Penedès is the most important and most dynamic wine region in Catalunya (Catalonia in English, Cataluña in Castilian), the proudly self-conscious, hard-working region in the north east of Spain. Its most obvious product is sparkling Cava but the region also produces a wide range of still wines of many colours and styles.
Although Tempranillo is widely grown here, as throughout northern Spain (and called Ull de Llebre in Catalan), Miguel Torres was responsible for developing French (and German) varieties and techniques in the 1970s and has for long been the region's dominant producer, turning out an increasingly confident array of bottlings of imported and local varieties, typically blended together, as well as taking a lead in following truly sustainable practices in vineyard and cellar. After years of experimenting with Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Gewürztraminer and Riesling, and a substantial diversion into Chile, he finally produced his best wine, an intensely characterful red called Grans Muralles, from a blend of indigenous vine varieties. Jean León (now owned by Torres) also pioneered sophisticated Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon, which have found a ready market in Spanish restaurants.
All over Penedès are pockets of vine-growing and (particularly) wine-making ambition. Producers who are more ambitious than most include Can Feixes, Cavas Hill, Molí Coloma, Mont Marçal, Puig & Roca and Ràfols dels Caus, Sot Lefriec, but it is hard to describe a specifically Penedès style, so determinedly cosmopolitan is this corner of Spain. The Catalunya DO was created at the turn of the 20th century to allow blending across the region, mainly for the benefit of the Torres empire.
Conca de Barberá is effectively a higher, western extension of Penedès in which winter temperatures are even lower. It grows many of the grapes for Cava and is home to the Chardonnay responsible for Miguel Torres' acclaimed rich, oak-aged Milmanda. Other interesting more locally informed wines are made here too, as in nearby Terra Alta.
In Costers del Segre, in the arid, harsh hinterland around the Catalan city of Lerida, the pioneer producer, Raimat, is an extensive property converted to wine production over several decades by the owner of Codorníu, and which has now been joined by quite a number of smaller but no less ambitious producers. Tempranillo and the usual gamut of international grape varieties are planted. Its oaked reds made from Bordeaux grape varieties can be extremely winning. There is considerable potential in this disparate zone, however, thanks to some characterful old vines, notably red Garnacha and white Macabeo sold under the Cérvoles label.
Since the 1990s the most famous Catalan wine region has been the dramatically revived Priorat. If potential were measured in financial and human investment, then Priorat (Priorato in Castilian) is Spain's most exciting wine region. On dramatically steep slate terraces like those of Banyuls just over the French border, low-yielding Garnacha and Carineña vines ooze tiny quantities of super-concentrated, tannic, occasionally over-alcoholic wine, sometimes well over 16%. Until recently Priorat was a relatively unsophisticated product but a recent influx of capital and enthusiasm, spearheaded by René Barbier, originally of the eponymous Penedès winery and subsequently installed at Clos Mogador, resulted in several estates or ‘clos’ run by ambitious newcomers such as Alvaro Palacios. The best of these wines such as Palacios’ L’Ermita and Finca Dofí have already proved to be some of Spain’s most thrilling (and expensive) wine sensations. Most of these new producers are adding some Cabernet, Merlot and/or Syrah to provoke yet more layers of flavour in these inky wines. The invasion of this primitive, mountainous hinterland of Tarragona in southern Catalonia has continued in no uncertain manner with the likes of Miguel Torres literally re-sculpting the land into easy-to-work terraces. The key to Priorat’s extraordinarily mineral-laden flavour is the special soil here, a dark brown slate called llicorella whose stern substance really does seem to have infused the wine, providing one of the world’s most directly taste-able influences of terroir. New producers and labels seem to be emerging by the minute but those who earned their spurs relatively early in the short modern history of this region (which is named after the Carthusian priory whose monks made wine here as early as the twelfth century) include Cims de Porrera, Clos Erasmus, Clos de l’Obac, Mas Martinet, Rotllán Torra and Vall Llach.
Montsant is a more recent DO awarded to the zone surrounding the hilly Priorat region and its wines are much more reasonably priced, even if little of Priorat’s characteristic llicorella soil type is to be found there. Between these inland vineyards and the coast is the Tarragona DO, traditionally associated with strong, sweet sacramental wine.
North of Barcelona there are now some interesting producers emerging on the coast in the Empordà-Costa Brava zone. Other DO regions include Alella (for white wine), Campo de Borja (source of some great value, juicy red), Pla de Bages, and the promising Terra Alta to the west of Tarragona and Priorat. The potential of the often quite old Garnacha bush vines planted here is starting to be realised. They used to make basic pink wine but more and better reds are being made from them each year and they often sell at very attractive prices. Calatayud, Campo de Borja and Cariñena are distinct DO regions south east of Rioja whose potential to produce great value reds and rosés is increasingly being realised.