When most of us think of Catalan wine, we think immediately of Cava. But though this sparkling wine, a less-expensive alternative to Champagne, can be thoroughly delicious, it represents only one aspect of Catalonia’s rich vinous heritage. This region in northeastern Spain, centered on Barcelona, also produces an array of beautifully crafted still wines. We had the fortune to sample some of the most recent releases at a tasting held in Chicago’s Metropolitan Club on the 66th floor of the Sears Tower (known to some as the Willis Tower). And we didn’t miss Cava a bit.
The small Priorat region produces Catalonia’s best (indeed, some of the world’s best) red wines, but several of the other 10 Catalan appellations create impressive wines as well, made by producers willing to experiment with innovative winemaking techniques and grape varieties. The architecture of many wineries reflects this spirit of experimentation. The monumental “Wine Cathedrals” in Terra Alta at El Pinell de Brai and Gandesa, designed by a student of Gaudí in his modernista style, still look strikingly innovative nearly a century after their construction.
Some of the more experimental wines we tried came from De Muller, located 15 minutes west of Tarragona. In order to differentiate itself, De Muller works with a variety of barrels sourced from an array of unusual locations. The 2014 Chardonnay we tried was aged in no fewer than ten different kinds of oak, grown everywhere from Spain to Slovakia. “The green tobacco flavor – that’s from the Mongolian oak,” the winery’s export manager explained, “and the lemon – that’s from the Russian barrels.”
Most palates will likely fail to discern the individual influences of 10 types of oak (ours certainly did), but we nevertheless enjoyed this lively and classy Chardonnay, which went on a nice journey from fruit to wood to white-pepper and paprika spice. And De Muller’s 2012 Priorat Criança didn’t suffer for restraining itself to just French and American oak barrels. It displayed gorgeously ripe fruit and delightful freshness, with notes of black pepper and vanilla.
Other wineries distinguished themselves by working with unusual indigenous grape varieties. Pendès winery Mas Rodó discovered that its vineyards contain a unique natural mutation of Parellada, one of the three grapes traditionally used in Cava. Called Montonega, this variety grows only on Mas Rodó’s estate. The 2013 vintage we tried smelled bright and lemony, with notes of grass and fresh herbs. It tasted openly fruity before tightening into tart acids and a slightly bitter finish. This is a wine with character, and according to the winery’s representative, it sells especially well in Japan because it pairs well with fish.
Also in Penedès, just west of Barcelona, winery Heretat Montrubí bottles an extremely rare Sumoll varietal wine called Gaintus Radical. Relatively popular before the phylloxera louse devastated Catalan vineyards in the late 19th century, Sumoll nearly became extinct because few local growers chose to replant the finicky grape. Australian ampelographers rediscovered the variety only recently, seeking it out because of its resistance to drought. But even now, only 250 acres of Sumoll remain in Catalonia. The 2014 Gaintus Radical had a pretty ruby-red color and a richly fruity aroma overlayed, like De Muller’s Priorat, with a wonderful freshness. It tasted juicy and peppery, and though it felt light it was hardly a lightweight. We loved its tart cherry fruit and lively disposition.
Of course, Catalan wineries working with better-known grape varieties also produce memorable bottlings. We were especially taken with Mas Rodó’s refined 2013 Macabeu, a still wine made from another of the grapes traditionally used in Cava. The three months it spent aging in French oak gave it wonderful balance. In a blind tasting, it could pass for a high-quality Chardonnay. Mas Ramoneda’s 2011 Finca del Senglar Syrah from unheralded Costers del Segre tasted big and ripe, with jammy fruit and a cocoa-nib finish, leavened by eucalyptus-like freshness. (“It’s a kind of rosemary-thyme note,” the presenter corrected us.) And all three wines we tried by Cellers Unió exhibited memorable purity of fruit and power. In particular, the 2013 Perlat from Montsant, redolent of dark cherries, had an elegant clarity, and the masculine 2009 Llicorella “Vitis 60” Priorat offered big, rich fruit, zesty white-pepper spice and appealing notes of mocha.
Fine Catalan bottlings – both still and sparkling – appear on many U.S. wine store shelves and wine lists, but they taste even better at the source. Those staying in Barcelona can easily take a day trip into wine country, and from the Mas de Torrent, it’s possible to visit the picturesque terraced vineyards in Catalonia’s up-and-coming Empordà region along the coast.
Contact the Andrew Harper Travel Office to help set up appointments for tours and tastings.