Just west of Barcelona, in Spain's Catalonia, three generations of the winemaking Huguet family gather to toast the New Year, sharing a few favorite dishes as well as a few glasses of their Champagne-class cava
In Catalonia, Spain, where the observance of saint's days and holidays is often centered around specific gastronomic traditions, one celebration tends to be rather free-form: New Year's Eve. As I discovered on my visit to the Huguet family at their wine estate, Can Feixes, this particular evening can be an occasion of unstructured elegance. According to patriarch Josep María Huguet, New Year's Eve at Can Feixes can be a time for opulent dishes like lobster salad, leek soup and roasted sea bass (recipes follow) accompanied by the estate's bottlings, especially its signature cava, a remarkable sparkling wine that sells for nearly the price of Champagne. "On this night," Josep María Sr. explains, "everything is possible."
This could easily be the Huguet motto, one which follows the Catalan emphasis on independence and individuality. The story of the Huguets' entry into the world of high-priced cava starts about 20 years ago, when two of Josep María Sr.'s sons, Josep María Jr. and Joan, were young men faced with career decisions. Though their father had a successful construction business in Barcelona, the sons found their thoughts turning instead to the family's weekend home, the 500-year-old Feixes estate, which the Huguets purchased in 1940. Although grapes had been grown at the estate for centuries, they had been sold without fanfare to a local winery, and had provided the Huguets with little income. The brothers resolved to produce fine estate-bottled wines, specifically great sparkling wines. Such an ambition in a part of Spain famous for its inexpensive sparklers (Freixenet and Cordoníu are two neighbors) was audacious--but then Catalonia is where the word quixotic was coined, so why not?
"My father was a bit nervous about moving into winemaking," says Joan (pronounced schwan). "You know, starting a winery is expensive. But he trusted us--and the vineyards." Joan decided to learn viticulture. "I knew that in the vineyard I wouldn't have to wear a tie," he admits with an easy laugh. Josep María Jr. is organized, meticulous and at ease with science, so he studied winemaking.
The land was good: grapes of note had been grown in that soil for at least 2,000 years. But there were considerable risks. Starting a modern winery in an underdeveloped, mountainous area was a major undertaking. The few roads were poor, water was scarce and technological support was scant. The region also had an image problem: it had no image.
Against the odds, the Huguets have succeeded. "We released our first wines in small batches in 1984 and sold them only in Spain," Josep María Jr. said as we tasted the 1994 vintage in a cellar deep below what must have once been a stable. "Now we sell our wines not only in Spain but also in America, in England and in several other European countries. But we can't grow too fast, because we do so much by hand." The Huguets' 1994 vintage produced 6,300 cases--a tiny amount compared with Cordoníu, their neighbor down the mountain, which keeps an average of 10 million cases in its cellars.
As Josep María Jr. popped the corks on their two cavas, Brut Classic and Brut Nature (only the latter is currently available in the United States), he explained why their sparkling wines are labeled Huguet, rather than Can Feixes like their still wines: "We think of our cavas as modern wines, so we have given them the family name. Our still wines are more wines of the land, so they're named after the estate." Both cavas were dry and crisp, yet substantial, with a lingering finish. Josep María Jr. attributed this partly to the addition of Chardonnay grapes and partly to the four years of aging these wines undergo. "It takes that long to develop real character," he says. "Any less and you're only making bubbles." In a region noted for its $8 bottles, the price of their cava--close to $20--has surprised some. These sparklers are clearly superior, though. By concentrating on just a few wines, the Huguets have managed to polish every aspect, ensure every detail and produce exactly the ones they want. A nice way to work indeed.
And, as if that weren't enough, Can Feixes is also a beautiful place. The vineyards surrounding the house are set on the slopes of a 360-degree bowl, more than 1,200 feet above sea level. As we strolled in the cool, clean air, Joan showed me the contrast between the Spanish vines (somewhat shaggy, branching out in all directions) and the French, with grapes like Chardonnay (neatly trained to grow along wires), then abruptly interrupted himself to exclaim, "I love this work!"
Back at the house, Josep María Sr. played with his grandchildren while his wife, Pilar, supervised dinner. Joan, Josep María Jr. and their younger brother, Xavier, did what young men in Spain have always done: hung around and bantered while their wives and girlfriends set the table. The women placed a bundle of 12 large grapes on each plate. As the estate's chapel bell rang in the new year, everyone ate one grape with each chime. Anyone who ate all 12 by the last clang was guaranteed good luck in the coming year. But after seeing (and tasting) all the Huguets have accomplished, I don't think luck is something they're short of these days.
Story by Brian St. Pierre, who is the author of A Perfect Glass of Wine (Chronicle Books) and a contributing editor at Decanter, a wine magazine in the United Kingdom.