Raise your glass
Despite the fact that Penedès is the most visited wine region in Spain, with just over 400,000 tourists in 2012, many people skip over some of the area’s real gems. Day-trippers swoop in for a glass or two at the big name producers—Freixenet, Codorníu and Torres—before making their way back to Barcelona, missing out on the smaller vineyards and other activities. “This area is very nice but it has been ‘asleep’ for too long,” says Rosó Gabarró Llombart of the Institut del Cava. “In order for it to wake up, there’s a lot of work to do. Tourism in the area is a fairly recent concept,” she told me, adding, “Penedès isn’t anything like the US, places such as California, where wine tourism was born.”
Indeed, Penedès is no Napa, but it has all the ingredients to become so. Though foreigners seek out Penedès wines, the territory lacks fame among the Spaniards. “Wines that have become popular in Spain, outside La Rioja and Ribera del Duero, have become so due to foreign praise,” says Rosó. Should it take The Wine Advocate giving a 96-point score to Recaredo’s Turó d’en Moto (2002) for the Barcelona population to realise the treasure trove that is Penedès?
“Wine is ubiquitous in Spain, and therefore it’s often not appreciated, in much the same way you might overlook the beauty of your hometown,” says Gabriella Opaz of CataVino. “It’s not until someone comes to visit you, that you open your eyes and suddenly ‘see’ what is exciting.”
Take a closer look at Penedès and it quickly becomes clear that there is a lot to get excited about. At just 35 kilometres from Barcelona, Penedès offers Modernista mansions, slow food heaven, grapevine trails and, of course, the vi. The top spot to begin a getaway there is the village of Sant Sadurní d’Anoia, especially if you go this year on the weekend of October 4th to 6th for CavaTast, an annual wine and cava tasting festival (glass + four taste tickets costs €6). If a trip to CavaTast is impossible, or you simply want to delve deeper into Penedès wine, follow my footsteps through Sant Sadurní d’Anoia for a 48-hour escape.
I drive from Barcelona to Sant Sadurní, which takes 40 minutes. Traffic is smooth and the industrial sprawl around Barcelona morphs into pine-covered knolls, which in turn give way to a vineyard-dominated landscape. Vines rake the earth in neat, tight braids, and fleshy grape clusters peek out under thick leaf petticoats.
If you don’t have a car or prefer not to drive, take the train to Sant Sadurní, an easy 45-minute ride on Renfe from Sants. From the station, it’s a 10-minute, downhill walk into the village centre.
I check into Fonda Neus, a family-run inn opened in 1929. I’m within walking distance of many of the top caves in Spain—I won’t be using my car for the rest of the weekend.
Saturday is market day in Sant Sadurní and stands are set up along the main drag, Carrer Raval. I make my way past Casa Lluís Mestres (1909), a Modernista marvel designed by Santiago Güell i Grau and then past the equally grand Ateneu Agrícola (1908) by Miquel Madurell i Rius, on my way to Restaurant Cal Blay for lunch.
My waitress comes over with a bottle of Celler Vell Extra Brut Gran Reserva (2009) and sets it on ice. “You probably don’t know of this winery,” she says. “It’s a small one, located just outside town.” She’s right—I’ve never heard of Celler Vell, nor am I familiar with many of the 150 cava labels on the restaurant’s exclusively-Penedès wine menu (260 wines total).
Cal Blay’s menu features dishes made with cava, traditional Catalan cuisine, seasonal recipes and ‘slow food’. Try the cuttlefish with chickpeas and bacon (€14), l’Escala anchovies (€6.50), and the mandarin and 100 percent xarel·lo cava sorbet (€2.50).
Despite all the Modernista bling, the most interesting venues in Sant Sadurní are underground, where glass bottles are stacked by the thousands, six feet high in ancient tunnels. My next stop is Recaredo, the only certified biodynamic vineyard in town and one of the most exclusive wineries in Penedès. Above me, cobwebs hang like lace and a thick frosting of black mould covers the ceiling; here in the cellar, it’s a constant, cool 15 degrees. Biodynamic vineyards are organic and holistic, an approach that appeals to me. This farming method emphasises the interrelationships of the soil, plants and animals as a self-sustaining system. Wine is a representation of the soil the grapes grew in, meaning biodynamics make good sense and good vintage. Recaredo produces just six cava labels and adheres to a strictly traditional methodology. If booked ahead of time, groups of up to 15 people may tour the bodega and sample two cavas, usually a ‘Subtil’ Gran Reserva Brut Nature and their ‘Brut de Brut’ Gran Reserva Brut Nature.
My tour ends, and I’m thanking my lucky cava corks that Fonda Neus is around the corner. My wine tasting has caught up with me, and I retire for a siesta...
