Seventy-five percent of Catalunya's bubbly is produced in the Penedes region.
Just an hour’s drive south from Barcelona are rolling hills and verdant fields, laced with trellises and the gnarled old vines of some of the best vineyards in the world. With a history that reaches back to Roman times, viticulture in Catalunya is a rich part of the region’s fabric and a worthy discovery for the curious oenophile. While its wines may make their mark, more significant are the region’s cavas, the Catalans’ take on champagne, hailing from the region of Penedès. Not only is this area bursting with cava cellars open to inquisitive visitors but it also offers local gastronomic and cultural highlights, as well as some beautiful landscapes.
While cava is produced in eight different regions throughout Spain, 95 percent of production takes place in Catalunya. The region is home to 10 D.O.s, or Designations of Origin, of which Penedès is the most cava-focused, producing 75 percent of Catalunya’s bubbly. It is said that cava was introduced into the region in 1872 by Josep Raventós, who produced the first bottles of sparkling wine using the ‘Méthode Champenoise’—otherwise known as the Traditional Method—which he brought back to Spain from his travels through the Champagne region of France.
Cava & Hotel Mastinell. Vilafranca del Penedés.
The innovative structure of this award-winning hotel takes its inspiration from the cava bottle form. With 12 exclusive guestrooms overlooking the vineyards or the cellar through unique bubble-like windows, the hotel offers wine tastings and seasonal, market-fresh gastronomy, as well as vinotherapy spa treatments.
Bed & Breakfast Wine and Cooking. Pla del Penedès.
The owners of this charming bed and breakfast help visitors get to know local food and wine through cooking classes and wine tastings. Each room is decorated in soothing neutrals and comes equipped with Apple TV.
Can Bonastre. Masquefa.
This luxury resort in the heart of wine country offers views of Montserrat and the surrounding vineyards, a well-equipped spa offering both vino- and cavatherapy treatments, and a large wine cellar.
Cèntric Gastro-Bar. Vilafranca del Penedès.
A good local tapas bar with specialities like croquettes with mushrooms and foie, canalones and smoked sardines on toasted bread.
El Cigró d’Or. Vilafranca del Penedès.
Chef Oriol Llavina continues to surprise and please guests with his take on market-fresh creative cuisine offered by the plate and also as a tasting menu.
Mirador de les Caves. Els Casots.
This restaurant combines countryside food with spectacular views of the surrounding vineyards, and specialises in grilled meats and traditional Catalan cuisine.
Cal Blay Viniticinc. Sant Sadurní d’Anoia.
Located in a Modernista wine cellar, Cal Blay Vinitcinc offers local, seasonal cuisine and an excellent wine list.
Cal Xim. Sant Pau d’Ordal
Cal Xim is the place to get hearty, traditional Catalan food at its best, specialising in grilled meats and artichokes.
Cava is Catalan for cave, and refers to the cool dark cellars where cava is fermented. Like its French counterpart, Champagne, cava can be white or rosé and displays seven different levels of sweetness, depending on the amount of added sugar, ranging from sweet and semi-dry, to brut nature, the driest of them all, which has no added sugar. The subtle differences in taste between cava and champagne are determined, in part, by the types of grapes used and the terroir which gives each its own particular flavour profile. In Spain, cava is made from Macabeu, Parellada and Xarel·lo grapes, with Cabernet Sauvignon, Garnacha or Monastrell grapes added in to create the rosé version. It is a relatively short but labour intensive process, with each bottle hand turned during the fermentation period.
The best way to learn about cava is to head down to cava country and visit a cellar or two, where you can learn how cava is created and enjoy a tasting session. Sant Sadurní d’Anoia, considered the birthplace of cava, is a great place to start. There are a number of excellent cellars there, including the world-renowned Freixenet and Codorníu. While February can be brisk and the vines barren, it is also calçot season, and there is no better place to enjoy this local and well-loved onion than in the countryside restaurants of Penedès. Early spring brings rain, but with it vines covered in an explosion of downy white blossoms, signaling a new start and a new harvest ahead.
