On a trip through Spain last June, an irate ticket agent at the Barcelona-Sants train station told me that “there is no such place as Capçanes.” She was wrong. After about five minutes of verbal back-and-forth, the agent realized that I was at the wrong ticket counter, and sent me across the station to get a commuter train. Roughly two hours and 20 stops later, I stepped onto a railroad platform in the little mountain village of Capçanes (pop. 412).
I was there to tour Celler Capçanes, which was the first winery to regularly produce kosher wine in Spain in over a century. Located in the up-and-coming appellation, or legally defined wine region, of Montsant, the winery is unique among European kosher wine producers: not only does it consistently produce some of the best kosher wine available, but its kosher wine is what gave the winery a world-class reputation.
Viticulture in the Montsant region likely dates to the 12th century, and by the 19th century the wines of Montsant had developed strong reputation. However, after a phyllorxia infestation devastated the area’s vine-stock in the 1880s, it took more than a century for the region’s wine industry to fully recover. (Indeed, even today, dozens of steeply terraced mountainside vineyards there have never been replanted.)
In 1933 five families in the village of Capçanes formed a cooperative winery with the goal of producing bulk wine with grapes from the families’ vineyards. The wine was sold primarily to large wine conglomerates (although some of it was sold to locals by the jug).
As foreign demand for Spanish products increased following the Bourbon Restoration of 1975, demand for bulk Spanish wine diminished, as many of the wine conglomerates who in the past had purchased bulk wine started opening large-scale modern commercial wineries. In 1980 the Capçanes cooperative stopped producing bulk wine, and instead started selling its grapes unfermented to the conglomerates.
According to Jürgen Wagner, who leads the winemaking team at Capçanes, by the mid-1990s that model was no longer working. “The customers we had who had bought our grapes and our bulk wine started to buy their own land in the mountains, and it was just a question of time until they would not need us anymore. … [So] in 1994 and 1995 the president of our company, Francesco Blanc, met with a wealthy Jew from the community in Paris, who put him in contact with the rabbi in Barcelona. In those days there was no kosher wine made in Spain … and the community needed wine.”
Converting to kosher wine production was an expensive proposition, as the concrete vats the winery had previously used could not be made kosher. “Only stainless steel was approved by the rabbi to do the kosher,” explains Wagner. “It was a big investment, and in those days it was the first time anyone in the village had ever come in contact with Jewish culture. So it was a real challenge to convince the Catholic Catalan farmers to invest their own money in another religion in order to become independent of grape and bulk-wine sales.”
In 1995 the winery produced its first bottled wine, the kosher Peraj Ha’abib, Flor de Primavera, and the wine world soon started to take notice of Capçanes. The 1996 vintage was praised by Spain’s most influential wine writer, José Peñin, who gave the wine a rating of 95 (out of 100), the second highest score he awarded in 1997. “Everybody wanted to know what is Capçanes, and what is kosher? That’s when the winery started getting a lot of attention,” says Wagner.
Among those who took notice of Capçanes was a young German winemaker named Jürgen Wagner, who at the time had managed the Spanish wine portfolio of a large German importer. “I read about the kosher wine in 1997, and I decided to go to Capçanes. I had never in my life had kosher wine, and I wanted to learn more about it and taste it. I fell in love with it [Peraj Ha’abib].” Wagner soon joined the winemaking team as a freelance winemaker (becoming its fulltime winemaker in 1999). “Based on this kosher wine we started to build up the range of non-kosher wine.”
“For the first seven years,” says Wagner, “we sold most of it [Peraj Ha’abib] to non-Jews.” This was in part due to the fact that many kosher wine merchants were reluctant to buy a wine that was only under the not well-known kosher supervision of the chief rabbi of Barcelona. So starting with the 2002 vintage the Peraj Ha’abib started to also be supervised by the Orthodox Union. At the same time, the winery moved U.S. distribution of its kosher wine to the Royal Wine Corp., the largest U.S. kosher wine distributer.
Starting in 2004, with the production of a second kosher wine, Peraj Petita, the winery gradually started growing its kosher range, which now includes six wines, including two — a red dessert wine, and an old-vine Carignan varietal — which will be released within the next few months. The winery is also starting to export a line of kosher-certified olive oils.
While today most of the winery’s visitors are locals stopping in to buy a jug of wine — which they can fill themselves from the barrels in the winery’s lobby — Capçanes does receive a few foreign visitors each month (and has recently started offering a winetasting/kayaking package). At the time of my visit last year, I was the first kosher-observant visitor the winery had ever received; somehow I doubt I’ll be the last. (For information about visiting Capçanes, please see: http://www.cellerCapçanes.com/en/page/visits.)
