The Sweet and Fortified Wines of Catalunya

Considering Catalunya’s storied, fascinating history dating back to the times of Ancient Greece and the Roman Empire, it perhaps comes as no surprise to discover that they also have a long history of making wines. Yet the oldest, most traditional wines of Catalunya are also its least known; the sweet, fortified and rancio wines that were once sought throughout Europe. Today, much like the great sweet wines of France, Germany and Italy, Catalunya’s best are hidden gems, found at particularly wine savvy establishments around the world, and the wine bars and restaurants dotted along its Mediterranean coastline.

The constant sunshine that warms the vineyards of Catalunya brings with it a host of options for sweet wine production; the ability to fully ripen Garnacha and produce powerful red, sweet wines was the historic strength of the region. The dry, often hot Autumns can be a challenge for the preservation of acidity in still and sparkling wines, yet work wonderfully for drying grapes in the sun, and help to produce the rancio wines so famous from Tarragona.

The style of sweet wine produced is mostly related to history and tradition. Take the Empordà, in the far North of Catalunya, for example. Sharing a kinship with their immediate neighbours on the other side of the Pyrenees in both language and a shared history, it doesn’t come as too much of a shock to discover a similar method of sweet wine production. Garnatxa de l’Emporda is the speciality of the North, made from fully ripe Garnacha grapes, partially dried in the sun and then fortified to around 15% ABV to retain the sweetness of the fermenting wine. These wines, much like in Roussillon, are often aged in a Solera system adding oxidative nuttiness to complement the delicious, red fruited and spicy characters.

In Tarragona to the South, once famous as the Iberian capital of the Roman Empire, intentional oxidation is the tradition for their iconic “Vi Ranci” or “Vino Rancio”. Produced from both red and white grapes, these wines are typically left outside in large, glass demijohns to gently oxidise before spending a minimum of 4 years in oak barrels. The added smokiness and touches of subtly sweet spices to the nutty, savoury characters developed by exposure to the Autumnal sunshine is truly delicious.

Yet, for all this glorious connection to the past, the modern sweet wines of Catalunya are also taking their fair share of the plaudits. From the acclaimed sweet Monastrell of Alta Alella (Dolç Mataró), to Gramona´s Ice Wine or “Vi de Glass” produced in their custom-built cryochamber, producers are re-exploring the potential of their vineyards through their sweet and fortified wines. Long may it continue!