Get to know the wine regions of Catalonia: the reds and the whites, and naturally, the Cava. There’s a rich variety of wines flowing from the region these days, and we’d like to argue that some of the regions are under-appreciated. We’d like to point you in the direction of some real palate waking wine experiences!
History of Wine Making in Catalonia
As so many roads and ties, this particular ones goes back to the Romans who made wine produced around its strongholds in the region Tarraco (Tarragona) and Barcino (Barcelona) into a commodity. However, wine was most likely introduced by the Greeks who took the journey before the Romans and settled in Empordá, on the northern coast. To this day Empordá is producing fine wine.
Wine production spread under the Romans, and today the 11 “denominaciones de origen” (DO) are laid out from the French border to the southern tip of the Tarragona region, bordering Valencia.
Producing wine in Catalonia hasn’t been without its challenges, however, and at the end of the 19th century all the vines were wiped out by the Phylloxera vastatrix bug. It was a case of starting over for winemakers, and some regions lay fallow for decades. Some, like Priorat, are even regarded as reasonably “new” regions in the global market as it is just lately that they picked up momentum, creating exceptional wines.
But, let’s start at the beginning and at the (geographical) top, Empordá.
Grape varieties: Grenache, Syrah, Carinyena, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay
Total acres: 5115
Total wineries: 49
The wine here is produced between the mighty Pyrenees and the Mediterranean Sea in the rugged Costa Brava coast landscape. The region has had its DO since 1975 and is known for its full-bodied reds and fresh whites as well as the sweeter type made from garantxa and moscatel grapes.
From the windswept, rocky landscape of the Costa Brava we move to the tranquil plains of:
Pla de Báges
Grape varieties: Grenaches, Tempranillo, Picapoll, Macabeo, Parellada, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah.
Total acres: 1485
Total wineries: 14
This is one of the smallest and the youngest wine regions (achieved DO in 1995) in Catalonia. Located at the foot of the impressive saw tooth Montserrat mountain, the climate is dry and hot in the summer and chilly in the winter. The not so rich soil yields a low output, but wines of quality: fruity and aromatic reds and rosés and whites made from the fragile Picapoll grape that are light of colour and taste yet rich in fruit notes.
From the “plains of Bacchus” we turn towards the coast again, and arrive at another small wine region:
Grape varieties: Grenaches, Xarel.lo, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chenin, Macabeo, Malavasia, Moscatell, Parellada, Picapoll. Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot, Monastrell, Pinot Noir, Samsó, Syrah and Tempranillo.
Total acres: 818
Total wineries: 8
A tiny region on the coast (Maresme) just north of Barcelona with white granite-based sand that characterises the soil here. The climate here is cooler and more humid than most Catalan regions. The whites are light and fresh with ripe fruit notes, and the reds range from light, uncomplicated to more full-bodied barrel aged types.
When turning south from the smallest Catalan region we pass Barcelona and get to the largest:
Grape varieties: Parellada, Macabeo, Xarel·lo, Garnacha, Tempranillo, Merlot
Total acres: 64247
Total wineries: 140 +
With a history of wine making that goes back 1500 years it is fair to say that 1870 is a date in the history of Penedés with a particular “sparkle”, as it is the year of the first cava production. The sparkling wine that this sandy clay and limestone rich soil produces has become a global “hit”.
The region is, naturally, famous for the cava, but exports a substantial amount of quality red, whites and rosés as well. The reds are, in general, smooth with velvety textures and the whites are low in alcohol but high on fruit notes and freshness. The rosés are also fresh and fruity and flowery on the nose.
Setting the course due south we enter the next region:
Grape varieties: Garnach tinta, Carinena, Ull de Llebre (Tempranillo), Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Macabeo, Garnacha Blanca, Pedro Ximenez
Total acres: 16304
Total wineries: 58
The climate here is stable with little chance of frost, resulting in a stable output. The region might be most known for its sweet reds. The Tarragona Clásico is made from (over) ripe Tempranillo grapes, fermented until reaching an alcohol level of 17%. The topography allows for a great variety as the vines stretch from the River Ebro to the sea, resulting in wine production across very different types of soil.
