Catalonia Wine 101: Cava, Priorat and Beyond

During my first trip to Barcelona, I walked past La Monumental, the Mudéjar-style arena with four massive egg-like ornaments adorning the rooftop. For nearly a century, La Monumental operated as a bullfighting ring, and in 2011, Catalonia’s last bullfight was held within these walls before a region-wide ban came into effect. As a lifelong vegetarian, I felt I could breath easier in Catalonia – I could admire the architectural whimsy of La Monumental without having to worry about what was going on inside. But the next day, one vintner explained to me, “Catalonia didn’t outlaw bullfighting for the sake of the bulls. They outlawed bullfighting because it was too Spanish.” The truthfulness of that statement is nebulous – news at the time made both arguments. A couple years later, on my most recent trip to the city, this past October, I was awoken from my jetlag-induced sleep at 10pm by a chorus of Barcelonians standing on their balconies, clanging their pots and pans. This was the Catalan Independence movement, and this time, more than bullfighting was at play. As a non-Spaniard, I’m not going to speak to merits of separatism, but the cultural distinctions of Catalonia (or Catalunya in Catalan) versus the rest of Spain are palpable – beyond the hyper-regional identities that make the whole of the Old World so special. The Catalan language rings through the streets of Barcelona, as foreign to my high school Spanish-educated self as Portuguese. The food is different – both elBulli and El Celler de Can Roca were born in Catalonia, a region that has long helped lead the charge for molecular gastronomy. Such cultural uniqueness extends to Catalonia’s traditions of winemaking as well. Here, sparkling wines find their inspiration in Champagne, and fortified wines more closely resemble Banyuls than they do Sherry. Nationhood aside, Catalonian wine is already its own entity, and a fascinatingly diverse one at that. Catalonia is home to twelve “Denominaciones de Origen,” or appellations, including the catchall Catalunya DO . Here are the regions you should know: Cava and Penedès While Cava can be produced most anywhere from Valencia to Extremadura, at its heart the signature Spanish sparkler is a Catalonian product. Ninety-five percent of all Cava is grown within Catalonia’s borders, most notably around the town of San Sadurní d’Anoia in Penedès - a short 45-minute drive west of Barcelona. Cava is made in the image of Champagne , utilizing the “méthode champenoise” in which a secondary fermentation occurs in bottle to create effervescence. In fact, up until 1970, these wines were labeled “Champaña,” before adopting the name “Cava,” which in Catalan refers to the caves or cellars from which they’re made. Like Champagne, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay can be used to vinify Cava. Top producers, however have dedicated themselves to three indigenous Spanish grape varieties: Macabeu, Parellada, and Xarel·lo. Perhaps the greatest thing about Cava? The cost. While notable high-end Cavas exist, as do underwhelming bargain bin examples, a number of exceptional bottles can be found at exceedingly reasonable prices. If you feel the need to move on from Prosecco, Cava is where you should be looking. Beyond bubbly, this sector of Catalonia, Penedès , has also earned a reputation for making still wines of quality. Beyond Spanish grapes, Penedès is unique for its vineyard space dedicate to Cabernet, Merlot, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Balnc and other French varieties, first championed by Torres winery in the 1960s and 1970s. Priorat and Montsant Priorat is the collector’s jewel of Catalonia, yielding some of the most treasured (and often expensive) bottles in the whole of Spain. Only the Southern Rhône Valley can challenge Priorat as the apex of expression for Grenache (Garnatxa in Catalan and Garnacha in Spanish). Often blended with Cariñena (or Carignan), the Garnatxa vines grow on steep hillside terraces, blanketed by striking black slate, a soil called “llicorella.” Priorat’s history of winegrowing stretches back to the Twelfth Century, with the founding of the Carthusian monastery Scala Dei, whose spectacular ruins remain an essential stop for visitors today. The region, however, largely flew under the radar until the arrival of several notable producers in the 1970s and 1980s, including Alvaro Palacios and René Barbier of Clos Mogador, who continue to be leaders for the appellation. Along with Rioja , Priorat is one of two designated DOCa (Denominación de Origen Calificada) wine regions in Spain, considered a notch above the DO label held by most everywhere else. Priorat further distinguishes itself as the first Spanish wine region to create a village classification system – a motion that has been replicated in Bierzo and has incited political division in Rioja. A decidedly French concept that draws on Burgundy’s Villages tier, Priorat has named twelve towns and areas to its “Vi de la Vila” category. Furthermore, you’ll even notice several top wineries beginning with the word “Clos,” aligning themselves by name with a Burgundian ethos. Surrounding the vineyards of Priorat, the donut-shaped Montsant DO similarly grows Garnatxa and Cariñena. Montsant holds lesser concentrations of “llicorella” soil, but its wines resemble Priorat, often at a fraction of the cost. Empordà In the northern corner of the Costa Brava, just opposite the border of Roussillon , the Empordà DO has reinvented itself in recent years. Once best known for inexpensive rosé, this Pyrenean appellation, dominated by Cariñena, has found a rush of new talent crafting red and white wines of quality that bare semblance to their French neighbors. One of Empordà’s oldest traditions, however, is Vi Dolç, a fortified sweet wine from Garnatxa or Moscatel made in the style of France’s “vins doux naturels,” such as the adjacent wines of Banyuls . Alella, Tarragona, Conca de Baberà, Terra Alta, Costers del Segre & Plà de Bagés While you may more scarcely encounter their names on wine shop shelves, Catalonia makes home to a handful of additional appellations of character that often offer tremendous value. The tiny Alella DO emerges just northeast of Barcelona’s urban sprawl, cultivating both white and red Garnatxa as well as French grape varieties. Tarragona DO surrounds the ancient port city of the same name. While Tarragona used to focus on a sweet, fortified red wine, today seventy percent of its grapes are white, largely lent to Cava production. Just adjacent, the inland Conca de Barberà DO also harvests much of its grapes for Cava, but also bottles a varietal Parellada as well as a rosé wine from the indigenous Trepat variety. Further southwest, across the border from Aragon, the mountainous Terra Alta DO yields some of the most distinctive wines on earth made from Garnatxa Blanca (or Grenache Blanc) grapes. The Costers del Segre DO consists of seven noncontiguous winegrowing areas, cultivating such diverse varieties as Cabernet Sauvignon, Riesling, Macabeu, and Ull de Llebre, the local name for Spain’s beloved Tempranillo. Lastly, Plà de Bagés too has found the recent arrival of French grapes such as Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon, but several producers continue to advocate for Picapoll Blanco (which confusingly is not analogous to the French Piquepoul). — Bryce Wiatrak Have you popped open a bottle of Cava or uncorked a bottle of Priorat lately? We want to see what you’ve been drinking. Rate your favorite Catalonian wines on Delectable!

