Olive trees and dramatically terraced vineyards line the hilly route to Pinell de Brai as our rented Renault chugs along on a sunny afternoon in August. There is still sand in our hair from swimming earlier that day in the soft, warm waves of the Mediterranean. We pass graffiti that reads, in all caps, “Catalunya independiente,” and our van pulls up outside the concrete walls of a swimming pool—finally, we have arrived.
Have we pilgrimaged to this unlikely town in the middle of Catalunya for a splash in chlorinated waters? In fact, yes: the pool party is one aspect of H2O Vegetal, a two-day tasting that features small natural winemakers from Spain and beyond.
H2O Vegetal is the brainchild of Laureano Serres and Joan Ramon Escoda, two widely loved and notably raucous natural winemakers based in Catalunya. The festival’s name refers to the idea that wine, if no additions are added in vineyard or cellar, can be almost like “vegetal water”—light, savory, easy on the body—rather than heavy “soup”—think of a mid-priced, oaky Rioja, to imagine a “soupy” wine. If you haven’t tried the Serres and Escoda wines, you absolutely should, but beyond that there is much, much more to explore at H2O.
Glass in hand, I headed straight for the Partida Creus table. Over the years, it’s been inspiring to observe their wines become more assertive and complex and to see new vineyards and grapes come into production. They have so many now that I can hardly keep track of them, but of the ones I sampled, I was most googly eyed over the Subirat Parent (SP), an old form of Malvasia. It had the slightest pink hue and acidity through the roof, and smelled and tasted like an unripe melon went to bed with a white peach. The CV, made from a pink-skinned Xarel-lo, was an acid bomb, so alive it was almost jumping out of the glass, with pink fruits and baking spices on the palate. The light pink Vinel-lo (which is a red grape) was also lovely, tickling my tongue with unripe cherry notes.
But there was so much beyond Spain to sample at H2O, including a few French vintners I’ve been sipping and admiring recently. One of those was Anders Frederik Steen, whose wine labels bear cryptic messages, changing every year—I remember an insanely good orange-pink-hued concoction called “Freedom of Peach,” consumed in Brooklyn a few summers back.
“I’m not a politician. I simply try to write my messages so they can reach as many people as possible,” said Steen, who is originally from Denmark and makes wine along with Jean-Marc Brignot from purchased organic fruit in the Ardèche, southern France. He was visiting Japan on a sales trip, and as he flew over one of the country’s islands, the pilot pointed out massive piles of trash floating on the ocean below. The experience really impacted him. “I can’t force anybody to do what they don’t want to do,” he said—but he can promote ethical consumption through his wines. Hence, a glou-glou wine of Carignan, Grenache, and free-run Cabernet Sauvignon, labeled “Don’t Throw Plastic In the Ocean Please.” Every case of wine has twelve different bottles with each label in a different language—because the whole world needs more awareness.
A few other highlights from France: I was thrilled to find Jérôme Saurigny of the Loire Valley pouring some of his wines—though not his wild Sauvignon Blanc, which is supremely delicious. But it turns out his reds are just as vibrant, and perfectly balanced between savory, acidic notes and fruit characteristics. Another beautiful Anjou rouge blend (Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc, traditional to that region) from François Blanchard was bonkers good: light and electric, with hints of pyrazines flattering ripe fruits. “I would drink it if I were on acid,” somebody (maybe me?) said, and I wrote it down because at the time I thought it was a good descriptor. Was probably toward the end of the day.
If you’re in Europe, look for the pure, emotional, juicy red “Le Pelut” wines of Pierre Rousse, made in the unlikely appellation of Limoux, in the Languedoc (known principally for its Crémant). His entire lineup is worth trying, wherever you can find it, but at H2O I was particularly wooed by his Pinot Noir, “Carambouille,” made of 2015 and 2016 wine carbonically macerated; it has a stunning nose that’s quite Burgundian, and a palate full of spicy dried red fruits and ripe raspberries.
Another major highlight: the Clos Lentiscus wines, made just south of Barcelona, featuring primarily Sumoll and Xarel-lo, as well as an extremely pretty Carignan made from 1939 vines, and several natural sparkling wines. Next time someone tells you they like Cava, give them the Clos Lentiscus Xarel-lo Xpressió, a méthode traditionnelle made with just a touch of skin contact and using honey to kickstart the secondary fermentation. Now this is what elegant sparkling wine should be: redolent of roses, peanuts, and wildflowers, with a zinging acidity—electric, complex.
A new discovery from Spain was Toní Carbó, who makes an eclectic line of “vino de beber” (his words; meaning: “wine to drink”) featuring Catalàn grapes like Sumoll and Xarel-lo; his “Roig Boig” pét-nat, a blend of nine indigenous grapes, is an absolute joy to drink. We grabbed a glass to wash down the warm, salty tripe stew that was served for dinner out of an enormous metal pot. Keep an eye out for these refreshing, mineral wines under the label Celler La Salada.
It was a treat to taste with Denis Montanar, who makes skin contact whites and rich, sultry reds in Friuli. His 2013 Uis Blancis, made of Tocai Friulano, Sauvignon, Pinot Blanc, and Verduzzo, with six days of whole-cluster maceration, is a good example of his style; it had notes of candied melon, cardamom, and cinnamon, with a playful texture—the wine moves around your mouth restlessly—and a lingering finish. I also loved his 2012 Refosco, full of brambly forest and crushed berry notes; and his Rosé di Refosco, which was like a cherry sour beer.
And, stepping far away from Spain, there were several Georgian producers present, including Pheasant’s Tears, Okro Wines, and Laura Seibel, who is originally from France and makes wine for Domaine de le Pinte in the Jura, but also has her own label in the Republic of Georgia, called Tsigani Gogo (which means: “gypsy girl”). Her white blend of Mtsvane and Rkatsiteli, two common grapes in Georgia, made with nine months of skin contact, tasted extraordinarily alive, full of tart peaches, cardamom, and kumquat notes.
Above all, H2O is a celebration of the natural wine community. There was some serious tasting, sure—but there was also a lot of eating, drinking, partying in the aforementioned pool, and dancing. And people were sharing their wines truly from the heart, not from a commercial impulse. Case in point: James Erskine of Jauma Wines traveled all the way from the Adelaide Hills of Australia to attend H2O. And alongside his own wines (delicious Chenin and Grenache, and a fun pét-nat), he was pouring from a magnum of Chenin Blanc that he’d lugged in his suitcase from the Loire Valley, where he’d met the family of the small estate La Ferme du Plateau and was so moved by their wines, he decided to become an unofficial ambassador. Gestures like that make the natural wine scene what it is.
If you can ever make it to H2O, go: bring a tent, prepare your liver, and you’ll have an incredible time.
All photos by the author.