The Catalan wines regions are nestled between the proud Pyrenees mountains and 600 kilometers of coastline, and are some of the most sought-after in Spain. From the bubbly cava of Penedès and the recent establishment of Corpinnat, to the heroic wines of Priorat, a vermouth renaissance, and a medley of ancient techniques from Empordà, the wines across Catalonia are certainly an interesting mix.
Wine connoisseurs should make at least one pilgrimage to Spain in their lifetime – Spain is one of the top three wine producers in the world along with Italy and France -, and exploring the Catalan Wines regions should be on their bucket list. The country is an absolute paradise for this delectable drink and offers something for every wine aficionado, from sparking cava to fruit flavors, bold reds and whites, and wild cards (like vermouth!) along with dozens of sumptuous notes and unique blends that can only be tasted here.
If you’re ready to learn more about the incredible sights, tastes, and varieties of Catalan wines, let’s grab a glass and get acquainted!
Wines from D. O. Empordà
With a winemaking heritage that spans more than 2,500 years, the Empordà region certainly has a special place in Catalonia’s viticulture scene. The first people who brought wine to Catalonia were the Greeks, who settled in an area called Empúries and began to cultivate grapes. Over time, monks and nuns from nearby monasteries continued to tend to the vineyards, and winemaking flourished over the centuries.
Unfortunately, every story has a crisis, and that of Empordà is no different: during the late 1800s, the phylloxera plague ravaged the vineyards in the area and eventually brought an end to the first era of Empordà wines. However, the tenacity of the local winemakers was a force to be reckoned with, and over time, the local bodegas have bounced back.
It’s safe to say that Empordà is going through a sort of wine renaissance at the moment, which makes it an especially exciting time to visit. This is bolstered by the fact that Empordà is constantly experimenting with juxtapositions: ancient techniques are used alongside innovations, while classic varieties are blended with novel tastes.
Grape varieties: Empordà is widely known for its production of red wines (which take up about 60% of plantings), and some of the most popular grape varieties include Samsó, Carignan, and Grenache. White wines, which make up nearly 20% of production, are based on Grenache Blanc and Gris, Carignan Blanc, and Macabeu. It should also be noted that there are slight differences in grape nomenclature since Grenache is known as Garnacha in Spain, and Garnatxa in Catalonia.
Terroir: Soil, winds, altitude, orientation a the presence of water shape the wines from Empirdà. In addition to the grapes, Empordà’s terroir also has a heavy influence on its wines. Empordà’s winemaking landscape is divided into two parts: Alt Empordà, the windy northern outerlands that make up most of the area’s production, and Baix Empordà, which has clay-rich soil. One name that you’ll constantly hear while traveling through Empordà (and Catalonia) is none other than Tramontana. This legendary wind, which sweeps across the northern Mediterranean coast, is responsible for the wines’ hardy character. In fact, the wind is revered in these parts because it has a moderating effect that prevents disease and frost, and there is even a special nickname for the wines that were helped by Tramontana — Wines of the Wind.
Other factors include low rainfall with plenty of warm sunshine, as well as soils that are loose and provide good drainage (such as schist soils near the coast and granites further inland). Thanks to the influence of such landscapes, the 50-plus wineries in Empordà produce 4 million bottles a year!
After tasting the sun-kissed wines of Empordà, be sure to stop by one of the many stunning towns and villages around the region Empordà-Costa Brava. Gourmands will feel at home in the city of Roses, which was where the legendary elBulli got its start. Nowadays, up-and-coming chefs continue the city’s gastronomic heritage, with dozens of sumptuous restaurants and bistros popping up every year.
Distinguished wineries we love: Perelada Wines – six centuries of winemaking tradition that are on our radar every time we go -, Celler la Vinyeta, Espelt Viticultors, Terra Remota and Celler Brugarol. These are only a few!
Other must-see attractions include the Castell de Perelada, a 14th-century castle turned hotel, as well as the various calas (coves) along the Costa Brava coastline.
Wines from D.O. Cava and Corpinnat
What is Cava? Many people have heard of cava, but not many understand the complexities of this drink. In short, cava is Spanish sparkling wine. In fact, it is made in the same way as champagne in France following the méthode traditionnelle, but uses different grapes in the process.
Grape varieties: The three main grapes that make up cava production include Macabeau, Parellada, and Xarel·lo, although Chardonnay, Pinot noir, and Subirat grapes may also be used.
Cava holds the esteemed Denominación de Origen (DO) status, which means that only sparkling wines made under certain guidelines can bear the cava label. As such, only the highest quality of grapes are used in cava, and the majority of cava is made in Catalonia — with 95% of total production in the Penedès region.
While cava is the most popular sparkling wine in Spain, there is a new development that has recently made headlines: Corpinnat.
What is Corpinnat? It is the newest sparkling wine to hit the viticulture scene, with an interesting backstory to boot. The story began in 2019 when a long-running dispute between cava producers culminated in a rift, and a group of winemakers officially split from the D.O. Cava designation. These nine producers — Gramona, Recaredo, Torelló, Llopart, Nadal, Sabaté i Coca, Mas Candí, Huget-Can Feixes, and Júlia Vernet — then came up with their own association, under the name of Corpinnat.
The creation of the Corpinnat label was not entirely unexpected: around 2014, prominent cava producers voiced their disagreements with the Cava Consejo Regulador (Cava Regulatory Council), which oversees the quality and protects the cava appellation. The winegrowers were concerned that it was getting harder to maintain quality-based output and that there was no terroir-focused classification system.
After the split, the nine producers created a new system, where wines must adhere to extremely strict standards to be considered Corpinnat.
