Who's Who in Catalunya

Spain's dynamic region in the northeast is best known for cava. But Catalunya also stands for high-quality still wine and a lively wine scene. James Lawrence knows the area.

Catalunya in northeastern Spain / Credit: DO Cava
Catalunya in northeastern Spain / Credit: DO Cava

Industrious, dynamic and diverse, Catalunya is one of Spain's key wine exporters. Over 95 percent of all Cava is produced in the region, situated in northeastern Spain. Indeed, Cava's historical homeland is the small village of Sant Sadurni d'Anoia, located to the northeast of the Penedès wine zone.

Spain's flagship producer of significant volumes of premium labels can also be found in Catalunya; Familia Torres has been involved in wine production or over three centuries. The ancestors of the current Torres family owners planted their first vines and founded a small bodega (winery) in 1870 in Penedès. Their focused marketing efforts and considerable resources have ensured that Torres remains one of Spain's most easily identifiable wine brands, for sale in over 150 countries.

Meanwhile, the fine wine region of Priorat, located south west of Barcelona, is associated with high prices and superlative quality. Catalunya also contains several of Spain's most famous Michelin-starred restaurants, including El Celler de Can Roca. In 2019, its regional capital Barcelona welcomed over twelve million tourists. It is home to Spain's newest sparkling wine appellation: Corpinnat. Let there be no doubt: Catalunya is vital to Spain's viticultural prosperity.

Of course, the province has been hit hard by the Covid-19 crisis. The pandemic has accelerated an existing trend concerning the decline of on-trade consumption, while retail sales have exploded in the pandemic's wake. Sadly, once-lauded venues such as Monvinic and Torres Vinoteca have permanently closed. Like their European neighbours, the Catalans have had to cope with successive lockdowns and restrictions, which, paradoxically, have been a vital catalyst for the industry's renewal, forcing wineries to look outwards and embrace direct-to-consumer channels.

Nevertheless, the loss of tourism income remains a deep concern for the large number of Catalans reliant on the region's hospitality sector. Mirroring Champagne, exports of Cava declined in 2020 as global restrictions took their toll.

The level of dynamism and innovation in Catalunya's wine industry, however, has not abated – pandemic or no pandemic. Several headline events, including the secession of nine wineries from the Cava DO in 2019, has forced the Cava authorities to address longstanding grievances. The appellation's regulatory council recently announced a series of landmark changes, due to come into force on 1 January 2022. Under the new regulations, new tiers of aged wines are being introduced – Cava de Guarda and Cava de Guarda Superior. The grapes for this top tier must come from vines that are at least ten years old, managed according to organic principles and subject to restrictions concerning yield and traceability. Moreover, producers can now reference specific geographical zones on their labels. Elsewhere, Familia Torres continues to be Spain's poster child for sustainable winemaking and viticulture.

Meanwhile, Priorat has committed itself to a hierarchical classification of terroir. The project was initially unveiled in 2019 and Priorat now has a clearly defined quality pyramid that emulates the long-established Burgundian model. At the base sits the Vi de Vila (village wine) tier, followed by Vi de Finca (estate wine), Vinya Classificada and Gran Vinya Classificada respectively.

The first of the region's top-end wines, now officially certified as “Grand Crus”, were released in May. They include the single-vineyard expression Tossal d’en Bou, owned by Max Doix and Álvaro Palacios l’Ermita, which has become one of Spain's most expensive wines. The project represents a landmark moment in Spain's viticultural history, creating a close facsimile of the French model in an engine for high value Spanish exports. Other regions may well follow their example.

Leave it to the fiercely independent and proud Catalunya to influence Spain's wine culture in a meaningful and important way. Despite the ongoing hardships caused by coronavirus, Spain's luxury segment is thriving. Once controlled by one outfit – Vega Sicilia – today there are over 20 labels that command serious prices, several of them produced in Priorat. Those in Spanish society who can afford to drink the prestigious labels would still probably opt for local over imported – the country has yet to properly open its doors to “foreign” wines.

Moreover, the market for imported styles in Barcelona remains quite small, despite the large numbers of visitors seen prior to the pandemic. Importers, therefore, are relatively thin on the ground and the distribution network's biggest players are the large wine producers, some notable examples apart. In that sense, little has changed. Catalunya still displays some of the most rigid, parochial attitudes, in addition to the best, most innovative ones. Yet the region is both resilient and determined. Catalunya's wine industry will emerge from the Covid-19 pandemic stronger – and wiser – than before.

Josep Roca

Notable Sommelier: Josep Roca 

The Catalan sommelier at the justly-celebrated, 3 Michelin-starred El Celler de Can Roca trained under the winemaker Josep Lluis Perez Verdu of Mas Martinet fame. He now works with his two brothers in the kitchen to offer a truly harmonious food and wine matching experience.  An impeccable list offers some of the best Riesling, Champagne, Burgundy, Sherry, and Priorat available, a testament to Roca's personal favourites which refreshingly extend beyond the Peninsula. But what is most remarkable is that, despite winning countless awards, Roca's approach remains relaxed and unassuming without a hint of pretension. 

