Catalonia would be unthinkable without its wines. In the same way that the economic dynamism of Spain would be unthinkable without the region of Barcelona, driving economic force in the Northeast of Spain, we would not be able to comprehend its history, its culture and the characteristic features of Catalonia without its wines.
The name of Catalonia has always been linked in some way to the world of wine. In the same way that the great events of European history have had the vineyards as picturesque backdrop, for Catalonia we can also confirm that its vines have been silent witnesses of evolution and of historical transformations in this European region.
Catalonia’s tradition of wine-growing goes back more than 2,000 years, when the Greek and Roman cultures arrived here, spreading and enhancing the cultivation of the Vitis Vinifera all along the Mediterranean slopes and developing the production of wine.
The Vitis Vinifera came to Catalonia via the port of Empúries, in the north of the region, and spread throughout the Iberian Peninsula. Thus, a major impulse for its cultivation was instigated by small agricultural settlements that were founded, which were almost exclusively engaged in cultivating vineyards. The Romans knew how to maintain its sacred flair, which in their times also the Greeks adopted; the latter however conferred it in additional economic and dietary value. Consequently, as they were gaining territories in their quests, they planted cereals, olives and grape-vines on these conquered lands. One can say that while they shaped the landscape of Catalonia, they also established the foundation of the Mediterranean Diet: bread, oil and wine, the basis of Catalan cuisine.
During the Middle Ages, viticulture is closely related with the emergence of ecclesiastical clusters of monastic forms like Cluny and the Cistercians. The monasteries function as a kind of agricultural farms and the monks themselves work on the farms, producing the wines that they need for their religious ceremonies. From these religious settlements emerge many of the grand Catalan wines. Their fame has preserved itself over the centuries, and even today, the environment around these monasteries is host to vineyards whose wines are considered amongst the best in Catalonia. Some examples would be the monasteries of Poblet, Santes Creus, Sant Pere de Roda, Sant Benet del Bages or Scala Dei.
Subsequently, already in the middle of the 19th century, Catalan viticulture and viniculture experiences three quite different periods, although the chronological lines between one and the other can not be drawn precisely.
The first period is marked by the emergence of powdery mildew (oidium) and its negative effects lasting from 1869 until 1865; the second, known as the golden age of old viticulture and viniculture, is the period between the aforementioned plague and the wine pest caused by the insect phylloxera; the third period is distinguished by the partial reconstitution of grape-vines that were destroyed by the wine pest, the crisis resulting from overproduction and the fall of prices after 1891.
Today, Catalonia is one of the most exciting areas of European wine-growing. Because of its variety of climates (resulting from the hilly territory), its rich variety of vines (of which a great part is yet to be explored), as well as its great variety of soils, it is especially destined for producing wines of excellent character. It comprises nine denominations of origin: Alella, Empordà, Pla del Bages, Penedès, Conca de Barberà, Priorat, Montsant, Terra Alta, Tarragona and Costers del Segre, in addition to the denomination of origin Catalunya, a more common denomination, as used in other regions of the world (Bordeaux, Burgundy), which covers a great number of wines that, despite the common denomination, originate from many different micro climates in the region.
Today, the denomination of origin Catalunya gives many grand wines the opportunity to display their brilliant Mediterranean flair. These are wines that do not claim payment for their place of origin or their exact vineyard, nor one of the nine specified denominations of origin, however they do exclusively proclaim their Catalan identity, which is usually based on very traditional varieties (such as garnacha, cariñena, monastrell, garró, samsó) grown in these historical vineyards.
Catalan wines face the challenges posed by the 21st century with great aspirations and hopes. This mixture of cooperatives, small wine producers and large wine cellars has been strengthened through the work and efforts realized by strong brands in the past decades, which have become renowned on national and international markets. Challenges to be confronted in the coming years involve spreading the history of our viticulture and viniculture more widely, to let our culture and our heritage be known extensively.
Moreover, emphasis should be given to the support offered by the trend-setting Catalan cuisine. The prestige and international projection that our gastronomy has achieved, has allowed our wines to enter the best restaurants of the world. In tandem, the Catalan cuisine and wine have turned into a great success in the world of restaurant businesses as a result of the extraordinary efforts exerted by great professionals.
The author was born in 1941 and graduated in chemistry at the University of Barcelona in 1959, majoring in oenology and viticulture in Dijón (Burgundy) in 1961. Since 1962, he has been President and Managing Director of his family’s enterprise. Miguel A. Torres wrote books on vineyards and wines, is chief editor of the “Encyclopedia of Wine” for Orbis and has received various awards.