Corpinnat requirements: First, wines must be made from grapes grown within a specific 57,000-acre expanse in the Penedès region; they must be harvested by hand and be 100 percent organic under sustainable practices; the wines must be aged for a minimum of 18 months; and finally, they should contain at least 90 percent indigenous varietals. The Corpinnat association notes that these are Garnacha, Monastrell, Sumoll, and Xarel·lo Vermell for reds, and Xarel·lo, Macabeu, Parellada, and Malvasia for whites.
From the grapes to the area, techniques, and everything in between, Corpinnat wines continue the spirit of the region. It’s even in the name: “cor “means heart in Catalan, and “Pinnat” is the etymological root word of Penedès. Therefore, these are truly sparkling wines from the heart of the Penedès!
Not Catalan Wine but… Vermouth
Vermouth is an extremely talented and versatile drink that is as unique as the person drinking it. Once known as a critical component in a crisp martini, vermouth is going back to basics and having a fashionable revival.
In fact, vermouth is traditionally enjoyed by itself across Spain, France, and Italy — no cocktail mixer needed! This delicious and refreshing aromatic wine is typically consumed as an aperitif, which is derived from the Latin word aperire (to open) and, indeed, is an excellent way to ‘open’ the palate and stimulate your appetite before a delicious meal.
The drink is essentially fortified wine that’s blended with aromatic herbs and other botanicals. While the exact recipe is a closely-guarded secret amongst each producer, some typical additions include wormwood, cardamom, chamomile, ginger, juniper, and cinnamon.
While modern-day vermouth production began in Italy during the 18th century, the drink made its way to Spain shortly after. During the 19th century, Reus, a city in south Catalonia’s Tarragona province, quickly developed a reputation as a major center for liquor production. At one time, it was home to more than 30 vermouth producers, and competed with metropolises like Paris and London!
Vermouth is so revered in Catalonia that it has a set of special rituals. Take, for example, the sacred hora del vermut (the vermouth hour), which happens between noon and 1 pm.
Vermouth has never stopped being the drink of choice in Reus, and the city also celebrates its heritage in a very unique way — with a museum dedicated to the drink! the Museu del Vermut has more than 6,000 exhibitions related to vermouth, as well as a bar and restaurant with four themed dining rooms.
Of course, vermouth isn’t limited to Catalonia. There are around 150 varieties all over Spain, including some in the famed ‘Sherry Triangle,’ as well as Rioja, Navarra, and the Basque country. One of the most established is Vermouth Padró, which is located about an hour from Barcelona, included in our journey.
Vermouth is so revered in Catalonia that it has a set of special rituals. Take, for example, the sacred hora del vermut (the vermouth hour), which happens between noon and 1 pm. Although the idea is that vermouth is a pre-lunch treat to stimulate an appetite, it’s possible to drink vermouth at any time of the day.
As mentioned, vermouth is extremely versatile — not only as an ingredient, but with pairings as well! This drink is served alongside a variety of snacks, from olives to pan con tomate, sardines, chips, artichokes, nuts, and much more.
Bartenders will typically offer patrons a sifón (a bottle of carbonated water), which may be used to top up or dilute the vermouth with.
Wines from D.O.Q Priorat
Tarragona is home to not one, but two famous wine regions — after exploring Reus’ vermouth empire, be sure to head inland and taste the heroic wines of Priorat.
In fact, Priorat is only one of two regions in the entire country that qualifies as a DOCa, the highest honor that a wine region can have. Definitely, when speaking about Catalan wine the wines of Priorat are fundamental.
The terroir: While a DOCa qualification is impressive, what’s truly remarkable are the extreme conditions that Priorat wines are formed in (hence the heroic title!).
First, most vineyards are found between 100 to 700 meters above sea level, and planted in terraces — with the steepest slope coming in at 60%. That’s not all: several microclimates are present around the 5,000 acres of vineyards, but most include freezing winds and hot, dry summers. Meanwhile, the soil in the area is composed of a unique mix of black slate and quartz soil known as llicorella.
The area’s ‘poor’ soil is precisely the secret to Priorat’s success. In an ideal world, vines need to be grown in soil that is low in water and nutrients. Due to the lack of minerals, the vine’s roots must go deeper into the soil to find water, which in turn makes the grapes grow slower and ultimately brings out their robust flavors.
Thanks to this, the wines of Priorat are known for their luscious ripe taste, with a full body and velvety texture. Likewise, thanks to low yields of grapes grown in such circumstances, Priorat wines are rarer and more expensive — but well worth the cost.
Grape varieties: Speaking of grapes, the two traditional varieties grown in the region are Garnacha and Cariñena, but Cabernet (Sauvignon and Franc), Merlot, and Syrah are also used. Similarly, there are only four white varieties that are authorized: Macabeo, Pedro Ximenez, Garnacha Blanca, and Chenin.
There are twelve villages that make up the Priorat DOQ, with each having its distinctive charms. Besides wine tasting, the area is famed for its picturesque villages, antique ruins and fortresses (such as the Escaladei Monastery), verdant hiking trails, and charming architecture — all against a background of a beautiful mountainous landscape.
That was quite an exciting journey, wasn’t it? It’s no wonder why Catalan wines are held in high esteem and are the legendary subject of many artists.
Catalan native Salvador Dalí once said that the connoisseur does not drink wine, but tastes of its secrets — and we hope that you’ve uncovered a few new secrets about Catalan wines!
If you’ve been enchanted by Catalonia’s viticulture, we invite you to join our expertly-guided small group Catalonia Food & Wine Tour and experience it for yourself! Along the 8-day journey, you’ll taste the authentic flavors of Catalonia’s gastronomy, savor the region’s wines, and fall in love with the irresistible Mediterranean lifestyle