A lyric of country music star and wine lover Miranda Lambert rattled about my brain as we took yet another nausea-inducing hairpin turn while driving in the Priorat wine region: “The road is hard, and you have to get accustomed to it.”
Indeed, venturing to meet with Spanish wine producers can be challenging. The days are long, the alarm clock rings too early and the quantity of wine to taste and evaluate is titanic. On the other hand, if you travel to Spain in May like I recently did, the rewards are plentiful—beautiful weather, gorgeous scenery, outstanding food and countless wines that range from impressive to stunning.
On this trip, I spent time in the Penedès, located less than an hour from Barcelona. There, I tasted high-end Cavas and a growing collection of unconventional table wines made from varieties I’d never heard of like Pirene, Moneu and Gonfaus.
I then ventured into little-known Terra Alta, Catalonia’s southernmost wine appellation. Here, Garnacha Blanca (white) and Garnacha Tinta (red) are the lead grapes. In the hands of committed producers like Celler Piñol, Edetària, Celler Bàrbara Forés and Altavins, wines of distinction are becoming the norm.
I wrapped up 10 days in northeast Spain at the fourth Espai Priorat, an industry event that gathers international wine writers, buyers and tastemakers. It marked my fifth visit to this historic region, where the roughly 4,500 acres of terraced and hillside vineyards far outnumber the 2,000 inhabitants of hardscrabble villages like Porrera, Gratallops and El Molar.
Here’s a look at highlights from each region.
The largest wine region in Catalonia is best known for producing about 95 percent of Spain’s Cava. Nearly 250 million bottles of Cava are produced every year in Spain, and the quality ranges from bad to excellent.
To better delineate where average gives way to awesome, the Cava Denominación de Origen (D.O.), which regulates production, has introduced a new high-end category called Paraje Calificado. These are wines whose grapes must be hand-harvested from vineyards planted at least 10 years ago. The minimum aging time in bottle is three years, but many of these wines will eclipse that baseline.
To make the grade, a wine must be a brut, vinified on the estate and approved by a review board. When the first Cava Paraje Calificado wines come out early next year, keep an eye out for offerings from the likes of Gramona, Alta Alella and Recaredo.
“Ten years ago, Terra Alta was completely unknown, even in Catalonia,” says Joan Arrufi, founder of Altavins and president of the Terra Alta D.O.
Not now. Terra Alta is producing Spain’s cleanest, freshest white Grenache. Given that roughly one-third of Spain’s Garnacha Blanca is planted in Terra Alta, it’s the region’s calling card. One reason why these wines are so fresh yet complex is the cooling impact of the Ebro River, which flows through Terra Alta on its path to the Mediterranean Sea.
Another key is the local panal soil, a windblown mix of sand and decomposed limestone. It absorbs water like a sponge and lets vines thrive without irrigation. Lastly, many producers have moved toward fermentation and aging in cement eggs, and away from new oak. The result is wines with tension and purity, as opposed to oxidized, waxy offerings.
The Priorat is undergoing a stylistic metamorphosis. The heavily extracted, high-alcohol blends of old-vines Garnacha and Carignan that earned this region its stripes since the 1990s are losing popularity. Now, the goals of most wineries are tannin management, lower alcohol levels and the pursuit of elegance.
While most Priorat wines are still fairly hefty, wineries like Terroir Al Límit, La Conreria d’Scala Dei, Ferrer Bobet and Alvaro Palacios are at the forefront of the movement to more elegant wines. Meanwhile, wines from Marco Abella, Mas Doix, Mas d’en Gil, Mas Martinet, Clos Mogador and Clos Figueras exemplify the potential for greatness that exists in this rugged, beautiful region.
Now is a great time to explore the wines of Catalonia. Based on all that I recently saw and tasted, they’ve never been better.