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Catalan Food & Wine Reminds Us to Keep the Belief in Excellence

A starred restaurant of humble origins and some outstanding Catalan wines

Experiencing Catalan Food & Wine at El Celler de Can Roca

El Celler Can Roca amuse-bouches illustrating each brother.

I was in Catalonia, Spain, visiting wineries and I was given the opportunity to have lunch at a three Michelin star restaurant named as best restaurant in the world in 2015 and 2013: El Celler de Can Roca. Despite not having a long ancestral pedigree Catalan food & wine industry reaches for the stars

A couple weeks ago, the taxi driver who took me from my hotel in Barcelona to the airport to return to New York City just happened to mention that he thought the best profession was that of a chef. And so, I thought he would appreciate me showing him pictures of my very recent experience at one of the top restaurants in the world, El Celler de Can Roca. With a glimmer in his eyes he exclaimed, “The Can Roca Chef, Joan Roca, is my god!” The Roca brothers, like Núria Altés, discussed below, show what is possible… although Catalonia was severely repressed by a military dictator up until recent times, they never gave up on the idea that they could be part of the international world of fine food and wine.

El Celler de Can Roca
Experiencing Catalan Food & Wine at El Celler de Can Roca

El Celler de Can Roca Squab

I was in Catalonia, Spain, visiting wineries in various areas and, amazingly, I was given the opportunity to have lunch at a three Michelin star restaurant that had been named as best restaurant in the world in 2015 as well as 2013: El Celler de Can Roca. A restaurant started by the Roca Brothers over 25 years ago, who were inspired by working in their parents humble restaurant in a middle class suburb of Catalonia, with their mother as the chef.

I was surrounded by Catalonia wine producers, who seemed to feel just as lucky and grateful as the whimsical parade of dishes took us on a magical journey. Each dish was custom made to pair with a different producer’s wine. It was an extraordinary experience to hear the thought process behind each dish from our waiter and then hear from the producer about the wine paired, both telling the story of their wondrous products that were both rooted in Catalonia.

Herencia Altés
Experiencing Catalan Food & Wine at El Celler de Can Roca

Núria Altés and Cathrine Todd at El Celler de Can Roca. In the foreground the Green olive’s ice cream tree.

Experiencing Catalan Food & Wine at El Celler de Can Roca

Josep Roca, El Celler de Can Roca Head Sommelier.

I had happened to be seated next to Núria Altés, owner of Herencia Altés, who had come from a family of poor grape growers in the region of Terra Alta. And now, here she sat in one of the best restaurants in the world, located not that far from the place of her ancestors. She presented her wine with pride, talking about the latest technology she was employing and all the care they were giving to their vineyards. She actually started buying grapes from her father’s vineyard until they made enough money to buy their first vineyard, La Serra. And they are about to finish completion of their new, state-of-the-art winery that is surrounded by old vines and breathtaking views, near the town where Núria grew up; I had the good fortune to visit it myself the next day.

She had deep beliefs that her home, Terra Alta, could make elegant wines and would become a place that many would want to visit; that her forefathers’ old vineyards had a lot more potential if placed within the right hands. And she is making those beliefs come true.

You Need to Believe in Order to Make it a Reality

As I sat there I realized that although Catalonia did not have the long ancestral pedigree to become one of the top food and wine areas of the world, it did not stop them from reaching for the stars – and that lunch proved that they had certainly achieved such top level success.

There are some things from our past that never leave us. For me, that time when I first came to New York City and spent many years just trying to survive… many days I only had enough money to buy potatoes to eat. But I did not allow my difficult early days to keep me from believing that I had so much more to give to the world than just worrying about how I would get my next meal.

As I got out of my taxi, I said to the driver that I looked forward to the day when he goes to El Celler de Can Roca, to which he replied, “That will never happen.” With a knowing grin, I said, “You will, as long as you never give up on that belief, you will.”

Cathrine’s Recommendations

I am going to do something different with this section of the column since it was an outstanding experience to have one of the best restaurants in the world create dishes to pair with the following wines from various areas of Catalonia, Spain. And so, since all of the wines selected were special in their own right, I would like to mention each one without placing them in price/quality categories. SRP stands for Suggested Retail Price.

