Catalunya Wine Regions Guide

Uncover the Essence of Catalan Wines: Your Ultimate Catalunya Wine Region Guide

EXPLORE ALL OUR GUIDES: SPANISH WINE REGIONS

Last updated: November 27, 2023

Introduction

Until recently, Spain’s eastern seaboard was primarily associated with Cava; this iconic bubbly has suffered a few major blows in recent years, as several key wineries left the DO (appellation) for new pastures. Yet plenty of bodegas have remained loyal to the brand, producing one of Europe’s best-value sparkling wines. Nevertheless, the creation of a rival designation (Corpinnat) isn’t the only story of value to have emerged from Catalunya in recent times. Quite the opposite: a formerly maligned province – at least in viticultural terms – has become a powerhouse of exceptional still wines, ranging from the voluptuous essence that is Priorat to the saline whites of Conca de Barbara and Costers del Segre.

As a bonus, most of Catalunya’s premier wine regions are easily accessible from Barcelona. A short distance from the rugged Costa Brava, you can sunbathe, swim, and taste wine at a moment’s notice in this part of the world. Meanwhile, the three-star Michelin restaurant El Celler de Can Roca is less than 50 minutes by train from this seductive metropolis. And what is a great meal without fine wine? Producing a broad palate of red, white, and rosé wines, growers in Catalunya can turn their hand to anything: luxury labels, affordable reds, delicious pink, and superlative fizz. It’s all yours for the taking.

Winemaking and regional classifications

Recaredo produces some of the regions finest Cava
Recaredo produces some of the regions finest Cava's

Of the many appellations and subregions found throughout Catalunya, the most important is DO Penedes. First unveiled in the 1960s, the designation permits red, white, and rosé wines to be made across the multitude of coastal – and inland – terroirs that define this underrated bastion of premium wine. International varieties play a key role in many labels, a practice encouraged by the Torres family since the mid-20th century. Yet experimentation with indigenous grapes such as Treppat and Sumoll is also in vogue; the fascination with aging wines in tinajas (clay pots) and concrete eggs has reached a fever pitch in eastern Spain.

The vast majority (over 95%) of Cava is also made here, in addition to the fledgling appellation Corpinnat and Classic Penedes. The top climats (vineyard sites) are cultivated on a plateau surrounding Sant Sadurni d’Anoia. Macabeo (Viura), Xarel-lo, and Parellada are blended to make a traditional method bubbly that barely resembles Champagne. Indeed, even the predilection by Codorniu and others to include some Chardonnay and Pinot Noir in their portfolio has not altered Cava’s image. However, the members of Corpinnat eschew international grapes in their blends, producing many exceptional single-vineyard expressions of Xarel-lo, Catalunya’s finest white grape.

With their unwavering commitment to stringent regulations and an unyielding pursuit of excellence, Corpinnat has soared to become a globally acclaimed sparkling wine brand. The brand’s strict adherence to uncompromising standards and an unrelenting dedication to quality have firmly established its position among the finest in the world. The wines of Recaredo and Gramona are particularly outstanding.

So too, are the best reds of Montsant and Priorat in a league of their own. In the latter, old bush vines, llicorella (slate) soils, and exceptional winemaking produce something exceptional: Spain’s most exotic and concentrated wine. Yet the best labels are always balanced, showing good freshness and characteristic mineral purity. Grenache and Carignan perform best here, yielding wines that most growers in the Rhone can only dream of. The vineyards of Montsant, tucked in around Priorat, produce a facsimile of its more famous neighbor at lower prices – there are some very fine whites made from Garnacha Blanc. And, like Priorat, there is something quite beguiling in the dense, balsamic Grenache reds that define Montstant today.

Two of Catalunya’s less famous (but equally important) DOs are Alella and Emporda. On the coast immediately north of Barcelona, the winegrowers of Alella are fighting to keep their heritage alive, mindful of the avaricious appetite of local property developers. Still, winemaking continues to thrive in the zone, producing an eclectic range of wines from a mixture of local and imported grape varieties. The northernmost of Catalunya’s DOs is Emporda, once maligned as a source of cheap tourist plonk, most noticeably harsh and deeply-colored rosé. But, a mixture of investment and young blood has given the appellation a kick in the teeth; Emporda now produces an exciting range of red and white blends. All in all, Catalunya could be said to be Spain’s most diverse vineyard.

