Meg Bernhard

Last December, in a mountain town a hundred kilometers north of Barcelona, a winemaker named Salvador Batlle wondered what kind of Christmas present he could give Catalonia’s former president, Carles Puigdemont.

It was the most tense holiday season the region had seen in recent years. In October, separatist Catalan politicians had held a referendum for independence from Spain, setting off a series of events that marked the country’s deepest constitutional crisis in 40 years of democracy.

The 36-year-old Batlle watched the conflict unfold from his home in Agullana, where he spends his days tending to vineyards and making thousands of bottles of wine in his garage. A lifelong independentista, he dreams of his homeland being free of Spanish rule.

Perhaps most essential to his identity as a Catalan is his connection to the land where he works. Batlle told me he supports Catalan independence in part because he feels so rooted to the place by the nature of his family’s legacy of grape-growing in the region more than fifteen generations deep. Some of his fondest childhood memories come from the vineyard, picking grapes through the sweltering early autumns of his adolescence, a bottle of wine always on the table.

“I want my wine to carry a piece of the place where I live,” Batlle told me as we sat in his sunny mountain vineyards, the Mediterranean visible in the distance.

Wine, for Batlle, should be the purest expression of the place where it was made. He doesn’t use pesticides, a practice known as ecological, or organic, vinting. His grape varieties, including garnatxa roja, macabeu, and sumoll, are all indigenous to Catalonia

But his celebration of Catalan identity doesn’t stop at winemaking. Of the Catalan winemakers I met this winter, Batlle is the most active supporter of Catalan independence.

On October 1st, he helped his town administer the independence referendum. Fearing that police would ransack the polling station, he hid the ballot boxes in his garage. In the weeks that followed, independentistas wore yellow scarves and pins, protesting the imprisonment of Catalan politicians who had organized the independence vote. Batlle pinned a yellow ribbon to his shirt and peppered his winery’s social media pages with the colors of the separatist flag.

On October 27th, the president of Catalonia, Carles Puigdemont, declared the region independent, and Batlle celebrated in the streets. But when Puigdemont fled to Brussels to evade arrest, Batlle began to worry about the independence movement’s future.

As far as he was concerned, Puigdemont had never stopped being president of Catalonia. Instead, he was a politician in exile. The thought of Puigdemont separated from his friends and family over the holidays saddened Batlle so in December, he reached out to some people he knew —“contacts,” he told me mischievously—for Puigdemont’s address in Brussels, and sent the recluse three bottles of wine he had made from indigenous Catalan grapes. Each bore names representing a value Batlle held dear: confiança, valentia, and paciència—trust, courage, patience.

“I can’t separate my will, my political beliefs, from my wine philosophy,” Batlle told me, the deep brown vines, dormant until spring, curling up around us. We drank glasses of valentia. Courage.

***

Independentista vignerons like Batlle are spread across Catalonia, but they know each other, linked by common wine philosophies and a language distinct from Castilian Spanish. Many of them are men between the ages of 30 and 45, which is young for this business, and hail from centuries-long legacies of Catalonian family grape-growing. They have made Catalonia the seat of environmentally conscious, organic winemaking in Spain.

Making this wine is a representation of their respect for the land and its history. The diverse landscape of Catalonia, from the mountainous Terra Alta to flat central Penedès, is layered with stories of strife and resistance. Small family farmers own land today thanks to decades of peasant wars fought against feudal lords in the 19th century. In the 1930s, the land bore witness to a scorched-earth civil war that devastated the south, a Republican stronghold before its soldiers lost their bitter fight against Hitler-allied nationalists. One winemaker, Francesc Ferré, still turns up shrapnel from the war in his vineyard. The land was also witness to a different sort of struggle during the last quarter of the 20th century: In an effort to modernize and globalize its agricultural industry, the government destroyed old vineyards to plant foreign grape varieties more suited to a global palate.

Winemakers try to recount this history in every bottle. “The most interesting thing is where the wine comes from, what history it carries,” said  Ferré, whose family has grown grapes for two hundred years in the wind-bitten valley of Terra Alta, which he lovingly calls “the ass of Catalonia,” on account of its geographical isolation and history of poverty.