Gramona

Gran Reserva III Lustros Brut Nature Cava Xarello Macabeo 2010

The biodynamic Cava house Gramona remains a leader in the category with a portfolio that maximizes tradition and innovation. Where else in Catalonia can you taste a cryoextracted Xarello "ice" wine? III Lustros is a benchmark bottling for Spanish sparklers. Flavors of green olive skin, petrol, fresh pear, and white rose emerge from the fine, caressing mouse. Sensual yet sharp, it has a laser-like precision that is undeniably Cava. — 9 months ago

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Celler La Vinyeta

Heus Blanc Empordà Macabeu Blend 2016

A blend of Macabeu, Garnatxa Blanca, Xarello, Muscat, and Malvasia, La Vinyeta - one of Empordà's most innovative young estates - delivers a delicious entry-level white. Saline and resinous, with flavors of dried honeycombe, yellow apple skin, and wilted wild flowers - there's a textural rusticity that seems to capture the pastoral charms of Catalonian farmland. — 9 months ago

Lafou Celler

Lafou Els Amelers Garnatxa Blanca 2015

Terra Alta has proven one of my favorite regions for white wine that nearly nobody knows about. Lafou makes one of the best - a Garnatxa Blanca of length and texture. Sweaty and mineral, the wine offers precise, clean flavors or green olive skin, almond dust, lemon pith, and Thai basil - corrupted further with tones of petrol, dried wax, rind, and salinity. What a wine. — 9 months ago

