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Visit from Swedish wine tasters a la IKEA !

The entire Bell Cros team was on site to welcome our visitors.

We’re now set up to welcome wine enthusiasts to our vineyard and share with them the story of our wine adventure. Members of the “Munskänkarna” wine tasting organisation from Trosa, south of Stockholm, were the first to visit us. The group of 14 arrived in high spirits at our vineyard in the last week of August. 

They spent one week in the region visiting a number of excellent vineyards in DO Montsant and DOQ Priorat, with opportunities to take in the beautiful countryside. By the time they arrived at Bell Cros at the end of their week, our visitors had been spoiled by fine wines and gourmet cuisine. It was time to bring them back down to earth! So, in true Swedish style a la IKEA, we had them cooking their own food from scratch and mixing their own wines.

Miguel Figini, who joined our team of staff in September as sales developer for Catalonia/Spain, is also in charge of ensuring that our visitors enjoy a memorable experience. Miguel began by demonstrating how to make Catalan Butifarra sausages. Everyone then mixed, seasoned and stuffed their own sausages.

The wines that our visitors mixed themselves were served to accompany the meal. It gave everyone the chance to be a winemaker for a day. There were four different Carignan and Grenache wines, straight out of the oak barrels and steel vats, for them to choose from.

Although it was the first time we held such an event, everything went well. Now and then it was slightly chaotic because we had lots of activities on the go. As the organisers, we greatly enjoyed the day and would love to see more groups visiting our vineyard. So please get in touch!

Miguel carefully instructs us on what we have to do.
Making Butifarra sausages was a fun experience for most of our visitors.
Miguel was in charge of the BBQ.
And what a success it was.
Not everyone managed to make a perfect sausage. So what do you do…
Something wholesome too.
Time to play at wine making.
This will be good, or was it really?
Someone expressed their love of Grenache wine.
Lena and Mats, the trip leaders, made sure everyone was having a good time.
Home-made food… what a pleasure!
Some enjoyed it more than others.
He’s as tricky as he looks.
Wine and good food make you happy, especially when you’ve made it yourself.
Time to announce who made the best coupage.
Yes… we won!!
“But I think this should have won.”
A satisfied Miguel had a moment to relax at the end of the day.

We now know what it’s like to be a farmer for real!

Old water reservoirs were put into service again.

Europe experienced historically warm temperatures during the last week of June. On some days temperatures reached up to 45°C. The warm part of DO Montsant where our vineyard is located was hit hard. The extreme heat came early in the season before the vines had time to acclimatise. The result of this caused the grapes to burn and die. The extent of the damage will not be known until the harvest is finished. The Garnacha grapes have survived relatively well, but we have lost about 50 % of the Carinyena grapes. For us, this represents a major loss, as 80 % of all our grapes are Carinyena.

Of course a halved crop yield means a large loss of income, but it also changes conditions for the planned product mix. There is now a shortfall of Carinyena grapes for our planned product mix, which disrupts matters as we only wish to produce wines using our own grown grapes. In addition, the fall in production in the area will probably make it difficult and expensive to buy grapes this year. We have now reassessed the situation and are working based on the new conditions that apply.

Recent seasons have been abnormally dry with very little rain, which is also the case this year. Some of our oldest vines, which produce the best wine, are beginning to wither away due to the drought. Our newly planted vines have also suffered. Bell Cros vineyard has no irrigation. As a temporary measure we have installed a mobile irrigation system to save the vines from dying. We are currently installing permanent irrigation systems in the most vulnerable areas, but these will only be used as for support irrigation during droughts.

We have now learnt that running a vineyard is not just romantic, but also a question of being a farmer for real.

First the grapes were burnt and then shrivelled…
…then they turned as hard as stone, not even fit to be sold as raisins.
This is how it could look like.
Hmmm, how should this be connected?
Spot irrigation for new plants in areas difficult to access.
Numerous messages with weather forecasts were sent: rain when, temp….???
Naturally our air conditioning in the winery stopped working. This was quickly solved by using portable units.

Spanish authorities put spoke in wheel again.

Planting application rejected again!

I just need to get this off my chest and vent my frustration. In January, I wrote about the red tape that the Spanish authorities put in our way. I regret to say that less than six months on I’m writing about a similar experience.

Sometimes you feel so small. I usually do when I’m dealing with power-wielding authorities. But it’s different with Spanish authorities. I feel completely powerless.

