Spain's Mediterranean Coast

This massive region spans the eastern coast of Spain from its northern border with France to the border with Andalucía in the south. Within this vast expanse a wide variety of wines are produced, from crisp, fragrant sparkling Cava wines and dry whites to dense and earthy wines made from Garnacha, Cariñena, Monastrell, and more. Here coastal influences prove more significant than the continental extremes of the Meseta.

In Cataluña, which occupies triangle-shaped area south of the border with France in Spain’s northeast, elevation as well as proximity and exposure to the sea are crucial to understanding what is made there and why. The vineyards of the area may be fairly moderate and coastal, as in Alella, or remote and mountainous, as in Priorat. This area is home to 95% of the country’s total Cava wine production, but the exotic, powerful, warm and mineral-laden wines of Priorat also are made within its borders.

South of Cataluña along a long stretch of Spain’s east coast, the land heats up, and as summer temperatures rise, the opportunity to make light wines is baked away. Instead, from northwest of the city of Valencia, south to the Cap de la Nau pointing past Ibiza towards Sicily and all the way to Murcia, the area’s vineyards are wholly dependent upon water. Where water is available for viticulture, many good wines are made, and hardy vines, especially old vines with deep roots that find enough moisture in the soil, survive where water is scarce.

DO Alella

The Pansá Blanca grape (also known as Xarel-lo and sometimes Pasá Blanca) hardly receives a nod when it comes to white–wine varieties. Yet it can be brightly expressive in the limestone, granite, and/or sandstone soils of these coastal and hillside vineyards, and even within a few sites that include slate. There seems to be some movement toward a deeper appreciation of this grape, though the minor plantings of Garnacha Blanca often garner greater international attention. Parellada, Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc, Macabeo, Ull de Llebre (Tempranillo), Garnacha, Merlot, and even Viognier are grown as well, and proximity to the sea allows for milder climatic conditions for those grapes that require it.

Alella’s proximity to Barcelona has added to its success, at least in Spain, but now interest lies more in the land than in the wines. The land under the vines is worth far more to housing, hotel, and, resort developers than to wineries, placing the future of Alella at risk. It doesn't hurt tourism that it's relatively dry here, but that makes it a worthy place for successful vineyards too. The DO is one–third the size it was a half–century ago; vineyards continue to creep up into the hills, but the city quickly follows.

For further information, visit DO Alella Website.

DO Alicante

An area split apart between hot, coastal, sandy vineyards and hot, elevated, limestone-rich soils, this DO is famous for sweet dessert wines and the rancio style of wine called Fondillón. La Marina, the littoral portion, barely rises above sea level, but the vineyards in the Vinalopó River Valley (the western part) can rise as high as 2,100 feet. A few producers in these drier, elevated sites are making very good and balanced table wines as well. Alicante’s large, present–day 35,000 acres of vineyards pale in comparison to the more than 230,000 acres that were bearing fruit before phylloxera destroyed them. Considering the area's wealth of sandy soils (along with limestone and clay), it's surprising that the sand-averse bug was able to do such damage, but the two mildews (downy and powdery) had already done their worst when phylloxera came along to finish off the vines.

Back before phylloxera Moscatel de Alejandría (Muscat of Alexandria, or as it was likely known before, Moscatel of Alicante) was the dominant grape, as it may have been since Phoenician times. The Moors managed to overlook their religion–based disinclination toward wine to make these delicious sweet grapes a part of their daily table. Indeed, prices from the nineteenth century show Moscatel selling at four to six times the price for Sherry or Port.

The grape, like the region, has recovered, but is no longer the world–wine juggernaut. One of the DO's famed dessert wines, Fondillón, is now more likely to be made from Monastrell than from Moscatel, its base of yore. But Fondillón (sweet and alcoholic) isn't really the style of wine people drink anymore; today's favored wines are fresher and fruitier.

For further information on Alicante wine, visit DO Alicante Website.

DO Bullas

From vineyards in hills and valleys that can run from 2,000 to 2,800 feet, Monastrell, Garnacha, and Tempranillo are produced here alongside the famous French varieties. The highest areas are considered to give the best quality. Limestone and alluvial soils are mixed together, but as perfect as those might be for wine, the summers are less likely to enjoy cooling nights than at other Levante sites. The Monastrell grape performs well nonetheless; the better known grapes suffer in the heat, mitigated though they may be by the occasional cool winds.