Catalunya Wine Region Map

cataluna wine region map
Download Catalunya Wine Region Map

Geography and terroir

Llicorella Soil: Nurturing Priorat
Llicorella Soil: Nurturing Priorat's Exceptional Vineyards

Generalizations are simply impossible. The growing conditions in this sizable region vary considerably, ranging from the steeply terraced vineyards of Priorat to the coastal subregions of Penedes, close to the beautiful town of Sitges. This is by far Catalunya’s most important wine region, responsible for Cava – and now Corpinnat – in addition to some pretty nifty red and white wines. The epicenter of sparkling wine production is Sant Sadurni d’Anoia, located west of Barcelona. Like the rest of Catalunya, the landscape and soils are very heterogeneous: limestone, sand, gravel, and clay are all encountered in this sultry Mediterranean vineyard.

The warm climate of eastern Spain varies mainly with altitude – low-lying parts in the interior can be scorching and dry; it also gets hotter the further south you go. However, the coastal regions benefit from maritime breezes – a real asset in July and August. There are two mountain ranges and a valley in the middle of Penedes, resulting in different mesoclimates and soil types. Meanwhile, the higher elevation sites of the interior rise to over 800 meters above sea level. Diurnal temperature variation, a grower’s best friend, moderates the summer heat in the evening; this, in turn, helps to keep acidity levels reasonably synchronized with sugar, ensuring that freshness is not sacrificed at the altar of ripeness. The Sierra de Montstant also plays an important role in Catalunya, protecting the vineyards of Priorat and Montsant from northwesterly winds and rain.

Terroir delineation is also a subject of growing importance in eastern Spain. For example, the Consejo Regulador of Penedes has divided the area into three distinct subregions: Baix Penedes, Alt Penedes, and Medio Penedes. More recently, the ruling council of Priorat unveiled a new classification framework in 2019 that closely emulates the Burgundy method of ranking terroir. The ‘entry-level’ is the Vi de Vila (village wine) tier of wines; Vinya Classificada and Gran Vinya Classificada are the Catalan equivalents of Premier and Grand Cru. Tossal d’en Bou, owned by Max Doix and Álvaro Palacios’ l’Ermita, are considered the finest reds in Catalunya today. But, they owe their brilliance to the terroir and simply the winemaking.

Similarly, the Cava DO unveiled a superior tier of Spanish fizz – Paraje de Calificado – 2017. The requirements go far beyond that expected of standard Cava: vines must be at least ten years old; the grapes must be harvested by hand; a maximum yield of 8,000 kg/hectare is allowed, and the wines must be aged for a minimum of 36 months on the lees before disgorgement.

The lowdown

L’Ermita, Alvaro Palacio
L’Ermita, Alvaro Palacio's masterpiece

In the mid-20th century, few collectors and critics took Catalunya seriously. Its nascent DOs, especially Penedes, took a while to get into their stride, producing very lackluster wines from international grapes found across Western Europe. The viticultural landscape did little to quicken the pulse, while Cava seldom rose above the level of ordinary.

Today, though, Barcelona is a city with a global buzz; culturally and gastronomically, it is one of the most dynamic cities in Europe. This has greatly helped to bring more international attention to the diverse wines of Catalunya, attracting significant – and vital – investment into the region. As a result, the vineyards of eastern Spain, stretching from the hot Mediterranean coast to the altitudes where cold is a useful quality factor, are being put through their paces. As a result, sustainable and organic viticulture is now a significant focus in the region – a positive development that producers can coalesce their efforts around. Torres has led the movement, although plenty of smaller outfits are no less passionate about protecting the future of their children and grandchildren.

Catalunya is also a destination undergoing a profound image change. Cava’s trials and tribulations have received much media attention over the past five years: nine bodegas left the Cava DO in 2019 to found a new designation called Corpinnat. This jolted the authorities out of their inertia, forcing consejo president Javier Pages to address the appellation’s historical indifference to terroir classification and segmentation. “We regret that these historic houses left the DO in January 2019,” Pages admitted in 2020. “Their dissatisfaction was based on issues that have been on the table for a long time: zoning/origin, quality and a lack of clear segmentation according to regulatory requirements.

However, the region’s wineries and grape growers that make up the DO are in agreement about the need to face these challenges and reform.” To that end, the Consejo Regulador has introduced several new categories of Cava, including Cava de Guarda and the single-estate designation Paraje Calificado. For too long, Cava was content to be regarded as a ‘poor man’s Champagne’ – an inferior choice in every respect. Thankfully, the Consejo’s bold vision is helping to correct that historical oversight. In time, some of Corpinnat’s members may return to the appellation, although nothing concrete has been discussed.

