Have you ever heard about Costa Brava wineries? We won’t blame you if you haven’t. The local Spanish wine, as well as the popular Denomination of Origin (DO) Empordà Wine Routes are only recently becoming well-known in Spain and abroad, although, the potential of wine tourism in Costa Brava is enormous.
Wine tourism in Costa Brava, Spain
Currently there are 52 wineries in Costa Brava, yet less than half (24) are open to public. Most of them are in the Northeast part of the region called Alt Empordà. We visited 10 of them, including some in the south (Baix Empordà county).
All of them are accessible by bike or by car. Read our post about cycling in Costa Brava to understand the difficulty and safety of the terrain, and awesomely detailed blog post about some Costa Brava cycling itineraries with suggestions on which wineries to visit in the Empordà wine regions.
The wine routes in Costa Brava opened their doors to the public only four years ago, and since then they’ve been vigorously promoted by the tourism board of Costa Brava and DO Empordà.
You can easily book a guided tour in the vineyards, or only a wine tasting session, but we do recommend combining both, as it’s good to know where the Catalan wine you’re drinking comes from. Speaking of the origins of Costa Brava wine, things are a tad complicated.
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America destroyed us, America saved us
French settlers who arrived to America in the 1600’s continued what Spaniards had commenced a century before— introducing their vines to Americans in hopes of producing the same first-class wines they created in their homeland.
Sadly, the European roots didn’t survive in the new soil, so the French tried to graft the top part of their viniferous vines to the stronger native American roots.
Long story short, the grafting experiment worked. By the 19th century, American vintners exported their wine to France in immense quantities. The lack of trade control backed it up. What American exporters overlooked was a possibility of plant disease that eventually appeared during the shipping process.
In the 1860’s, the imported vines in France started drooping, the plants got yellowish, and… died. By the end of 1870’s, 40% of vineyards in France were destroyed.
The specialists agreed the disease was caused by grape phylloxera—a louse that eats the roots and leaves of the plants. Vintners started zealously getting rid of the insects by flooding the vineyards, using chemicals, human urine…
This was a big moment for Spanish winemakers and they saw it as an opportunity to increase the exportation of their wine. Not realising that the border with France couldn’t protect them from the bug, the disease arrived in Costa Brava as well, and destroyed thousands of hectares of vines.
To save their vineyards and source of income, vintners, once again, grafted the American roots to the local plants.
The method didn’t work in the beginning, and many locals in France and Spain tried to create hybrids, which is mixing two different types of grapes into one plant, (while grafting is putting together two different parts of a plant of the same variety).
After years of trial and error, the vines were saved. Although, many locals started growing olive trees instead, or moved to other areas in search of other means of income.
If you want to know more, read this fabulous article with more details, or Christy Campbell’s book: Phylloxera: How Wine was Saved for the World.
International flavours of Costa Brava wine
“We thought things from abroad would be better.”
Maria, Espelt Viticultors,Villajuïga
Grown in Costa Brava, made in Costa Brava… yet with the international flavors.
Well, if you consider that Roman and Greek settlers who came here with their knowledge of wine production, the story of the American phylloxera, and the fact the region borders with France, from where they liked importing the vine roots, here comes the moment to admit that the Spanish wine in Costa Brava wineries carries more multicultural history than one would expect.
In the 20th century, French wine was trendy, French wine was cool. Thus Spanish vineyards were full of imported French plants. Locals hoped to re-create the same quality of French wine rather than focusing on planting the local grapes.
“We forgot how good the grapes are that we have here, we thought things from abroad would be better,” said Maria from the Espelt Viticultors winery.
The grass was greener on the other side indeed.
“That’s why we have a lot of Merlot, Cabernet, and other French grapes… because we didn’t believe in this land,” confirmed Miguel from La Vinyeta winery.
A new generation on the old land
“Knowing where you come from helps you to grow.”
Maria, Espelt Viticultors, Villajuïga
In Spain, half of the population drinks beer; especially young people, they prefer beer and spirits over wine.
“They associate the wine with their retired grandparents sipping a glass of red while sitting on a couch… So, to stay cool, young people would rather have a beer or a gin & tonic,” explained Miquel from La Vinyeta wine cellar.
At the same time, now more than ever, young generations in many Spanish wine regions look back and treasure what their ancestors left behind.
In Costa Brava, the revival of wine growing is booming. Sons, granddaughters, and great-grandsons are learning about winemaking from the professionals, and they are not afraid to experiment.
In the past, the winemakers (not only) in Costa Brava improvised a lot. The wine they produced was mostly a casera – a house wine with mediocre taste served only with food; otherwise it wouldn’t be drinkable.