For further information, visit DO Bullas Website. (Only available in Spanish)

DO Cataluña

A DO established in 1999 that exists to allow the greatest flexibility to winemakers hopeful of blending commercial wines from throughout this corner of Spain. You might think of it as a smaller version of that giant Australian GI, Southeastern Australia. While most wineries seem to seek the more delineated names of Empordà, Montsant, and the others within the larger Cataluña area, names such as Clos d'Agon are helping to bring greater recognition to DO Cataluña (or Catalunya, in Catalan). Expect to see more wines with this DO designation in the next few years.

For further information on cataluña wine, visit DO Catalunya Website.

DO Conca de Barberà

The concave (conca) bowl of this limestone–rich valley can and has produced some lovely wines for international markets, though historically these have been mostly white wines. But Torres, among others, with its Grans Muralles vineyard bottling, has offered proof that this can be an exciting place for reds made with both international and autochthonous varieties. The DO is protected from the sea by the mountains and fed by the Francolí and Anguera rivers. Traditionally, Macabeo, Parellada, Trepat, and Tempranillo have dominated, but there is an increasing amount of experimentation—with varying exposures and elevations (700 to 1,750 feet) there deserves to be more.

For further information, visit DO Conca de Barberà Website.

DO Costers del Segre

Despite the elevation of Costers del Segre (up to 1,750 feet), most of the vineyards are down in the little valleys of this large area of over 10,000 acres of vines. The vineyards are traditionally devoted to Cava production, but Raimat has long been focused upon making top–flight red and white wines from both French and indigenous varieties with international success. The area’s more continental climate necessitates different grapes and methods than are used in the more coastal places in Cataluña; the usual suspects are joined by Samso (a synonym of Cariñena, although some insist it can be something different), Trepat, Bobal, Muscat of Alexandría, Gewürztraminer, and even Pinot Noir. Soils tend towards a mix of sand, limestone, and alluvials; rivers strongly mark this area named for the Segre River, itself a tributary of the Ebro.

For further information, visit DO Costers del Segre Website.

DO Empordà

It will always be difficult for an American to understand why the region didn't keep its original title of Empordà–Costa Brava or at least select the more famous and easier to pronounce Costa Brava name. The region is already invisible to wine lovers, and with increasing attention being given to France's next–door regions of Collioure and Banyuls, it seems an odd choice. As with southern France, winds sweeping down from the north can be a critical viticultural element; the Tramontano wind can be a violent force. A mix of traditional and international grapes thus far has produced a range of qualities, but there are many excellent wines, and tourists are advised to visit the beautiful, fourteenth century Castillo de Perelada.

For further information on Empordà wine, visit DO Empordà Website.

DO Jumilla

Monastrell may not be famous either from Spain or in its French iteration, Mourvèdre, but it deserves far better. Jumilla’s sandy soils allow for ungrafted vines, and Monastrell seems to thrive in these impoverished soils. Despite the low yields inherent in the arid conditions, prices are very affordable, and value can be high. From Roman times to the nineteenth century, Jumilla was considered to make good to very good wines, and phylloxera never did its damage until 1989, just as Spain was emerging on the world wine scene. The phylloxera outbreak and subsequent replanting caused the DO to lag behind other DOs. Jumilla certainly has been overlooked and even denigrated in the Spanish wine press, but there are now many wines that have achieved high quality, modernity, and fresh fruit.

There are more than 70,000 acres planted with Monastrell, joined by Garnacha, Tempranillo, Airén, Macabeo, Pedro Ximénez, Moscatel, Malvasía, and a few Bordeaux reds. Whether on hills or plains, the vineyards sit at 1,750 feet to 2,600 feet, high above the nearby coastline. Monastrell's dominance may be in question though; much of it is ungrafted and the consejo has decreed that any new plantings must be on American rootstock. Monastrell's Achilles heel, as it were, has always been attached to its feet: it doesn't always adapt well to rootstock. But that was then; now rootstock choices are better understood. Phylloxera only has become a problem in the last decade and a half, so all the new plantings reflect greater understanding and skills.

