Catalonia is located in north-eastern Spain along the Mediterranean and covers an area of 32,114 square kilometres. It borders France and Andorra, with Barcelona serving as the Catalan Capital. Administratively, it is divided into four provinces: Lleida, Girona, Barcelona and Tarragona.
The history of Catalan wine growing
Grape growing in Catalonia was initiated by the Greeks in the sixth century BC. But the real colonisation and expansion of vine growing and wine production was due to the Romans from the third century BC, who established Tarraco, today's Tarragona, making it one of the wine exporting cities of the Roman Empire.
Later, with the Muslim invasion, wine production did not disappear, but significantly regressed. The arrival of French monks - scholars and connoisseurs of viticulture - and the spread of Christianity paved the way for one of the most significant expansions of Catalan vineyards.
During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, wine growing as a monoculture became one of the most important crops in many Catalan towns. Vines benefited from the rising price of wine and the discovery of spirits. The cities of Barcelona and Reus, among others, exported wines and spirits to the Spanish colonies in America.
The phylloxera epidemic of 1879 destroyed all of Catalonia's vineyards. In the second half of the twentieth century, this led to the reconstruction of vineyards in the best areas for wine growing and the renewal of wine making techniques in Catalonia.
Today, due to the impact of the European Community and the creation of Catalan Designations of Origin, Catalonia has received widespread praise for its wines and has a strong presence in both the European and international markets. From five Designations of Origin in 1980, there are now a total of eleven, including the Cava Designation of Origin. As a result of this, 90% of wines now produced in the region have a Designation of Origin, making Catalonia the Spanish Autonomous Community with the most DOs.
Catalan Designations of Origin
The Catalan wine landscape differs significantly from one Designation of Origin to the next. This is one of the reasons why such a small area has eleven such Designations. The Designations of Origin along the coast are home to vines that benefit from the moist wind blowing in from the Mediterranean Sea - Alella and Empordà are two such examples. But there are also Designations of Origin inland, where the vineyards are irrigated so that they can withstand frost and thus produce grapes with high sugar content and consequently wines with high alcohol content - as in the case of Costers de Segre. There are Designations of Origins with vineyards planted in mountain areas, along terraces such as Priorat and Terra Alta. Conversely, there is Penedès whose vineyards are on the plain, planted in monotonous and monocultural lines. There are also vineyards showing a harmonious combination between the mountain and the plain, amongst other crops, providing a specificity that allows them to secure a share of the wine market – this is true of the Barberà, Montsant, Tarragona and Pla de Bages Designations of Origin.
1. Alella D.O.
To the North of Barcelona, its location between the pre-coastal range and the Mediterranean defines two geographical areas: on the one hand the coastline, characterised by a Mediterranean climate and on the other, the inland areas with a more continental microclimate. In both areas, the vines climb up the small slopes and hummocks, protecting them against sea winds and increasing exposure to solar radiation and the mist that hydrates their leaves.
The most important feature of this DO is the soil. Known as ‘Sauló’, it is sandy and white and produced by the disintegration of granitic rocks. Sauló is very permeable, has good drainage and retains good sunlight. Today Alella is the smallest DO in Catalonia.
The wines from Alella are white, both dry and sweet and made with different varieties. They are light and perfumed. This is the case of the white variety Pansa, with a dash of Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc. The rosés are fresh, aromatic and light, made from Grenache, Merlot and Pansa Rosada. The red wines are fruity and soft, and are made from Cabernet-Sauvignon, Tempranillo and Merlot.
2. Conca de Barberà D.O.
Located in the heart of Catalonia, this DO is set in a river-eroded basin, with soft materials in the central depression. The average altitude is between 400 and 500 metres and it is surrounded by the Cordillera Prelitoral to the East and the highlands of Segarra to the West.
It has clayey and sandy soil of Tertiary origin that is alluvial with good drainage. It has a Mediterranean climate with continental influences, with a summer and winter, wind from the sea and abundant rainfall.
Conca de Barbera pioneered the co-operative movement when in 1894 the Sindicato Agrícola de Barberà de la Conca (the Agricultural Union of Barberà de la Conca) was created. The co-operative wineries were built during the modernist architectural movement and some of them were made by the great architects of the time, particularly Cèsar Martinell. The beauty of these wineries has made them worthy of the epithet ‘Cathedrals of Wine’; they are monumental buildings that combine practical features with beauty. Conca de Barbera wines are characterised by their elegance and freshness. The local Trepat variety, from which rosés are made, epitomises the unique personality of this area. The white varieties Macabeo and Parellada yield consistent and light wines, whereas Grenache and Tempranillo reds are silky smooth.
3. Empordà DO
The Empordà DO is in the north-east of Catalonia, bordered to the North by France, to the East by the Mediterranean Sea and to the West by the Pyrenees. It is a generally flat region with some mountainous areas and a strong northerly wind that comes from the sea - hence the vines at ground level are protected by rows of trees or shrubs.
