That very first glass of Spanish wine – the wine that opened pandora’s box – consisted of a deep red from Rioja. Surrounded by expats, while lounging on a terrace in Madrid, the conversation turned from jovial bantering to obstinance.
Don’t you know that Spain only had one decent wine region? That only Rioja is “the wine capital” of Spain?
No…I didn’t know that, and quite honestly, I don’t believe a word of it!
Like any wine producing country, it takes a touch of curiosity to find heaps of amazing wine, and Spain is no different. Just about every Spanish region has a laundry list of incredible wines to seek out, the only difference between them is the style, grape and type of wine you’re eager to try.
So let’s dive into a region that many of you most likely will be visiting this summer, Catalunya – home to Barcelona, beaches and butifarra. Catalunya is located in the northeastern corner of Spain and comprised of ten vastly unique subregions. My hope is that this guide will provide you some useful information about each of the regions, along with some personal tips on what you can see and eat along the way. If you have any suggestions of your own – whether they be producers or places to visit – please share them in the comments below!
Starting from the coastline, and only 15 km east from Barcelona, we find Alella. This tiny, but beautiful region, offers breathtaking views of the Mediterranean coast from gentle-rolling vineyards to the green pine wood forests. According to Xavier García, winemaker of Alella Vinícola, “the distinctiveness of the DO relies on the small size of the vineyards and their proximity both to the sea and the city. Grapes can reach full ripeness, while retaining a good level of natural acidity, thanks to the cooling sea breezes and the considerable daytime temperature variation”.
The traditional medium-sweet, cask-aged and oxidized white wines were abandoned in favor of a new modern approach to winemaking focused on elegant, delicate and vibrant whites primarily made with Pansa Blanca, the chief variety, and Garnacha Blanca. Robust reds are also produced from Ull de Llebre (regional name for Tempranillo), Pansa Rosada and Tinta, Garnacha Peluda and Tinta and Picapoll, while some fruity and delicate rosés are made from Monastrell, Syrah and Garnacha.
Personal tip: don’t miss to visit Alta Alella winery. The horse ride among the vineyards is amazing and their helicopter tours offer a totally different perspective of winemaking at approx. 3,000 feet!
Heading west of Barcelona, Penedès is the largest and most important Catalan DO. The region is renowned for an innovative range of wines and, most of all, for having the highest number of Cava-producing vineyards and wineries in Spain.
The local wine history is characterized by two big revolutions: the first happened in the 19th century, when traditional local varieties were uprooted in favor of white grapes, better-suited to sparkling wine. The second fell between the 1960-70s, when modern winemaking equipment and experimental blends of international and local varieties were introduced. As a result, the Penedès became one of the most dynamic Spanish wine regions, where sparkling Cava, vibrant whites and well-balanced reds are still produced today.
The more coastal area (Bajo Penedès) enjoys the warmest climate and its wines are mainly sturdy reds from Garnacha, Cariñena and Monastrell. The inner hilly area (Medio Penedès) produces basic wines for Cava from the local triad Xarel-lo, Parellada and Macabeo and reds from Ull de Llebre and Cabernet Sauvignon. The foothills (Penedès Superior), cooled by continental edges, are home to the best-quality white grapes: Parellada, the local star, Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Chardonnay and Muscat of Alexandria.
Personal tip: although the DO is best-known for its whites, I fell in love with two reds: Pardas Negre Franc (a Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Sumoll blend) and Gaintus, made from an almost extinct indigenous variety called Sumoll. Both are worth seeking out!
Sant Sadurní de Anoya, the wine capital of the Penedès (and easy to get to by train), boasts of 95% of the Cava production, while the remaining 5% is spread around Catalonia, Rioja, Aragon, Navarra and Basque Country. The Cava DO is, in fact, the only DO defined not by a single geographical designation, but by a style of Spanish sparkling wine made through a second fermentation in bottle (Champenoise method).
According to the oenologist Juan Manuel Gonzalvo, “Producing Cava in various wine regions, while under a specific DO, is disintegrating the local identity. The Penèdes is being threatened by other wine regions producing Cava at lower production costs and by local Cava giants forcing small producers to differentiate themselves in order to survive”.
The white grapes traditionally used in Penedès are Xarel-lo, Parellada and Macabeo, in some cases blended with Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Green apple, flowers and herbaceous notes of grass and fennel are the typical aromas of white Cava, together with mineral hints deriving from the chalky soil. Trepat and Monastrell are the choice for rosé style, giving red-fruity and spice aromas, together with body and structure. The best examples can easily rival Champagne for their quality and complexity. Don’t believe me? Get an bottle of Recaredo Turó d’en Mota and put it to the test!
