over time, winemaking slowly became a dedication, if not fully a vocation for him. He spent his time studying about wine by reading as much as he could and, of course, drinking a lot of different wines. Ultimately, everything he learned, he tells me, he learned from the wine itself.
His first harvest was only 300 bottles, essentially one barrel-full, which he produced in a small shed on the property. It wasn’t bad, he thought, for a novice, but he also knew he would never compete with the big guns in Bordeaux turning out thousands of bottles a year. “One time I went to a harvest at a vineyard in Bordeaux, and when it was over they invited us to a party to celebrate their 700th year of winemaking. 700th year. And I thought ‘Okay, well that’s nice. I don’t think we’re going to make it there.’” He laughs at the memory. Yet he realized at some point he would have to decide if this could be a life for him, away from the world of finance.
But winemaking, like any business, is never easy. It has its ups and downs, often related to weather. In 2006, Montsant experienced a torrential rain, unlike any other in recent memory. In one of the driest winegrowing regions in the world, it rained 100 liters in one night. “We only had two plots, and we lost everything.” It was, in every sense, a disaster.
“In this business, there’s no room for error,” Josep says. “Nature is always like that. It’s not fiction,” he says, with a shrug. Yet, he pressed on despite the loss. His wines continued to do well in the market and in competitions. In 2010, his wine Vespres was named one of the top 100 wines of the year. It was a turning point for Josep, the moment when he thought his dream could become his reality. By then, Josep and his project were firmly planted in Montsant. In Catalan, vespre refers to the fall of evening, which calls to mind the importance of the moon in winemaking, yet the name Vespres is also a nod to the Carthusian monks of Scala Dei, the first vintners of Priorat, the land that borders Montsant. However, it holds even a more personal connection for him, a connection to Montserrat, Catalunya’s most sacred spot and the place where he would often go to disconnect and listen to the evening vespres, the religious chants performed at the monastery on the mountain top.
Eventually in 2013, when he was finally convinced that he had the knowledge and experience to make a career of it, he dedicated himself full-time to winemaking. Today, he has parcels spread among three different municipalities in Montsant: Capçanes, Falset, and Marçà. Combined, they total more than 36 hectares of vines. His winery in Marçà, which he built in 2007, is a lesson in minimalism. Its sleek, modern exterior lies in contrast to the age-old techniques he uses to make his wine. Like most of the harvesting done in this region, it’s difficult manual labor that cannot be done by machine, due to the land’s steep gradation. Normally, it takes four people to work the bodega and five the vineyard. During harvest season, the number of hands needed in the field rises to 25. They collect all the grapes in small boxes of 10 kilograms each, in order to reduce breakage and then hand deliver them to the processing area. Together they harvest enough grapes to make the label’s eight different wines, two roses, three whites, and three reds.
In terms of taste, Josep prefers wines that makes an impression in the mouth because it’s the “final sense,” the last impression one gets of a wine. For him, each wine is like a photograph of the land where it’s made. He likes making wine from different plots of land, at distinct altitudes, and different soils in order to show people each parcel’s distinct expression and the range of wines that the Montsant region can make. In a sense, he’s capturing the spirit of France in placing terroir ahead of the winemaker in importance. Indeed, more than in his own project, Josep’s hope lies in the Grenache grape, in its recognition as one of the premier grapes in the world. He wants people to recognize the region of Montsant as being a premier winemaking region, like Burgundy or any other.
One thing is making wine, however, and another is marketing it. In the wine business, labels sell. Yet, what’s usually regarded as a savvy marketing ploy is also a highly personal expression of the winemaker, a piece of art that reflects both the art within the bottle and the relationship with the wine itself. The label of La Florens is a study in the traditional: a neutral cream base, a stylized illustration of a bird, and the name in a romantic swirl of italic text. Despite its classic beauty, wine distributors are constantly telling Josep to change it. “The capital F is too complicated,” they tell him. “No one can pronounce it.” The message is: confusing doesn’t sell. Yet, despite their admonitions, Josep is particularly proud of this bottle, because it features the first piece of calligraphy that his mother ever did. The name, Florens, is his mother’s. Each time he patiently explains the story to them, they always say, “Never mind. Don’t change a thing.”
What to Try:
Vespres Vinyes Velles 2015
100% Garnatxa Negra (Red Grenache) and 10% Samsó (Carignan)
This wine opens with a nose of red forest fruits and its familiar flinty, almost metallic, mineral notes. It’s rounded off with floral and balsamic nuances and a hint of peppery aromas. Despite 14 months in Austrian oak, it remains both fresh and delicate. Pairs well with roasted wild meats, Ibèric cured ham, risotto, sheep’s cheese, and grilled vegetables.
Vespres Blanc 2015
100% Garnatxa Blanca (White Grenache)
This white boasts fresh white fruits and aromas of white flowers against a serious mineral background. Once it’s open, tropical fruits and a hint of aniseed develop in this wine, too, making it a versatile pairing for all kinds of fish, raw seafood, and pasta dishes.
90% Garnatxa Negre (Red Grenache), 10% Garnatxa Blanca (White Grenache)
This beautiful limited production rosé is an unusual blend of red and white Grenache which smells of pink roses which appear over a sweet backdrop of delicate spices. This surprising Grenache blend spends 6 months in oak and another 6 months on its lees. The result is a delicate, elegant wine with excellent acidity and freshness, which pairs well with a wide range of food, from grilled red meats, to risotto, to all types of fish and shellfish.
To find out more about Josep Grau and his wines click here.
About the author: Melissa Leighty is freelance writer and photographer based in Barcelona, Spain. When she’s not writing about wine, she covers travel and food for Metropolitan and Miniguide and is at work on her first cookbook about Catalan cuisine. Visit her at www.melissaleighty.com and follow her latest culinary adventures on her food blog, Ataula. She’s on Instagram as well @mpleighty and @ataula_co.