At first, I couldn’t wrap my head around it. A wine region, with amazing wines, at low prices, that I had never heard of. A wine region with centuries of winemaking history, where the oldest winery was only about twenty years old. How could it be that in our former wine drinking and wine collecting lives we had never been introduced to Emporda wine?
Emporda is one of the oldest wine producing regions in the world. Subject to several setbacks over the years, Emporda is now entering a true renaissance. And, we had first row seats.
The History of the Emporda Wine Region
I am not kidding when I say “centuries of wine making.” About 2,500 years ago, the Greeks and Romans both entered Spain in an area called Empuries. Empuries, and the surrounding region today is part of Catalunya, which is geographically, part of Spain. It is the area of Spain nestled along the Mediterranean coast and reaching up to the French border and the Pyrenees mountain range.
From Empuries, the cultivation of wine spread across the area now known for Emporda wine. Wine was consumed locally, as well as produced for export. Then, Emporda faced its first decline in wine production, as early as 400 BC, with the arrival of the Visigoths, and the fall of the Roman Empire. Although the Visigoths continued wine production, the effect of the fall of empire was felt.
In 711, the Muslims invaded Spain, causing an obvious decline in wine production and consumption. Eventually, after Islam was conquered, production began again, namely in the hands of monks as well as local farmers. The growth in Emporda during this time led to the construction of many adorable medieval villages, which still exist today.
Then came phylloxera. Phylloxera was a plague that destroyed vineyards in France, initially creating an increased demand for the wines of Emporda. Until the phylloxera hopped across the mountains and landed in Catalunya in the late 1800s. Although the government did their best to prevent the spread of the phylloxera plague, ultimately they were unsuccessful. The plague essentially wiped out almost all of the Emporda wine vineyards.
It is impossible to meet a winemaker in Emporda who does not talk about the phylloxera and the effect it had not only on Emporda wine, but the region as a whole. Vineyards were destroyed, villages lay in ruin. To survive, many people began planting olive trees on the slopes of the mountains, on terraces separated by stone walls. Or, they planted cork trees. For a wine historian, if there is such a thing, Emporda is fascinating.
At its peak, roughly 40,000 hectares of vines produced Emporda wine. Currently, about 3,000 hectares are back to production, after three or four generations have passed. Less than 50 wineries are operating in Emporda, producing wine for the local market, for Spain, for Europe, and some are even being introduced into the States. And, this is why I had never heard about Emporda wine, despite its centuries old traditions.
What Does DO Emporda Wine Mean?
Ultimately, the regrowth of the Emporda wine industry let to a creation of an Appellation of Origin, “DO.” Similar to the concept of DOP and IGP products in Emilia Romagna, a regulated industry was created around the Emporda wines. There are many DO wine regions in Spain, the most notable being DO Rioja.
This regulation, in Emporda and across Spain, ensures a high level of quality and ensures that the DO Emporda wine name means something. Generally, to be a DO Emporda wine, the wine needs to include the local, native varieties of grapes, like Grenache, Macabeu, and other varieties that we were previously unfamiliar with. There are 10 white grape varieties and 10 red grape varieties within DO Emporda.
Today, the DO Emporda region includes two areas of Catalunya, Baix Emporda in the south, closer to Girona, and the Alt Emporda, in the north, closer to the French border. Some of the wineries produce wines under other denominations, namely DO Catalunya or DO Cava. But, predominantly the wineries produce DO Emporda wines.
There are over 400 wine growers in Emporda, and less than 50 DO Emporda wineries, which together produce almost 4 million bottles of wine a year. The wine is characterized by its proximity to the Mediterranean and the Pyrenees mountains, which separate Spain from France. There is low rainfall, a lot of warm sun, and the Tramuntana winds, a fierce wind that comes in from the north throughout the year, and provides the Emporda wine varietals with a lot of their character.
Getting to Know Emporda Wine
I was so impressed by Emporda wine. It’s true that after a few years living and traveling in Southeast Asia, our palates are probably not as sophisticated as they once were. That said, we tried a lot of wines (perhaps too many wines), we liked so many of them, and they are all entirely affordable.
We’ve toured other wine areas, in search of great Italian wines, and have toured wineries in California, Argentina, and Chile. There was something special about Emporda, though, something I am still unable to identify, to describe.
Similar to Argentina, the wine tradition was kept alive because of the church. Similar to Italy, Emporda wines have a strong sense of European tradition. Similar to Chile and other newer wine regions, there is a budding and growing interest in wine tourism.
But, there is something more. The winemakers we met are in a unique position to learn from and respect the history of wine making in the region, and they do. But, because the industry is still so new, in a renaissance if you will, they recognize the importance of modernization, experimentation, and marketing.
And, as much as there are traditions and regulations that come with being part of the DO Emporda, many of the wineries we visited are experimenting with new techniques and new varietals, or are experimenting by bringing back ancient winemaking techniques and giving them new life.
There is also a new focus on wine tourism and wine tours, so that it is making it more and more easy for tourists to taste wines and meet the wine makers. The DO Emporda Wine Route is a collection of eighty brands, including wineries, hotels, and restaurants, each of which has an emphasis on highlighting Emporda wine.
It was an exciting time to explore Emporda, and already, we cannot wait to return.
We were supported by Costa Brava Tourism during our time exploring Emporda, but my views, my yummy sounds, and my gulping sounds are, as always, my own. There are more stories to tell about the Emporda wine makers, so check back soon!