Personal Tip: Castellroig eighteenth century old cellar was converted into a wine museum, offering a fascinating look into ancient winemaking equipment and techniques.
Moving east of Penedès, we find Tarragona, the poster child fro sweet wines up and until the 1960s. Today 70% of the production is devoted to white wines, typically sold as base wine to Cava houses in the Penedès. According to Diego Cazorla of Vinicola Nulles “the DO is trying to promote their monovarietal white wines made with Macabeo as Tarragona’s trademark. Very few single-variety wines are made from Macabeo in Spain and this DO is producing very promising examples”.
Why are white grapes doing so well in this region? Between Tarragona’s proximity to the Mediterranean, its fertile soils and its altitude, it contains the ideal conditions for incredibly aromatic whites. Whites are typically made from Garnacha Blanca, as well as the Cava varieties; while old-vine Xarel-lo Rojo, Ull de Llebre, Garnacha, Cariñena and Syrah are reserved for the reds.
Personal Tip: If you’re into archeology, visit Tarragona. It’s been awarded as a UNESCO heritage site for its perfectly reserved roman ruins which are trippy to visit, especially if you’ve seen the movie Gladiator. Just sayin’.
Southwest of Tarragona, we find the small DO Montsant, a mountainous region with steep terraced vineyards of old-vine Garnacha and Cariñena. According to Vanessa Diaz of Celler de Capçanes, “the uniqueness of Montsant comes from the diversity of soils (chalk, sand, clay and dark slate llicorella) in just one DO.”
Add a dash of altitude variation to the mix and you tend to find incredibly well structured, yet refreshing, reds produced from Garnacha and Cariñena grapes. They also tend to be more affordable than the neighboring Priorat wines, which increase their appeal. And for white wine fans, some interesting full-bodied examples are produced with Garnacha Blanca, sometimes blended with Chardonnay.
Personal Tip: if you’re feeling peckish, head to El Cairat Restaurant, where you’ll find homemade Catalan fare with local organic ingredients. Meals are served up with handmade bread and regional wines. My suggestion, check out the Pork filet with truffle cream. You won’t be disappointed!
Surrounded on three sides by Montsant, Priorat is internationally renowned for its powerful red wines whose structure and complexity earned the highest quality appellation status (Denominación de Origen Calificada) together with Rioja. The region’s potential was discovered in the 1980s, but only gained notoriety in the 90’s when old-vine wines made with Garnacha and Cariñena were produced.
If you’ve never visited the Priorat, set a date, because it’s stunning! Beyond the spattering of wild flowers and almond trees, you’ll traverse steep terraced vineyards made of licorella, the trademark black slate of Priorat. “This, together with the sunny and warm climate and altitude, are key to producing high-quality wines with warming alcohol. Powerful, well-structured red wines are made from the native Garnacha, Cariñena and Tempranillo, giving concentrated aromas of ripe red berries and spice. Their really good ageing potential makes them improve year after year in bottle” explains Josep Luis Pérez of Mas Martinet. Unfortunately, they are not for everyone’s wallet due the very high prices determined by the small production and, of course, their international fame.
Personal Tip: reserve some time to visit Castell del Vi Wine Museum, located in a majestic medieval castle in Falset. The breathtaking view from the second-floor overlook onto the Priorat valley is absolutely spectacular.
Bordering with Aragon, Terra Alta is the highest wine region in Catalonia, whose mountainous landscape was chosen by Pablo Picasso as his summer residence.
What sets this region apart? The wind. “Terra Alta is hit by the Cierzo, a dry summer wind able to blow away any vine fungal disease, as well as the Gardinada, a refreshing wind from the sea, bringing humidity to a region that’s never irrigated” says Carmen Ferrer, owner of Bárbara Forès. The stressful conditions tend to boost the concentration of sugars in the grapes, resulting into full-bodied wines with higher alcohol.
Old-vine Garnacha Blanca is the most representative native grape, producing fleshy whites with notes of flowers, citrus, fennel and mint. Rounded and fruit forward reds are also made from Garnacha Tinta, Peluda, Cariñena and Morenillo.
Personal Tip: don’t leave Terra Alta without popping into the monumental Catedral del Vi, a winery built by Gaudi’s pupil, Martinell.
COSTERS DEL SEGRE
Further north, we reach Costers del Segre, a region of geographical and climatic contrasts. An easy way to experience this is to drive from the soaring Pyrenees to arid and olive blanketed fields of Les Garrigues.
