The Bad Old Days!
Spain is the third largest producer of wine in the world (after France and Italy) but is the number one exporter worldwide. Despite its popularity today though, Spanish wines have not been traditionally held in as high regard as those produced by our French neighbours to the north, and back in the 1960s this viewpoint would have been largely justifiable. The wine industry, along with just about every other industry, suffered greatly as a result of the Spanish Civil War and WWII that immediately followed it.
Franco’s oppressive military dictatorship didn’t exactly help matters either during the rest of the 1940s and 1950s, especially as Franco was a teetotaller and prohibited the export of wine from Spain, believing wine should only be used for church. In the 1960s the same Franco decided to try and cash in on the package tourism market and Spain was sold as a cheap destination for northerners seeking sun, sea and sand and they started coming in their droves. Those tourists were probably not the most discerning and the wine (as well as the beer and olive oil) produced was often of a quality to meet their expectations – cheap and cheerful!
Things have changed though. Although some parts of the country do still cater for cheap package tourism, the market has changed considerably since those early days and Spain now ranks as the second most visited country in the world, second only to France (damn, those pesky French again!). Most visitors nowadays are looking for a lot more than sun and cheap plonk and it’s just as well as a lot of Spaniards were getting pretty fed up with nothing but drunken foreign revellers.
The Spanish wine industry, along with the rest of the country, rose to the challenge.
The Good Older Days
First a little history. The Romans’ favourite wine was reputedly from the region around what is today Tarragona, their capital of the lands they occupied in what they called Hispania. But wine was there a long time before they arrived. It is believed that viticulture was already established when the Phoenicians arrived in Spain around 1100B.C. and then started trading it around the Mediterranean. They were the first to plant vines in the Jeréz region that today gives us sherry. The Carthaginians improved on their methods during their time in Iberia but when the Romans took control of the Iberian Peninsula, they took winemaking to a new level, introducing new and better wine-making styles and methods. This golden age for wine came to an end with the collapse of the Roman empire in the early 5th century and viticulture declined under the occupying Visigoths who consumed wine but did not produce it themselves. And so, it remained until the arrival of the teetotal muslim Arabs and Moors in 771.
One common misconception is that the production of wine was prohibited under muslim rule but actually Christians were not forbidden from producing or drinking alcohol and the Arabs themselves consumed both the grapes and the raisins they made from them. In fact, after the “dark years” for viticulture under the Visigoths, the quality of winemaking recovered during the centuries of Arabic rule and even flourished and reached new heights, largely thanks to Christian monks who came from all around Europe and introduced different types of vine. Commerce in wine did almost disappear though during this time, so when muslim rule eventually came to an end wine production surged again and after 1492 when the Spanish “discovered” and began to conquer the New World the increase became exponential as they began exporting to their new colonies. In time they began producing wine in the New World too and in some places, they were so successful that it began to impact on the Spanish wine market itself, so much so that the Spanish king Felipe III tried banning the further expansion of vineyards in Chile – which thankfully didn’t work!
Boom to almost bust
Skipping forward a couple of centuries we come to the age of the Industrial Revolution, which brought with its better machinery and equipment for winemaking. While Spanish wine had by this time become widely renowned, the Industrial Revolution took place in Northern Europe and didn’t reach Spain. Spanish wine exports began to decline and would have continued to do so if not for something else from Northern Europe that didn’t arrive in Spain: phylloxera!
What is Phylloxera you may ask? It’s a type of louse that attacks vine roots and it crippled the wine industry in the rest of Europe. As as result sales of Spanish wine soared again and became popular all over Europe. Even though the phylloxera hadn’t managed to cross the Pyrenees, a number of French winemakers did, bringing new vines and more advanced techniques, thus improving the quality of Spanish wine, especially in the Rioja region. By the time the vine louse did make it over the mountains in the early 1900s a cure had been found, so damage to the Spanish wine industry was not as devastating as it might have been.
The cure, however, was expensive as it involved grafting the vines onto American roots that were resistant to phylloxera on a huge scale and many of the French winemakers, rather than foot the bill, returned to France. Due to the global economic depression of the early part of the century caused by wars and general upheaval, many Spanish wine-makers also emigrated to look for a better life elsewhere. Those that remained did away with many of the older and traditional varieties of vine and opted for others that produced higher yields and so the resulting wine was more uniform and of a lower quality.
From bad to worse
The Spanish Civil War from 1936-39 was devastating for the wine industry as many vineyards went unattended and others were uprooted and replanted with other crops. As we mentioned earlier, the military dictatorship of Franco that followed, not to mention World War II and the collapse of the European market, only made things worse. During the Franco years the quality of the wine was usually poor with grapes often being picked unripe, white and red thrown together into fermenting pits, with equipment and conditions typically being almost primitive. If it weren’t for a few innovative individual wine-growers in a few areas who endeavoured to maintain standards it may well have ended up as a lost cause altogether.
Finally, the good part!
And so that brings us back to where we started, Franco’s time. After Franco’s death in 1975 came democracy and a greater economic freedom across all sectors of the economy, and the wine industry grew along with it. Spain joined the EU (then the EEC) in 1982 and this brought further economic aid to the sector and also led to new legal standards being put in place for wine production. A ban on irrigation that had previously been implemented due to drought was also lifted in 1996, meaning more areas could be used for viticulture and more varieties of vine were introduced (or reintroduced).
As in the rest of Spain, the majority of the wine produced here, about 80%, used to be red once upon a time. When that Phylloxera louse had devastated wineries to the north, some of those French winemakers who made their way to Catalunya encouraged the planting of white wine grapes in place of the diseased red vines and today they make up about 70% of grape varieties cultivated in the region. (In the rest of Spain reds only just about outnumber whites nowadays).
