The World Wine Travel blogging group is spending the year visiting Spain. Virtually for the moment and this month, we are diving into Catalonia. Each month is a different part of the country and I’ll be leading our group to this fantastic part of the country. You’ll find links to all of the bloggers who are participating in this month’s chat at the bottom of this post. We will be posting our stories between Friday, February 26 and Saturday, February 27 by 8:00 am EST. We will then have a chat on Twitter, at 11:00 am EST on Saturday, February 27th. You can join in the fun and find us by using the hashtag. #WorldWineTravel.
Now let’s look at the region we are visiting a bit more in depth in this preview post. Catalonia has a very long and varied history. Traces of human settlements go back 200,000 years as examples of Neolithic rock art attest to in some of the caves in the area. There are over 750 examples of rock cave art throughout the region and a number of them are Unesco World Heritage sites. The Phoenicians and the Greeks also made their home in Catalonia and when they arrived they met the local Iberian tribes. These sea-faring nations brought the vine to Spain. Romans and the Carthaginians also laid claim to Spain and the Romans continued the work that the Greeks had started with vines. The Catalonia city of Tarragona was called Tarraco under the Romans and was a stronghold during their reign. When the Romans lost control of Spain it was then ruled by the Visigoths and eventually by the Moors. Under the Moors, viticulture suffered mightily but the Cistercian monks brought it back for their religious ceremonies. Up until this point, Catalonia was not part of a larger country and had little to do with its nearby regions. This changed thanks to the marriage of royals from different regions. Specifically the daughter of the King of Aragon married the Count of Barcelona, uniting these two areas and affording Aragon a maritime pathway. The name Catalonia didn’t appear until the 12th century. The ensuing history of the area is one of rebellion from taking part in a large political entity with a host of shifting alliances. During that time though, viticulture continued to be an important sector for the region. Tarragon and other port cities exported wine to England and to Scandinavia.
During the 19th century, Catalonia began making a name for itself as a producer of sparkling wines. Josep Raventos had visited Champagne in the 1860s and came back intent on creating something similar in Spain. He began making wines in the style he had seen in Champagne but it was still not labelled as Cava. That would happen almost 100 years later. Catalonia recognized many of its denominations in 1972 such as DO Alella, DO Conca de Barbera, DOC Emporda, DO Penedes, DOQ Priorat, DO Tararagona and DO Terra Alta. National recognition however came later. During these years, Catalonia was back and forth in terms of its relationship to the Spanish government. Since 2006, it is recognized as a “nation” within Spain with its own power of the purse yet it is still tied to Spain. Many favor full independence from Spain but others do not. All of this also plays out in terms of the different and separate flags they fly as well as the use of Catalan as the local language. The history and politics of Catalonia are so complex and interesting that in order to talk about the region all of this context needs to be part of the conversation. Now back to the wines.
Let’s talk about the location and climate, two important factors when speaking about any wine region. Catalonia is in the northeast corner of Spain. Shaped like a triangle, it is bordered to the North by France and Andorra and by Aragon to the west, Valencia to the south and the Mediterranean to the East. There are four provinces in Catalonia: Lerida, Gerona, Barcelona and Tarragona. Barcelona, a marvelous city I have had the good fortune to visit, is the capital city of the region and is it’s largest. It is the second largest city in Spain after Madrid. The climate is largely Mediterranean with dry, hot summers and cool winters. The northern part of the region which borders the Pyrenees mountains is cooler of course and has more rainfall.