For further information, visit DO Jumilla Website.

DO Montsant

While some have called these wines “poor man’s Priorat,” that does a disservice to the area’s burgeoning reputation. A near circle of vineyards surrounding Priorat, Montsant shares grapes (Garnacha, Cariñena) and styles with Priorat. The only great differences are that the vineyards are usually not as old and the elevations and terrains are not as wild and wooly as Priorat —but what other vineyards are? Once known as the Baix Priorat, Montsant's nearly 4,500 acres of vineyards lie mostly at around 1,200 feet, lower than much of Priorat by nearly 2,000 feet. Priorat's famed licorella soils of granite and slate are only occasionally in evidence here; soils are mostly sandy limestone, chalk, and clay, but granite and slate lie underneath these soils, and the landscape and climate match Priorat's extreme character. If the reputations and predicted age worthiness of Montsant's wines fall short of those of Priorat at this time, so too do the prices.

In fact, there are spots near the town of Falset that see outcroppings of granite while other spots show chunks of slate, so smart buyers have realized that Priorat's intensity of character is available in Montsant if they rely upon a bit of research or a sharp palate.

For further information, visit DO montsant Website.

DO Penedés

While Cava can be made in many of the DOs throughout Spain, almost 90 percent is made in the Penedés DO. With good money available to vineyard owners who want to sell early–picked grapes to Cava producers, there is little reason to grow grapes for high–quality table wine. There are excellent red and white wines made here, but sparkling wine is the 800–pound gorilla among the vines. The Torres family can afford to do otherwise, but there aren’t many others.

The Torres name represents one of the world’s great wine producers. In the 1940s, Miguel Torres, Sr. was promoting and selling his wines in the United States, China, Australia, and South America. By the 1960s, he was building an all–stainless–steel winery at his family’s facility in Penedés. Miguel Sr. and his son, who joined the winery in 1962, removed all of the then–common, often dirty cement tanks and replaced them with the latest stainless steel models, capable of ensuring sterility and the retention of fresh fruit flavors. In the early 1960s, this was no small accomplishment. At that time in America, Robert Mondavi had yet to visit France and to return, fired with his ideas of a focus upon specific varieties and on French oak barrels and coopers. Stainless steel, the mid–twentieth–century invention that has allowed fresh white wines to be made around the world, was still very new in California. Torres' adoption of steel was the first of many brilliant moves; the Torres operation continues to evolve today, adding to the DO’s reputation as a place of innovation.

And if Cava is king in Penedés, there are a number of producers who have helped to crown it. Josep Raventós, Codorníu’s founder, deserves his reputation as the first innovator  creating a wine fashioned like Champagne in 1872. The elevation and, particularly, the limestone soils make the decision seem obvious in hindsight.

The Penedés region is routinely broken into the Alt–Penedés, the Medio (or Mitja) Penedés, and the Baix–Penedés, reflecting the disparities in elevation within the DO, with some vineyards planted in sites higher than 2,800 feet. All of the grapes (the dominant three—Macabeo, Xarel-lo, and Parellada) at those altitudes can be intensely tart, more akin to the structure of chilly Champagne than the fat–styled sparkling wines California tends to produce.

For most American consumers, the image of Cava is limited to the wildly successful grocery–store brands. While those might be excellent values, there are complex and layered versions of Cava, as well as rich Rosado styles (using Monastrell, Trepat, or occasionally Pinot Noir). Though few of them will be large–scale sparkling wines, there’s nothing wrong with that. Instead, the best are using more Xarel-lo (to give greater complexity) and leaving the wines on the lees for long spells, rivaling Champagne’s aging regimens. By law, however, nine months on the lees is enough to meet Cava’s regulations. Reservas must stay 18 months on the lees, and Gran Reservas require 30 months.

With so much worldwide success, Cava may always rule the roost in Penedés, but other creatures have finer plumage. The Torres Black Label Cabernet Sauvignon (dubbed Mas La Plana) helped put Spain on the map in the 1950s and 1960s, and despite a crowd of worthy rivals, the wine continues to wow the international set today.

