Originally the first point on the Iberian Peninsula where wine was cultivated, it was 2,600 years ago that the first wine grapes arrived to Catalonia. Founded in 575 BC, the Ancient Greek city of Empúries (Emporion meaning “market”) is where it all began, and where the modern region of DO Empordà gets its name. This city thrived on trade and grew rapidly, moving quickly from the island it was founded upon to the mainland. These ruins can still be seen today, located just north of l’Escala on the way to the charming little village of Sant Martí d’Empúries.
In 218 BC, Empúries fell under Roman control like much of the Mediterranean. The Romans greatly expanded the city with a new area that dug further in to the mainland. They continued wine production and trade, as proven by the many amphorae found all over Catalonia. The Romans also founded many other cities around this region and it was Tarragona that became the capital of Catalonia during this time of great expansion and wealth for the wine trade. Texts exist from Pliny the Elder who wrote about the excellent wines coming from Catalonia during this time.
The 16th and 17th century saw many wars between France and Spain, plague epidemics and pirate attacks that made tending to the vineyards difficult. The 18th century was somewhat more stable, although the vineyards owned by the church had dwindled. A new type of land contract was introduced that, once again, helped increase the amount of vineyards grown. It was an usufruct lease called rabassa morta that allowed poor peasants to grow vines in a plot of land until two thirds of them died, which meant they could enjoy them for 50 or more years. In the second half of the 18th century the wine business was booming, alongside olive oil and cork production. Corks were exported all over Europe, including Burgundy and Champagne. Barrel factories were also built. In the 19th century, with the opening of a train line between Spain and France, exports towards Europe increased.
Up through the 19th century, wine had been growing successfully and without interruption throughout Catalonia. But during the second half of that century a threat was waiting just across the border in France which had initially increased wine exports to Catalonia’s northern neighbor. Known for some time, the phylloxera plague that was killing the French wine industry was closely monitored, but as no one knew the vector of transport, little was to be done but sit and wait for it to pass.
In 1879, the first symptoms started to show in Empordà. In just a few months the pest had made its way to other regions and by 1881 it had affected coastal areas and essentially all of Catalonia. In France, it was discovered that the cause of the plague was an insect and replanting on indigenous American grape rootstock would solve the problem. Learning this, many winegrowers started replanting but many did not have the means to do so and countless vineyards were lost that to this day still stand empty. Hardest hit were the terraced vineyards and those in mountain areas which were abandoned and never recovered during the replanting process.
The few small winemakers who survived phylloxera and continued to produce, survived fairly well throughout the first half of the 20th century. But, they eventually found that there was safety in numbers. While there were still countless small wineries, these large cooperatives worked to produce and market the wines they produced very efficiently. By sharing production costs among their members, production became easier and allowed the purchase of more modern machinery such as hydraulic presses. One of the downsides was that high production vineyards were preferred over those that produced less. This meant disregarding more flavorful grapes such as the ones from vineyards on the mountainous terraces which then went in to a decline. These days the remaining cooperatives have changed this approach and although they still produce bulk wine, they also sell many bottled quality wines.
The 1960’s and 70’s saw the arrival of what many winemakers in Catalonia dub, The Second Plague. Tourism and beach tourism at that took off at a massive scale. Vineyards that were near the beach were torn out to make room for more profitable ventures like hotels and holiday apartments. The labor-intensive work of tending to vineyards was abandoned by the locals who preferred tourism-related jobs.
As if the tourism boom hadn’t done enough damage, in the 1980s the Spanish government introduced a program to pay people to rip out their old vineyards due to EU accession in 1986. Unfortunately, more often than not, the vineyards that were torn out were the more difficult to farm, older growth, low yielding, intensely flavored grapes–in other words, the best vineyards.
During this time, Miguel Torres in Penèdes had down tremendous work to modernize the wine industry. At the turn of the 21st century, things started to seriously change throughout Catalonia. Some vines were started to be replanted and instead of tearing out old growth vineyards, they were sold to those who wished to continue making wine and saw their value. Techniques and equipment were modernized, such as the generalized introduction of stainless steel tanks, and controlled fermentation.
These days Catalonia is back to producing highly noteworthy wines that regularly collect international awards and high-ratings, ranging from heavily modern wines in Modernist buildings to natural wines made in family cellars dating back 600 years. Of course, with grape production only at 1/10th of what it was at its height, there is still plenty of room for it to grow more.