Topography and Soils:
The region has three important features that impact the vineyards: the Catalan Pirineos, the Cordilleras Costero-Catalanas and the Central Catalan Depression. The Pirineos is a huge range that goes from the sea to the border with Aragon. The Costero-Catalanas range runs parallel to the Mediterranean coastline for the length of 360 miles. The range actually is two separate parts, one closer to the sea and one further inland, Cordillera literal (closer to the coast) and the Cordillera pre-literal (inland). The central depression is between these mountain ranges and it has rivers and the remains of older river basins. Water drains into the depression from the mountain ranges. The largest river in Catalonia is the Ter river at 129 miles. The Llobregat River is the second largest at 106 miles. The Ebro river also touches part of southern Catalonia. The soil near the Mediterranean is sedimentary with some alluvial soil, limestone and clay. There are also areas that have granite and slate. Moving farther inland, the soils have more igneous rick, with slate and granite, and limestone and calcareous clay. Some have good drainage and most are low in organic content. There is one soil in Catalonia that is very particular and is called Llicorella. It is mostly focused in Priorat DOQ but there are also areas in the Montsant and Conca de Barbera DOs which both border Priorat. Llicorella is a shallow soil with decomposed slate/shale which formed 400 million years ago. It is a very fragile, friable soil with low organic content.
Grape Varieties and Wine Styles:
Catalonia has both international and indigenous grape varieties. It is also the place where cooperatives started when the area was recovering from the phylloxera blight. Coops are still important today in the region. There is an agency in Catalonia that promotes wines called Institut Catala de la Vinya i el Vi (Catalan Institute of Vine and Wine). Many of the wines we see in Catalonia are blends and Xarel.lo and Garnacha Blancha tend to dominate the white blends, while Garnacha Tinta produces the lion’s share of the region’s rosados. Tempranillo and Cabernet Sauvignon tend to be blended together and many vino tintos are a blend of Garnacha Tinta and Carinena also called Samso and Mazuelo in this area. In terms of wine styles, the whites and rosados are generally fresh, easy to drink wines while the reds are more structured with aging. Aging regimes in this region run along the lines of the other areas of Spain, Crianza, Reserva and Gran Reserva. Priorat DOQ has its own system with more stringent requirements.
The region is home to ten DOs or DOP areas. Here’s a brief look at each DO but we would need to spend a year focusing on each one individually to do this region justice. So much wine, so little time.
DO Alella is a small DO between the Cordillera Literal and the Mediterranean. One of the smallest in Spain it has a long history however dating back to the Romans. Phylloxera damaged vines in this area and vineyards were replanted to Xarel.lo and Garnacha Blanca and international varieties Chardonnay, Merlot and Pinot Noir. Coops dominated here and since the 1980s, the area has been making a comeback.
DO Catalunya was created in 1999 to give producers the ability to have wines outside of the more strict DOs of the region but remain within a DO system. Wines labelled Catalunya DO can buy fruit from different parts of the region and blend them to make a certain style of wine. This umbrella DO if you will applies to all wineries within the region’s DOs as well as wineries outside of the DOs. Obviously a large and varied category, there is a controlling entity trying to raise quality standards, the Consejo Regulador for DO Catalunya.
One of the most famous of the DOP areas is DO Cava which was awarded in 1986 and is 100% sparkling wine or Espumoso as they say in Spanish. Soils are calcareous with limestone and clay. Mediterranean climate with some continental influences. As mentioned earlier, the Raventos family is responsible for the beginning of the industry in this area. It was Raventos’s son, Manuel who made the first sparkling wine from Xarel.lo, Macabeo, and Parellada blend which continues to this day. The word Cava though didn’t come into play until the 1950s and was first used not for the wines but for the caves where the wines were stored. I wrote this post on Cava some years ago after an amazing tasting.
Interestingly it was also in Catalonia that the first gyropalette or girasol was created which automated riddling. DO Cava includes 150 municipalities and is spread over seven autonomous regions: Catalonia, La Rioja, Comunidad Valenciana, Aragon, Navarra, Extremadura and Pais Vasco. Yet it’s true home basis remains Penedes. Infact, 95% of Cava is still produced in Penedes. There is also a Cava Rosado which calls for 25% red grapes but makes up only 8% of total production. Cava is a fully sparkling wine with 5-6 atm of pressure. It’s less acidic than Champagne and shows less yeasty notes than some of its sister sparkling wines. Much depends on the style and aging regime. There are different Cava quality levels and aging requirements but I’ll save that for my post on Friday when I write about Cava.
DO Conca de Barbera is an area that was given DO status in 1985. Home to Spain’s first cooperative founded in 1903, it is most well known for its white wines. Many producers create base wines for Cava production. It is also home to a grape drawing interest called Trepat. It is indigenous to this area. I have written about Trepat here. It is usually used to make still and sparkling rosados.
