In the heart of cava country a once-loved grape variety that nearly went the way of the dodo is enjoying a remarkable renaissance. Sumoll, known locally as the Pinot Noir of the Mediterranean due to its thin skin and diva-like antics on the
vine, was widespread 100 years ago and used to produce medium-bodied, still red wines exhibiting rusticity and excellent acidity. But the Phylloxera epidemic and a cava boom combined to form a perfect storm that all but wiped Sumoll off the face of the earth.
Growers grubbed up the majority of vines that survived Phylloxera in favour of Macabeo, Parellada and Xarello so they could make cava. By 2001 only a handful of Catalonians were growing small parcels of Sumoll in their back gardens.
But then a pioneering producer discovered the variety growing on its land and grasped the opportunity to champion a rare indigenous grape that would set it apart from its rivals. “Everyone told us we were mad,” says Josep Queralt, winemaker at Heretat Mont Rubi. “They said it would not produce quality wine and it wouldn’t age well.”
Fast-forward 16 years and Mont Rubi’s Sumoll has a glowing reputation. Its decision to get out of the cava business is looking extremely shrewd as the Spanish sparkler continues to struggle against the march of Prosecco. Neighbours have held their hands up, admitted their mistake and are racing to plant the variety. A good 40 wineries are now producing Sumoll and more than 200ha is dedicated to it across Catalonia, but Mont Rubi is its heartland, its spiritual home.
The boutique producer controls 10ha of the best parcels and has a library full of exquisite expressions dating back to 2001, allowing it to showcase the grape’s superb ageing potential.
Among the converted is Sarah Jane Evans MW, former chairman of the Institute of Masters of Wine, who will deliver a masterclass on Sumoll at London’s Barrafina restaurant on October 2. Another fan is Paul Stringer, buyer for London independent chain Jeroboams and its wholesale arm, Laytons. He started importing Heretat Mont Rubi’s wines last year and is pleased with sales. “It fits with our ethos as we look for family- owned, on-trend wineries,” he says. “We liked the boutique nature and the whole Sumoll story.”
Jeroboams ships the £16 entry-level Gaintus Radical Sumoll from Heretat Mont Rubi, as well as the high-end Gaintus Vertical Sumoll, retailing at £35 and named after a local climbing trail to symbolise the challenges that both Sumoll and Mont Rubi faced in 2001. It was a bold decision to focus on Sumoll because at the time it could only be sold as a table wine due to DO restrictions. But in 2009 its success caused the DO to allow Sumoll into the fold. After all, a table wine that receives 92 Parker points, as Gaintus Vertical did that year, seems a bit of an anomaly. The producer has continued to receive strong scores from respected critics and rivals are keen to catch up.
Jeroboams is just moving from the 2007 vintage to the 2009 and Stringer is planning to set a few aside for personal consumption. “We don’t sell huge volumes but we are trying to bring high-quality, obscure grape varieties in,” he says. “It really stands its ground in terms of quality. It’s very much a hand-sell wine.”
He admits it is quite difficult commercially to bring in Sumoll by itself, but he fills pallets with Mont Rubi’s rosé, a Provençe-style wine benefiting from high acidity and retailing at £16.95, and its HMR White and HMR Black. The former is made from Xarello and the latter is a Garnacha, both at £13.95.
Mont Rubi is owned by a family that made its fortune in the pharmaceutical business but seems to prefer making high-quality wine and raising thoroughbred horses on its nearby stud farm. The owner’s son, for instance, is currently in London and working in one of Jeroboams’ stores, where he might have a slight bias towards his family’s wines when he is hand-selling to the capital’s oenophiles. The family focuses heavily on native varieties and also produces a single varietal Samso, a single varietal Macabeo, a blend called Durona (Samso/Garnacha/ Sumoll), and Tinto de la Luna, a red wine made according to the cycles of the moon.
But the main message it wants to spread is about Sumoll, the most prized variety
fussy and temperamental grape that almost died out but now is thriving. It requires hand harvesting and heaps of tender loving care, and that suits Mont Rubi down to the ground as it is a producer focusing on quality above quantity. Its current output stands at around 80,000 bottles a year and, while this may eventually grow to around 120,000, the mission is to promote winemaking excellence rather than chase volume.
It is brought into the UK in small parcels by Meadowvale Wines, but Laytons is the main distributor, and it has enjoyed success with restaurants, gastropubs and even a cruise company. It exports 60% of its production and the UK is its fourth largest market, but may soon shoot to the top of that list once more buyers taste these complex and elegant wines.