For me, the act of tasting wine has always been somehow aligned with my spirituality. You may laugh, but for anyone who has studied a subject they genuinely love, I’m sure they share this feeling. The idea that a vocation could be so perfectly attuned to both one’s desires and aptitude must surely be some kind of a gift from God. There are millions of people in this world who must work in positions they are largely indifferent to. There are probably a greater proportion who think at least once a day; “I REALLY hate my job.” So is it so completely ridiculous that I count myself as blessed when I have found my work with a liquid that I believe is truly art in a glass?
It’s little wonder, upon finding myself beneath the curved vaults, with the Catanunya sun breaking in rays through a cathedral clerestory, flute of iced prickly Cava in fist, that I felt I’d been brought here by a greater power. (the greater power was in fact Wine Pleasures, who brought a group of food and wine bloggers from the four corners to sample a hefty proportion of their “50 Great Cavas”)
I’m sure you’ve heard of Dionysus, the Greek god of wine, but, despite the fact that I was drinking in church, these Catedrals del vi are nothing to do with him. His temples, where wine joined excess, raunchy rituals and a whole heap of other naughty stuff are not where I found myself. What I’m talking about are the less spiritual yet more legitimate wine Cathedrals in Spain, a day-trip distance from Barcelona. They are for the creation of wine, rather than the consumption. I suppose, they say that God made wine. So Man made God a church to help him make wine better.
The Catedrals del vi were built towards the end of the Modernisme era (early 20th C), by disciple of Antonio Gaudi, Cèsar Martinell, joined by father and son team Lluis Domenech i Montaner and Pere Domènech i Roura.
The Modernist architectural movement was one of meaning and hope – the desire to change society’s ideals through art. To make them look at the buildings created, and believe for a moment that not everything needed to be the way it always had been. This bohemian style, closely related to ‘Arts and Crafts’ and ‘Gothic Revival’ is often described as ‘Art Nouveau’ – and is characterized by the domination of curves over angles and straight lines, asymmetry, copious detailing (often to the point many would consider over-use) and organic symbols and motifs. It was a movement that slapped the face of the bourgeoisie and drove a stake through the uptight ideals of the traditional and religious Renaixença Catalan Romantics.
By 1910 however, Modernisme had been taken up by the bourgeoisie and all these culturalist bohemian attitudes became a fad (a bit like how a meme dies when your Mum starts laughing at it). Considering the people who now loved the style were the ones the artists had originally set out to ridicule or offend, the movement started it’s inevitable decline. The wine cathedrals (Catedrals del vi) came at the end of this movement – a symbol of beauty to bring small-scale farmers and wine producers together in beauty and a common goal. Although the style was waning in other forms of art, due to the lead time required for building, architecture saw a more gradual decline. The styling shows essential modernist backbone, but a leaning towards more modern line (yes, modernist and modern are completely different), and some may even say, a step back to a more Neo-gothic feel in some instances.
If you took out all the tanks, pumps, presses and bottles, and you could definitely call a mass in these cathedrals, but nearly all are still viable functioning wineries. They retain their community values, allowing even tiny grape producers the ability to harvest and bottle under their own label in a cooperative environment. Most sites will provide guided tours of both above ground and the deep dark underbelly, and then finish with a wine tasting either in the winery proper or an attached tasting room or store. It’s best to call ahead and check if you want more than just a tasting, because they like to have someone to assist with your tour – they cannot allow you to wander on your own around a working factory.
List of Wine Cathedrals:
Coop Gandesa (Cèsar Martinell) is probably the most famous of them all, and an important visit due to it’s spectacular arched Catalan vaults and one of the better exteriors of the lot. It’s a little further off though, south of Tarragona and nearby to El Pinnel de Brai.
El Pinell de Brai is another of Cèsar Martinell’s constructions, and is both a wine cellar and oil mill. It also has some dramatic arches, comparative to Gandesa’s.