As I accompanied Ferré and other winemakers through vineyards or sat at their living room tables, I heard them tell variations on one story: I was once a child here. My parents were once children here. We’ve always been here. Every winemaker has a story of a grandfather working the vines. This is one way of being Catalan: spending centuries on the same land.

Montse Molla, 35, tries to capture the flavors of these ancient families in the wine she makes in the town of Calonge, to the north. “People want to drink the wine their grandparents made,” she explained during a tour of her musty cellar. Locals come to her looking for hazy reunion with neighborhood memories when they drink a glass. Every March, she invites people from around Calonge to sample her vintages and buy wine by the hundreds of bottles. Like other young winemakers, Molla sells primarily to Catalans who understand her methods and foreigners curious about her vinting practices.

Molla, the first female vingeron in her town, knows the old flavors well. She hails from a family vinting tradition that is seven hundred years old. Molla doesn’t add chemicals or sugars to her wine, and her fermenting process is completely natural. As a result, each barrel is different, subjected annually to new environmental and human influences. The taste of her wine is the taste of the neighborhood at that point in time, the taste of a particular growing season and the droughts and rains and bugs that came with it. “We try to maintain the wine’s expression,” Molla said. “It tells stories, personal stories, of the old towns.”

***

Over the past decade, Spaniards have protested Catalonia’s secession  movement by boycotting the region’s food products. In particular, their target has been cava, Catalonia’s iconic sparkling wine.

The Catalans’ drink of choice for celebrations, cava came into being in the late 1800s, after winemakers in the central Catalonia region of Penedès began producing champagne-style drinks with regional grape varieties. Today, hundreds of bodegas in Catalonia make cava with a blend of three common Catalan grapes: xarello, macabeu, and parellada. Catalans are defensive over their claim to the regional sparkling wine, and assert that the cava boycotts protest something essential about Catalan identity.

In 2005, cava sales within Spain dropped 7 percent when the regional government approved a statute giving Catalonia greater autonomy—a statute later repealed by the Spanish government in 2010. Spaniards, infuriated by what they perceived as Catalan supremacism, organized boycotts through text-messages, asking recipients not to buy cava. At protests opposing Catalan independence, people shouted chants urging a boycott. In response, Catalan winemakers began focusing on the international trade, and doubling down on their market in Catalonia. The small family winemakers I met, even those who are not independentistas, say they have not made much of an effort to sell to other parts of Spain, especially since many started their businesses in the midst of the boycotts ten years ago.

Some of the independentistas wish they didn’t have to label their wine as being of Spanish origin, a regulatory requirement. “Yet another imposition by the Spanish government,” one winemaker retorted, only partly joking.

These days, Catalan winemakers don’t feel the effects of the boycotts like they did a decade ago, though two of the region’s largest cava producers threatened to move their headquarters out of Catalonia in order to avoid customer backlash. Broad opposition to Catalan products, however, remains. In January, in a bodega in Castilla La Mancha, I overheard a client come in to buy a red graciano wine. The owner began talking about a bottle of white she admired from the central coast of Catalonia. The customer, an old man who lived a few blocks over, wrinkled his nose.

“I don’t drink or eat anything Catalan,” he said.

***

The essence of a wine is in its terroir: the combination of soil, climate, grape variety, and culture that makes wine from a particular place unique. In the terroir equation, human decisions—when to pick the grapes for the harvest, how long to keep the skins in fermenting liquid—impact the quality of a wine as much as ecological circumstances.

Catalan vingerons like to describe theirs as “intelligent,” “friendly,” and “Mediterranean,” the latter a point of pride. These words have a parallel in the the rhetoric of Catalan independentistas. When defining what it means to be Catalan they explain that they are innovative, progressive, European—more so than other parts of Spain, they argue, because they are geographically closer to the rest of the continent. Their culture and language, persecuted during the Franco dictatorship, is distinct from that of Spain at large. They are fighting to preserve their heritage.