As night falls over Sant Sadurní, I head to my final tasting experience of the day at Caves Mestres, a cellar which has been in the business since 1312. Like Recaredo, Mestres is old-school in its approach to wine making, using all natural cork during the fermentation process and manual disgorgement without freezing the bottle’s neck (this refers to the way the fermentation ingredients are removed from cava. Usually, disgorgement is done by machine with a frozen bottle neck). Honestly, if Mestres had been offering another ‘this-is-how-we-make-cava’ tour, I would have skipped it. Instead, Mestres’ host, Joan Llorach, has promised a ‘sensations tasting’ unlike any other. “I’m not a sommelier or an enologist, I am a storyteller,” says Llorach, and then leads our group of 13 down a stone staircase illuminated by candlelight; in the distance I hear the hum of a cello.
Alas, I can’t divulge much more about the Mestres ‘experience’, as it would spoil all the fun for someone tempted to try it. What I can say is that it is an evening filled with delightful surprises. A ‘Km.0’ dinner of potent cheeses, cured meats from Casaladería Cal Miqueló, pa amb tomàquet from Ca l’Arseni, chocolate from Simón Coll, and crunchy Coca de les Viudes from Pastisseria Rosell—along with oceans of cava—follows the tasting.
Despite the copious amounts I quaffed the previous day, I am hangover-free. This I attribute to drinking high-quality cavas, almost all of them Brut Nature, which has no extra sugar added. After a frothy coffee and croissant, I meet David Sala of Burricleta outside my fonda. Burricletas, which are a cross between cruiser and mountain bike, are electric, meaning you don’t have to be Miguel Indurain to spend the day cycling around Penedès. David helps me set up the Albet i Noya Vineyards route on my bike’s GPS, a 25-kilometre trail that lasts four to six hours.
Although I’ve never used an electric bicycle before, I am soon speeding along dirt tractor-trails at 20 kilometres per hour past grape-heavy vines and over small creeks. Butterflies swarm, wheat stretches in yellow swaths, lizards leap away from my wheels, and the Montserrat mountain range observes it all. Between orchards and grapevine, I roll through the villages of La Granada, San Sebastià del Gorgs and Sant Pau d’Ordal, which is famous for its peaches. My route is circular, with a stop at the vineyard midway.
As I flip my kickstand out at Albet i Noya, one of Penedès’s 184 cava-producing wineries, a lumbering black lab comes over to greet me along with Marta Carbonell, who gives me a tour of the bodega and a sampling of three wines. Trailblazers, Albet i Noya was the first wine-maker in Spain to go organic back in 1979, a trend that is catching on in Penedès, which now has 18 organic vineyards. Carbonell pours a fizzy glass of Brut Albet i Noya 21 and tells me that 83 percent of their production is sold abroad, making me think that while organic is ‘in’, it’s still got a long way to go locally. You can visit Albet i Noya without a Burricleta tour or reservation, though it’s always best to call ahead. The vineyard offers a grape harvest experience (€13) as well as a gastronomic experience featuring a tasting, tour and lunch at Cal Sadoni, a favourite eatery in the region.
Pedalling back to Sant Sadurní, I’m the only bike on the road. It crosses my mind that Penedès may be better off overlooked. If word gets out, it will be only a matter of time before Barcelona’s backyard is buzzing with tourism.
CAVA BARS BARCELONA
Can’t make it to Penedès? Try these wine bars with excellent cavas and Penedès wines on their menus in Barcelona:
Vila Viniteca - Agullers 7, tel. 902 327 777, www.vilaviniteca.es. Open Monday to Saturday, 8.30am-8.30pm
La Vinya del Senyor - Plaça Santa María 5, tel. 93 310 3379, www.lavinyadelsenyor.com. Open every day from noon to 1am
Monvínic - Diputación 249, tel. 93 272 6187, www.monvinic.com. Open Monday to Friday (closed on weekends). Bar: 1pm-11.30pm. Kitchen: 1.30-3.30pm and 8 to 10.30pm
Fonda Neus: Marc Mir 14-16, tel. 93 891 0365. €80 for double room. www.fondaneus.com
Celler Vell: www.cellervell.com
Cal Blay: Josep Rovira 27, www.cateringcalblay.com. Daily specials €18/€20/€31
Recaredo: tour costs €15 per person. www.recaredo.es
Caves Mestres: tasting ‘experience’ is €25 per person. www.mestres.es
Burricleta: Wine route €39 per person, half-day rental €25. www.burricleta.com
Cal Sadoni: www.calsaldoni.com
Albet i Noya: www.albetinoya.cat