The DO has a Mediterranean climate strongly influenced by the sea and the north wind which means the temperatures are cooler and vines avoid some parasites. In the north there is clay soil with limestone near the sea, and llicorella (slate areas); in general, they are compact, well-drained soils with little organic matter.
Rosé wines are made from Carignan, Grenache and Hackberry. They are fruity, fresh and tasty. The reds are made from Garnacha and Cabernet-Sauvignon and are fruity and light.
The whites are made from Macabeo, Parellada, Xarel·lo, Chardonnay and Garnacha Blanca and are fresh and very aromatic. Grenache from Empordà is an exceptional, elegant wine typical of the area.
4.- Penedés D.O.
The Penedès D.O. is the largest producer area in Catalonia. It is located in six counties forming a continuous area of vineyards and a varied region where the coast meets the plains and the mountains. Hence, the cultivars are different, as are the climate and soil. The D.O. is located between two large Catalan cities: Barcelona and Tarragona.
The climate is Mediterranean with a maritime influence, with mild winters and summers and low rainfall in the equinoxes. Lack of sun is offset by the moderating influence of the sea which brings moisture on the hottest summer mornings. The vine stretches from the sea to the highest inland areas of the DO, around 200 metres above sea level. The soil is deep and combines clay and sand, making them permeable but able to retain rain water.
The Penedés D.O. offers an extensive range of wines and is a major producer of light, aromatic and easy to drink whites. The Cavas and rosés are fragrant, with intense, persistent aromas. The red wines are full-bodied, silky, aromatic and balanced.
5.- DO Calificada Priorat
Located in the southwest of Catalonia, the area comprises the inner part of the Priorat region, known as the historic Priorat. The terrain is steep, formed by small hills and mountains, where the vines are planted on terraces or amongst the hills on the lower slopes. The climate is Mediterranean, but with a continental influence, which makes the winters very cold and the summers very hot. This is a dry region with scorching heat which, combined with the risk of late frost, limits agriculture and crop diversification. The main characteristic of this wine region is the soil, consisting of a slate-like primary stratum called 'llicorella’. This type of soil is very fertile and the vines have very low productivity. However, high sunshine levels make the grapes produce wines with high alcohol content.
Due to the characteristics of the soil and climate in Priorat, grape yields are very low and endow the wines from this area with a very unique personality. The red wines are made from Carignan, Grenache and Hairy Grenache, and to a lesser extent, Cabernet-Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah. They have high alcohol content, very complex, full and round flavours, and are elegant and unusual. The white wines are intesos and are made from Garnacha Blanca, Macabeo and Pedro Jimenez, whilst the rosés are made from Grenache; completing the range are generous, rancio-style wines.
6. - DO Terra Alta
Located in the south of Catalonia on the border with Aragon, it is formed of a plateau more than 400 metres above sea level. It has a Mediterranean climate. The soils are limestone, but heavy and clayey, allowing proper drainage. The Ebro river forms a spectacular landscape, characterised by small hills and rugged, arid terrain.
Grape growing is combined with other traditional Mediterranean products such as wheat, olives and dried fruit. Vines are usually grown on terraces, in the foothills of the hills, to promote heat or at the bottom of the valley to take advantage of richer soils.
Terra Alta is predominantly home to the white varieties Garnacha Blanca and Macabeo. They have a very Mediterranean character, with a fine taste and unique aroma. The rosés and reds are structured and show personality; they are made from Carignan, Grenache and Hairy Grenache, with a dash of Tempranillo. The rosés are tasty and have a long-lasting finish. The reds are sober, full-bodied and very complex.
7.- D.O Cataluña
The diversity of soils, microclimates and vine varieties makes the DO Cataluña the most varied of all due to the infinite range of possible combinations, paving the way for innovative Catalan wines ranging the quality spectrum. All wines that are not within other DOs are eligible for this denomination, with certain requirements, which also ensure the production of high quality wines.
The Cataluña D.O is home to red grapes with character showing hard, intense and very balanced aromas. The white wines are generally light and very fruity. Rosé and traditional liqueurs, mistelas, rancios and dessert wines are also made within the D.O.
8. DO Costers del Segre
This DO consists of seven areas extending from the west of Catalonia, in the central inland area, with Aragon to the West and the Pyrenees to the North. The DO is in a total of eight Catalan regions and this extensive geographical distribution has the disadvantage of creating large geomorphological and climatic variations. However, generally speaking, the vineyards are located inside of the Segre River, a tributary of the Ebro river, and enjoy a Mediterranean climate.
The soils are alkaline limestone with a sandy surface. They are poor in organic matter and are occasionally dotted with clay. In the case of a continental climate, this implies marked temperature differences between day and night, complemented with high sunshine and low rainfall. The red wines from Cabernet-Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Merlot and Tempranillo head up the range produced here. They have character, are balanced and structured. The rosés from Tempranillo, Merlot and Cabernet-Sauvignon are fresh and fruity. The classic whites are made from Macabeo, Xarel·lo and Parellada, though there are also wines based on Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Riesling. Some of white grape production is intended for making Cava.
