Tarragona is anything but a sleepy Spanish town…it sprawls..so we jumped on a city tour tram which is the only way to see everything in a short period of time. But that doesn’t mean it is unimportant. Besides being a regional capital with the same name, it was a major Roman city with extensive ruins and especially an amphitheater situated with the sea in the background.
Windstar always has one special event and this was to be it. They took over the amphitheater! We had cava, red and white wine, and tapas overlooking the site. That alone was great but they did more. In Tarragona there are a number of clans (?) that compete biannually in the Castella. It is a huge event normally held in the soccer stadium. The point is to build a human tower and the clan that does the best according to the judges takes honors. With the towers reaching eight tiers it is dangerous and hard work!
We had the privilege of seeing one of the groups ‘build’ a castel. They get in a big circle and the leader makes the assignments. Then they use each others bodies as braces and up go three men to form the base of the next tier…then more join them to brace them…all barefoot and standing on other people’s (yes, there are women too!) shoulder’s. After this platform is built one gets on their shoulders and is joined by two more…and this goes on for each tier…until the last one, usually a young boy or girl to keep the weight down. I said it is dangerous and so when they sense something is going wrong they come down, regroup, and try again…it took three attempts for the group we saw to make it with an 8-year old at the top. They do not remain there for long and immediately begin to retreat. It is fascinating and colorful. After that, they invited six people from the ship to join them. It was spectacular, especially with the sea and our ship in the background.
We returned to the ship and set sail having dinner at sea. We were off to Barcelona and the end of our voyage. Having been to Barcelona twice before and wanting to visit with winery owners we engaged the services of NiSo Tours. We were met at the ship by co-owner Sophie, who then drove us to Monserrat, situated on a hill with spectacular views and a great history which began with building a monastery, Santa Maria de Monserrat. How they did it is beyond belief given the steep cliffs but if you are in the area and don’t go you are making a huge mistake and missing one of the most breathtaking views on the planet. We were so glad we made the side trip!
Sophie then drove us to Sitges (rhymes with beaches), and the best way I can describe it is a mini San Sebastian with two major differences: Sitges has a population of about 35,000, that is year-round but in the summer months it swells to 150,000 or more. It is a unique town with I believe eleven beaches…that run from family, to gay, to nudist. They are relatively small and all together are smaller than the two beaches at San Sebastian. Then comes the other difference: there is no there there as Gertrude Stein once quipped about Oakland, California. But it doesn’t need a ‘there’ you go to Sitges to relax. Like San Sebastian they have a film festival and a jazz festival but here is the biggest difference: you don’t have to drive through the new city to get to the old…there is no new city! They also have a gay pride week which was just before we arrived with many of the participants still there. It is a wonderful melting pot with quaint winding streets that criss-cross the town but are out of sight. To the uninitiated it appears as though it is only a few blocks deep and just runs along the ocean.
We found NiSo Tours by being introduced to Nicole Andrus a year ago when she was representing Michael Mondavi’s Folio Wines (her parents started and owned Pine Ridge Winery in Napa so she knows wine). In 2008, Nicole and Sophie decided to start an upscale touring company offering personalized tours. It is a success! Is it expensive? YES!!! …and worth it.
The next day, Sophie picked us up and we headed south…funny because when we headed up into the mountains we were just east of Tarragona! The region I wanted to see was Montsant and it was right before us…huge imposing cliffs and as you rise you find yourself in Priorat. It is one of the most difficult regions in the world to grow grapes and is only one of two DOQ’s in Spain (Denominacío d’Origen Qualificada), the other being La Rioja…now that’s quality. Montsant on the other hand while making very good wines is simply a DO. Wine has been produced here for over 700 years, being introduced to the area by the monks at Scala Dei, however as in La Rioja, eventually the phylloxera eventually wiped out the vines. So don’t look for ‘old vines’ in Priorat as most are 20-35 years of age but they seem like much older vines in less formidable locations. It is rocky, unfriendly ground for growing grapes but like in the Douro region and other areas in the world that are steep and require terracing, the grapes are stressed.
How many grapes can be produced by a single vine? As a rule of thumb for quality wines about 2.5 pounds or about a kilo. Left alone in an area with a lot of water you could get as much as 14 pounds of grapes from a wine…with quality inversely proportional. Two Buck Chuck lovers and those who hate wine snobs take note: while there is nothing wrong with it…there is nothing that stands out about the wine…and consider the cost (witness the retail price) of ‘TBC’ and what it takes to make a world-class wine. If you don’t care about that, you can stop reading here.
In both Priorat and the Douro, the best grapes are on terraces with roots reaching down as much as 20 meters…over 50 feet! Think of the vines pulling water from cracks in the slate and carrying the nutrients up to the plant…that is stressed!!! Add to this the sweltering heat in the summer months and rain that is concentrated in 2-3 months of the year…and no irrigation is allowed after the plants are two years old. In these regions they are lucky if they get one pound of grapes per vine and more likely much less. Now for the two wineries we visited:
First was Clos de l’Obac in Grattalops…note that Clos in Catalan is pronounced ‘close’, unlike Spain. We were guided by the owner Carles Pastrana, a really nice guy with a shock of hair that keeps getting in his eyes. Carles was a journalist who decided he ‘had’ to make wine…good wine. He was one of the original five wineries in the 1980’s all beginning with ‘Clos’ and they produced the wine together for the first three vintages before each had its own winery. To say Carles is passionate about wine is a gross understatement. Also, he shuns many standard winemaking principles and does it ‘his way’ which seems to work because it is incredible. When TB’s book is complete you will hear more about Clos de l’Obac…in great detail! I love this man and his wine!
After a great lunch in Falset, we drove to Porrera to see Celler Vall Llach (double ll’s are pronounced as ‘y’ and celler means winery in Catalan). It too is a very small town and as in all of Priorat, winemaking is the main industry. The wineries are clustered around the town square and river that flows through it. It was started in the 1990’s by Lluis Llach and Enric Costa. Llach died but Costa and his son Albert still run the winery. Again, quality is key. The day after we were there the bottling was to begin. Boxes had been delivered with the wine names on them as well as labels for their three wines: Idus de Vall Llach, Embruix de Vall Llach and Aigua de Llum de Vall Llach. Albert tasted the wine from the barrels of Aigua and said while they were very good they weren’t the quality for their premium wine which has been produced just three times in the past five years. Now that had to be an expensive decision but it illustrates the focus on quality in Priorat.
The next day we had at our leisure and enjoyed the beaches and strolling in Sitges, our second meal at the Santa Maria, the first time with Filaboa albariño, the second with a Condrieu Cava – Anna (named for the last member of the family that brought Champagne techniques to Spain and available in the U.S. for about $12…don’t confuse cava…good cava…with Asti Spumante or any other sparkling wine. This is made with viognier and exactly the way champagne is…reasonably priced too!
…the perfect ending to the perfect trip.