Bernat Andreu likes to look at the landscape of ancient terraces that can be seen from Vilaverd, a small village in Conca de Barberà (Tarragona). "Before phylloxera,” says the producer and former president of the DO, "those hillsides between the Prades Mountains and the Sierra de Miramar were full of vines; vines occupied three times the 3,000 hectares under vine we have now.”
Most of those grapes were transformed into grape spirit for export. Its success was such that Montblanc, the capital of this region surrounded by mountains and located between Tarragona and Lleida, had 54 distilleries in 1754. Some of the present-day wineries, including Andreu's, still maintain the old underground fermentation cellars, which are now used for ageing and storing bottles, many of which are Cava.
To a certain degree, the centuries-old dependence on grape spirit lives on today with Cava for many of the 650 or so growers in the area. Eighty percent of the Conca grapes, managed in part by one of the three cooperatives operating in the region, are destined for this sparkling wine. With the price of Cava grapes at rock bottom, many producers see that their future —and also their present— hinges on creating their own identity around Trepat, a local variety that produces fresh, spicy red wines with soft tannins and moderate alcohol content.
Trepat, an early-sprouting, late-ripening variety, was traditionally destined for rosé wines and Cavas, although, as Bernat Andreu points out, "it wasn't even mentioned on labels because it was regarded as a lesser variety.” Most of Trepat is planted in tapàs, clay soils that are not very fertile, at an elevation between 300 and 800 metres.
Until vines were planted in the Cerdanya mountains near the Pyrenees, the Conca vines were the highest in Catalonia, says Joan Torrens, manager of the Sarral cooperative, whose members control more than 500 hectares in the appellation. The modernist winery, built in 1914, produces two million bottles of cava, half of them rosé under DO Cava, 70% of which is exported.
At the moment, the red wine they make is for their members, although they do sell Trepat from old grapes to other wineries and continue to make the region's traditional rosé, an easy to drink and slightly fizzy wine with low alcohol and intense colour. "Technology has helped to maintain the freshness of the variety, but to get the best out of Trepat, you need old vines, green pruning and regular work in the vineyard," Torrens explains.
In the family winery next to the Anguera River in Pira, Carles Andreu, Bernat's father, pioneered the production of single-varietal red Trepat in the Conca in 2004. Nowadays, they also produce two further reds and two rosé cavas with this variety. It is a rising trend among wine producers in the area, where production has tripled between 2007 and 2019 —at least 15 producers are making red Trepat wines at present.
Two of them are Inma Soler (Mas de la Pansa) and Joan Franquet (Costador), both of whom make their wines at Viver de Celleristes in Barberà de la Conca, an innovative project that follows in the footsteps of the region's solid associative tradition.
Based in a building erected in 1903 that housed Spain's first agricultural cooperative, the Viver's aim is to help emerging small producers by renting them the facilities and equipment they need at low prices so that they can start making their first wines. The atmosphere is friendly and everyone helps each other. "When the harvest begins, which according to the Viver's rules must be done by hand, we exchange messages via WhatsApp to organise the grape reception,” explains Inma. "It's just like a student flat, but in this case, it's a winery.”
Mariona Vendrell and Albert Canela (Succès Vinícola) are focused on farming organic Trepat grapes for their reds. They began at the Viver de Celleristes in 2011 and after five years they moved to a small winery-garage in Pira where they make a wide range of wines with grapes from their 20 hectares, both owned and leased, but they still rent the Viver's bottling plant when they need it. "We started there when we were 21 years old; being able to work at the Viver allowed us to make the wines we wanted to make,” they explain.
In addition to small producers and cooperatives, the area is also home to two major groups such as Codorníu and Torres. Both are in the southwestern part of the DO Conca de Barberà, near the Sierra de Prades, on whose southern slope Priorat begins.
Abadía de Poblet belongs to the Codorníu group. The winery and part of its 40 hectares under vine lie next to the impressive Monastery of Poblet, whose Cistercian monks of Burgundian origin were the driving force behind grapegrowing in the area in the 12th century. After initially focusing on Pinot Noir, Abadía de Poblet now centres its entire production on local varieties such as Trepat and Garnacha and the white varieties Macabeu and Parellada.
