September 28, 2011

Penedés: Wine Country

Spain's wines are becoming increasingly popular in the United States, and for good reason. Spain produces some excellent wines, and unlike France and Italy, whose international reputations and image marketing have led to sticker shock and high pricing of its bottles abroad, Spain exports wines at comparatively low prices that make drinking them not only gustatorily satisfactory but also quite financially appealing. Indeed, in Spain wine is consumed as an ordinary accompaniment to one's meal, not a luxury item, and is thus priced very inexpensively.

(Evidence by way of personal anecdote: when I once tried to buy my in-laws a "nice and expensive" bottle of wine, my mother-in-law fussed about not being excessive in purchasing a 10€ bottle, and insisted that splurging on a 5€ bottle was more than fancy enough. For routine drinking, one need not spend more than 3€ here in Spain for a good wine.)

While there are wine regions all throughout Spain, the two most reputed wine regions are La Rioja and Penedés. Between the two, La Rioja is the region with the longest tradition and greatest fame, but the two regions have equal status here in part because of their specialization in product. La Rioja produces mostly "tinto," red wines, while Penedés is reknowned for its "vino blanco" (white wine) and "cava," Spain's version of sparkling wine (or what in France is called champagne).

Spain's many wine producing regions, though La Rioja and Penedés are among its most prestigious

There is too much to say about wine culture in Spain, about production, variation, and its mark on the culture and landscape of the country (the so-called "cava wars," "denominación de origen" labeling rules, whether it is an alcoholic drink or really an accompaniment to one's meal). I promise to return to these topics in future blog entries. Here I just want to focus on Penedés, having recently spent a weekend there touring the vineyards. Penedés is a comarca, a county, of Cataluña located along the coast to the southwest of Barcelona. It is an ancient viticulture region, with vines found in the area dating back to before the 4th Century BC brought there by the Greeks, though the region's importance in wine markets really got going in the 6th Century AD and onward.

Question: What are the three grape varietals used in cava?
Answer: Parellada, Macabeu, and Xarel•lo.

Starting in the late 19th Century, producers in the region started specializing in "cava." The shift was partly a response to the phylloxera plague, a pest which ruined grape vines all across Europe and nearly caused Europe's wine production to collapse. What is cava? I have for a long time said that cava is more or less exactly the same as champagne, except that the French won't let anyone else call it that. However, I was mistaken. Cava is made from three white grape varieties common to the Penedés region: Parellada, Macabeu, and Xarel•lo. These are not the same as the grapes used in champagne (which for those of you curious are generally the white Chardonay and the the red wine grapes of Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier). (See here for a more in depth blog entry on grape cultivation in Spain. Interesting fact: 94% of grapes cultivated in Spain are destined for wine production, only 6% for table consumption.) So my new take on this is that cava is _better_ than champagne, and in the U.S. you can usually find bottles of it for cheaper. Unlike wine, cava has two fermentation steps, the first fermentation is done with all wines to convert the sugars into alcohol via yeast, but then a second partial fermentation is done, after more sugar liqueur is added, which results in the bubbly final product. What is most interesting about this is that the bottle sold is the same bottle in which this second fermentation takes place!

"Vendimia" season in Penedés. Trucks line up at the Segura Viudas Cava Bodega
in mid September to deliver grapes from nearby vineyards.

September is when the "vendimia" (grape harvesting) takes place, and was thus a very fun time to visit the region and do some enotourism. You could see trucks bringing grapes from the fields to the "bodegas," wine cellars, where producers bottle next year's wine or cava. The two wine producing capitals of the region are Vilafranca and Sant Sadurní d'Anoia. Vilafranca del Penedés is renowned for its culinary excellence (and also its Castellers, or the local association dedicated to staging human towers, surely the subject of a later entry). While there, I highly recommend dining at Cal Ton, widely considered to be the finest or one of the finest restaurants in the city. The town also has a "ruta modernista" (Modernist route) with some interesting buildings; interesting, though not quite the same level as you'd find in Barcelona. More impressive for vino-philes is the "Vinseum," the Penedés Wine Museum. It has an innovative museum format, with interactive displays and poses questions rather than answers, though you will certainly leave it knowing much more about the region's wine, culture and history than when you entered. Very importantly, the museum gives you a wine tasting with your entrance fee.

The more interactive display style of the Vinseum in Vilafranca del Penedés

Recognize this bottle?
That's because Freixenet produces
90 million bottles a year, exporting
a large percent to the United States
Sant Sadurní d'Anoia also has wines, but its name is more synonymous with cava. Most of the famous cavas are located here. The two biggest producers Cordoníu and Freixenet, which Americans might recognize since they export large amounts to the States, offer great tours. Freixenet's tour focuses more on the production and its massive bodegas, whereas Cordoníu's tour highlights its modernist buildings and beautiful layout. Again, both tours end with a cava tasting. I recommend you combine a tour of at least one of these large producers with a visit to one of the many smaller wine or cava producers in the area, since they will give you a better tour of the actual fields and vineyards to compliment the big producers' focus on fermentation and bottling. One (of many) options is Segura Viudas, one of my personal cava favorites and which offers a more intimate tour. While a member of the "Freixenet group," it produces its own distinct wines and cavas and is located about 10 minutes outside of Sant Sadurní d'Anoia along a road that winds through breathtaking views of vineyards and a very distinctive Penedés landscape.

The Segura Viudas bodega and the rolling hills and vineyards of Penedés, wine country

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