You have to apply for permission to plant new vine stocks and you are notified in the spring each year of how much you are allowed to plant. The annual quota for planting stock is shared between all those who apply and you are normally only granted a fraction of what you applied for.

This year was the second time that we have applied and the second time that our application was turned down. The reason stated for rejecting our first application was that we had no sales. Well, what newly established company is able to do that when the wine has to mature for a few years before it can be sold? This year we made sure that we had sold some of our grapes so that we could report some sales and therefore qualify to plant new stock. Once again, our application was rejected. This time, the reason given was that, as the owner, I didn’t have any experience of wine production. But I’m not the one who plans and manages the practical side of the vineyard. That’s taken care of by a handful of experienced winegrowers who have been doing it all their lives. You could draw a comparison with a new managing director of a car company who is not allowed to expand the factory because he doesn’t have any experience of assembling cars!!

The rules of the game are constantly changing…I wonder what next year will bring? Of course, the authorities could make things easy for themselves by using the same lack-of-experience reason for many years to come. At least I’m doing something good when I apply for planting permission. Unlike in Sweden, it’s not free. You have to pay for the application. So I’ve sponsored the authorities with a bit of cash.

I’m not quite sure why we’re refused permission, but there’s no lack of experience in our team. Issues like these have a lot of political overtones and the local farmer is often favoured…

We now have 24 hectares, with vines growing on 14 of them and 10 hectares waiting to be planted. At the moment, I don’t know how I’m going to resolve this, but I’m a businessman and have built up many companies and I’m going to see this one through too. There are always solutions. You simply have to be patient and persistent in order to find them.

I’m going to conclude this blog with the same words that I wrote last time about Spanish bureaucracy. We love Spain and its people, but we don’t love everything….

The final piece of the puzzle. Our own new winery.

View of the village of Marçà.

Creating a fully-functional vineyard is a major project, and we’re delighted to announce that a key piece of the puzzle fell into place today. We have now purchased a small, actually rather insignificant, patch of arable land. It connects another area of high-lying ground with the rest of our land. From up there, we have a fantastic view of our vineyards and Marçà, the closest village. We bought this bit of land in November 2018 for the amazingly beautiful vista and thought we’d have it as a picnic spot where we can enjoy our wines with good friends.

And we still intend to do that, but the project has since grown. We’ve decided it is the perfect place to build a winery. To apply for planning permission, all the sites we own have to be joined together. And now they are, thanks to this little piece of land. This project will take two or three years to complete. It has to be designed and planed, permission to build has to be granted, then it has to be financed and built…. We’re not in a hurry. We’re currently renting space at “Cellers Sant Rafel” where we have our own equipment and this arrangement works very well.

We have visited four highly reputed architecture firms in Barcelona, and the one we have chosen is . Batlleiroig is a full-service architectural practice with about 100 employees. It handles the complete process in-house, from design, planning and implementation of the project to the finished building. It is important for us that the building is integrated with its surroundings and vice versa. By that we mean that the natural environment is brought into and connected with the building. This is called “biophilia”, which means a love of nature. Batlleiroig has considerable expertise and is working at the cutting edge of developments in this field.

The winery will be designed with a focus on the visitor and the “wine experience”. After visiting Bell Cros, it should be our wines and the experience that visitors remember, not the building. The purpose of the building is to support and enhance these experiences. Batlleiroig understood directly what we were looking for and that the appearance of the building is not the main focus. Not all that easy to understand perhaps for an architecture firm that wants to create fabulous and fancy buildings.

Our winery will be built on the hill in the background.
This is the view we’re going to enjoy from the winery.
“This is how I want it to look…”
“…but Xavi, you do understand?”
Ann perhaps enjoyed the sunshine more than the visit to Batlleiroig.

“El Tracte” – The handshake.

The label for our “El Tracte” bottles, and the back label telling the story of the wine.

“BELL CROS” is the label name for all the wines we produce. It means “BEAUTIFUL VALLEY” in Catalan. Each wine will have a name of its own to distinguish between the different wines. The first wine to be given a name, about 4,000 bottles of 100% Carinyena, and about shortly to be bottled. We are calling it “El Tracte”. That means “handshake” in Catalan and it was a natural choice for the name of this wine. Quite simply because it was agreed with a handshake, beside the signing of the official contract, that 4,000 kilos of grapes would be included in the purchase of the land from Joan and Maria. A proper Catalan handshake is a common way to seal an agreement in rural areas. Something that means more than a signature on a piece of paper.

