Monday, November 6, 2023

Catalan Wines USA Master Class -- Catalunya's Grapes, Designations, and Wine-making History

Photo courtesy of Catalan Wines USA

Every so often Catalan Wines USA hosts Wine Tasting & Master Classes across the country and fortunately one landing in Washington D.C. last month. The Master Class was presented by Lucas Paya, former beverage director of Think Food Group by Jose Andres and the wine tasting featured a baker's dozen of producers from throughout the Catalunya DO appellation. *

This autonomous community is located "in the north-east of Spain. It stretches from the historic county of Montsia in the south to the border with France in the north with the Mediterranean Sea forming its eastern border...  The Catalunya DO appellation was Spain's first region-wide, cover-all DO title, created in 1999". Most of the wines within this region are covered by 12 DO designations, which includes an all-encompassing Catalonia DO for all the scattered vineyards not covered by the sub-regions and the Cava designation for the region's signature sparkling wine. 

Viticulture in Catalonia started from at least 400 B.C. through the Phoenicians and the Greeks and extended into the Roman period. It died out during the Moorish occupation and resurged after the Christian reconquest -- primarily through monasteries and convents. Some of the more famous are the Benedictine monastery of Sant Pere de Rodes, the Cistercian monasteries of Poblet and Santes Creus, and the Carthusian monastery of Escala Dei. The monks experimented with vine stock and crafting and improved winemaking techniques. This fostered cultural and social development and actually led to a strong export market which expanded further after the 1870s. This is when "José Raventós, founder of the Codorníu group, began producing sparkling wines around the town of Sant Sadurní d'Anoia in Penedes, employing the traditional method used for Champagne" --  the birth of Cava.  

Grape Varieties

Catalonia includes a wide range of grape varieties from the indigenous Macabeo, Parellada, Xarel-lo to other Spanish varieties such as Tempranillo (known in Catalan as Ull de Llebre) and Garnacha to international varieties such as Chardonnay, Monastrell (Mourvedre), and red Bordeaux varieties. These grapes benefit from Catalonia's strong Mediterranean climate where the warm coastal areas experience moderate rainfall. Inland areas are more similar to Spain's arid central plateaus, although there are plenty of cooler zones among the foothills and on elevated sites where grapes for the region's signature Cava (Macabeo, Parellada, Xarel-lo) are grown. 

Macabeo is synonymous to Rioja's Viura and its "wines can be fresh, floral and aromatic when harvested sufficiently early and aged in stainless steel, but weighty, honeyed and nutty when aged in oak and harvested slightly later...Macabeo is also quite resistant to oxidation, in no small part due to its high levels of antioxidant resveratrol monomers".

Parellada is found almost exclusively in Catalonia and is used almost exclusively in the classic Cava blend where it provides aromas of blossom and green apple to the wine – ideal complements to the honeyed, grapefruit notes of Macabeo and the earthy flavors of Xarel-lo.  Parellada grows best at higher altitudes, where the growing season is both cooler and longer than in lower-lying areas.

Xarel-lo is also practically exclusive to Catalonia where the light-skinned grape is one of the region's most widely planted varieties. Although there is nothing distinct about the grape in the vineyard, Xarel-lo is valued by winemakers for the acid structure it brings to wines.

Denominación de Origen

There are twelve wine appellations in Catalonia that include ten distinct geographic designations as well as DO Cava and DO Catalunya where the geographic boundaries for each cover multiple sub-designations. 

DO Alella
This designation was created in 1955 and the designation is the closest to Barcelona and encompasses two small areas northeast of the city. For this reason it is constantly threatened by urban developmental pressure. Because of its coastal location, Alella's climate is broadly Mediterranean, but the area's complex topography makes for considerable variation between vineyard sites. The soils are mainly granite and sandy alluvial. The majority of Alella wines are crisp, dry, floral-scented whites made from local grape varieties Xarel-lo (known here as Pansa Blanca), Garnacha Blanca and Viura, and also the French "international" varieties, particularly Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. The red and rosé wines are based on Monastrell, Syrah, Garnacha, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Tempranillo. 

DO Emporda
This designation was created in 1972 as  Empordà-Costa Brava and encompasses the extreme northeast of Catalonia bordering France's Roussillon region, and thus shares a similar winemaking heritage. The titled was shortened to Empordà in 2006. The Mediterranean climate and proximity to the sea and mountains provides the DO tagline, "Wines of the Wind" as the strong Tramontana wind can stress the grapes. The limestone rich soil attracts several grape varieties Carinena (Carignan), Garnacha, Macabeo, and Garnacha Blanca.

