When Thatcher’s Imports started, we were pretty convinced it would remain relatively small with a focus on Champagne and Burgundy. We were even asked in early 2022, “Will you pick up any Spanish wines?” Nothing against Spanish wines, but we didn’t think so. We took a trip to San Sebastian in late ‘22 and our friend Bernat took the train from Barcelona all the way to Madrid, just for dinner with us. Come to find out, he had been working on something pretty special over the last year or so and it just so happened to align with what we had been working on.
Bernat grew up in the foothills of the Pyrenees, and realized he had a knack for tasting wine, recognizing quality and markers at the age of 15. Professionally, he was due to pursue a career in art and literature, but working harvest in the Loire at the age of 19 made him rethink that. He was quickly exposed to some of the world's greatest bottles when his passion for wine and career path came to an intersection; after two years in the Loire, he headed to Barcelona where he worked for some of the top restaurants and wine bars including Monvinic. Without much experience, Isabelle Brunet offered him a position. He has taken this theory, paying forward generosity without reciprocal expectation into the rest of his career path. A global wine list full of depth and diversity and experiences, such as pouring Egon Muller one day and having globally known winemakers the next, made it quite the influential place. He then worked for the 2-star restaurant in the Canary Islands at Ritz Carlton with Martin Berasategui and started making wine with Roberto Santana in Tenerife. This showed him how to work solely on instinct."There was no protocol, just his eyes and his nose making decisions. He taught me how to extract the right amount of "matière" from a wine, how and when to protect them. With his wines, there is purity, there is a sense of place and there is the right amount of style.“
Ambition led him to be head sommelier at Azurmendi, where his days were spent with people who had the capacity of speaking about the 1945 vintage in Bordeaux and Rioja, and jumping to what's going on in the Czech republic in a second.
“This was around the same time there was a lot of talk around the vineyards from my home village.” The older generation was moving on and younger ones moving in, with one steady constant; the 100+ year old vines. He returned home to the realization that everything you want from a great wine region was there all along: a super strong identity, shaped by people fighting against modern agriculture that destroys and homogenizes everything. “The hills in which we played and fought on as children, they were nothing but the same craie I was adoring on my visits to Jerez or Champagne, just in a different disposition. There were rapidly disappearing extremely ancient varieties that linked us with our past, directly related to our way of living in the middle ages; wine's pre-industrial revolution. Everything was co-planted; diversity was the biggest goal. Now, with my background and all of my experiences in wine, I could see everything at home differently, in its true light. And I couldn't let it die.”
In 2019, Bernat left Michelin ratings behind to pursue this and re-ground himself in a more soulful wine environment, landing at Alkimia with Jordi VIlla. Jordi influenced his outlook on wine today.
”There is imagination and there is sacrifice. Beauty can't be in a picture. Depth and balance is something you can't share on IG. He reminds me of people like Roberto from Envinate or Gaël Petit in Tavel or Arnoux Lachaux in Vosne Romanée. Success is just a shadow; what you do has value in itself whether people clap for you or not. There is a certain ethic beyond any man or woman chasing beauty.”
Today he shares his time between everything he loves. Still working at Alkimia, doing small imports for the Spanish market and lastly, his own project Ex Occidente.
After so many years being preoccupied by Burgundy and Barolo, Bernat is looking south right now, where the possibilities of finding something naturally exceptional are bigger. He prefers wines where the soil and environment is so magnanimous that it overshadows the winemaking. “I tend to say exactly what I think in front of the wines, and I'm even worse with mine, so I have to be absolutely convinced with what's in the bottle.”
When Bernat started Ex Occidente, he quickly realized the vines had been co-planted for a reason; just because he and his team don’t fully understand why wasn’t a reason to commit to changing that. The original plan was to make wines familiar to the region, the wines they drank daily as teenagers. “So clear and still ripe, refreshing but with layers and layers, so seductive and spontaneous...it was the nature of our place.” But those wines have nothing to do with the common wines today in Catalunya, since those native varieties were commonly replaced for varieties with shorter cycles and less sensitivity to disease. In 2021, they decided to take this vision a bit more seriously, and when they pressed, Bernat realized that the resulting wines were far beyond his skills as a winemaker, which was very exciting.
Viticulture and Vinification
In 2021 they harvested at the end of September, after a warm growing season. The grapes were fully ripe at just 12 degrees of potential alcohol. It seemed like a lucky year, but it has now happened every year since. Three vintages in, the vineyard work is rather minimalistic . “We use sulfur, we use horse tail... and this is it. We're not using copper. Tilling is done maximum 2 times per year.“ The work is largely on recovering older vineyards that have been left alone for too long. All vineyards here are complantée, with a very low density, what they used to call "marco real" (2m x1.5m spacing). The solis are white chalky clay with some areas containing more calcaire or less clay.
Harvest happens by hand in small bins. Maceration lasts a minimum of 30 days without sulfur. The wines are pressed gently via vertical press and everything is typically blended together to give a bit more backbone. The wines are racked to inox to settle, and then moved to chestnut foudres, traditional to the region. In 2021 they added a touch of sulfur after fermentation not knowing how chestnut would respond. The volumes are low due to the old vineyards with about 8-10hl/ha average yield.
THE CO-PLANTED VARIETALS
They have calculated 14 grapes in this vineyard. However, they are still studying the varieties. For example; they thought they had Sumoll Blanc, and a month ago someone from INCAVI tested the genetics and confirmed it was... Salzenc Blanc! An ancient aragonese grape, thought to be gone. The character of the wine is described as Trobat, both blanc and rouge.
THE VINES- LA FIGUERA
The first vineyard they started working with in the village is La Figuera. The vineyard was abandoned for 3 years, and it really was a mess. It was planted during the 1930’s and totals 0.7ha. They will slowly start to replant the vineyard as needed, keeping it co-planted with almost an even split of dominant varieties native to the region such as; Trobat Negre, Trobat Blanc, Macabeau, Sumoll and Rojal.