Spaniards from other parts of the country bristle at their arguments. “It’s a form of supremacism,” said Rosanna Pérez, a psychologist from the Basque country whom I met at a conflict resolution practice in January focused on Catalan independence. Pérez has spent the majority of her adult life in Barcelona and speaks Catalan. Any talk of separatism brings to mind Basque terrorism in the ‘80s, ‘90s, and early 2000s, when the nationalist group Euskadi Ta Askatasun, better known as ETA, killed scores of politicians in their effort to make the northern region an independent state.

Catalans are peaceful protestors, Pérez acknowledged. But separatism is a kind of violence, one that breaks apart families, she told the group at the conflict resolution. Her voice trembled, and she began to cry. “If Catalonia is independent, I’ll move away,” she said. 

In Catalonia’s past two parliamentary elections, voters in agricultural zones tended to favor independence parties. Voters in urban areas did as well, but at lower rates. The winemakers I spoke to atributed this to their connection to the land.

But not all Catalan winemakers want to see their home separated from the rest of Spain. Ferré feels stronger ties to his town in Terra Alta than Catalonia at large, and thinks independence would be unwise for the region’s economic future. Amós Banyeres, who works in Penedès, doesn’t want to see another border erected in Europe.

But Catalonia’s winemakers are willing to look past their different politics because they share something deeper. They see each other often, at fairs across Europe or on the roads of Catalonia, driving trucks full of grapes during sticky harvest months. If, come September, you see a Catalan whose hands are stained dark red with ripe grape juice, then you already know everything about them. Their way of looking at the world. The way they live.

***

As a kid in a mid-sized southern California suburb, more interested in soccer fields or the movie theater, I didn’t pay the nearby vineyards much attention. My parents didn’t care for wine, either, and from their habits, I got the sense that drinking, whatever your age, was a moral transgression. That understanding of alcohol bode poorly for my time in college, when I decided that wine was for getting drunk at loud, dark parties, not for sharing with a friend on a summer day. I came to see the latter, and any other way of drinking wine—a bottle at dinner or a glass after work—as a symbol of elitism.

Drinking wine is more fun here, I told Batlle a few weeks after I’d met him. He had invited me to a Catalan barbecue, a calçotada, in Rodonyà, his hometown two hours to the south. Catalans will use any excuse to celebrate and share a bottle, which often cost as little as three euros—hardly the stuff of elitism. But first Batlle wanted to show me the farmhouse where his ancestors lived, in a forested valley in the heart of Lower Penedès.

Batlle is one of the few winemakers I have met who doesn’t currently live in the place where he grew up. He moved north after a fight with his father over the family business, because he wanted to make something of his own with the grapes they grew. There’s nothing more Catalan, Batlle said, than tension between a father and a son over how to cultivate a family legacy.

Years ago, before the fight, Batlle had dreamed of working the family vineyard. But his wine business up north is booming, and while he and his father have since made up, it’s not easy to change locations after spending a decade caring for faraway vineyards.

As Batlle stood on the terrace of the ancient, decaying stone farmhouse and looked upon his family’s land, I thought of Puigdemont. The two men are a lot alike: two self-imposed exiles who’ve dedicated their careers to promoting the singularity of Catalan identity. I asked Batlle if he’d come back here for good. He shrugged, his gaze lingering a moment longer on the vineyards below. “Who knows.”

Puigdemont still lives outside of Spain. He won a December election for Catalan parliament, held by the Spanish government, but renounced his bid for the presidency in March, fearing he would be arrested upon returning to Catalonia. The courts in Germany, where he is living now, are determining whether he can be deported back to Spain. Meanwhile, a new president assumed control of Catalonia in May, capping off eight months of uncertainty over the region’s leadership.

The new president, Quim Torra, promised to keep fighting for secession. But the dream of independence, which seemed so strong half a year ago, is fading by the day. No one can guess what will happen to Catalonia in the next year, much less five or ten, but many still hope to see an independent state within their lifetime. Catalans still wear their scarves and pins. The bright yellow of autumn persists into spring.

Meg Bernhard

Meg Bernhard is a writer whose work has appeared in The Los Angeles Times, The Boston Globe, and The Chronicle of Higher Education. She currently lives in Catalonia, and her favorite grapes are xarello and garnacha.

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