In Spring 2014 I ran six tours to Catalonia, taking over 70 people across the tours. Flying in to Barcelona Airport I don’t think anyone expected the exceptional quality and diversity this relatively unknown region had to offer.
We stayed in a lovely hotel, La Niña, overlooking the sea in the picturesque town of Sitges, with its beach promenades, and exotic atmosphere (one tour coincided with the Gay Pride festival, which provided additional atmosphere, all of it good humoured, if a little rowdy, well into the small hours).
Over three days of visits we explored the region’s two major wine growing areas. We returned home fans of the beauty of the landscape, the delicious food native to it, and of course its wines.
The Penedes region is home to the majority of cava production. My principal desire was to convince people that there was more to cava than our supermarket offerings suggest.
This was eminently demonstrated by our visit to Clos Lentiscus where the wonderful Manel Avinyo took us through boutique artisanal cava production using a myriad of local and international grape varieties. We tasted that cava can reach the highest levels of sparkling wine quality. We were also treated to an expert demonstration by Manel of ‘sabrage’ or its Spanish equivalent where he whipped off the top of a bottle with a big knife. Clos Lentiscus is named after the mastic shrub that grows in the neighbouring Massís del Garraf, a gloriously rugged landscape covered in herbs, windswept trees and shrubs, peppered with limestone outcrops and sinkholes.
Also neighbouring the Garraf was Can Rafols, a wine estate created by Carlos Esteva in the 1970s. Here sparkling and still wines are made in a winery dug into the limestone and hidden from most views.
The other Penedes wineries we visited were near Vilafranca.
How Ceferino Carrión from Santander became Jean Leon from Hollywood is an impossibly glamorous story, the Jean Leon winery is impossibly glamorous, but luckily the wines, mainly made from French varietals, were in no way impossible. Jean Leon (now owned by Torres) pretty much established the concept of single vineyard wines in Spain, and some vintages of their Grand Reserva wines have won very prestigious awards.
Albet i Noya is one of the most famous organic wine producers in Spain. A family business, growing and sourcing a variety of international and local grape varieties, they have a fabulous library of older vintages which demonstrated the ageing potential of varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah grown in these austere conditions. We had a great visit, including the modernist cellar built in the 1920s, where wines are vinified, and the more recently built ageing cellar.
At Cavas Nadal, a family owned bodega making sparkling, white and sweet wines, we enjoyed a horse and cart ride through the vineyards, and a lovely tasting in their airy tasting room looking out to the Pyrenees in the distance.
In Vilafranca, where we stopped for lunch, some of us we spent a very enjoyable hour sampling the fabulous selection of Penedes wines in the Vinseum (wine museum) winebar.
The rugged Priorat region, with its arid conditions, and sensationally precipitously steep hills, provided a spectacular backdrop to some spectacular wines. Priorat wines are intense, concentrated, long lived and given their relatively small production occupy a very high place in the Spanish wine pecking order. Any producer prepared to work under these conditions deserves serious attention.
We visited several different Priorat producers
Mas Igneus, near Gratallops, produces fruit driven intense concentrated wines, made from organically grown grapes. In their winery, which seemed to cling to the hillside, our host, Chaxiraxi, gave us a wonderful insight into the winery, their three vineyards and their relationship with producers from whom they source grapes. The tasting was fabulous – all the wines are around 50% Garnaxta (Grenache), with a variety of international and local varieties added to the blend.
At historic Cellers Scala Dei, inextricably linked to the Escaladei monastery whose Prior gave the name to the Priorat region, we tasted their intense, pure Garnaxta wines, and marvelled at the natural staircase to heaven.
And at Clos Mogador, created by the Barbier family in the 1980s and lavished with international awards, we drove into the hills to experience the terraced vineyards carved out of beautiful but desolate landscape, before a visit to their cellars, where they age wine in barrels and also in amphora, and a fabulous tasting of their Garnaxta blends.
Our lunch highlight was at Mas Trucafort where Roger and Nina lavishly entertained us in their garden, presenting locally grown food prepared on an openfire in their garage. With simple local wine, and enough time to relax, this was a wonderful way to consolidate our understanding of – and delight in – this fabulous region.
Sitges is an easy place to find great food, but I am really pleased that all our groups were able to enjoy on our final night dinner, the delights of eF&Gi Restaurant, for whom our final tour’s final night was their last night ever in Sitges (they are now having great success in Ibiza). I will need to work hard next time we visit to find somewhere with equal amounts of gastronomy and bonhomie.
“Tim brings a delightful informality and humour to his tours without neglecting the serious side of understanding the wine and food of the region. Tim also brings something different; in the case of the Catalyuna tour, by finding small artisan producers, often using organic or bio-dynamic methods, experimenting with different grape varieties or re-introducing indigenous grape varieties back to a wine region.” – Gregor Dixon, Laleham
“We returned yesterday from Sitges and just wanted to feed back to you that we enjoyed this Tour very much. The relaxed format with lunch arranged somewhere, plus staying in a good hotel such as La Niña, suits us very well.” – Charles & Doris Monsell, Goring
“Just a note to say how much we both enjoyed the tour – impeccable itinerary and organization as always – you even supplied the sunshine! All the winemakers were delightfully welcoming and enthusiastic, even when they were having to answer the phone, take deliveries and sweep the floor at the same time.” – Alan and Anne Farley, Caversham