DO Costers del Segre was given its DO status in 1988. It is located in Western Catalonia and has some of the vineyards at the highest elevation in the region. The local river, a tributary of the Ebro, called the Segre lends its name to the area. Costers refers to the slopes or banks of the river. It is well known as one of the areas to first plant international varieties as well as for the blending of indigenous and international grapes.
DO Emporda is in the northeast of Catalonia and the vineyards are at the lowest elevations of the entire region. They are impacted by the Tramontana, a wind that is similar to the Mistral in France, it can be very drying and tends to be present for 3-12 days at at time. Emporda has the notorious honor of being the first place that was impacted by phylloxera in the 1800s. Initially the DO produced sweet, fortified wines but more recently has changed its wine style and is producing red wines from Garnacha Tinta/Lledoner and Samso/Carinena.
DO Montsant is a more recent one, gaining its designation only in 2002. Some 90% of the wine here is red wine or tinto. A very historic area where Romans made wine as did the 12th century Carthusian monks. The DO has many mountains and a couple of rivers as well. It encircles the prestigious Priorat DOQ. The area has some of the same soils as Priorat, Llicorella, but also a granitic sand called saulo and a silty limestone known as panal. This breadth of soil types led to the creation of six sub-zones. About 95% of the vineyards are planted to red grapes, Garnacha Tinta locally called Garnacha Negra and Samso (Carinena) in particular. Considered less powerful and complex than neighboring Priorat wines, nonetheless they are still structured and elegant.
DO Penedes was awarded a DO in 1990, the area is divided into three sub-zones: Superior, Central and Maritim. The Superior area was previously known as Alt Penedes and is more inland with vineyards at the highest elevations. The Central region is the one that boasts the most production and the Maritim lies on the coast. Bodegas Torres, one of Spain’s largest wineries is in Central. Cava production is also centered in this part of the Penedes around Sant Sadurni d’Anoia. This is one of Spain’s most historic areas but is also one of its most progressive, using modern technology such as temperature control, stainless steel fermentation tanks and other techniques early on. Xarel.lo is the principal grape here. In addition to the sparkling wines produced, Penedes also produces white and red wines in a number of styles. In order to make a distinction between Cava produced in Penedes and that of other areas, a new category was introduced called Classic Penedes. Fruit must be 100% organic and grown in the Penedes DO. Production must be the traditional method and must mature for at least 15 months on the lees. All of these wines are therefore considered Reserva wines.
DO Pla de Bages is a more recent one, awarded this designation in 1998. That said, it too has a Roman past, and is in an area that sees two rivers converge, the Cardener and the Llobregat. Garnacha Tinta makes most of the reds together with Tempranillo, locally called Ill de Llebre. It is home to Picapoll Blanco which makes fresh, lively whites as well and international varieties are also grown here.
DOQ Priorat could be a post all on it’s own, in fact this complicated region could be a year project alone. This prestigious area got its DOQ in 2009, it is one of two DOQs in all of Spain. It was the Carthusian monks who started winemaking in this area in the 12th century. Although Priorat was recognized as an official wine region in 1932, it wasn’t until the 1980s that it began to develop into its latest iteration. That coincided with the arrival of a number of innovated winemakers to the area. Names such as Rene Barbier, Alvaro Palacios, Jose Luis Perez and others gained international renown for themselves and the DO.
The area has mountain ranges on all sides. The local wind is called the Cierzo and has a drying effect on the vineyards. Another topographical feature is the Siurana River which eventually leads to the Ebro River. The vineyards in this DO are planted at high elevations and are hand harvested. Soils are very ancient, the oldest in Catalonia in fact. Llicorella is the name of the famed decomposed granite sand as mentioned earlier which gives the wines a fantastic mineral note and elegant aromas. The area also was forward looking in terms of its classification system, creating an estate designation and a village wine category.
