There are three types of photographs which seem to be the most popular with my fans on Instagram, and it goes like this: Grape closeups, vineyard shots, barrel room photos, and then others of varying degrees. Of the three, though, barrel rooms are the one place that speak to me intimately whenever I visit a winery. It’s like going into a church to pray, or in some cases, the crypt to vanquish a vampire.
There is nothing quite like the smell of oak barrels and wine ageing in stone rooms. And in Catalunya, you’ve got several hundred opportunities to smell just that.
From the first 18 months of visits, here are my 10 favourite barrel rooms, in no particular order.
Torre del Veguer
There are so many reasons to fall in love with Torre del Veguer. The castle. The view of the Mediterranean, the pool house, the theatre, the Dali room and the vines. But standing above them all is the barrel room, first constructed as part of the main house in the 14th century. It still has the same feel as it did when it was built, and the team at Torre has done a painstaking job of preserving its history. Not only are there wines ageing, but wine presses dating back several hundred years, a cistern in the middle where the winery fermented wine for the first time last year since the 1800s, and the remnants of an escape tunnel which allowed its owner to evade pirates in past times. Everyone who we have taken to the winery has been overwhelmed by the experience.
One of my favourite photographic subjects is this winery near the French border in DO Emporda. Marc and Emma Bournazeau constructed the winery building to follow the flow of gravity, utilise a small ecological footprint, and in the process one several awards for it. At the bottom level is the barrel room, which has solid glass walls at either end so visitors can to view the barrel room from an adjacent tasting room and through the barrel room to where the wines are fermented and bottled (as in the above photo). The barrels are set upon channels in the concrete floor, filled with stones, so the wine stays in contact with the earth. Export manager Joan Frei says it’s his favourite spot in the winery, and he loves to go in to hear “the babies sleeping”.
There’s two super cool spots at Loxarel – a barrel room for the wines dug out underneath one building, and the former Spanish Civil War bunker which extends 500 metres into one of the vineyards where the sparkling wines are aged. In the former, there is an open “skylight” of 10 metres with a chandelier hanging above on the main floor. It’s where Josep Mitjans not only ages wine in barrel, but does extensive work with amphoras. In the bunker, you enter through one of the building housing their tasting room, and walk 500 metres into the middle of one of their vineyards. Josep has sparkling “Classic Penedes” wines housed there, with some ageing upwards of 9 years (and rumour has a few longer at the far end of the bunker).
In the heart of the DO Terra Alta town of Batea lies the winery building of Celler Piñol. When you arrive and look at it from the outside, it doesn’t seem that large, but once you enter, it’s like heading into Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. The barrel room is underneath the fermentation tanks of the adjacent building, and it’s like heading through a beautiful maze of wine of several rooms, dating back 150 years. Just when you think you’ve seen the end, winemaker Juanjo Piñol then opened another door into a giant three story room where wines are aged in bottle and stored for distribution.
I’ve raved about Scala Dei’s barrel room on many occasions, but it’s definitely worth the 90 minute drive from Barcelona to visit, just by itself. The room dates back to the 13th century, and was used by the Carthusian monks who occupied the monastery since the 1100s to collect taxes from the locals who lived in Priorat lands owned by the monks up until the government confiscated their lands in 1835. There was some pent up anger towards the monks as they fled the angry mobs who ransacked the monastery after the confiscation, leaving it pretty much decimated. The government has done some amazing restoration of the monastery during the past 20 years (and also worth a visit). However, this barrel room was located in the town, which meant it escaped destruction (useful for the citizens of the area), and maintains the same aura it had during its time under the possession of the monks. I think the barrel room is one of several secret ingredients which makes their wines so fabulous.
This winery in downtown Porrera has three barrel rooms, all utterly amazing. There is a lower barrel room, named after one of the founders, Enric Costa, a second floor barrel room where a chapel used to be located, now mostly housing the “village wines” of Vila del Vi, and a third floor barrel room dedicated to Vall Llach owner Lluis Llach’s close friend, poet Miquel Marti i Pol, which ages their Aigua de Llum white wine which is a special homage to the poet. All three are special not only for the way they are laid out, but the architectural detailing. The second floor chapel still has the spot where the statue of the patron saint would normally go, but instead holds a bottle of their first wine from their first vintage. The main floor’s dedication to Enric Costa, who passed away in 2012, gives those who visit an emotional attachment to the winery, and the stain glass windows and the sheer volume of the vaulted ceiling of the third floor barrel room will leave many visitors speechless.
Coca i Fito
This winery in Montsant does tours by appointment only. But if you can manage to book a visit with Toni and Miquel, it’s definitely worth the effort. The barrel room(s) are forged out of a series of old concrete tanks which once were present in the basement below the fermentation room of their winery in the village of El Masroig. To arrive to the barrel room, you descend a wrought iron circular stairway, and through a narrow passageway into the first main chamber. Now it’s an architecturally interesting combination of old sculpted concrete married to more modern early 20th century brick work. What’s extra special is their tasting room, located in the centre of the barrel room, which features a table made from a tool used in furniture making to separate the grain. It’s an intimate experience to taste their wines in such beautiful spot.
While their cavas are stored upstairs in racks upon racks in multiple rooms, one of Jane Ventura’s barrel rooms is underneath the winery where a few concrete fermentation tanks were built in the 1920s. What’s really impressive is the walls have maintained the patina from years of fermentation, combining with oxygen and other elements to create deep hues of purple, red, and grays. There the winery mainly does bottle ageing of their wines, as the degree of difficulty in transporting up and down the narrow stairs is off the charts.
Christopher Cannan and his daughter Anne have transformed what was a water cistern a few decades ago into a remarkable barrel room requiring navigation down an iron circular stairway, located a few steps from the entrance to their restaurant. You can still see the marks on the wall from where the water level was previously sustained, and also the remnants of the stone stairs which where once the only method of entering the cistern. The barrel room itself sits under an outdoor seating area, used for tasting, and also a portion of the building where fermentation vats are currently located. A visit to Clos Figueras in the heart of Priorat just to see the cistern is definitely worth the trip.
To see masia originally built in 1199, with the original wine cellar still intact, and the additions and renovations over 900 years of history is truly astounding. At Abadal, their wine museum still holds the giant 500 litre oak barrels which they use now for fermenting their rancio, moscatel, and mistela wines. There’s also a part where the family had put in concrete fermentation tanks in the 1800s, next to where another barrel room had been constructed in the 1600s. It’s an incredible journey through wine history, and the wine relics still present are a sight to behold, including wooden pipes, bladders for door-to-door wine delivery, and even hats used to transport grapes in the 1700s to minimise grape loss from the vineyards to the winery.
Tim Brown (aka Timmer on social media) has been involved in marketing for over 20 years and a wine enthusiast since his first exposure to Duck Pond Winery in Newberg, Oregon, back in 1995. After coming to Europe in 2012, he made his home in Catalunya in 2013 and became enchanted with the wines and winemakers of the region. Now he shares his experiences so international visitors can enjoy the region’s wines, while continuing his work in the marketing world. Sommeliering and wine snobbery isn´t his thing, and he continues to learn more about wine from a Catalan perspective on a daily basis.