Introducing El Celler d’en Marc-Mas Pagès, a charming Bed & Breakfast plus wine estate on the edge of Las Gavarres nature reserve, just outside Palamós.
A Belgian couple named Marc and Lut moved to the area almost eight years ago, in June of 2012 to be precise, and took over this 14th-century masia close to Vall-llobrega, on the outskirts of Palamós. The previous owner had died three years earlier and the house and land had been unoccupied since, apart from a concierge who was there to ensure the place wasn’t illegally occupied by squatters, as had happened for a period in another nearby building. If you enjoy Catalan wine, then you should definitely check this place out!
Mas Pagès B&B
Mas Pagès, as the estate is called, dates from the year 1320 and the main house is an authentic traditional Catalan farmhouse of the era. As with just about every proper masia, the house is built with the front facing toward the south and the rear toward the north, with only small windows on the north-facing side. Some masias even have no windows at all on the north-oriented wall and this is because of the famous tramuntana wind that blows north-south from the Pyrenees. Another typical feature of masias in coastal regions is that they were never built right on the coast itself, but rather some distance inland and very often with watch towers with views to the sea in the distance. The reason for this was the frequent pirate attacks all along Mediterranean coasts between the 11th and 18th centuries, and in fact most towns and villages founded during that time were also built inland for the very same reason. Some of the popular seaside towns of today were nothing more than a collection of fishing huts in the old days, with the town they belonged to being a couple of kilometres inland to allow time to either mount a defense or else to hide in case of attack. Calella “de” Palafrugell and Sant Antoni “de” Calonge are two examples, with Calella housing nothing more than a few shelters belonging to fisherman from Palafrugell, and similarly with Sant Antoni and Calonge, to name but a couple.
Anyway, back to Mas Pagès! When Marc and Lut took over the property they still had quite a bit of renovation to do as the place had fallen into a little bit of disrepair. The plumbing had to be replaced and all the electrics rewired. They felt the swimming pool was also too deep at 2.9m and this was also renovated with a new depth of 1.6m. Being a 14th century masia the building was, unsurprisingly, protected and listed, restricting what new work could be carried out. For example, the draughty old windows were replaced but only in keeping with the original character of the farmhouse. The old stables are now a beautiful outdoor breakfast area and where the pigs used to be kept is now a very cool bar for guests, right next to the dining area that looks over the garden and swimming pool.
Today the main farmhouse building is the guesthouse itself with five beautifully restored en suite bedrooms, each very tastefully decorated and named for a variety of grape used in winemaking. It is open for bookings between Easter and October.
Which brings us nicely to the other part of the business: the winery!
El Celler d’en Marc
The estate of Mas Pagès covers 6 hectares, of which 3.2 hectares are planted with vines. When Marc and Lut bought the place, they replaced all the old hybrid vines with new and superior stock and, unlike previously, each new variety of vine was planted in its own section of the estate, separate from other varieties. As with vineyards just about everywhere, the mother plants were American as they were discovered to be more resistant to disease than their European equivalents when the latter were decimated by phylloxera long ago. Each section of the vineyard with its distinct type of vine was given the name of one of Marc and Lut’s daughters. The first new vines were planted in February of 2013 and the first wines produced in 2015.
Quality over quantity
From the beginning the decision was made to focus on producing only high-quality wine rather than try and compete with the much bigger wineries that can produce in huge volume and sell at low prices. That would always have been a losing battle and so the old vines that produced greater yields but of inferior quality were replaced.
As the ground beneath the surface soil was quite stony having once been a riverbed aeons ago, the superficial roots were broken once annually for the first couple of years to encourage them to grow downwards through the granite below, thus helping the mother plants develop strong roots, The vines were also planted in north-south rows, following the direction of the dry tramuntana wind – which is actually beneficial to the plants – with 2.5m between rows to allow a tractor to pass, and 1m between plants. In accordance with the French method of planting, a frame structure with wire is used to train the vines to grow off the ground to help prevent disease, as any infection will come from below. In addition, a rose bush is planted at the end of every second row to act as a warning system as the roses will be affected first should a disease appear.
In the “off-season” sheep and goats belonging to local farmers are let graze amongst the vines to keep the grass in trim – until shoots or grapes begin to appear, then they’re out! Weeds are removed by machine and if treatment is necessary only biological and ecological products are used, no herbicides.
All these measures mean that it costs Marc and Lut significantly more to produce their wine, but it also ensures that the wine is top quality. In a typical lower standard winery, the yield from a vine would be around 6kg but in El Celler d’en Marc this is limited to around only 2kg of the best quality grapes. Their wines also contain a very low sulphide content, low enough to be categorised with ecological wines. Non-ecological wines can contain up to ten times more sulphides.
The moment when it’s just right to begin harvesting the grapes varies from year to year, but typically it’s in or around the month of September. Harvest work starts at 7am and continues till 1 or 2pm. The first selection of the best grapes is done in the field itself and the grapes are collected in small rather than large buckets. This prevents the grapes from becoming crushed and starting to ferment too soon. A second selection of the best grapes takes place once back in the bodega. The varieties of grape grown at El Celler d’en Marc include Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Viognier. They also have another 3 acres of vineyard just up the road in Vall-llobrega with some Tempranillo and Syrah (Shiraz) vines (although at the time of our visit they were considering letting this go in order to give all their attention to producing the best possible wine from their own estate). In the first couple of years of producing they produced more red than white, but it soon proved to be the case that there was a demand for more white wine. They were also planning to replace some of the Cabernet Sauvignon vines with more Viognier and Syrah.
One innovation they decided to try was to produce a blanc de noir, white wine made from red grapes. The results were very tasty!
By the way, just in case you were thinking that it seemed unfair that the winery bears Marc’s name, the wines are all named for Lut! As in the Catalan language they add an article before a person’s name, as with en Marc, so Lut becomes la Lut, and so all the wines from El Celler d’en Marc are called “Lalut”. In their previous lives, Lut was a pharmacist and so she looks after the analysis in their on-site laboratory where testing at all stages of the process ensures best quality, while Marc was a CEO of a medical company – a perfect combination for running a winery!
Once harvest is done, the white wine ferments in French oak barrels while the red is fermented in stainless steel vats and then matured in wooden barrels, also in French oak, but Marc was currently looking into using American and/or Bulgarian oak to see if the already great wines can be even further improved. After the wines spend a year in the oak barrels they are sampled before it is decided whether to blend them or not.
They also have some olive trees on Mas Pagès and produce olive oil on a small scale. They have their own mill, rather than a press. This gives a lower yield but, once again, of a higher quality. These guys are all about quality!
Visits and tastings
Tours of the vineyard are available Monday to Saturday, and on Sunday by appointment. There is a wine tasting at the end of each tour in a lovely dining room inside the guesthouse. For contact details to arrange a visit or to read more about the different wines they produce check out their website.
And to check out the guesthouse, find out how to get there and make a reservation, click here.