Capçanes, La Flor del Flor de Primavera, Montsant, 2012: I was blown away by this elegant wine when I first tasted it at the winery. I’ve since had a chance to re-taste it in the U.S., and I remain very impressed. Dark-and-inky garnet in color, and made from 100 percent Grenache grapes grown on vines that are between 80-110 years old, this wine is full bodied, yet restrained. The nose, which is still tight, is redolent of cherries, raspberries, toasty oak and pencil shavings. The flavor has notes of cherries, raspberries, blackberries, tobacco, spice and toasty oak. While certainly enjoyable now, this wine still needs a few years to fully develop and integrate. Best 2017-2023.
Score A. ($80. Available at FillerUp Kosher Wines, 174 W. Englewood Ave., Teaneck, N.J.,  862-1700)
Capçanes, La Flor del Flor de Primavera, Cariñena, Montsant, 2012 (Barrel Sample): While at the winery I had the opportunity to taste a sample from one of the barrels that were later blended together to create the new La Flor del Flor Cariñena. The final blend no doubt varies somewhat from what I tasted. Made from Carignan grapes grown on century-old vines, the wine I tasted is meaty, muscular, and full-bodied. The nose, which is still tight, is dominated by cherries and cassis, with a note of violets. Look for flavors of cherries and cranberries, with notes of cassis, crème de mûre, and cedar, oak and — intriguingly — sherry. Well-structured, with an abundance of powdery tannins and good mineral extraction, the wine is only now just approachable, and should be able to age for at least a dozen years. Best 2017-2027.
Score A. (Available later this year)
Capçanes Peraj Habib, Peraj Ha’abib Flor de Primavera, Montsant 2011: As with most vintages, this is a blend of 35 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 35 percent Grenache and 30 percent Carignan (the percentages have fluctuated a bit over the years) aged for one year in new French oak. Dark garnet in color, with a full body, this wine has a rich bouquet, redolent of cherries, cassis and blackberries, with notes of oak and chocolate, and a whiff of wildflowers in the background. Look for flavors of cherries, blackberries and cranberries up front, with oak and mocha becoming more prominent towards the back of the palate, and a nice hint of spice on the finish. With supple, well-integrated tannins, this wine is ready to drink now until 2024.
Score A/A-. ($59.99 Available at Goldpath Wines & Spirits, 45 Route 59, Monsey,  356-0222
Capçanes Peraj Habib, Peraj Ha’abib Flor de Primavera, Montsant 2012: Blended and aged in the same proportions and manner as the 2011 vintage, this garnet-colored, full-bodied wine has a heady nose of cherries, cassis, cranberries, blackberries, lavender, and sweet pipe-tobacco. Cherries and cassis are the main flavors at the front of the palate, moving towards oak and dark chocolate mid-palate, with touches of tobacco and fruit-liqueur on the finish. While palatable now, this well-structured wine is not yet fully integrated, and needs a bit more time. Best 2016-2026.
Score A. ($53.95. Available at Skyview Wine and Liquor, 5681 Riverdale Ave., Riverdale,  601-8222)
Capçanes Peraj Petita, Montsant, 2012: This stainless steel-aged blend of 55 percent Grenache, 30 percent Tempranillo and 25 percent Merlot has a bright garnet color and a medium to full body. Look for flavors and aromas of cherries, currants and cranberries, with an earthy, tobacco note. With an abundance of chunky tannins, the wine should drink well until 2016.
Score B+. ($15.95. Available at Skyview Wine and Liquor, 5681 Riverdale Ave., Riverdale,  601-8222)
Capçanes, Peraj Petita, Mevushal Series, Montsant, 2013: Starting with this vintage, Capçanes has started to flash-pasteurize a small portion of its Peraj Petita before bottling, so that it can be served in kosher restaurants and at catered events. I happened to visit the winery the day after the wine had been pasteurized, and was surprised, that tasted side by side, I liked the mevushal version better — the fruit seemed more vivid. However tasted again, seven months later, the flavors and aromas have become a bit muted. Dark garnet in color, with a medium to full body, this wine has flavors and aromas of cherries and cranberries, with a pleasant earthy note in the background.
Score B/B+. ($20.99. Available at Millesima USA, 1355 Second Ave., Manhattan,  639-9463)
Capçanes, Peraj Petita Rosat, Montsant 2103: This rosé was made of a blend of 60 percent Grenache, 15 percent Tempranillo, 15 percent Merlot, and 10 percent Syrah. It is a dry, dark-rose colored, light-to-medium-bodied wine. Look for flavors of cherries, raspberries, strawberries and nectarines. While no longer as vivid as it was when I first tasted it last spring, this wine remains crisp and well balanced; fortunately the 2014 vintage should be hitting the shelves in the next few months. Drink soon.
Score B/B+. ($19.95. Available at Skyview Wine and Liquor, 5681 Riverdale Ave., Riverdale,  601-8222)
Wines are scored on an ‘A’-‘F’ scale where ‘A’ is excellent, ‘B’ is good, ‘C’ is flawed, ‘D’ is very flawed, and ‘F’ is undrinkable. Prices listed reflect the price at the retailer mentioned.