 

Notable Restaurant and Best Wine List: Lasarte

Barcelona is starting to rival Paris in the gastronomy stakes. At the Monument hotel, head chef Martín Berasategui exemplifies everything that is wonderful about high-end Catalan cuisine. Awarded its third Michelin star in 2016, the restaurant's sophisticated and yet accessible flagship dishes include apple millefeuille, foie gras, and European eel. Such a range of flavours requires a versatile wine cellar. Here, Lasarte does not disappoint. The wine list is surely the finest in the city, offering an extensive selection of both Spanish and imported labels. To find such a diverse list in a region that is still (overall) committed to drinking local is a welcome breath of fresh air. At Lasarte, diversity triumphs.

 

Notable Wine Bar: L'Anima del Vi

It was Barcelona's L'Anima del Vi that introduced urban Catalans to the delights of natural, organic and sustainable wine. The cellar reflects the ethos of its owners and showcases fine vintages from across the country, but with an understandable bias toward Catalunya's wine regions and “non-interventionist” winemaking. The setting merits a mention; a cosy, tavern-like space that serves delicious tapas and small plates. It is an essential part of any visiting oenophiles itinerary. 

 

Credit: DO Cava

Major Regional Promotional Body: El Consejo Regulador del Cava

The Cava consejo regulador is firmly committed to change. In addition to authorising a major shakeup of its quality regulations – including new zoning and segmentation rules – the ruling council unveiled an online Cava Academy in 2021. An e-learning platform designed to promote the category and foster greater involvement from the trade, the website is open to wine professionals from all over the world. Guided tutorials are delivered by renowned Spanish experts, including Pedro Ballesteros MW and Ferran Centelles, as well as the innovative Basque Culinary Centre.

 

Emerging Wine Appellation: Corpinnat

It was in January 2019 that Xavier Gramona and Ton Mata told Cava president Javier Pages that they were leaving the Cava DO. Creating a rival designation called “Corpinnat”, the group is not currently expected to return. With eleven members and a fierce commitment to the highest quality standards, Corpinnat is now producing some of Spain's finest sparkling wine. Today, Corpinnat’s members must use grapes grown within a defined area inside the DO Penedès and at least 75 percent of the grapes used must be from estate vineyards. Moreover, the viticultural methods must be certified organic, and 90 percent of the grapes must be indigenous varieties: Xarel-lo, Parellada and Malvasia. Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Trapet can only make up ten percent of any final blend. “One day,” says Gramona, “we may rejoin the DO.” But it is unlikely to happen anytime soon.

 

Notable Supermarket Retailer: El Corte Ingles

Founded in 1940, El Corte Ingles SA is today the biggest department store group in Europe, with hundreds of branches in various guises firmly established across urban Spain, in addition to some expansion into the Portuguese market. It remains the most important retailer in Catalunya, with several flagship stores in Barcelona. Offering a wide selection of consumer goods, the food court stocks an impressive range of both domestic and international wines. In terms of a large choice under one supermarket roof, El Corte Ingles has no equal. There is also a Club del Gourmet section, where those with serious sums to spend can satisfy their cravings for fine wines, including old vintages of Vega Sicilia. El Corte Ingles continues to sell the largest volume of wine in retail, with Makro, however, increasingly giving them decent competition.

 

Notable Specialist Wine Retailer: Vilaviniteca

Barcelona's Vilaviniteca is undoubtedly the most important specialist wine retailer in the region. There is a strong emphasis on gastronomy, a member's wine club, a large selection of imported and domestic wines and numerous events throughout the calendar year. The company is all-encompassing, actively involved on a smaller scale in the import, export and distribution of wines in addition to its retail activities. As one would expect, the company's online sales have rocketed since the first lockdown as consumers continue to drink at home. But if you venture into a physical store, then you'll encounter helpful and multilingual staff dedicated to guiding customers through the many nuances of Catalunya's wine regions. Wine tastings make a constant appearance and the whole atmosphere is charged with a need to engage rather than to simply sell. 

 

 

Jose Peñin

Notable Wine Publication: Guia Peñin

Jose Peñin's Guia Peñin continues to be the most respected and widely known domestic wine publication. Adopting the standard 100-point wine scoring system, Guia Peñin offers the most comprehensive Spanish guide to both domestic and international wines, benefiting from Peñin's 30 years-plus experience as a professional journalist and wine writer. Peñin also created the country's first magazine solely concerned with wine – Bouquet – in 1980. The most important medium is arguably now his website, www.guiapenin.com

 

Most Influential Opinion Makers: Luis Gutiérrez

It must be said that Spanish consumers are not as interested in the opinions of wine critics as buyers in markets such as the US; no Spanish wine communicator could ever hope to rival Jancis Robinson MW or Robert Parker's historical influence. Yet many brand owners desire the opinion of Luis Gutiérrez, founder of elmundovino.com. Unlike his colleagues in the field of wine writing, Gutiérrez's influence and scope extends beyond Spain. From 2011 to 2013, Gutiérrez was the Spanish specialist correspondent for jancisrobinson.com and today writes for Robert Parker's Wine Advocate and eRobertParker.com. Guia Peñin may have more sway with Spanish consumers, but Gutiérrez holds court with Spanish producers looking to gain favour in the key export markets. 

 

James Lawrence

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