Meanwhile, Priorat continues to lead the way in embracing a paradigm that places terroir at the top of the tree. Its Burgundy-style classification has been a great success, bringing even more acclaim and respect to this venerable DO. Moreover, it is responsible for one of Spain’s most expensive and deluxe bottlings: L’Ermita. This Grenache-dominant blend has few rivals in the world of fine Spanish wine. It’s profundity and immense concentration seduce every critic who comes into contact with this magnificent red. Fifty years ago, the idea that Catalunya would lead the premium wine pack would have been met with snorts of derision. But times change: the Catalans now have a wine industry as prestigious as the excellent gastronomy that lures in sybarites from afar. As a combined package, they represent an unstoppable force.

Catalunya gastronomy

The fierce rivalry between the Catalans and Basques is well known. Yet nothing brings out local furor more than the subject of gastronomy; as far as the Catalans are concerned, this is THE definitive place to eat out in Spain. And it’s hard to argue with several of Europe’s leading three Michelin-starred restaurants, a surfeit of more informal taverns, exquisite tapas, and seafood on tap. Catalunya’s varied and sophisticated cooking embraces sweet and savory combinations, fish stews, excellent game, and several classic sauces like spicy romesco. Catalan sausages, especially those from the mountain town of Vic, are renowned.

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History

Roman amphitheater in Tarragona
Roman amphitheater in Tarragona

Catalunya is no stranger to the vine. Historians believe that the ancient Phoenicians imported vines long before the Romans set foot on the Iberian Peninsula; the Chardonnay grape is said to have been planted in eastern Spain in the 8th century BC, centuries before it became associated with Burgundy. However, viticulture became an industry when the Romans entered Catalunya via the Costa Brava, landing at Empuries. Their magnificent architecture and cultural legacy can be seen today, especially in and around Tarragona, the capital of the vast province of Tarraconensis.

But Catalunya became ripe for a takeover as the Roman Empire destabilized in the 5th century. The Franks controlled the region until the Visigoths arrived and claimed Barcelona as their long-lived capital. Unfortunately, wars, coups, and assassinations became normalized during the Visigoth’s brief tenure – they moved their capital to Toledo in the 600s. However, the rotten Visigothic state was an easy target for the disciplined armies of Tariq, a Moorish leader from North Africa.

His forces landed at Gibraltar in 711 and soon conquered most of the Iberian Peninsula, including Catalunya. The situation did not last for long, however. The Franks and local counts launched a series of well-organized counterattacks that caught the Moors off guard. They retook Girona in 785 and Barcelona in 801. A period of relative stability then dawned in northeastern Spain, albeit the general Al Mansur raided Barcelona in the 10th century, desperate to reclaim this lucrative real estate. But he was not successful.

In the 12th century, Aragon and Catalunya were combined into one superstate following the marriage of Ramon Berenguer and Petronilla. This set the scene for Catalunya’s golden age: an expanding Mediterranean empire that included territories in the Balearic Islands, Italy, and Sicily. Yet the state lost its independence in the 1400s, after the marriage of Fernando of Aragon and Isabel of Castile united Spain’s two most powerful monarchies. As a result, Catalunya became part of the Spanish state, although it maintained some freedom in terms of law and administration.

By the end of the 1600s, Spain was in dire financial straights, bankrupted by the Habsburg Empire’s ruinous wars. The 18th century, however, offered some reprieve: although King Felipe V was not prepared to concede any real power to Catalunya, its economy boomed due to the thriving agricultural, cotton, ship-building, and textile industries. And, of course, a flourishing wine industry centered upon the vineyards of Penedes to the west of Barcelona. However, it wasn’t until the formation of Spain’s Second Republic (1931) that Catalunya was given significant autonomy in public affairs. Unfortunately, the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936 put an end to any hopes of formal independence from the rest of Castile. General Francisco Franco led the army in a nationalist uprising and won, establishing a dictatorship that lasted until he died in the 1970s. After that, democracy and dignity were restored to the people of Catalunya.

Meanwhile, pioneers like Daphne Glorian, Alvaro Palacios, and René Barbier were busy rediscovering Catalunya’s exceptional terroirs, not least the magical licorella (dark-brown metamorphic slate) of Priorat. The Torres family has also played a massive role in putting zones like Penedes and Costers del Segre on the map, investing large amounts in sustainability and organic wine growing. As a result, after a few false starts, Catalunya has morphed into Spain’s most progressive and innovative wine destination.

Author

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James lawrence

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