Agricola de Barbera, the visit pictured here, by Cèsar Martinell, 1920. The underground is as intrigueing as the cathedral above. There is an excellent selection of Castell d’Or wines on tasting, and a sweet gourmet store.
Espluga de francoli is an earlier cathedral, designed by Lluis Domenech i Montaner in 1913, said to be one of the inspirations for all those that followed. It now houses a wine museum. It’s proximity to the Poblet Monastery makes it a popular choice.
Montblanc Cooperative Cellar. (Cèsar Martinell) A little simpler than the others, but in the midst of this exceptional tourist town, will probably be the foremost on many visiting lists.
Rocafort de queralt was Martinell’s debut in 1918, but unfortunately cannot be visited inside. Work continued to expand the buildings until 1947. You can see some lovely tile friezes from the exterior.
Cava Portel in Sarral is by Pere Domènech i Roura (architect of the Barcelona Olympic stadium and son of Lluis Domenech i Montaner), and there is a distinct difference in style, this being more geometric, and with slightly leggier nave.
The Agricola de Pira (Martinell) is also not able to be toured, but they do sell wines. It’s a slightly smaller cooperative cellar, and one of Martinell’s earlier ones, openend in 1919
Villa Rodona (Martinell, 1919) is an impressive working setup (quite large – producing 10 million litres of wine per year) within the Cistercian route, and not far from the Santa Creus monastery, which is also well worth a visit.
Vinocola de Nulles is another Martinell work, from 1920, and the closest to Tarragona. It’s a double-fronted version with the typical Catalan arched vaults, and does accompanied tours with Cava and wine tasting.
I’ve linked my Wine Cathedral Trail here on Google Maps
Staying in the region
Mas Carlons – 18C Mas, great B&B with family rooms, pool and a super reputation 1km from Montblanc. From $90US
Hostel Can Carol –Nearer main Cava producers. Sweet village house with charm. From $80US, or you can rent the whole home for groups.
Cal Torner – small 16C hotel further south, catering to adults only (14years plus) in the midst of the Priorat region (great red wine). They also organize wine tours. From $110
Castel de Riudabella – Stunning 12C castle on an estate near Poblet, with day spa, restaurant, wine tasting. From $180US
Mas Tinell – Super plush, funky modern design closer to the main Cava producers around Vilafranca del Penedes. from $250
Hostel Grau – not to be confused with the Barcelona hotel of the same name. Authentic Catalan fare near the Santa Creus Monestary.
Hostatgeria de Poblet – at the UNESCO world heritage site, have a reasonable menu with deviations if you are sick of Catalan fare (never happened to me).
Mas Ardevol – lovely seasonal cuisine prepared by the owner of the Mas. You must book with at least 2 days notice (you can also stay overnight). Dinner only.
Villa Retiro – Michelin star, seasonal, local, modern cuisine. Attached to a working winery, stunning estate with 5* hotel.
Other things to do
Wine: This area is not just about wine cathedrals. There are plenty of single vineyard wineries that can be visited. You’ll be drinking Cava and Priorat reds in the main, but look out for some interesting varietals, biodynamic winemaking and ‘vi ranci’ – translated, means rancid wine, but can be lovely amontillado – style sherry. Good link here. Also of use, a map of small bodegas in the Conca de Barbera
Nature: The Conca de Barbera is an exceptionally beautiful area – a bowl of nature cut off from the surrounding areas by it’s high edges – it reminds me of a cross between the hills of Jordan and the Australian outback. The villages are almost frozen in time (you can still get a coffee for less than a Euro), and there is plenty too look at both in the villages and on the trails. Hiking and biking info here.
Family: plenty of nature stuff – caves and the likes, along with the aforementioned biking, horseriding, castles and more. Link here.
Cistercian Route: Monasteries out the whazoo. Dramatic, mountaintop stuff. More info here. Montserrat is just out of the district, but is the famous one, and could easily be picked up on the same trip.
But wait, there’s more…
Modern as distinct from modernism: some wineries to tack onto your Spain visit if you want to see some more creative use of winery space.
Ribera del Duero