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Catalonia: Taking on the Giants

Catalonia is best known for its three super-producers: Torres, Codorniu and Freixenet. However, a selection of boutique wineries producing high-quality wines are winning the fight to get their voices heard, writes PETER RICHARDS.


Catalonia is a land ruled by giants. Yet a revolution is brewing. Ctonia, goddess of the earth, and Ino, aunt to Dionysus, are rising. For years the small voices have been drowned, but now their chorus is clamouring for attention.

Yet this is not the stuff of classical mythology. Rather, this is Catalonia racing into the 21st century. The small voices belong to a new breed of boutique wine producers; their chorus a growing range of mouthwatering wines. Ctonia and Ino are two such wines, made by the tiny Masía Serra winery in the Pyrenean foothills.

And what of the giants? The names Torres, Codorníu and Freixenet spring to mind. Massive companies producing vast volumes with the political and economic clout to match. Freixenet is the world’s largest producer of traditional-method sparkling wine. Codorníu has an annual turnover of around t200m. Torres’ tentacles stretch from Chile to China via California. Whether cava or table wine, their inexpensive Catalan brands are often sourced from across huge areas. So consumers only get to see an indistinct, generalised picture of Catalonia – a Monet when you could have a Caravaggio.

Of course, all is not that black and white. The big companies have put Catalonia on the map and in the markets. And Torres has consistently led the way, pioneering branded and single-estate wines from both international and indigenous varieties. All three have been commercially astute enough to branch out into the boutique market to diversify their portfolio.

Nonetheless, the big firms only tell one side of the story. Smaller producers struggle to emerge from their shadow. And in doing so they often craft intriguing, unique wines, ever conscious that without a tangible point of difference from the big three, they’re lost. So they concentrate on what sets them apart. It is a creative tension that is bearing remarkable fruit.


As Nuria Dalmau from Mas Estela winery points out, if you can’t beat them, elude them: ‘We can’t compete on their terms, so we don’t. As a small producer in Catalonia, you have to take quality as your point of departure, forget your own niche and build an image accordingly.’

Mas Estela is doing just that. High in the coastal hills, a few miles from the French border, Nuria and her husband Didier make red and white wine in a fiercely eco-friendly environment. Sold under the Vinya Selva de Mar label, these are hardly the most commercial of wines (the white can be sumptuously fat and tropical, the red an ebullient alcoholic monster), but therein lies their appeal. And they’re improving with every vintage.

Improvement based on research, experience and experimentation is the name of the game. At Masía Serra, near Cantallops, similar things are afoot. Jaume Serra professes to make ‘good, not great wine’. The reason for his modesty? ‘This is still a project in its infancy. It hasn’t yet stood the test of time – if we come back in 10 years and my 2000 vintage is showing well, then we can talk about greatness.’

Jaume, like Nuria and Didier, made his first wines in 1996. His refreshingly down-to-earth perspective bodes well. The wines are already powerful and elegant, with enormous potential – the labels Gneiss and Ctonia are two hot tips from this stable.

Many boutique wineries in Catalonia are relative newcomers. Not Cellers Santamaría, south of Masía Serra in Capmany, which proudly traces its roots back into the depths of the 19th century. As if to prove it, its reds relish the challenge of bottle age. The 1990 Gran Recosind Gran Reserva (a blend of Garnacha, Cariñena and Cabernet Sauvignon) is a smooth, elegant thoroughbred with an aged character.

Much of Catalonia shares a winemaking empathy with the Rhône – and nowhere more so than Priorato. Here, southwest of Barcelona amid precipitous rocky slopes, is the domain of Garnacha and Cariñena (Grenache and Carignan to Francophiles). Some of Spain’s most expensive wine originates here and labels such as Clos de l’Obac and Clos Martinet prove the price is more than justified.


But Priorato’s recent success has not just been felt in the soaring price of its wines, it has rubbed off onto surrounding regions. The hitherto subdued appellation of Terra Alta is one such Priorato satellite quietly coming into its own. Producer Xavier Clua describes DO Terra Alta as, ‘an unknown quantity in the world of wine’, and talks of, ‘carving out a niche in the quality market’. His plan is a bold one; his wines such as the white Vindemia and red Mil.lenium are well made, exuberant and full of character.


‘We aren’t trying to be fashionable,’ says Xavier, ‘we just want our wines to be appreciated for their intrinsic quality.’ His voice turns strident: ‘Globalisation leads to generalisation; generalisation means impersonality, which deprives wine lovers of the singular, the different, the unique – everything that makes wine great. Life is not easy for [small] producers but the stimulus is always positive.’

Similarly, Penedès is the last place you might expect to find successful boutique operations emerging. The heartland of cava production, the HQ of all the giant firms, with undistinguished, flat vineyards.

But Penedès is riddled with tectonic fault lines and the odd escarpment rises precipitously from the flatter land. Atop one such chalk hillside sits Can Rafols dels Caus. It lies on the border of the Garraf natural park and is fiercely proud of its location, as owner Carles Esteva explains.

‘This is a special terroir. The steep hillsides with chalk and clay soil stretch throughout the national park and we get very little rain, with cooling afternoon winds from the coast. We are lobbying to create a Garraf sub-denomination within Penedès – in fact, we see greater identification of terroir as the future of fine wine in the region. We must strive to improve Penedès’ image and reputation, encouraging the smaller, quality producers.’

Can Rafols is doing its bit wine-wise, producing some outstanding wines from international varieties. The terroir is reflected in the structured, elegant-yet-ripe nature of the wines, with contenders such as Ad Fines (Pinot Noir), Gran Caus (Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot) and Caus Lubis (Merlot) leading the field. Chenin Blanc also works well.

Discovering Catalonia is all about unearthing new and exciting experiences. Part of this is captured in wines that speak of specific areas, often in individual ways. It is, admittedly, an ongoing science and one whose best results may be yet to come. But even for now the results are exemplary. If one starts to look beyond the giants, it’s easy to see that size isn’t everything.

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