WINE TRAVEL IN CATALUNYA [published in Decanter, January 2012]
Little wonder that Barcelona has long featured amongst Europe’s top ten favourite short break destinations. A city of elegant avenues and mazes of medieval streets, world-class museums and modernista architecture, a vibrant food and wine scene, and beaches right at the end of the Ramblas, it has enough to keep the most insatiable visitor busy for days.
But if you’re planning a visit to Barcelona any time soon, consider breaking out for a little wine tourism. Just beyond the confines of Catalunya’s capital there’s a world of rolling vineyards, all of them easily accessible from the city.
A good place to start is Penedès, a large wine region that sprawls out to the west of the city, its dusty, sun-baked vineyards flanked by the dramatic, saw-toothed Montserrat mountain range, soothed by cooling breezes from the Mediterranean – and perpetually threatened by the encroaching industrial sprawl.
This is the home of cava, the celebrated Catalan fizz that has made the name of Penedès. The big cellars like Freixenet and Codornú are geared up for wine tourism; even more rewarding are small-scale producers like Recaredo who work with gnarled, old, low-yielding vines and age their wines well beyond the prescribed 9-month norm for cava (10 years for their fabled single-vineyard Turó d’en Mató).
But there’s more to Penedès than sparkling wine: the most famous estate (and non-cava producer) is Torres, whose celebrated vineyards Mas La Plana, Mas Borras and Fransola are all located here, while in the higher-altitude vineyards to the north around Sant Quintí de Mediona, which once lay on the border between Christian and Moorish Spain, Mas Rodó (vineyards pictured left) makes elegant still wines from cool-climate white grapes and international red varieties.
Proceeding in a westerly direction from the upper Penedès, country roads fringed with wild fennel lead through limestone hills where vineyards alternate with Mediterranean scrub, olive groves and stunted pine forests. Here, in the neighbouring region of Conca de Barberà, you can hook up with the Ruta del Cister, which links three fine 12th-century Cistercian monasteries: Santes Creus, Valbona de les Monges to the north, and, most magnificent of all, the southernmost monastery of the route, Poblet, which still houses a contemplative community. Close to Poblet is Milmanda (above), a striking fortified castle now owned by Torres (open to visitors, by appointment); between the two lies the fabled vineyard of Grans Muralles.
From Conca de Barberà it’s a short hop south as the crow flies – but a challenging, giddying drive in the lee of the Sierra de Montsant – to Falset, capital of the comarca (county) of Priorat. This is the nerve centre for both Montsant and Priorat wine appellations, with good restaurants, small hotels, B & Bs and a lively Fira del Ví (wine fair) held the first weekend in May, which includes a range of fringe events in the surrounding villages.
Priorat – one of only two wine regions in Spain to enjoy DOQ status (Denominació d’Origen Qualificada, in Catalan) – is often described as the jam in Montsant’s encircling doughnut. This is tough, uncompromising country whose precariously perched villages are reached by vertiginous roads. It offers rich pickings for lovers of highly concentrated, mineral-laden red wines, grown in Priorat’s unique, chocolate-brown, quartzite-speckled slate (llicorella) on long-neglected, steep terraces that were resurrected in the 90s and propelled to world notoriety by a band of visionary wine growers. Deep pockets are a prerequisite: Priorat’s cult wines are some of the priciest in Spain.
Descending from the dizzying heights of Priorat, you’ll find that Montsant is altogether more accessible, both price-wise and in terms of its landscape. Here the vineyards are a lot less steep and more spread out, its wine growers less grand and stiff. Some of the most rewarding wineries to visit here are young, recently formed partnerships such as Orto Vins in El Masroig (with wine making in El Molar), whose winemaker worked for Alvario Palacios for 17 years.
Finally, edging ever westwards across the River Ebro, you reach Terra Alta, a gently undulating land of vines, olives, fruit trees, almonds and hazelnuts. Though the name of this wine region hints at great heights, most of its vineyards are situated at around 500 metres – high enough to give the Garnatxa Blanca that thrives here (70% of the world’s total plantation of this variety are found in Terra Alta) a fresh, expressive minerality that’s lacking in lower, warmer regions. Just beyond Gandesa, where Barbarà Forés produces some exceedingly fine Garnatxa Blanca, is a beautiful hilltop village now known as Horta de Sant Joan, where you can settle down for a couple of days’ rest and restoration. You’ll be in good company: Picasso came here in 1898 and fell in love with the place. Writing later of his time spent there, he famously observed: “tot el que sé, ho he après a Orta” (“everything I know, I have learnt in Orta”).
Six top Catalan bodegas:
Mas Rodó, Sant Joan de Mediona
30-hectare estate in upper Penedès acquired by the Sala family 7 years ago. No cava (rare for Penedès) but remarkable still whites including Montonega, an intriguing, low-yielding relation of Parellada, single varietal Macabeu and a crisp Mediterranean Riesling, plus meaty Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. Beautiful bodega with prize-winning architecture, worth a visit (by appointment).