2012 Vins El Cep, Claror Gran Reserva Brut Nature, Cava DO (SRP $50): 43% Xarel·lo, 33% Macabeo and 24% Parellada. Claror was launched as the first biodynamic Cava in 2006 by the Vins El Cep winery which is made up of four families who shared two passions: respecting the environment and making high quality Cava wines. Lovely toasted notes with Bosc pears and honeysuckle flavors with a dry, zesty finish. Only 2,800 bottles made.

2016 Mas Igneus, Barranc dels Comellars, Priorat DOCa/DOQ (there was no SRP and so I found this wine on wine-searcher for $23): 50% White Garnacha and 50% Garnacha. This was a fascinating white wine from Priorat – one of the top red wine areas in Spain. The red Garnacha was treated like a white grape, taken off the skins immediately. Also, Mas Igneus received the first organic certification in Priorat. Intense slate minerality with background hints of ginger and blood orange that really makes this white wine stand out. Lots of structure from tannin and acidity. Only 3,500 bottles made.

2005 Roger Goulart, Gran Reserva Extra Brut, Selección Vintage, Cava DO (SRP $78): 40% Xarel·lo, 20% Chardonnay, 20% Pinot Noir and 20% Parellada. Roger Goulart is known for their Xarel·lo dominated Cava wines that are long lived, which was certainly illustrated by this particular bottle. Fine bubbles that had a long persistence, with lime blossom and brioche notes dancing about in the aromatics with a serious structure and overall elegance. Only 948 bottles made.

2014 Herencia Altés, La Serra Blanc, Terra Alta DO (SRP $30): 100% White Garnacha. Herencia Altés just built a new winery – I saw it with my on eyes when we visited Terra Alta – and they are really on the cutting edge of technology and respecting the environment. This wine made me think that I needed to drink a lot more White Garnacha and it is said that this grape, Garnacha Blanca, was born in Terra Alta as a mutation from Garnacha. Smoky minerality with green figs, fennel fronds with a saline finish. This has become my new favorite white wine and I can’t believe it is from Terra Alta! Only 2,000 bottles made.

Experiencing Catalan Food & Wine at El Celler de Can Roca

Herencia Altés Old Vine in Terra Alta.

2007 Codorníu Arts Collecta, 456 Gran Reserva Brut, Cava DO (SRP $200): A blend from their top plots of 45% Pinot Noir, 45% Chardonnay and 10% Xarel·lo. Codorníu is a famous Cava House that released its first Cava in 1872. They were the pioneers for introducing Pinot Noir and Chardonnay into their higher quality Cava wines. 456 represents the number of harvests they have done. An intoxicating nose with roasted almonds and flinty minerality with a creamy body that has a long, pristine finish.  Only 1,000 bottles made.

2013 Perelada, Finca Malaveïna, Empordà DO (SRP $28.99): 46% Merlot, 21% Cabernet Sauvignon, 12% Cabernet Franc, 11% Syrah and 10% Garnacha. The name Finca Malaveïna means the “Bad Neighbor” and it is legend that there was a Spanish woman in the local town where this wine is made, who warned her French lover, who was in the army fighting Spain, about being captured. This wine has opulence with ripe fruit that is balanced by hints of wilted rose petal and fine dusty tannins.

2012 Clos Pons, Alges, Costers del Segre DO (SRP $19.99): 40% Garnacha, 40% Tempranillo and 20% Syrah. Although Clos Pons was not created until 2012 by the Pons family it really began in 2005 when they planted vines after a frost destroyed a plot of olive trees. They work organically and believe in expressing their land in the wines. The 2012 Alges has flavors of stewed plums, cassis and pepper with layers of wild rosemary and thyme with fine tannins.

2013 Torres, Perpetual, Priorat DOCa/DOQ (SRP $79.99): 90% Cariñena and 10% Garnacha. Miguel Torres is a living legend, who told us a story about his father surviving a prison camp during Franco’s rule to eventually rebuild their family’s winery that was destroyed during the Spanish Civil War. Today, the Torres wines are famous around the world with this Priorat showing their talents for being able to show a distinct sense of place with notes of crumbled slate and star anise, with concentrated flavors of dried cranberry and brooding dark fruit that starts and ends with an intense stony sense of place that has a long, profound finish.

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