Raimat is famed in this region, not only for transforming a once arid piece of land into a vinous oasis, but for owning over half of the vines in the region. Raimat has also gained notoriety for their innovation, having made a remote-controlled irrigation system, a well as their plantings of international grape varieties alongside indigenous ones.
Today, Costers del Segre is still a promising DO for its “unusual” wines made by blending both local and international grapes: light and aromatic whites can be produced from Xarel-lo, Parellada and Chardonnay. Fruity, intense and well-balanced reds and rosés from Trepat, Tempranillo, Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon.
Personal Tip: If you’re looking for a place do dip your toes in the sea, head to Aiguablava. This small seaside bay in Costa Brava is ideal for a picnic complete with cured sausage, local cheeses, and of course, a bottle of wine on ice.
CONCA DE BARBERÁ
The adjacent Conca de Barberá is known for its ancient monasteries in Poblet and Santes Creus, as well as its picturesque Medieval villages, such as Montblanc.
The DO benefits from a Mediterranean climate cooled by the proximity of the Pyrenees, which attracts long cold winters and short and cool summers. The Southern side, closed to the Mediterranean coast, is warmer and sunnier, helping the grape’s ripeness. “Altitude is a key element to local viticulture: vineyards at 350-600m above sea level benefit from a 20ºC drop in temperature between day and night, contributing to a slow and full grape’s ripeness together with a high level of natural acidity” says Ricard Sebastiá, owner of Mas Foraster. The well-drained mineral soils are best-suited to native grape varieties such as Trepat, the local star, producing refreshing and pale colored Pinot Noir style reds and rosés with hints of red berries and spice. Varieties such as Macabeo, Parellada and Garnacha Blanca are used for whites which tend to be bright and elegant.
Personal Tip: Poblet hosts the largest inhabited Cistercian monastery in Europe. Having experienced an amazing tasting there, I can attest to its grandeur. Worth a visit!
PLA DE BAGES
Right in the middle of Catalonia, and northwest of Barcelona, you’ll find the tiny region of Pla de Bages. The etymology of its name stems from Bacchus, the Roman divinity of wine; which hints to a long and successful wine tradition dating back to the Roman period.
The woody and uneven landscape is adorned by small green valleys with different exposures and altitudes, creating an interesting mosaic of quite steep vineyards, surrounded by woods. “The woods are a lively element in the DO landscape. Its seamless integration with the vineyards is reflected in the balsamic character of the wines produced in our DO”, says the Director of Roqueta Origen, Ramón Roqueta. The altitude, the continental influences on the otherwise Mediterranean climate, and the rustic soil play a large role in the production of high quality wines. Picapoll is the star grape, a slowly ripening white variety which produce distinctively light and fruity wines with crisp acidity. Other local varieties such as Picapoll Tinta, Sumoll and Mandó are being re-discovered, and are occasionally blended with Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Ull de Llebre.
Interesting producers and wines: Celler El molí (Collbaix), Abadal (Abadal 3.9, Puresa).
Personal tip: My child loved the Parque de l’Agulla, an artificial lake with several sports facilities and play areas. A place to keep in mind for family activities!
We end our journey in the northeastern corner of Catalonia,where Empordá stands between the Pyrenees to the north and the attractive summer destination of Costa Brava to the south. According to David Molas, manager of Vinyes dels Aspres, “the uniqueness of Empordá stems from three key elements: the proximity to the Mediterranean, which mitigates temperatures; the northern dry tramontana wind, which blows away humidity and vine fungal diseases, keeping the grapes healthy; ans the slate and granite soil, which contributes to the mineral character of the wines”.
The most important native grapes are Cariñena (the French Carignan) and Garnacha Tinta from which high-quality structured and concentrated red wines are made, being a more affordable alternative to Priorat wines, as David Molas explains. A small proportion of whites and rosés are also produced, as are some white sweet wines, locally known as Garnacha del Empordá.
Interesting producers and wines: Vinyes dels Aspres (Oriols dels Aspres), Castillo de Perelada (Jardins, Finca Garbet), Oliver Conti (Treyu, Ara).
Personal tip: the Dalí Museum in Figueras, devoted to the surrealist artist, is a must-see destination for art lovers.
So there you have it! Spain is more than Rioja! In the northeast of the country alone you have heaps of wines to dive into, not to mention a variety of styles, grapes and flavors! It’s a merely a question of experimentation. That said, if you’re keen on a personal tour of the region and its wines, don’t hesitate to contact us. We’re more than happy to give a guided tour of the best the region has to offer!