﹡Before beginning we should pause to observe the challenge imposed by the linguistic differences that separate Catalunya from Spain, as they tend to pop-up and add confusion when least expected. Catalan is a completely separate language from Spanish (or Castellano), so to keep things simple names will appear in Catalan, as this is what you’ll probably see on bottles and wine lists.
Wine has been produced in the region that encompasses modern day Catalunya for the past 2500 years, and was once quite popular in the ancient world. The Phoenicians introduced winemaking to the region between the 7th and 8th century B.C.E., and the Romans continued the practice in their first colony in the Iberian peninsula, Tarraco (modern day Tarragona). After succumbing to the vine killing aphid Phylloxera that destroyed large swathes of Europe’s vineyards at the end of the 19th century, the international role of Catalan wine briefly surged after significant replanting, before largely falling by the wayside during the Spanish Civil War and ensuing World War.
Today Catalunya is producing a great deal of unique, interesting natural wine that closely reflects the region’s varied climates. While the American market has long been inundated with cheap cava that exists solely to fill mimosa pitchers at brunch, the past few years have seen the emergence of a number of passionate natural winemakers, and just as importantly for us, importers willing to bring their wine to unfamiliar palates. To say that interesting, honestly made wine is a new arrival in Catalunya would be unfair, but it’s certainly new to the West Coast. Our September wine box is a great introduction to some of the best cava and natural wines coming out of Catalunya right now, but with ten different recognized regions, there’s an awful lot to taste.
Much like the French AOC classification system, Catalunya’s DO (Denominació d’Origen) categorizes wine by the specific region that it comes from, and dictates what types of grapes can be used. Despite having only ten DO’s, Catalunya’s vineyards manage to encompass an incredibly diverse array of landscapes and climates, covering coastal plains, mountains and river valleys. A good general rule is to divide the wine regions into two groups:
-The dry coastal plains and valleys, which see relatively little rain and higher temperatures
-The more humid mountains and high plains, which tend to see lower temperatures than the coast, with much more rain
There are a number of grapes under cultivation in the region that are unique to Catalunya, as well as non-indigenous grapes that have taken on local names, like Garnatxa (Grenache). The French border is not terribly far from most parts of Catalunya, and the two regions share deep cultural and linguistic ties. It’s no surprise, then, that several french varietals make up a significant chunk of the local red wine production, among them Monastrell (Mourvèdre), the aforementioned Garnatxa, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Samsó (Carignan). White wine production is dominated by the three indigenous grapes commonly used for cava production, Macabeu, Parellada and Xarel·lo, although they are by no means restricted to the production of this sparkling wine.
One of the more recognizable DO’s is Penedès, from where 95% of Catalunya’s cava originates, including everything from mass-produced industrial brands to small production natural and biodynamic producers. At the other end of the scale is Priorat, known for powerful reds, and confusing labelled alternatively as DOQ (Denominació d’Origen Qualificada) or DOC (Denominación de Origen Calificada), depending on your use of Catalan or Spanish. This additional level of recognition is only afforded to two of Spain’s wine regions, Priorat and Rioja, and is a reflection of both the price these wines command and their general quality. Which of these two attributes is weighed more heavily is a matter of debate.
The best way to explore a region’s wines is to try as much as you can, red or white, from every type of soil you can. Given that this is a serious task for almost anyone interested in wine, casual or otherwise, a brief overview of the DO’s of Catalunya’s should be helpful. An excellent resource is the website of the governing body that oversees the DO designation for all of Catalunya:
Drinking wines from a lesser-known region can have its drawbacks, including being able to find a wide variety of producers. Luckily, we have the internet to help ensure that things that before would never have made their way into our glasses can be (relatively) accessible. As is often the case with areas that are mountainous and whose wines are not particularly popular outside of the region, there are numerous varietals that are planted in very small amounts or are simply dying out altogether in Catalunya (and may be extremely hard to find here in the U.S.). It’s a good start to simply get an idea of the common grapes associated with a wine growing region by tasting as much as you can, but don’t be intimidated by what’s unfamiliar! Becoming adventurous in your drinking can lead to interesting discoveries. Go open a nice cava from Penedès, or a dark and brooding Garnatxa from Priorat, and then start exploring.