Setting the course west towards the interior part of Catalonia we get to:
Conca de Berberá
Grape varieties: Macabeo, Parellada, Garnache, Trepat, Tempranillo, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Syrah and Chardonnay.
Total acres: 10378
Total wineries: 24
Another small region with a recent history (1985) of having the DO status. The whites actually represent 75% of the production in the region. No reason to overlook the reds, though, with both younger with smooth and light finishes as well as heavier oak barrels aged ones that can be both complex and linger on the palate.
Continuing our journey westwards to the Lleida province and a more mountainous landscape we reach:
Costers del Segre
Grape varieties: Macabeo, Parellada, Riesling, Sauvignon blanc, Garnacha tinta, Tempranillo, Trepat, Cabernet Sauvignon, Monastrell, Merlot, Pinot noir and Syrah.
Total acres: 11604
Total wineries: 37
Due to the elevated position of the vineyards here, temperatures can vary greatly in 24 hours, which contributes to the development of the grapes. The whites tend to have a “classic profile”; light, fruity and with acidity. The red wines are identified by their potent aroma and the taste revealing plenty of tannins with strong structure and balance.
Turning south again we reach one of Spain’s very finest wine regions:
Grape varieties: Garnacha Tinta, Cariñena, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Merlot, Garnacha Blanca, Macabeo, Pedro Ximenez
Total acres: 4695
Total wineries: 103
The Priorat is a small area, less than 5000 acres used for growing wine, but its unique micro-climate is a basis for some extraordinary wines. There are valleys and hills with the hot Mistral winds coming in from the East to caress the vines, and cold winds coming in from the North to roughen up those very same vines. Hot summers and cold winters create more contrast, and summer days can produce temperatures reaching 40 degrees Celsius with night temperatures dropping down to a cool 10 degrees.
Winemaking here dates back to the 12th century, but quality started to become a focus in 1985 when winemakers sought to take full advantage of the natural assets here. A high-quality red from Priorat tastes of sun-dried red fruits, plum, black cherry and have a very mineral taste and aroma – the soil pushing through the senses! Traditionally, red rules in Priorat, but more and more makers are realising the potential for great whites here as well. A good white often reveals fruit blossoms, almonds and balanced citrus notes, rich and fresh.
Pushing further south, approaching the very southern border pf Catalonia we find the hills of:
Grape varieties: Cabernet Sauvignon, Carignan, Garnatxa, ‘Hairy’ Grenache, Merlot, Mourvèdre, Red Picapoll, Syrah, Tempranillo, Chardonnay, Garnatxa, Macabeo, Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains, Parellada, and Xarel·lo.
Total acres: 4590
Total wineries: 57
Montsant is yet another small and “young” region, achieving DO status in 2001. Like Priorat its landscape is like a “mini-Toscana” with hills and valleys full of pine trees and olive groves.
For a region that occupies the part of the Priorat county that doesn’t belong to the Priorat DO, it is not surprising that the reds tend to be of the powerful kind, and about 95% of the wine production here is reds. Montsant also produces fresh white wines, rosé and the sweet red dessert wine, “vi ranci”.
Moving into “higher ground” further South (West) towards the interior we end up in:
Grape varieties: Garnacha tinta, Garnacha Peluda, Samsó, Garnacha blanca, Macabeo and Parellada.
Total acres: 20262
Total wineries: 42
We are now in Picasso territory, as the Andalusian painter spent summers here, painting the landscape before going back to (art) school in Barcelona in the autumn. As the name indicates, the vines are planted in “higher ground”, about 500 m above sea level.
As it, historically, has not been the most accessible of places, production has been low and for local consume. Today, however, Terra Alta produces reds, whites, rosés as well as the “vi ranci” of high quality. The best red wines have petrol notes, almond and stone fruit in their make-up, and the whites showcase tannins and citrus acidity.
The final DO in Catalonia is the Catalunya DO. This is an “umbrella” for about 200 wineries scattered around the region that do not pertain to one of the other official wine regions
If you, after reading this, feel the urge to try out some of the unique and excellent wines produced here, we suggest you join our wine tasting in Barcelona for an evening’s journey through the Catalan wine regions!