Over the past few months, sketches of labels, corks, capsules and boxes have transformed into finished and precise designs. Everything has been ordered and now we are simply waiting for the Regulatory Council of DO Montsant (Regulador de la Denominación de Origen Montsant) to approve the wine. The Regulatory Council is the body that guarantees the quality of the wine and conducts the sensory evaluation to determine whether it is typical for the region of Montsant.

Sketches of capsules, corks and boxes have been transformed into precise designs.

Into the third season and still no wine to drink.

My critical fellow sommelier students at Vinkällan wine school in Gothenburg are sampling the first Bell Cros wine.

We’re really busy preparing for the third season and none of our wine is ready to drink yet. But it soon will be…..

The purchase of our first piece of land in 2017 included some 4,000 kg of Cariñena grapes. The wine made from this harvest is now ready to be bottled.

At last, the real fun starts. Knowing that we’ll soon be able to drink our own wine after waiting for 18 months brings a feeling of indescribable joy! And of course it’s the best wine we’ve ever tasted! Biased? Not us. Even if it were the worst wine we’d ever drunk we’d never admit it. So many emotions and tremendous happiness. We’ll tell you more about this wine once we’ve got it bottled.

We’re now in the thick of planning 2019’s harvest, our third one. Three red wines and one white wine from the 2018 harvest are now maturing. To be able to offer a complete selection, we’ll be expanding our product range with another 2 or 3 sorts of wine. The characteristics of our wines will be freshness and elegance. They have three levels of quality. The working names we’ve given these levels are “easy to drink”, “pair with meals” and “prestige”.

It is far more difficult than I had ever imagined to come up with names for the different wines. We haven’t settled on any names yet but are still calling them “happy wine”, “old wine” and various other names. The names will come, they have to come, and we’re working hard with our advertising agency to find names that have an association with our vineyard. Ideally they will be Catalan names that are easy for English speakers to pronounce… not that simple.

And we’ll shortly be launching a new website too. It’s all go………

They give it the thumbs up.
Our wine mentor Miguel was one of the first people with whom we wanted to share the pleasure of drinking our first bottle of Bell Cros.
Smiles and laughter on Xavi’s deck. It’s the season for calçots, a type of grilled onion that is dipped in a Romesco salsa sauce and then devoured. Bibs on, it gets messy.
Brainstorming with Anna from the ad agency to come up with names for our wines. There’s always a good ambience and a tasty tipple when working with wines.
A case filled with well-wrapped treasures (our new wine) unpacked back in Sweden.

Soil restoration – a shitty job.

These are the beauties that we’ll be planting for future yields.

We’ve taken this on as a long-term project. We’re not doing it to earn money fast. We’re doing it because it is fun and we want to create something sustainable and long-lasting.

For a year now we’ve been working hard to restore the ground to its original state and have been adding the essential components that have been leached out of the soil over the years. 75,000 kilos of micro-organisms (animal shit) have gone into the ground this year. It’s hard work and it’s not cheap. A real shitty job. And we’ve also stopped using chemical pesticides completely. It will now take two more years before our vineyard is fully organic and we’ll be able to use the EU symbol for organically-grown products. Most of the vines on our land are between 30 and 80 years old. Just like humans, vines don’t live for ever. The older they get, the less they produce, but the quality of the grapes keeps on improving. So the question of when to replace the old vines is a financial one. In some parts of our vineyard, the vines grow sparsely in some areas and are not producing enough. We’ve now cleared a total of 1 hectare of Cariñena. It’s heart wrenching removing these old vines that have been tended by hard-working families for generations.

We started preparing for this last year and, after the harvest, cut branches off the stock vines that we had removed. These have been grafted onto American rootstocks that are resistant to the dreaded wine louse (Phylloxera). By using the canes from our own stock vines, we are preserving the genetics of the vines and the vineyard’s history. This intensive period of replanting has now ended and we’re taking care of our new babies so that they produce good yields in 3 years, at the earliest, as the regulations stipulate. As with anything to do with wine, all you can do is wait……..

Rooting up the old vines that are past their best.
New grafted Cariñena shoots
American roots, resistant to wine louse (Phylloxera).
It takes many hands to get these small beauties in the ground.
Baltasar makes sure it is all done properly, straight and orderly.

Bureaucracy, simply accept it.

Upbeat and cheerful before yet another of our “favourite meetings” with the public notary.

