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The wines of Catalonia (part 1)

Kim ten Wolde Achtergrond Catalonië Geschiedenis

As everyone has probably already noticed, the entire range of wines is currently coming from Catalonia. An autonomous region in the north of Spain with a rich history. With beautiful coastlines, impressive mountain landscapes and a diversity of industry, it is a region that is quite prosperous, especially compared to the rest of Spain. 

In 2017 I had the opportunity to live in Manresa, in the heart of Catalonia, for a little over a year. Back then, wine was already something that had grabbed my attention, but after I really had the time and opportunity to go into more depth, the seed was planted to do more with wine than just drink it. After many visits to winemakers and wine fairs, the idea was born to bring the beauty and richness of the wine culture in Catalonia to the Netherlands. Yet I only really started a few months ago, more than 3 years after the seed was planted, and I launched WoldeVins.

To give a bit of an idea about the region, the history of wine in Catalonia and the different sub-regions out there, I wrote this article. It will be the first of several articles, this being the general introduction to wine in Catalonia.

Map DO Catalunya

With an area of 32,108 km2, it is slightly larger than Belgium, but is only just under 7% of Spain. In terms of viticulture, there is a rich history, which started more than 2300 years ago when the Phoenicians took it to Empúries, long before the Greeks or Romans set foot on Catalan soil. Today, Catalonia accounts for more than 95,000 hectares of vineyards (including 42,000 hectares of DO Cava) of which almost 20% are grown organically. It is the region in Spain where the most wine is made, thanks in part to the large production of Cava that produces more than 200 million bottles annually, in addition to the more than 180 million bottles of still wine. 

The region is divided into 12 different Denominacions d'Origen's (DOs), of which even 1 DOQ, Priorat. Each DO has its own specific geology, climate, typical grape varieties and unique wines. On the map above you can see the different sub-regions and how they are distributed across Catalonia. 

Also for Catalonia phylloxera was a huge disaster. At the peak of its viticulture around 1890 there was almost 400,000 hectares of vineyards, while at the present day there is less than 25% remaining of it. Not every wine region was hit equally, but none could avoid it. In the area of Lleida and Girona other paths were chosen after their viticulture had been decimated by the aphid. Bages was also hit exceptionally hard. Before phylloxera there was about 27,000 hectares of vineyards which made it one of the largest wine producing regions of Spain. But phylloxera had brought this back to almost nothing and for almost a century there was no commercial winemaking in this region. Luckily, nowadays there is about 600 hectares of vineyards planted and the focus has been set on quality over quantity.

Another lucky coincidence was that of Penedès. In 1872 Josep Raventós made his first Cava following the Méthode Champenoise. Phylloxera then decimated the vines in the region, which were 80% red grapes. This made that the replanting could then be done with white grape varieties which were much more suited to making the sparkling wines that made this area so famous.

Rode kalk

Another big change that was made was the varieties that were planted. In the past there were mainly autochthonous grapes such as Picapoll, Sumoll, Bartrol, Mandó and others, but the new plantings were mainly international varieties such as Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay. The focus was placed on the export market, and the wines made were, as usual, high in alcohol and full and rich in style. Luckily, what has been taking place more and more in recent years is that quality makes way for quantity. And much of the new plantings today focus on the old grape varieties that have all but disappeared - which is a good thing, especially when we consider climate change and its impact on viticulture. 


Penedès soil

Despite the small size of Catalonia, its geological origin and composition is very complex and varied. If we look at Priorat, we find a rough landscape with mainly slate (llicorella) but if we go to Montsant, the region immediately around it, we find red clay, limestone, granite and sand. On the other hand, if you go to Bages you will find marl and clay in the central part (Pla de Bages) and marl and limestone in the Alt Bages part. This is going too far to go into detail right now, but this is definitely something I'll elaborate more on in a future article. 

Then I only want to touch on the various DO's that can be found in Catalonia and what their specialties are. Of course, especially in natural wines, there are many producers who do not fall under a DO, but name their 'own' region such as the Prepyrenees or the Massis del Garraf. I will not go into this now, but as soon as this is the case with a wine, it is written in the wine's description.

  • DO Alella
  • The smallest DO, but certainly not the least. Known for its white wine, with Pansa blanca as the main grape. Today only 1/3 the size it was in 1956.
  • DO Catalunya
  • An overlying DO for Catalonia.
  • DO Cava
  • An overlying DO for all the grapes grown for the sparkling wine under the Cava brand. This area extends into almost all regions of Catalonia and beyond.
  • DO Conca de Barbara
  • Together with Tarragona, the region where the Romans brought the vines. Previously known mainly for its white wines but now for its red wine, mainly from Trepat.
  • DO Costers del Segre
  • A wine region that follows the river Segre, and is divided into four sub-zones. Lots of variety in the wines due to the differences in altitude and climate.
  • DO Emporda
  • The Phoenicians brought vines here 2500 years ago, making Empordà the oldest wine-growing region in Catalonia. Until the 1930s, fortified sweet wine was mainly made, but since 2000 there has been much more focus on quality and small winemakers.
  • DO Montsant
  • Montsant almost completely surrounds the DOQ Priorat, but is completely different in soil composition. However, here too Garnatxa and Samsó are mainly planted and mainly full, high alcohol, red wines are made.
  • DO Penedes
  • Penedès is divided into three sub-zones - Alt, Baix and Central. Most of the vines fall under the DO Cava, but very good Penedès wine is also found. A region where mainly white wine is made. Geographically 'locked up' between Montserrat, Massis del Garraf, Barcelona and the Mediterranean.
  • DO Pla de Bages
  • Today one of the smallest DOs in Spain, but not the least. Bages is located in the central part of Catalonia and has an extreme climate due to its location in relation to Montserrat. In the summer it is extremely hot and dry with cool nights and in the winter it can be quite freezing. A region where some relatively large wineries are located, but also the new winemakers and winegrowers are earning their spurs.
  • DOQ Priorat
  • The only DOQ (Denominació d'Origen Qualificada) in Catalonia and the second in all of Spain (the other is Rioja). Thanks to Robert Parker, this area was put back on the map with its wines in the 90s, after years of decline as the population moved to the big cities for work. Very rugged landscape and climate with typical llicorella soil. Almost only red wine is made here, but don't skip the white wine from here!
  • DO Tarragona
  • This is the place where the Romans set foot and further spread viticulture. Sweet and fortified wines were mainly made here, but in recent years more and more small winegrowers are taking the natural wine route.
  • DO Terra Alta
  • The wine made here was mainly for local consumption due to its remote location. Cooperatives are often the core of the wine industry here, but in recent decades more and more modern quality wines have been made. The name says it all, the area is quite high. The climate is also quite extreme with hot summers and cold winters, which certainly benefits the wine.

I hope you've made it this far and now you know a little more about the background of wines in Catalonia. Next time we'll dive into a topic a little more specifically, but for now, salut!

Penedès wijngaard

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