Photo courtesy of Hotel Mastinell.
The Cava and Hotel Mastinell takes its inspiration from the cava bottle form.
RECOMMENDED CELLAR VISITS
These are the granddaddies of the cava world and offer a great introduction to the origins of the drink, the cava-making process and the history of the region.
Codorníu. Founded: 1551.
The Codorníu cellars are an impressive example of Modernista architecture designed by Josep Puig i Cadafalch at the end of the 19th century. The cellars were declared a National Historic Artistic Monument in 1976, and a visit here involves a memorable train ride through a vast network of underground tunnels, where the cava is stored.
What to try: Anna de Codorníu.
Freixenet. Founded: 1861.
The second largest sparkling wine producer in Spain, Freixenet now has more than 21 wineries across four continents. It remains 100% family owned.
What to try: Elyssia Gran Cuvée, winner of the CINVE 2015 Gold medal.
Although the bigger houses have the name, the smaller cava cellars can offer a more intimate learning experience for the cava novice. Here are a few boutique cava cellars worth a stop.
Segura Viudas. Founded 1954.
Segura Viudas is committed to keeping its production in harmony with its natural surroundings. They offer themed tours dedicated to the animal and bird life of the vineyards, the use of wild plants for medicinal purposes, and the fish of the Bitlles River.
What to try: Reserva Heredad PN, heralded the Best Spanish Sparkling Wine at the 2015 Champagne and Sparkling Wine World Championships.
Cavas Nadal. Founded 1510.
The land at Cavas Nadal was once used as an airfield during the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939.) Then owner, Ramon Nadal Giró, decided to reorient production from brandy to sparkling wines after the war and the first bottle of Nadal cava was born in 1943.
What to try: Salvatge Rosé Brut 2012.
Can Ràfols dels Caus. Founded: 1979.
The cellar is carved out of the limestone Garraf Massif and is completely integrated into the landscape. It is built on different levels so that the wines can be decanted by gravity.
What to try: White Cava Gran Reserva.
Parés Baltà. Founded: 1790.
Parés Baltà is an organic operation using grapes from five estates surrounding the winery. The winemaking itself is in the hands of the wives of owners Joan and Josep Cusiné Carol. Maria Elena Jimenez and Marta Casas are winemakers and oenologists who bring their expertise to this family-run business.
If you have time to make a day of it, enjoy the fresh air and the beautiful views on foot by picking up one of the many walking routes or hiking trails through the region. Sant Sadurní d’Anoia offers a network of marked trails with posted distances that take walkers right through the heart of cava country, giving a close-up view of the vines. You can pick up a map at the local tourism office and pick your route according to distance and difficulty. Easier routes can be done on foot, bicycle or even horseback, while the more intensive hiking trails found beyond the valley of Sant Sadurní itself will require a sturdy pair of boots. Bicycles can be rented through certain wine cellars like Codorníu and Bodegas Eudald Massana Noya, or tours can be arranged through independent operators such as Orange Monkey Tours (www.orangemonkeytours.com) or El Moli Tours (www.elmolitours.com). The local tourism website for the region, Enoturisme Penedès (www.enoturismepenedes.cat), is an excellent place to start trip planning and offers a wide variety of experiences, from wine and food pairings to grape stomping, which can be booked directly through the website.
Take the AP-7 to Sant Sadurní d’Anoia (exit 27), where many cava cellars are located. Just a few minutes beyond Sant Sadurní is Vilafranca del Penedès (exit 28 or 29).
From Barcelona Sants or Barcelona Plaça Catalunya, take the Renfe train (Line 4). It is a 45-minute ride to Sant Sadurní, and 50 minutes to Vilafranca del Penedès.
Codorníu offers a new bus service that runs between Barcelona and the cellars, leaving at 9am with five return trips running between 1.40pm and 7.30pm.