Something that we have learned, apart from making wine, is that Sweden and Spain differ greatly when it comes to contact with authorities, institutions, banks and so on. We love Spain and its people, but we don’t love everything. I feel I have to mention the bureaucratic red tape and official formalities that we have encountered in Spain.

Since the start of our wine adventure just over a year ago, we’ve come into contact with various authorities and institutions, for example, when we set up our Spanish company, opened bank accounts, purchased land (6 acquisitions in all), applied for building permission, various permits and agricultural subsidies, etc. In general, we’ve learned (been forced to learn) that a lawyer is involved in everything and that all matters eventually end up on the desk of the public notary. It takes a very long time to get anything done and a great deal of patience is required. Although patience is not my strongest attribute, I’m learning slowly but surely that you simply have to accept that this is how things are done.

We’re used to the Swedish way of doing business, registering everything electronically and getting matters sorted quickly and simply with a few clicks. No big deal. There are no real databases in Spain (except for the tax authorities), which means that everything has to be examined manually by a lawyer and documented on paper that has to be signed. We’ve had to familiarise ourselves again with bank cheques for the purchase of land, instead of transferring the money electronically.

I could list many examples but have decided not to go into detail. Setting up a business in Spain is very complicated and expensive compared with Sweden. Lawyers, notaries, applications, cheques and so on are not free.

But in spite of all the red tape, we love Spain, its people and what we are doing. I have great respect for entrepreneurs who set up businesses in Spain. We have started and managed many companies in Sweden. The authorities and institutions support, encourage and assist new start-ups in Sweden, helping them to get going until they have learned the essentials and got their business up and running.

Finally, we have great admiration for all business owners in Spain. You deserve a pat on the back!

The wine – beyond expectations!

Little did we think that one day we would be drinking our own wine straight from the barrel!!

Both the alcoholic fermentation and the malolactic fermentation have finished now. The malolactic fermentation converts malic acid into lactic acid, giving the wine a smoother, more rounded body. We suddenly felt that things took a serious turn. So far, we’d been working on the idea of making a wine. Now it was time to see if our idea of buying a vineyard was such a good one. The wine inside the steel vats and the barrels may not be ready for consumption yet, but it almost resembles the finished product. Some of the four to six different kinds of wine that we’ll begin producing will be ready for bottling and drinking in about six months. Others won’t be ready for another two years or so. This harvest yielded some 25,000 bottles in all.

Our winemaker Joan Asens, proudly presented 20 or so different samples that he had drawn from the tanks. We could see from the look in his eyes that he was very pleased with what we were about to taste. And he was right. The wines were beautifully fresh, crispy and aromatic. The low harvest yield this year, about 25% lower than average, has rewarded us with an excellent grape quality.

We rounded the sampling off in Swedish style with mulled wine (Glögg) and ginger cookies (pepparkakor), as is the custom at Christmas time in Sweden.

We’re delighted by what we’ve sampled. It bodes well for the future. It was a good idea, better than expected!

Joan and Baltasar were very satisfied and happy before the tasting had even begun.

Time to be critical. Nose deep in the glass.

Each wine we tasted could be sourced to one of the 17 areas that we have divided our vineyard into.

This is going well. Xavi has everything under control.

My name’s on one of the barrels. 🙂

Why make things easy for yourself?

We got a “house” into the bargain.

You could buy a vineyard as a going concern and simply enjoy it and the wines. You could also start from scratch, building up a vineyard step by step over the years until it is time to introduce and enjoy your own wine. We’ve chosen to take the slightly tougher, bumpier route. Why make things easy for yourself? For the simple reason that we think it’s more fun. We enjoy the process of creating something new, nurturing it along, watching it grow and develop into something concrete. Hopefully a place where we can be together with friends and just take pleasure in our own wine.

This is the sixth time in twelve months that we’ve acquired a piece of land. It is adjoining our land and comprises 2.6 hectares of Juan Salvador Vernet Peña, 1 hectare of Garnatxa vines, and olive trees on the rest. Our vineyard is now 24 hectares in size, 14 of which are planted with grapevines.

On the land we’ve acquired stands an old, run-down, two-storey house. We’ve no idea what we’re going to do with it, but our minds are already whirling with new ideas. Anyone have any good suggestions?

As commonly seen hereabouts, there are large trees close to the building providing shade from the sun.

This used to be a pleasant living room with an open fireplace.

Open to the skies too, for good ventilation.

Just to pop the tiles back on the roof, and the place is ready to move into. 🙂

Could do with a new door.

The sun doesn’t always shine. Ann wearing improvised boots.