The region of Catalonia is extremely diverse. Vineyard areas, whether near or far from the coast, share exposure to the warm winds of the Mediterranean. Vineyards can be moderate in climate and coastal, like Alella or Penedès, or remote and mountainous, like Priorat. In Cataluña, elevation and proximity to the sea are crucial to understanding which grapes are planted there and why.
Wines in Cataluña are made from both international and indigenous grapes. Garnacha is far more widely planted here than Tempranillo; heat is a stronger factor in these regions and Garnacha a more forgiving grape. Syrah and the Bordeaux varieties show up in more elevated and protected sites.
Closer to the coast, Penedés is home to more than Cava, but sparkling wine reigns supreme. All the grapes at this altitude can be intensely tart, akin to the raciness of Champagne. The Penedés region, home of 95% of the country’s Cava, focuses principally on white grapes: Parellada, Macabeo (or Viura) and Xarel-lo (or Pansa Blanca).
The great success story in recent years is in and around the Tarragona region. Priorat and Montsant have unquestionably changed Spain’s wine landscape; these craggy hills and mountains allow Garnacha and Cariñena, along with small amounts of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah to bake into powerful, heady wine, especially when coaxed from the old vines found throughout.
Denominations of origin:
Denominación de Orígen
Cava, a sparkling wine which is made exactly the same way as Champagne, has fully established its identity in markets abroad in the last thirty years. Native grapes, a warmer climate and the growing country all contribute to its distinctive character. The heartland of Cava-making is the country around Sant Sadurní d'Anoia in southern Barcelona province, where specialised bodegas - or Cava houses - have been producing on a commercial scale since the end of the 19th century. Today this area makes 85% of all Cava.
As for Champagne, each producer makes a particular cuvée from vineyards anywhere within the demarcated zone. The Cuvée may be one of seven types of Cava, distinguished by the level of sweetness. The bodegas are highly mechanized. It was here, for example, that the mechanization of bottle-turning was invented. In Champagne, this was always done by hand.
Cava's name derives from the Spanish word for an underground cellar, which became the term for the production method now known simply as 'método tradicional' (traditional method). This is now protected, so that bottles do not necessarily have to quote the DO status. New developments include a review of regulations to introduce the quoting of the vintage year on labels of Brut and Brut Nature Cavas.
Whilst the visible face of Cava overseas is often the cheaper sub $20 end available in grocery, Cava has many more complex and layered versions. These brands are highly visible in the best restaurants across Cataluña and are on a par with the best Champagne. Outside of Spain, they are more difficult to find. There are ten or so top end Cava producers, a vast amount in the middle of the pyramid producing commercially correct Cava, and a platform of cheap producers who compete not on flavour but on price and attention grabbing branding (often bright colours).
Nine months of aging on the lees is required for standard Cava; Reservas must stay 18 months on the lees, and Gran Reservas require 30 months.
Denominación de Orígen
Approved as a DO at a regional level in 2002, this young denomination had already acquired considerable prestige as the Falset subzone of Tarragona DO.
The vineyards fall in spectacularly beautiful hill country, sharing the slopes with almond and olive groves and pines. The land forms a horseshoe around Priorat, but the wines here have a clear identity of their own.
In the Montsant winemaking region, the difference is centred on the local grape varieties: Garnacha and Cariñena (Grenache and Carignan) here have a unique expression. They are often blended with more recently introduced grape varieties (Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Merlot). Production is divided between cooperatives and family wineries.
For some, Montsant is “poor man’s Priorat,” but that does a disservice to the area’s burgeoning reputation. Its elevations and terrains are not as extreme as Priorat, and Priorat’s famed licorella soils give way most often to limestone. But the quality/value ratios are absurdly stacked in the drinker’s favour.
Denominación de Origen Qualificat
On 6th July 2009, Priorat became the second Spanish wine region to be promoted as DOQa (Qualified Designation of Origin) nationwide, a higher category reserved for wines maintaining a proven consistency and quality over a long period of time. Priorato - called Priorat in Catalan - is a small, unique pocket of black hills where powerful, deep red wines have been made for over eight centuries.
Located in the province of Tarragona, the region leapt to fame in the last decade after producers began to apply new technologies in their winemaking. Since then, the vineyards planted at the beginning of the eighties with French as well as native varieties, have produced the acclaimed ‘new Priorats’. Today these wines have become some of the best known not only in Spain but far afield internationally.
The quality of the wines is founded on old vines, a unique microclimate, and a highly unusual geology. The wines are powerful, but they carry a fresh core that gives them elegance. The landscape too is distinct; the licorella soil mix of granite and slate adds a firmly mineral note that underpins every wine, regardless of the grapes.
The prices charged for some Priorat wines are as lofty as the stark pinnacles above these mountainous vineyards. Twenty years ago, this entire area and its wines were nearly forgotten. In the early 1980s, a group of mavericks—René Barbier, Rioja’s Alvaro Palacios, Carlos Pastrana (Clos de L’Obac), Dafne Glorian, and José Luis Pérez—moved to Priorat. As the sceptics looked on, they created fantastic wines almost from the beginning, and the consistently high quality and unique flavours from the region prompted it to become Spain’s second DOQa (top tier DO). Only Rioja and Priorat belong to this group.
The fame and pricing have attracted more wineries to the region since, but a quick buck is unlikely. The region itself is so difficult to work that only small amounts of very high-quality wine can be made. Anyone seeking to make wine through compromise will likely fail. The quality in Priorat, and the prices, shall remain high.
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