In the past, the elders didn’t see much value of the plants in their vineyards, and the importance of improving the taste of wine. They used the old vine roots as a fire source, but now winemakers appreciate the old plants, and produce top quality wine from them.
Empordà wine – why is it special?
The tramontana wind is “a great ally.”
Bojana, Terra Remota, Sant Climent Sescebes
Sea, northern wind tramontane, soil, and locals. Four major factors that the quality of Empordà wine depends on. The wind dries out the humidity that comes from the sea, leaving little chance of fungi.
That’s why not it’s not the bugs that are a problem here, but rather the boars and birds that eat the grapes.
The soil in most of the vineyards is acidic, and full of minerals. There are also many granite stones present, which create air pockets that ensure that rain water and the minerals don’t leak out, but rather are absorbed and released slowly.
The most commonly grown grape in Costa Brava is the White Grenache or Garnatxia in Catalonian, Muscat, and Macabeu. Occasionally you’ll find the Syraz as well.
Interesting facts about Costa Brava wine
“It’s not difficult to make good wine. It’s difficult to have good grapes,”
Martin, Mas Eugeni, Calonge
It’s amazing how much there is behind the winemaking process. Simple things like manual picking, the age of oak barrels, or eating cheese during wine tasting can add or take away the noble taste of wine.
Here are a few interesting facts about wine growing, production, and tasting.
1. You need 1 kg of grapes to make 1 bottle of wine.
2. Bushes of roses planted near the vines serve as a bioindicator. If there is a plague, it hits the flowers first; this way the vintners have time to protect the vines.
3. Big grapes have lots of water inside, which equals less sugar. And less sugar equals less flavour in wine. Now you now.
4. Tannin. An invisible element that make a big difference. Tannin gives a dry taste to the wine, and you can find it in the skin, seeds, and stem of the grapes, as well as oak barrels.
5. The older the better. Wrong. Wine is a living organism, thus the aging of wine is conditioned by many factors like weather and for how long it was stored in a barrel, in a bottle, what type of grapes were used, which technology was applied during the production… Don’t get caught by the misleading idea that the wine must be old to be good.
As the owner of the Mas Eugeni cellar said: “When you’re paying 50 euro for a bottle of old wine, you might be buying just very expensive vinegar.”
6. Wine tasting should be solely about wine, not accompanied by food like salami and cheese. As Martin from Mas Eugeni noted, “Cheese makes wine better.”
7. Sexual diffusion. Did you know that using sexual pheromone diffusions in your vineyard can save your grapes from bugs?
The air will be saturated by the pheromones, the male bugs will have difficulties finding females, thus the number of dangerous moths will stop, and your vines will be safe.
8. The wine cellars must be in humid environment. Either natural, or artificial. Otherwise the wooden barrels would soak up the wine.
9. Why is the white wine better fresh? Because the coolness reduces acidity.
10. DO Empordà rules require producing white wine only from the white grapes.
11. The same association allows winemakers to collect 10-12.000 kg of grapes per year.
12. Irrigation of the vineyards is possible only with a permission of DO Empordà authorities.
Costa Brava Wineries
“We must believe in our land.”
Miguel, La Vinyeta, Mollet de Peralada
A family run wine cellar with over 700 years of wine growing history. Splendid views, warm-hearted staff, and excellent wine!
Go on a 4×4 tour of the vineyards nestled between the Pyrenees and the Mediterranean Sea, learn the fascinating history of the Empordà wine, and touch the 120-year-old vine roots. Also check out a bunker located in the vineyards that used to be an airfield in the past.
The 80 ha of land provide 100,000L of wine per year. Their wines won some very prestigious prizes at recent world competitions.
Wine tasting tip: Cercivm 2015. LOVED IT!
An incredibly innovative project of Emma & Marc Bournazeau, a French couple with Catalan origins. The architecture here is ultimately functional. The concrete helps to keep the interior clean, and it regulates the temperature of the cellar.
The construction supports the gravity-flow of the winemaking process that happens in different floors following the rules of gravity. Grapes picked manually drop down to a crush pad, and then slide down to another level for fermentation, and afterwards the wine drains to the cellar.
Excellent organic wine, lovely ambience for wine tasting, an ideal place for a romantic or family picnic on the property that borders with the Serra de l’Albera Natural Park.
Wine tasting tip: Tan Natural Tempranillo – Cabernet Sauvignon 2016
When Lluís Espelt, a local vintner travelled to France in 1999, he realised he could make the same good wine, so he built his own cellar. Now, Espelt winery is run by Lluís’ grandchildren, and is considered the biggest family-run winery in the area. 200 ha of organic vines bring 800.000 bottles of wine annually.