DO Costers del Segre
This is Catalonia's northernmost DO, established in 1988, and a collection of subregions clustered around along the Segre river valley. It has a dry, semi-arid Continental climate featuring limestone and clay spoils. The DO is comprised of seven sub-zones, four of which are considered "mountain viticulture".  It also experiences a high diurnal temperature variation (70 degrees F) producing aromatic and structured wines. The cooler vineyards produce grapes for Cava (Macabeo, Parellada and Xarel-lo), while the drier areas are suitable for growing red grapes, especially Tempranillo, Garnacha, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Trepat, Monastrell, Pinot Noir and Syrah. Varietal white wines are also produced, based on Chardonnay, Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc.

DO Pla de Bages
This designation sits in the very middle of Catalonia, producing a range of wines from Macabeo, Parellada, Picpoul, Chardonnay, Tempranillo, Garnacha, Cabernet Sauvignon, and the native Sumoll. The climate is more Mediterranean than Continental, with another high diurnal temperature variation. The soils range from limestone in the higher elevations, to mostly clay to alluvial in the lower reaches.

DO Conca de Barbera
This is a very small region where the production centers on Cava and thus the Macabeo and Parellada grape varieties. It is located right at the heart of Catalan wine country and practically surrounded by other designations. Conca is Catalan for 'basin' and describes the DO's geography formed by the combined valleys of the Francolí and Anguera rivers, above which rise various low-lying mountain ranges. It has a Mediterranean climate with some Continental influences and predominately limestone soils. For red wines, Garnacha, Mazuelo (Carignan), Ull de Llebre (Tempranillo), Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot are the most successful red wine grape varieties.

DO Tarragona
This region is immediately south of Conca de Barbera and received DO status back in 1947, making it one of Spain's older designations.  The terrain climbs gently from the Mediterranean sea towards the Serra de Montalt mountains in the north and east where elevations reach 1,310 feet. Here the soil is calcareous, stony and alluvial largely because of the Ebro River. Closer to the sea, the soils are calcareous, tending towards granite further inland. Garnacha and Carignan dominate the reds while Cava ((Macabeo, Parellada and Xarel-lo) for whites.

DO Montsant
This designation, created in 2001, bisects DO Tarragona inland but retains a strong Mediterranean climate. Soils range from silty-loam, clay and granite, to sand and slate. This is another "mountain viticulture" area where elevations reach 2,300 feet. Even though the region is small, there is enough diversity for six sub-zones. Montsant has earned a reputation for its high-quality red wines, particularly those based on old Garnacha and Carinena (Carignan) vines. 

DOQ Priorat
This designation was created in 2006 out of older designations and is completely encircled within DO Montsant. It is one of only two DOCa - Denominación de Origen Calificada (DOQ) designations in Spain; the other being Rioja. The term Calificada translates as 'qualified' or 'guaranteed' and implies a guarantee of high wine quality. Like Montsant, this is a high altitude region with a combination of Mediterranean and Continental influences. Soils are quartz and slate and known as llicorella. These conditions have lead to the "intense, full-bodied red wines; the classic Priorat wine is made from old-vine Garnacha and Samso/Cariñena, and has concentrated aromas of licorice, tar and brandied cherries".

DO Terra Alta
This is the most southern designation bordering the inland section of Tarragona and has the highest altitude with the mountain peaks reaching 3,000 feet. The vineyards are located down in the foothills and valley floors. The climate is mostly Mediterranean with some Continental influences with long, hot summers and very cold winters. El Cierzo, a local dry wind which originates in the Ebro River valley to the west, plays a vital role in moderating temperatures during the growing season, as well as helping to prevent mildew diseases on the vines. The soils are clay and coastal limestone, with good drainage. Garnacha Blanca is the key white grape variety and not surprisingly Garnacha for red.

DO Penedès
This designation was created in 1960 and is the most important viticultural area in Catalonia in terms of both volume and the diversity of wine styles. The region starts at the coast south of Barcelona and extends inland where elevation reaches close to 3,000 feet. The Mediterranean climate provides warm summers, mild winters, and moderate rainfall for the calcareous, clay and limestone soils.  Red Penedès wines have traditionally been made from Garnacha, Carinena, Monastrell, Tempranillo, and lately Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. The white wines are made from the varieties otherwise used for Cava: Macabeo, Parellada, Xarel-lo, and more recently Chardonnay. 

DO Cava
This designation encompasses multiple areas within Catalonia but is almost 95% within Penedès. It was established in 1991 and highlights the traditional home to this sparkling wine, although today Aragon, Navarra, Rioja, Pais Vasco, Valencia and Extremadura have specific Cava demarcated areas.  The traditional grape varieties used in Cava were Macabeo, Parellada, and Xarel-lo with Chardonnay and Pinot Noir now also being used. "Macabeo makes up around half of a typical Cava blend – not because of its flavor (it is quite bland), but because it represents a viticultural insurance policy. Macabeo vines bud relatively late in the spring, ensuring that their flowers and grapes are safe from early frosts. The interesting, slightly earthy flavors that distinguish Cava from most Champagnes are generally attributed to Xarel-lo grapes". 

* Source for this article: and Master Class Presentation

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