WineThe Collection

Stellar Cellar: the wines of El Bulli

While the dishes of El Bulli are well documented, the wines from the groundbreaking restaurant warrant just as much interest. The El Bulli Foundation’s Ferran Centelles – the restaurant’s former sommelier – sheds some light on the wine list and its star offerings

Words by Ferran Centelles

ferran adrià and ferran centelles share a glass of cava at el bulli restaurant
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The two Ferrans share a glass of Cava: Ferran Centelles (right) was sommelier at the restaurant between 2000 and 2011 and is now drinks director for the El Bulli Foundation (Photo: Irene Fernández)

When it comes to El Bulli, Ferran Adrià’s name may be the best known, but there was another key player and driving force behind the restaurant and its gastronomic revolution: Juli Soler (1949–2015), Ferran’s business partner in the adventure that began in Cala Montjoi. For me, Juli was the most transgressive restaurant manager who ever lived – at least, I don’t know anyone who comes close to him. He had a great sense of humour and knew how to use it to joke with his customers and make them feel at home. This was a supernatural gift, useful for loosening the rigidity that top-level gastronomy sometimes has. Breaching classic etiquette in a Rolling Stones T-shirt (but wearing it with the utmost elegance), he was a seducer that the customers loved. Juli loved them, too – and he loved his wines, as few restaurateurs in the world ever could.

Ferran Centelles and some of the wines of El Bulli
Centelles and the El Bulli sommelier team championed Spanish regions that were hardly on the map but are now considered among the greats (Photo: Irene Fernández)

Knowing Juli’s way of being and considering the incredible creative disruption caused by El Bulli’s cuisine, you might imagine a wine list different from any other, with an array of unusual colours, surely served in futuristic glassware or even imported from other planets in the solar system. But no – quite the contrary. At El Bulli, the wine selection was a reflection of Juli’s love of the great wines from the classic regions of the world. An orthodox wine list in which only a few rare and well-considered licences were taken to incorporate less known but promising producers. In this – humility aside – the sommelier team was able to contribute, and Juli was able to rely on our know-how.

The white wines of El Bulli
A selection of Spanish white wines once served inside El Bulli - from a Godello only bottled in magnum to an Albariño released at 10 years of age (Photo: Margaret Stepien)

In each service of 50 customers, there were four sommeliers, 55 types of wine glass, two fully operational ageing cellars and 1,600 wine references. Burgundy, Bordeaux, Champagne, Cava, Sherry, Rioja, Priorat, Ribera del Duero and Rías Baixas stood out. From today’s critical point of view, these names may sound excessively well known, but I can assure you that in the years of El Bulli’s activity, some of them were complete newcomers on the scene.

The red wines of El Bulli
These five Spanish reds were popular among diners in the restaurant's heyday, but how are they drinking now? (Photo: Margaret Stepien)

At El Bulli, we liked to open whole bottles, and we didn’t do wine pairings. It may be controversial, but even though the customers dined from a closed tasting menu, neither Juli nor Ferran ever wanted to deprive them of the freedom to choose their own bottle. The wine/dish pairing was not overly important, and during the four hours that the menu lasted, an average of one and a half bottles per person were uncorked. A festival in every sense of the word.

We did, however, pair some dishes with good success. For example, the Albarizas dessert, a dish that referenced the soils of Jerez, was served with a very old Sherry. I also remember another delicate dish of mushrooms with flowers that was delicious and accompanied by a gran reserva from Rioja. These were sublime combinations where the pairing was approached as an integral part of the dish’s concept.

The sparkling and fortified wines of El Bulli
Five sparkling and fortified El Bulli favourites; although wine and food pairing wasn't a traditional part of the experience, one of the restaurant's most popular dishes saw 'very old Sherry' served alongside dessert (Photo: Margaret Stepien)

Unfortunately, Juli left us sooner than we would have liked, but his essence lives on in the El Bulli Foundation and in every one of the many sommeliers who passed through the El Bulli dining room. As such, we asked them to choose the wine that most marked their time at the restaurant – and I have included some of my own favourites from my time there, too. Here is our selection of iconic Spanish wines once served in El Bulli, scored according to how they are drinking now.