For further information , visit DO Penedés Website and DO Cava Website.

 

DO Pla de Bages

Another emerging region, Pla de Bages’s only obstacles to success are a lack of a tradition of excellence and a lack of willingness to experiment with grape varieties that suit the semi–continental climate. Wine should fare well here; the name is said to derive from the old Roman name for the main town: Bacassis. Bacchus must surely have held sway, though in modern times textiles and not Bacchus have provided the main support. With vineyards perched from 800 to 1,100 feet in nooks and crannies among the hills and mountains, the plantings are limited by the landscape; only about 1,200 acres are planted at present. International varieties, as well as Tempranillo, Garnacha, and Macabeo, are performing well here, and many people enthuse over the white Picapoll grape, which is perfectly pleasant and crisp.

For further information, visit DO Pla de Bages Website.

DO Tarragona

Before 2004, this DO contained Montsant, but the best vineyards, especially those around Falset, were cleaved off and combined with elevated areas north of Priorat to make the Montsant DO. What was left behind describes both vineyards at similar elevations to Montsant around the Ebro River and large swaths along the coast, at virtually no elevation at all. The greater part of the vineyards of the Tarragona DO are given to Cava production. But vineyards near Priorat and Montsant sometimes offer remarkable value in table wines, occasionally as rich and extracted as those more reliable areas. The better bet is to look for tasty whites and youthful, sappy reds. There are still occasional sightings of a sweet red wine known as Tarragona Clásico, which received its DO way back in 1947.

For further information, visit DO Tarragona Website.

DO Terra Alta

High up, as its name suggests, but at 1,400 feet Terra Alta is no higher up than any of its winemaking neighbors. Still the area's mountainous beauty can captivate. A 17–year–old Pablo Picasso said in later years, "Everything I know I learned in the town of Pallarès"—not exactly a town but the home of his friend Manuel Pallarès in the town of Horta de Sant Joan. Some of his earliest paintings depict the landscape around him in Terra Alta. In the vineyards, chalk and clay dominate, as do the traditional grapes of Garnacha, Cariñena. Temparnillo, Garnacha Blanca, Macabeo, and Parellada.

For further information, visit DO Terra Alta Website.

DO Utiel-Requena

The region's history as an exporter of grapes and wine to Eastern Europe has hindered its progression toward higher quality table wines, but this DO named for its two chief cities has been in the business of wine for centuries. Though the region may be small in scale, there are nearly 100,000 acres of vines planted on its loamy, limestone soils at elevations from 2,000 feet to almost 3,000 feet. Summers are very hot, but elevation and nighttime winds offer moderation; the temperature can drop well into the teens (°F) during the winter.

Roman ruins prove winemaking is a millennia–old pursuit here, but other finds show that grape growing for wine was common even in the seventh century BC. Nearly uninterrupted viticulture provides intriguing evidence for the Bobal grape's emergence here; in the fifteenthth century it was known as Planta Nueva. Even during the phylloxera disaster of the late nineteenth century, Bobal persevered. The grape is famously resistant to the scourge, but it has been slipping from its prominence, from nearly 100 percent of the vineyard acreage to less than 80 percent today. Few pundits take the region seriously, but there are producers who are making quality red wines, and a few are even rescuing Bobal’s reputation.

For further information, visit DO Utiel-Requena Website.

DO Valencia

Historically famed for its wines, Spain's third largest city sold wines from everywhere, not only from its native vines. It was written about by Juvenal in the second century BC. Arnau de Villanova (yeah, that Villanova) was a Valencian who wrote one of Europe's first treatises about wine, focusing upon production and wine's health benefits. As with Bordeaux, the wealth generated by wine sales from its port allowed Valencia to build up its own estates; though there were many more vines a century ago, there are still more than 42,000 acres of wine grapes. In an unusual arrangement that perhaps echoes the city's historical power, the DO is allowed to buy wine from Utiel-Requena as it sees fit to plump out any deficiencies in its own vintages.

