(Geoffrey Dean/Harpers) If New World countries were the forerunners in promoting wine tourism, it has taken some Old World heavyweights much longer to embrace the concept. Catalonia was slow off the mark, but from a standing start 10 years ago, the Catalans have finally woken up to the value of wine tourists. And the punters are coming in big numbers – an estimated 750,000 a year, with Torres’ Penedes headquarters alone attracting 120,000 visitors.
Torres’ headquarters in Penedes attracts thousands of visitors a year
Wine tourism has really taken off in Catalonia, and become a popular attraction for visitors to Barcelona
Torres has long been superbly run and marketed, culminating in its ascension earlier this year to the world’s most admired wine brand, according to a leading poll. Their Penedes HQ houses one of the best privately-owned winery museums, complete with 19th century basket presses and an old barrel signed on a visit in 2010 by former American President, Jimmy Carter. The retail shop is doing a roaring trade, selling as it does every one of Torres’ scores of different labels.
One of them, Salmos, a blend of carignan, garnacha and syrah, is made at Torres’ Priorat winery at El Lloar, an hour and a half’s journey further south. And it is a drive that is highly worthwhile, for apart from the cellar door’s breathtaking 360-degree views of surrounding peaks, ridges and settlements, including Gratallops, it offers the visitor the rare opportunity to decide on his own assemblage of Salmos, before bottling it and taking it away. After individual tastings of the three concomitant varietals, you work out your preferred percentages, do the blending and close your half-bottle with the onsite corking machine.
Helped by its distance from Barcelona – enough to put off the casual tourist but not the true wine-lover – Priorat retains its unspoilt, rustic charm. Rugged and mountainous, it appears to be in something of a time warp. The principal town of Falset has an ‘oldy-worldy’ feel to it, with the owner of one its principal hotels professing that “we are still keeping the food we ate 40 years ago because visitors don’t come here for Michelin stars.”
This traditional, rich Priorat cuisine goes very well with its full-bodied wines, although some younger winemakers, such as Pep Aguilar and Patrick Morillo, are moving to a fresher style. The talented Salvador Burgos fashions wines with great concentration and intensity that went especially well with delicious local fare made by his wife at their tiny Burgos Porta winery, near Reus, where Antoni Gaudi, the celebrated Catalan architect, was born. With its magnificent view of the Monsant peak, the winery is situated on a stunning site, and Burgos’ flagship wine, Mas Sinen Coster, is an enticing blend of garnacha, mazuelo and carignan.
If Priorat remains a destination in its own right, Penedes is more of an excursion from Barcelona. Around 85% of Spain’s Cava comes from Catalonia, most of it from Penedès. Llopart, one of the oldest, and best, producers, has been making Cava since 1887 and is still family-owned. Around 20% of an annual production of 400,000 bottles is exported, with the UK, US and Germany prime markets.
Pere and Jesi Llopart and their father
A superb new cellar door, at the winery’s beautiful hillside location in Subirats, helps attract 3,000 visitors per annum. Jesi Llopart, who heads up marketing and sales, ensures everyone gets the warmest of welcomes, while her brother, Pere, oversees the winemaking. His outstanding Leopardi 2009, which has just been released, spent 48 months on the lees.
A visit to nearby Albet i Noya is equally worthwhile. The winery was the first to grow grapes organically in Catalonia, and allows visitors to drive through its vineyards on battery-powered Segways. As many as 24 different varietals are grown there, allowing it to produce 20 different still wines and seven sparklings.
One of the latter is made by the ‘methode ancestrale’ (single fermentation) with no sulphur dioxide added at all. The wine is imaginatively called ‘NOSODOS’. The only grape used in it is Xarel-lo, which is naturally very resistant to oxidation.
This varied approach to winemaking is typical of Catalonia, where one word can perhaps sum up this most interesting of wine-producing regions: contrast. And helped by its 12 denominations of origin (DOs), five wine routes, 320-plus wineries, spectacular scenery and multiple other attractions, the province has gone from virtual non-starter at the beginning of the millennium to key driver in Spain’s wine tourism.