The main focus in Espelt is to come back to the roots, to bring back the grapes that disappeared within the decades for different reasons (for example the preference of French vines which was a natural disaster).
Take a tour here, admire the terraced vineyards, impressive cellar, and taste some 20 different wines. The wines are served with scrumptious local cheese, olives, and salami.
Wine tasting tip: Terres Negres 2014
Martín Faixó is an organic winery with a side production of olive oil, honey, and artisan beers. Discreetly hidden in the hills between the towns of Roses and Cadagués, this vineyard follows a long family tradition with a great devotion.
I don’t remember if I’ve ever seen such a passionate and positive sommelier like Vanessa, our guide on a tour and wine tasting.
The land of 16 ha is situated at an altitude of 300m, which means the grapes from here make the wine less acidic compared to the wine made from the grapes grown in the valleys.
Wine tasting tip: Perafita Garnatxia Rubi Vi Dolc Natural
A small and very laid-back vineyard owned by a local enthusiast, Martin. The land of the vineyards belonged to his family for generations, but it was him who initiated producing his own wine from the grapes his grandfather used to give away to the neighbours or sell at the market.
Martin grows about 1200 plants on his 6 ha which brings him 30,000 bottles of wine /year. You’ll be able to learn about modern way of pruning the vines, understand the importance of granite in the soil, all while walking up to the forest above the vineyards.
You can look forward to some good local wine on a small terrace of a house from 1629 with a beautiful view of the vineyards.
Wine tasting tip: Vella Lolla blanc
A beautiful vineyard of locals Joseph and Marta, who bravely bought a piece of land with no vines. Currently they cultivate 19 different types of grapes to make sure that if climate changes in 20 years and destroys certain grapes, there would be hopefully still be other varieties that would survive.
99% of their production consists of wine, but they also make excellent olive oil Ar Gudell with a significant flavour.
Have a walk around the vineyards, visit the cellar, check out the terracotta demijohns that were actually some of the first ones used in the area, and, of course, taste some wine. Loved their storytelling implemented onto the bottle labels.
Wine tasting tip: Puntiapart 2014
Established by French, run by locals, owned by the Swiss. Clos d’Agon is a project of six Swiss wine lovers who decided to continue growing the grapes of the previous owners brought from France in 1990’s.
The area spans over 42 ha, but only 15 ha are used to cultivate the vines. A 1,5-2 hr. long wine tour will take you for a very pleasant walk via green path along the rough wild forest, you’ll see the ruins of the old rural house
Mas Gil from 1792 that belongs to the property, and you’ll get to taste some wine on the terrace of the glass building designed by Jesús Manzanares who specializes in winery projects.
85% of wines from Clos d’Agon are exported to Switzerland, Japan, Hong Kong, Canada, USA, or Thailand, so it’s almost a privilege to taste their wine during the tour here.
Wine tasting tip: 2015 Clos D’Agon Amic
A small vineyard located in the valley of the Gavarres mountain range. It’s owned by a Swiss who decided to experiment with space and material. Bell Lloc cellar, which means a beautiful place in Catalan, is built from the metal of the Indian ships that drowned in the sea.
The concept of the winery is to be in harmony with nature, ourselves, and to produce organic wine.
The vineyard spreads across only 6 ha since they produce wine for only a few hotels and restaurants of the Brugarol group.
Check out their impressive wine tasting room, and architectural work of RCR Architects group that were inspired by Japanese origami.
Wine tasting tip: Bell-lloc 2009
One example of a young generation of locals going back to the roots. Carlos Esteva, the owner of the property decided to replace French vines with local ones and experiment with the taste.
The vineyard encloses an old house from the 17th century where the winery is located.
Wine tasting tip: Aquarello rosé
Founded by local farmers in 1963, now it’s one of the largest vineyards in the area of Alt Empordà. The vines are cultivated on the land of 200 ha, which allows them to create 20 different wines.
Unfortunately, during our visit the cellar and wine tasting room was under the reconstruction, so we were not able to get a full picture of the winery. Nevertheless, the place is worth visiting, and it should be open to public again soon.
Wine tasting tip: Gerisena Selecció 2014
These are some of the most interesting Costa Brava wineries that are also good for visiting on cycling trips.
Hopefully the list has inspired you, and you’ll be able to plan your Costa Brava itinerary, pick the cellars with great Spanish wines, get embraced by the history of the places, and learn about the locals whose love for the land has brought them back to their roots. To create a bond—a rooted bond.
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Disclosure: Our wine cellars exploring could happen thanks to the collaboration with Costa Brava tourism board.