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Lagravera

La Pell Garnatxa Blanca - Xarello Blend 2013

Lagravera is one of the most innovative, dynamic young wineries operating in the under-explored depths of Catalonia. Their top white wine, labeled La Pell, is built upon Grenache Blanc and Xarello - aged in amphorae. Honeyed and stoney, the wine opens with bountiful nectarine and peach flavors, before finding a hazlenutty back half. Lemon oil and rounded rocks, it elicits so much textural complexity and depth. — 9 months ago

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J. Esteve Nadal

Caves Avinyó Brut Nature Reserva Cava Macabeo-Xarel-lo-Parellada 2011

The family-run Avinyó estate remains a beacon of artisan tradition for Cava wines, and their Brut Nature remains one of my favorites from their seamless portfolio. Resinous and leesy, the Xarello driven cuvée is rather giving for the Brut Nature category. Never thin or austere, the wine instead broadens on the palate to flavors of yellow apple, sawdust, pie crust, and mushroom. This is a Cava that can convert a Champagne diehard. — 9 months ago

Marco Abella

Clos Abella Priorat Carignane Blend 2012

Marco Abella's top Priorat wine actually leads with Cariñena before Garnatxa, with David Marco asserting that Cariñena is the more powerful and more mineral of the two grapes. Rocky, craggy and saline, the wine's savory edges mimic the steep terraced slopes from which these wines are born. The 2012 Clos Abella finds a concentrated pillar of kalamata, prune, rosemary, smoke, and other flavors evocative of the Mediterranean coast. Stoic and lengthy, the wine has many stories yet to unfold. — 9 months ago

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Edetària

Vinyes Velles Seleccio Terra Alta Grenache Blanc Blend 2014

Another stunner from the Terra Alta Do, Edetària yields an untethered expression of Garnatxa Blanca. Animale, cantaloupe peel, and dried pear pave way to apollenous, expansive mid-palate that's rustic and refined at once. A pleasant tahini-like bitterness adds complexity to the finish. — 9 months ago

Cellers de Scala Dei

Prior Priorat Grenache Blend 2014

An order of Carthusian monks first found their way to Scala Dei in 1194 at the invitation of Alfonso I. The name "Scala Dei" means "stairway to heaven," and a visit through these transportive ruins remains a critical first stop if ever visiting the region. While monks no longer work the cellars, the Scala Dei wines remain solid - and often a relative value in comparison to those who've arrived in the last half century. Prior is Scala Dei's mid-tier of their three Priorat reds. High octane flavors of licorice, pepper, black plum, violet, and blueberry find balance with spicier, more elegant tones of sandalwood, rosewater, frankincense and gingerbread. While 15% abv, you’d never know per the bright acidity and chalky tannins - yet there remains, a warming medieval intrigue that conjures romantic images of hearthstones and velvet. A nice showing from Priorat’s pioneering monastery. — 9 months ago

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Mas LLunes

Rhodes Empordà Samsó Syrah 2015

Empordà is proving an exciting corner of the wine world for Carignan, locally called Samsó. Rhodes is the top red from Mas Llunes, where Samsó is blended with Grenache and Cabernet Sauvignon. Structured with plush, chewy tannins, the wine leads in blue tones - blueberry and violet, tarragon and sage - with a subtle, pleasant smoky gaminess. — 9 months ago

Tomàs Cusiné

Llebre Costers del Segre Tempranillo 2015

Tempranillo isn't completely foreign to Catalonia. Here, in Costers del Segre, it goes under the alias Ull de Llebre. Tomas Cusiné's easy drinking rendition draws its title from this local name. Gamey and mineral, the wine elicits tremendous varietal character with a vibrant acidity and medicinal herbal tones. The wine follows a lean, linear trajectory, broadening a tinge on the slightly oxidative, figgy finish. — 9 months ago

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