A Catalan winemaker named Josep Raventos saw the potential for a sparkling Spanish white wine having visited the French region of Champagne in the 1860s, and in 1872 Cava was invented in the Penedès region. Today, over 90% of all cava produced is from Catalunya, and about 95% of that is from Penedès.
During the Spanish “wine revolution” in the second half of the 20th century Catalan wine-makers such as Torres were to the fore and a bottle of their Mas La Plana cabernet sauvignon red even won at the “Wine Olympics” in Paris in 1979, beating the best wines from France and around the world in its category and really putting Catalan wines on the world wine map.
Wine Regions of Catalunya
Being part of the EU, the labelling system for wine bottles in Spain is very similar to that in other wine countries like France and Italy. The Denominación de Origen (D.O.) in Spain is the equivalent of the Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée in France for example. This tells you that the wine comes from a particular area and that it conforms to certain strict rules applicable to that region, including which types of grape were used.
The top-quality wine regions have a Denominación de Origen Calificada (D.O.C.) label (D.O.Q. in Catalan) and there are only two in all of Spain thus far, Priorat from Catalunya and the world-famous Rioja. Apart from the D.O. Cava, which is the only D.O. not to correspond to a specific area but rather a type of wine, and the D.O. Catalunya (which covers any Catalan wines that fulfil the right requirements but do not fall under any of the other D.O.s in Catalunya), there are 10 Catalan D.O.s:
Alella a small wine region producing mostly white wines with Xarel-lo being its principal grape
Conca del Barberà produces mostly white wines, the best known being made from the parellada grape, as well as cava and some rosé.
Costers del Segre use a variety of grapes, both native and foreign, to produce mainly full-bodied reds, but also some white and rosé.
Pla de Bages supposedly derives its name from Bacchus, the Roman god of wine. A very small and relatively new D.O. known mainly for its white wines.
Terra Alta was formerly known for its full-bodied red but more recently has been gaining renown for its Grenache-based white wine too.
Tarragona was historically known for its fortified red wines similar to port, it now produces red, rosés, liqueurs and vermút, although most of the production is now white wine, including cava.
Priorat is the only D.O.Q in Catalunya due to its consistently excellent quality. Their wines tend to be among the most expensive due to the high quality but low yield their terrain is capable of producing. They are particularly famous for their powerful, full-bodied reds with their high alcohol content.
Montsant formerly part of the Tarragona D.O., it became its own label in 2001. Surrounding the Priorat D.O. it also produces very high-quality wines but at lower prices.
Penedès is the biggest of the D.O.s in Catalunya and the main producer of cava but also produces wines of all types using a wide variety of grapes.
And finally we come to:
This has been our local Denominación de Origen on the Costa Brava since 1972, and in fact it was known as D.O Empordà-Costa Brava until the name was shortened in 2006. Although we may sometimes get fed up with the Tramuntana here it does help reduce vine diseases and keep frost to a minimum and has even given rise to Empordà wines being called “Wines of the Wind”.
The traditional grapes used for red wine in the Empordà are carignan (samsó in Catalan) and grenache (garnatxa), but in more recent times wine-growers have also introduced foreign varieties such as cabernet sauvignon, merlot, syrah (shiraz), tempranillo and muscat in the production or their reds and also their increasing output of their highly regarded rosé wines (vins rosats).
Whites wine grapes used are grenache and macabeu, with lesser amounts of xarel-lo, muscat and, more recently, chardonnay, sauvignon blanc and gewurztraminer. Unique to the region is a naturally sweet dessert wine called Garnatxa de l’Empordà made from an indigenous grape of the same name.
If you’d like to experience the wines of Empordà firsthand there are wine tours, tastings, events, wine bars, museums and even wine therapy treatments nearby! All the information you need is available here.
Shopping for wine
Unless you’re already a bit of a wine expert you might find the vast array of different wines available in your local wine shop or supermarket a tad confusing. One way to make the selection a little easier is to decide what level of quality of wine you want.
Vinos de Mesa
At the bottom end of the range are the Vinos de Mesa, or table wines. These wines are cheap and are not obliged to declare their origin, age or grape varieties used in production.
Vinos de la Tierra
Next are the Vinos de la Tierra, meaning “wines from the land” (from a particular region). Although you can tell where they come from, these wines are not subject to the same rigorous regulations as the D.O. wines.
Vinos de Calidad con Indicación Geográfica (V.C.)
Must come from a specific region as do the grapes used, and the winemaking itself, including any aging, must have taken place in that region too.
Another level up are the D.O. wines which we explained above and the D.O.C/D.O.Q wines which are superior again.
Vinos de Pago
At the very top of the pyramid are the Vinos de Pago which are wines of exceptional quality that fulfil and surpass all the requirements of a D.O.C and are typically from a specific winery, estate or farmhouse.
Obviously, you get what you pay for and although you might get lucky with a cheap wine from time to time (and if you do, remember the name of the bottle!) but for the most part it’s worth going for at least a D.O. wine as most of these are still very affordable and quality assured. Then it’s just down to a question of individual taste.
No, there’s really no such thing as ‘black wine’, but the Catalan for red wine is vi negre which does translate as black wine. In Spanish that’d be vino tinto. For white and rosé wine there’s little difference: vino blanco = vi blanc; vino rosado = vi rosat. Note also that in Catalan the plural of vi is vins…
Wine = love
We’ll leave you with a little anecdote. The same Sanskrit word, vana, is the origin of both the Roman name for the goddess of love and beauty, Venus, and the word for wine, vino.
Makes perfect sense!