In addition to this new pyramid, the Consejo also set out new rules for wineries using the term Vinyes Velles or old vines. They must come from at least 75 year old vines, a tall order. Red wines dominate and Garnacha Tinto and Samso (Carinena) are the grapes of choice in this soil. Some 95% of the wine produced here is red and it is usually a blend of the two, like in Montsant. There is a lot of use of barriques for aging in Priorat, unlike what we see in some other regions of Spain.
Moving along to the last two DOs in Catalonia, we have DO Tarragona, designated an area of note since 1947. They make all styles of wine here. It is Catalonia’s oldest region and as mentioned earlier was a noted area even in the Roman era. Sweet wines were exported from the port here during the Roman rule in Spain when they called it Hispania. There are two main areas, the Tarragona Plain and the Ribera d’Ebre or the riverbank. White varieties planted here are usually used in Cava production. A specific Rancio style wine is produced in Tarragona with the wines put into glass demijohns and aged in the sun. These rancio wines then spend four years aging in oak before release. I’ve never tried one but am very curious about it. They also do something called a Tarragona Clasico which is a highly alcoholic sweet wine, made from super ripe Garnacha grapes. The wine ages for 12 years in oak before release and at times goes into a solera-like system of blending of different vintages.
Last but not least, we have DO Terra Alta which got its DO in 1982. Located in the southwest of Catalonia, it lies between the Ebro River and Aragon. It has some of the highest elevation vineyards in Catalonia, at 1000 meters or 3281 feet but not all the vineyards are;ocated at these heights. Some are in the 300-500 meter range and others in the plain. Here again we see a lot of Coops. All manner of wines are produced, including sweet fortified wines, late harvest and even orange wines called Brisats. Garnacha Blanca is the star and producers have high hopes for its future as well. Here’s video of Terra Alta to get you in the mood to travel.
Don’t you just want to hop on a plane and spend a year exploring Catalonia. I know I do. The next best thing is to join us on Saturday. Check out this amazing array of articles my fellow bloggers are penning for the occasion and join us under the #WorldWineTravel hashtag on Twitter, Saturday, February 27th at 11:00am EST. Here’s what my wine blogging friends are writing about:
- Allison and Chris from Advinetures look at “Cava: Spain’s Answer to Champagne”
- Andrea from The Quirky Cork enjoys “Tapas with Segura Viudas Brut Reserva Cava”
- Camilla from Culinary Adventures with Camilla shares “Pollo a la Catalana + Alvaro Palacios Camins del Priorat 2019”
- David from Cooking Chat shines with “Mushroom Fricassee and Red Wine from Priorat”
- Gwendolyn from Wine Predator brings “Sparkling Wine Secrets: Catalonia Cava from Marqués de Cáceres with Spanish Chorizo Kale Bean Stew”
- Jeff from Food Wine Click looks at “Exploring the Variety of Still Wines from Catalunya”
- Linda from My Full Wine Glass showcases “Pere Mata Cupada Rosé Cava: Finesse in a glass”
- Lynn from Savor the Harvest posts “Beyond Cava: Loxarel and Gramona Organic Sparkling Wines”
- Martin from Enofylz Wine Blog shares “A Taste of Can Descregut; Grower Spanish Sparkling Wine From The Corazón del Penedès”
- Melanie from Wining With Mel muses about “Innovative winemaking in Catalunya’s Penedès: Torres Gran Coronas Reserva”
- Nicole from SommsTable pens “On a Hilltop in Priorat”
- Payal from Keep The Peas joins with “Bartender’s Choice from Priorat”
- Pinny from Chinese Food And Wine Pairing writes about “Enjoying Cavas of Different Price Points”
- Robin from Crushed Grape Chronicles focuses on “Priorat DOQ in Spain’s Cataluña region and Franck Massard’s 2015 “Humilitat”
- Steve from Children of the Grape describes “Cava by the Sea”
- Susannah from Avvinare.com thinks about “Two Key Areas in Catalonia Wine Scene: Cava and Priorat”
- Terri from Our Good Life dishes about “Chicken Empanadas and Azimut Cava”
- Wendy from A Day In The Life On The Farm adds “Enjoying Tapas with Spanish Wines from Catalonia”