Cava Recaredo, Sant Sadurní d’Anoia
Family-owned estate producing legendary, long-aged, vintage Brut Nature cava from old, low-yielding Xarel.lo and Macabeu vines, all estate-owned and farmed biodynamically. All cavas are aged (minimum 30 months) under cork stoppers, turned by hand in racks (no gyropalettes) and hand-disgorged without freezing the bottle neck. Visits welcomed, by appointment.
Capafons Ossó, Falset
The Capafons family has excelled quietly with their Priorat and Montsant wines since the 1980s, a decade before Priorat shot to fame. Arrange a rendezvous in Falset so they can take you up into the vineyards in a 4 x 4, followed by a tasting of crisp, lightly oaked whites, a seductive Syrah rosé and concentrated, aromatic red blends of indigenous and international varieties.
Orto Vins, El Masroig
A new venture set up in 2008 by four friends, including Alvaro Palacios’ former winemaker, each owning vines in prime Montsant sites. Selecció Orto are entry-level wines combining grapes from all four partners; Les Singularitats del Orto are single-vineyard wines, found on top wine lists in Catalunya (Celler Can Roca et al). Call ahead for a deliciously homespun, thoroughly rewarding visit (tastings in El Molar).
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Vinyes Domènech, Capçanes
Schedule a visit to the Domènech bodega and allow Juan Ignasi Domènech to sweep you along with his passion for this exceptional vineyard cradled in a valley above Capçanes. They make a fragrant Garnatxa Blanca/Macabeu blend, but the twin treasures of the domaine are Furvus (old-vine Garnatxa and Merlot) and Teijar (100% Garnatxa, around 4,000 numbered bottles per year).
Celler Bàrbara Forés, Gandesa
Carmen Ferrer, great-granddaughter of Bàrbara Forés, runs this 22-hectare family Terra Alta estate with husband Manuel Sanmartín. Elegant, lightly oaked white (El Quintà) from 50-60 year-old Garnatxa Blanca, a variety particularly well suited to Terra Alta’s tough climate and poor soils, plus single-vineyard red blends (Coma d’en Pou and El Templari).
HOTELS AND RESTAURANTS
Can Bonastre Wine Resort
Luxurious 12-room hotel complex surrounded by vineyards, worth a visit (some fly from London for the day) for the excellent-value tasting menu and vinotherapy massage with views across to Montserrat.
Explore Penedès from this friendly, Dutch-owned B & B in 16th-century stone house in Les Gunyoles, with views over the vineyards and distant Montserrat.
A jewel of a restaurant (same village as Cal Mestre, above), not easy to track down but a must for Raimón Olivella’s exquisitely inventive cooking with encyclopaedic and keenly priced wine list.
Cal Blay Vinticinc
Atmospheric restaurant housed in revamped modernista building in cava capital Sant Sadurní, with vaulted ceilings, cava-lined walls and sensibly priced pica-pica (tapas-style) menus.
Hotel la Siuranella (and Restaurant Els Tallers)
Book dinner and a bed at this tiny hotel perched on a rocky outcrop on the edge of the Montsant region so you can sample chef Pau Escriu’s neo-Catalan cuisine without fretting about the drive down.
Hotel-Restaurant Mas Collet
Stylish country hotel hidden in a sunny Priorat valley, close to Domènech bodega and vineyards (see Best Vineyards).
Simple, warmly welcoming B & B near Falset, well placed for Priorat, with magnificent Catalan breakfasts and evening meal to order (ask for Quima’s truita de patates, potato omelette).
El Celler de l’Aspic
Busy, barrel-vaulted restaurant next door to Falset cooperative, favourite haunt of local wine growers who come for Toni Bru’s superb cuisine and wine list showcasing the region’s best with modest mark-ups.
Hotel-Restaurant Les Capçades
Stone-built, 13-room country hotel in the heart of Terra Alta, close to hilltop village of Horta de Sant Joan where Picasso came for a few days and stayed 9 months.
Vins I Licors Grau
High-class wine supermarket in Palafrugell with huge range of Spanish and international wines, plus online service at www.grauonline.com
Falset wine boutique specialising in DO Montsant, DOQ Priorat and local olive oils
Penedès-based, British-German importer, wholesaler and wine guide, organising and accompanying visits to boutique wineries
British wine guide specialising in Priorat and Montsant, who sets up and accompanies bespoke vineyard tours in the region
Miguel Torres Visitors’ Centre
A total wine experience: video introducing the Torres family, train tours through Mas la Plana vineyard, wine and brandy tastings, cooking classes. Visits to Castillo de Milmanda (home of Milmanda and Grans Muralles) or the Priorat bodega also possible by appointment.
http://altpenedes.synctur.com, free downloadable app with everything the wine traveller needs to know about Penedès.
Ruta del Cister
A route straddling 3 comarques (counties) focusing on the superb 12th-century Cistercian monasteries of Poblet, Santes Creus and Vallbona de les Monges.
Batalla del Ebre (Battle of the Ebro)
A museum project in and around Corbera d’Ebre which illustrates movingly the horror of the bloodiest battle of the Spanish Civil War.