I first saw L’Albera at night. I’d traveled north by train from Barcelona to Figueres, Salvador Dalí’s hometown, and then by bus to Sant Climent Sescebes, a village of about six hundred people near the French border. It was dark when I boarded the bus, and I could only make out vague silhouettes in the dim landscape around me. We wound through quiet neighborhoods, their stone buildings illuminated by weak streetlights. Passengers left the bus one by one. At the second-to-last stop, a man in army fatigues got out and disappeared into the darkness. There was, I’d been told, a military base just outside of town, and on some days artillery practice could be heard across the foothills. I was headed to the last stop, farther north and east, to a forested nature reserve in L’Albera. It was strange, I thought—a nature reserve next to a military base: preservation and destruction adjacent.
Barbara, one of the winemakers I’d be staying with for a few months, picked me up in a blue van. She had a wide smile and feathery eyebrows that reminded me of an owl’s tufts, and she spoke to me in Italian-accented Spanish, a holdover from her three decades in Milan. She drove us ten minutes down a dirt road, toward the mountains. The massif of L’Albera was the easternmost extension of the Pyrenees and eventually tapered off into the Mediterranean; just beyond was France. Sweeping south from the mountains was an alluvial plain, called Empordá; dispersed across the plain were Roman-era footpaths and megalithic stone monuments called dolmens, which dated back some seven thousand years. In the foothills, one could sense the antiquity of the land, Barbara told me.
Joan Carles, Barbara’s husband, was sitting in the farmhouse kitchen when we arrived. It was cavernous and drafty, with a massive hearth in one corner and a gas stove next to a worn wooden table. Carles, as Barbara called him, had a low, gruff voice, his Spanish inflected with a northern Catalan accent that required my full attention to comprehend. After a few minutes chatting—about missiles the army had accidentally lobbed into a nearby forest several years before—Barbara showed me to my room upstairs. It was spartan, with a small desk and chair and a double bed facing a set of glass doors. The doors led to a terrace that looked out onto farmland. Settling onto the mattress, I watched the night deepen until I fell asleep.
L’Albera was just the name of the mountain range, but I came to think of it as a region unto itself.
During the springtime, the season I’d come to live there, Carles and Barbara spent much of the day working in the vines for their winery, called Celler La Gutina. They had eighty hectares of land, a patchwork of vineyard, oak and chestnut forest, and olive groves interspersed with scrubland, meadows, and ponds that existed only during years of good rainfall. The river Anyet threaded through the foothills, and trails connected the region’s villages. The landscape brimmed with life: A diversity of plants—wild asparagus, thyme, lavender, rosemary, sage—flourished alongside javelinas, turtles, eagles, and owls. On the property lived a number of farm animals too: five chickens, two horses, two dogs, and two donkeys.
The vines themselves amounted to some fifteen hectares, scattered in small parcels around the property, and needed attention year-round. Working with them required a profound knowledge of place. The orientation of the vineyard—whether it faced north, south, east, or west—affected the vines’ growth, as did elevation, humidity, wind patterns, and strength of sunlight. All of these factors played a subtle role in how the wine tasted.
Link to the rest at Catapult