Valencia's own sea of wine is getting smaller and better. Wine writer John Radford talks of the likelihood of a new DO in Valencia, which will allow wines to be blended from the area, à la DO Cataluña (see above). For now the DO is split into four subzones: Alto Turia and Valentino high up in the mountains to the north, Moscatel de Valencia close to the city and producing an eponymous dessert wine, and Clariano to the south by Alicante. The rapid rise in elevation that marks most of Spain’s Mediterranean coast reaches real heights in Valencia. There are vineyards near sea level, as well as those above 3,200 feet; most are closer to 1,600 feet. Even so close to the sea, Spain has some of the highest vineyards in Europe, if not the world.

Most of the vineyards include large proportions of limestone, but marl, clay, sandstone, and gravel can all appear and impact the wines. Grapes include all manner of Mediterranean and international grapes, as well as locals such as Merseguera, Malvasia, Pedro Ximénez, Pedralba, Planta Nova (a white, not Bobal), Tortosi, Verdil, Alicante Bouschet (yes, they call it Garnacha Tintorera), and Bonicaire.

For further information, visit DO Valencia Website.

DO Yecla

Yecla is another historical region that has been eclipsed in the last few decades, though one family (the Castanos) have helped restore the region to some semblance of its lustrous past. This is a much smaller version of Jumilla, with similar grapes, elevation, climate and limestone–rich soils. While chalk in the vineyards usually makes for lightly colored reds, the best producers in the region are making multilayered wines with intense color and pretty aromatics. Dessert wines can excel here too. Monastrell is the overwhelming favorite variety among the vineyards in Yecla, and it can be special when grown in these limestone–rich soils.

For further information, visit DO Yecla Website.

DOC/DOCa Priorat

The fame of rediscovered Priorat, Spain’s second DOCa along with Rioja, has motivated some of the most expensive pricing for Spanish wines in only a short two decades. The tickets charged for some of these wines are as lofty as the stark pinnacles above these mountainous vineyards. Twenty years ago the area and its wines were mostly forgotten. In the early 1980s, perhaps inspired by some of the ferment outside of Rioja, a group of mavericks, including some from Rioja (René Barbier, Álvaro Palacios, Carlos Pastrana, Daphne Glorian, and José Lluís Pérez Verdú), moved to Priorat. Today, with Priorat pricing at astronomical levels, it’s hard to imagine that most people viewed their adventure into Priorat as pure spoiled–brat silliness. The pundits were very wrong. Barbier and his younger friends created fantastic wines almost from the beginning, and they continue to drive the region's improvements, joined now by many other dedicated souls and a few large companies. Palacios, for one, has returned to his home territory of Rioja to implement some of his brilliant ideas.

Some have worried that this success has created a rush of less noble–minded producers and that the large companies that have moved in will compromise the image of the region. But as Álvaro Palacios is quick to point out, the region itself is so difficult to work that only small amounts of very high–quality wine can be made. Anyone seeking to make wine through compromise will likely move elsewhere. The quality in Priorat, and the prices, will remain high. Even today, there are large stretches of forgotten or lost vineyard, though where once over half of Priorat seemed abandoned, now it's only an occasional spectacle.

Garnacha, at nearly 40 percent of the vineyard plantings, is the most widely planted grape, with Cariñena just barely behind. Most consider Cariñena a second–rate grape, but the old vines in this particular soil make for something special. There is great interest in Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Syrah in Priorat, and only Tempranillo seems to hold little promise and less interest here. It's just too hot for that grape.

Historically, the wines of Priorat were sweet, hot, rancio–styled wines. The modern wines are powerful and warm, if not occasionally hot, and not at all oxidized. It's as if the Port wine from Portugal's Douro Valley (which shares some of this soil) has been fashioned into a dry and extremely impressive wine. A few producers are creating wines with the incipient sweetness of the older style; those too are meeting with acclaim. Priorat seems destined to stay at the top. The landscape is distinct; the mix of granite and slate called licorella adds a distinct mineral and stone note that underpins every wine, regardless of the grapes.

While white grapes might seem unlikely in this lunar landscape, Garnacha Blanca and others have done well. But the laws legislate against them: legally minimum alcohol levels of 13.75% to 18% do not encourage a lighter hand, nor are the ripeness levels of grapes at those alcohols likeliest to show freshness of fruit.

For further information on Priorat wine, visit DOCa Priorat Website.

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