Barcelona is a lovely and busy city with lots to see and do but sometimes you just want to get out of the concrete jungle and into the country side. There are a lot of options for Barcelona day trips. The best ones to me are those that combine culture with wine. Under this heading, a day tour to Conca de Barbera is a great way to understand where and how wine production started in Spain and how the Church brought this fabulous product from France.
- DO Conca de Barbera
- The origins of Wine in Spain
- Conca de Barbera wine boom and gloom
- Wineries to visit in Conca de Barbera DO
- Other things to do and places to see in Conca de Barbera
DO Conca de Barbera
Catalunya has 12 Wine Appellations called Denominacion de Origen or D.O. in Spanish, two of which are considered super DO, including DO Cava for Catalan Champagne and DO Catalunya which encompasses wines from the entire region. Barcelona is close to a lot of them and the majority are a day excursion away so if you are looking for day trips out of Barcelona to wine regions there are several options available.
In this article I want to focus on DO Conca de Barbera. This is the the closest wine appellation south of Barcelona after DO Penedes, known for Cava production. Although it is a relatively young Appellation, this is where wine making was relaunched after centuries of Muslim occupation.
The origins of Wine in Spain
It is believed that wine was invented by the Romans for whom wine was a celebratory drink. Baccus, God of Wine, was revered and an important character at parties and special occasions in Greek and Roman mithology. At the time, the port of Tarraco, about half an hour away from Conca de Barbera, was the main launch port for wines produced in Catalunya to reach Rome. Tarraco exported wine in terracotta jars and imported other goods from the rest of the Roman empire. With the arrival of the Moors in the Middle Ages, wine disappeared from Spain and from the Conca de Barbera and it was not until the 12th century that it came back at the hands of the Catholic Church.
When the Moors were defeated and expelled from the area in the 12th century, vineyards were brought back again thanks to the French Cistercian monks that were invited to inhabit the UNESCO listed Royal Abbey of Santa Maria de Poblet, located near Montblanc. At that time, Montblanc was the third largest city of Catalunya. it Medieval streets, churches and city wall complete with a surrounding motte is almost intact and a great way to start a visit of the area.
The Poblet Monastery was founded in 1151 by Ramon Berenguer IV, Count of Barcelona, who donated the lands to the Cistercian order from the French abbey of Fontfroide who brought with them the Burgundy style of wine making and the unusual Pinot Noire grape variety that is still cultivated today. Wine has been tied to the region ever since. The Monastery is open to visits and the original wine production, in the basement of today’s building, is still visible. Thirty one monks are still living and tending to the monastery today. Several of the Kings and Queens of the Aragon Crown were buried in the monastery and their tombs can be seen in the main church.
Conca de Barbera wine boom and gloom
Despite the tamed growth in wine in the region since the 12th century, the 18th and 19th century saw the region’s wine production explode again thanks to wine being exported to Europe and the Americas. Vineyards were planted in terraces on the steep slopes to increase arable land and with the construction of the railway from Montblanc to Reus on the coast, wine exports grew. But at the end of the 19th century, the phylloxera virus killed 90% of the vineyards in Europe.
The arrival and destruction caused by phylloxera brought doom to the region but the Conca de Barbera never stopped being at the forefront of agricultural development and the area was pioneer in the creation and development of cooperative agriculture in Spain. At the town of L’Espluga de Francoli one can visit the Cooperativa de l’Espluga de Francoli, a Modernist building from the turn of the 20th century that houses the first Wine Cooperative in Spain and has been named The Cathedral of Wine. Here, one can read through the history of wine in the region and about the creation of that first farmer’s association. The building is also a beauty in itself. Designed in the typical vaulted ceilings and arched windows with painted glass of the Modernist movement, the cement tanks have been replaced by steel ones but the construction still provides an insight into wine production over one hundred years ago.
Despite its strong origins and agricultural credentials Conca de Barbera became a DO only in 1985. Its past and present is tightly linked to high ends wines like Torres Gran Murallas, that the wine giant produces on behalf of the Monastery and which is made from grapes planted alongside the monastery, and to cava.
Wineries to visit in Conca de Barbera DO
Conca de Barbera DO has only 35 wineries and two thirds of the wine produced is used as base wine for Cava so it makes for a cosy day trip from Barcelona as opposed to some of the larger wine regions like Penedes with dozens of wine producers. Although originally known for its whites, the region has started to revamp the growth of a local endemic red grape variety, Trepat, which thrives in the region and struggles elsewhere. Trepat is mild, soft and delicate, similar to Pinot Noire, which did well in the region since it was brought by the French Cistern monks. We visited two wineries that are trying to make trepat the star of some of their wines or rose cava.