Also in the village of Vimbodí i Poblet, Familia Torres farms two large properties. In the slate and granite soils of Muralles (32 ha), formerly cared for by Cistercian monks, they have committed themselves to grow native red varieties such as Garnacha, Cariñena, Monastrell as well as Garró and Querol. Torres has spent decades recovering the latter two, which are blended in their Grans Muralles red. In Milmanda, with its medieval castle and its 30 hectares of clay-limestone soils, the group chose to plant Chardonnay in 1980, when this variety was deemed to be the finest of the white varieties. Although Torres has conducted trials with Trepat, this variety is not present in the Catalan group's vineyards in La Conca -at least for the time being.
The promotion of the variety has led to the creation of the Trepat Route, with around 15 wineries, several festivals, a medieval market in April and five museums striving to raise awareness of this variety's history and the wines made from it.
Beyond Trepat and the two dozen varieties permitted, Conca de Barberà is an eminently agricultural region and a fascinating destination for a few days of leisure among vineyards and quiet villages. The GR 175 trail links the three Cistercian monasteries in the area —Vallbona de les Monges in the Urgell region, Santes Creus in Alt Camp and Poblet, the largest inhabited Cistercian complex in Europe. Neither the vineyards nor the winery are open for visits, but the religious enclosure can be toured. It is exquisitely cared for and has a history closely linked to the area's winegrowing tradition.
On the Cistercian Route, which encompasses six Catalan designations of origin, the cooperative past has left its mark on more than a dozen modernist wineries built in the early 19th century. These are the so-called cathedrals of wine, such as the cooperative in Sarral and the one in L'Espluga de Francolí, which today houses the Conca de Barberà Wine Museum.
The road between Pira and Barberà de la Conca, with its imposing Templar castle, runs through vineyards and nature with the Tossal Gros de Miramar mountain range in the background. About 10 minutes away by car, the charming walled village of Montblanc, founded in 1163, is full of history and spots such as the restored tower of Vins de Pedra, where visitors can taste the wines produced by Marta Pedra on her outdoor terrace right on the wall and overlooking the village and the mountains.
Brisat del Coster 2019, 100% Macabeu, Josep Foraster (€13.65)
An example of the recuperation of traditional Catalan practices; in this case, using the skins in a wine without added sulphites.
Ànima Nua Cor Viu Orgànic 2019, Macabeu and Parellada, Domenio Wines (€7.37)
The cooperative Cellers Domenys's efforts to bottle its own organic grapes results in a fresh, lively and easy-to-drink wine
Poal 2019, 50% Macabeo and 50% Chardonnay, Gerida Viticultors (€11.95)
An original blend with grapes from Milmanda (Poblet) and the village of Blancafort, where Gerard, Ricard and Dani, the three young men behind the project, have their winery.
Pomagrana 2019, 90% Trepat, 10% Tempranillo, Lectores Vini (€11.25)
A light and fragrant glou-glou rosé made by Fredi Torres and Marc Lecha in Conca. It will brighten up any summer's day.
Cava Carles Andreu Brut Barrica 2018, 100% Trepat (€16.85)
It captures the great potential of the Trepat variety to be made as a sparkling wine.
Gormand 2019, 55% Garrut and 45% Trepat, Clos Montblanc (€8.50)
A young, fresh, fruity and unpretentious wine. Perfect to enjoy with a savoury coca de recapte, one of the local specialities.
El Mentider 2017, 100% Trepat, Succès Vinícola (€14.95)
A wine with a Mediterranean character and little intervention with the volume and concentration that comes from the old vines.
Mas de la Pansa 2017, 100% Trepat (€32)
Finesse and honesty in this wine with a graphic and informative back label. Produced by Inma Soler, whom it is worth keeping an eye on.
La Font Voltada 2016, 100% Trepat, Abadía de Poblet (€40)
One of the most outstanding red wines in the area for its great finesse, freshness and balance.
Torres Grans Muralles 2016, Cariñena, Garnacha, Querol, Monastrell and Garró (€174)
One of Torres' great reds and the first wine in which they experimented with ancestral varieties.