9.- D.O Montsant
Based in two regions, Priorat and Ribera d'Ebre, DO Montsant is the jewel in the DOC’s crown. Priorat, except for a small strip in the east, has three zones, the northern or ‘Alt Priorat’, ‘Baix Priorat’ in the centre and to the south, ‘Ribera d'Ebre’.
Most of the soil forming the DO Montsant is chalky and very compact, except for the southern region, which has altered, decomposed granite. The climate in the DO Montsant is Mediterranean with a continental influence and high diurnal and seasonal temperature fluctuations with low rainfall. It has an abundant hydrographic network. The vines are at the bottom of the Sierra del Montsant valleys to the north and small plains in the south, but also located on terraces built with the intention of saving the slopes and making the most of the sunlight. The vines are grown in rows, wild or using trellises, sometimes associated with fruit trees such as almond, hazelnut and olive trees. Montsant vineyards have low productivity, a defining characteristic for wines of this area, and that makes them very precious. Red wines are the most abundant and are made mostly from Carignan, Grenache and Tempranillo, whilst Cabernet- Sauvignon, Hairy Grenache, Merlot, Mourvèdre, Syrah and Black Picapoll are also used for blending. They are vinos de guarda or wines for ageing.
The whites are preferably made from Garnacha Blanca and Macabeo, and to a lesser extent from Chardonnay, Moscatel, Parellada and Pansal. You can also find rosé and sweet wines.
10.- DO Pla de Bages
The DO at Pla de Bages is located in the central northern region of Catalonia and is a depression with the Pyrenees to the North, pre-coastal mountains to the South and East and the Rubió and Castelltallat mountains to the West. The region of Bages embraces 26 localities.
The Pla de Bages D.O has a moderate, mountain Mediterranean climate, characterised by low annual rainfall of 500-600 mm and strong temperature variations. In this challenging climate, the vines often only produce a few grapes from which high quality wines, especially reds, are produced. The DO is crossed by the Llobregat river and its tributary the Cardener. The terrain is undulating with small plains and slopes that are clayey and poor in organic matter and limestone with sandy outcrops in some areas.
‘Tines de Tosques’ are dry stone constructions that are unique in the vineyard landscape. They date from the 19th century and showcase the spirit of co-operation that was so appealing. Currently they are set in the middle of forests and are protected and even restored, as is the case of the Roqueta Origen winery, which has decided to take up this ancient method of winemaking. The production of red wines is quite significant. Tempranillo, Merlot, Cabernet-Sauvignon, Sumoll and other varieties are the most widely-used, and to a lesser extent, Grenache, Pinot Noir and Syrah. They are fruity and show exceptional elegance.
The Picapoll is the most iconic local variety, and it produces light and exquisite white wines. White Macabeo, Parellada and Chardonnay are also found. The rosés are modern and made from Merlot and Cabernet-Sauvignon.
11.- D.O Tarragona
The DO Tarragona is located in the south of Catalonia. There are two subzones: the Ribera de l'Ebre, West along the Ebro River and Miravet in the centre and Camp de Tarragona in the east with centres in Reus and Tarragona.
The DO is a plain that stretches along the banks of rivers and gentle rolling hills along the Mediterranean coast. Generally speaking it has a temperate, Mediterranean climate with no significant temperature fluctuations. The alluvial soil has been built up by the Ebro River, its tributaries and streams. However, in Camp de Tarragona the soil is chalky and shallow, while in the Ribera d'Ebre, it is chalky and stony.
Tarragona is characterized by the diversity of its wines, with a predominance of whites over reds and rosés. The white wines have moderate alcohol content, fruity aromas and strong, pleasant body. The rosés are fine, fresh and elegant. The reds are light, warm and fleshy. The sweet wines are sweet with dry rancio aromas and honest flavours.
12.- D.O Cava
The DO Cava is nationwide, though its origin and most of its area under vine and production are within the Autonomous Community of Catalonia. It is also the only DO whose name does not refer to a geographical area but has adopted a particular concept of production site.
The production area of the DO Cava embraces 160 localities in 7 Spanish regions, although most of the localities - about 136 representing 90% of total area - are located in Catalonia, particularly in the wine region of Penedès. In addition to Catalonia, there are areas in northern Spain, Aragon, Valencia and Badajoz. The Penedès wine region accounts for 95% of production, the rest of Catalonia more than 3% and the other Spanish regions the remaining 2%.
The concept of single vineyards
The Vino de Pago or estate wine is the highest recognition that can be awarded to a wine or certain products grown within a Denomination of Origin, in a given environment that is smaller than the boundaries of a town or village. It shows archetypal features, its name is commonly linked to the vineyards from which the wines are sourced, it shows particular quality characteristics and must have prior authorisation from the regulatory council.