A friendly, cosy and refreshing family owned and ran business that passed from the grandfather to the grandson, the current winemaker and owner. Visiting Foraster is getting an insight into Conca de Barbera wines and their renaissance as well as into the the power of a proudly owned family business.
Foraster, meaning foreign in Catalan, is the family name. When the grandfather died, the business went to the grandson, a lawyer turn winemaker. The parents, left their jobs a few years after and joined the family business to help their son. The visits, offered every day, include a tour of the winery with the father or the mother, depending on the language, and end with a tasting of the wines. Especial emphasis is put on the 100% trepat red wine they produce. Foraster also offers breakfast tours with a generous serving of Spanish ham, cold cuts and cheese accompanied with the traditional Catalan bread with tomato and fabulous olive oil at the winery’s quarters. The tour is wholesome, fascinating and like taking a trip down memory lane. Foraster has also started a collaboration with a local NGO focused on helping mentally challenged children who, every year, design the labels of one of the wines, Les Gallinetes, following the theme of “chicken”, translation for gallinetes. The labels are ingenious and sweet and the initiative laudable. Foraster is a great way to learn more about trepat as well as into the life of a small family owned winery.
As Conca de Barbera is one of the sources for white wines used to make cava, there are a few cava wineries too. Cava Andreu is one of them. Not too far from L’Espluga de Francoli, Cava Andreu is a modern cava winery rooted in the area. Also a family business, although larger, they own 80 hectares of vineyard and its history in the wine making business dates back to 1781. They grow the local grape varieties, with parellada and macabeu, used to make cava, dominating, and trepat as the local red. The cellar was restored and modernised in 2004 when a new storage building and production area were built.
Other things to do and places to see in Conca de Barbera
Conca de Barbera sis also the center of religious buildings of relevant significance such as the UNESCO listed Royal Abbey of Santa Maria de Poblet or Santes Creus.
Visiting the Royal Abbey of Santa Maria de Poblet
Poblet was the first of three Cistercian monasteries in the area and is a very common day trip from Barcelona. It was the royal pantheon of the kings of the Crown of Aragon since James I of Aragon. Some of the most important royal sepulchres have alabaster statues that lie over the tomb which can be seen today in the main church. Some are well preserved some were destroyed during the years of looting in the second half of the 19th century ad restores in 1948 by Frederic Mares. The statues of kings have lion sculptures at their feet, while the queens have dogs as a symbol of loyalty.
The monastery was active since its creation in 1151 until 1835 when the secularisation started by Queen Isabel II ended monastic life. But the monastery was repopulated again in 1941 by a group of Italian monks from Pisa. By that time, the Monastery had been looted and destroyed, the tombs desecrated and most of the valuables stolen. It was a painful and slow process to refurbish and restore all the buildings to today’s splendors. UNESCO declared the monastery World Heritage Site in 1991.
The information center in the Monastery offers guided tours in Catalan and Spanish through the buildings and rooms of the Monastery. If you don’t join a guided tour you can just wander the Monastery on your own at the pre-determined guided tour times.
Santes Creus and Vallbona de les Monges
Not far from Poblet, Santes Creus is one of the largest and best preserved Cistercian monastic ensembles. It was founded in 1168, a few years after Poble and monastic continued until 1835 when it was looted for the sane reason as Poblet. The church follows the Cistercian sobriety with stained glass windows and Gothic Cistercian and a Baroque altarpiece.
Vallbona de les Monges is the only Monastery cared for by Cistercian nuns. It was built a couple of years after Poblet and shares a lot of the same architecture.
Celler de la Cooperativa Agrícola de l’Espluga de Francolí
The first wine cooperative set in Spain is also the first Modernist cellar made by one of Gaudi’s apprentices, Domenech i Muntaner. The building in itself is reason enough to visit but, additionally, you also get a brief intro to the history of wine through the cellar corridors and basement of the cellar. From the Romans to today, the Museum graphically explains the history over the last few centuries.
If you want a real Catalan experience, at the end of the tour you can try the wines produced by the Cooperative, which is still functioning today, and test your skills at drinking from a Catalan “porro”
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