Cava country (Penedes, Spain – Day One)

Cava is to Spain what champagne is to France. Way back in the 19th century the area in and around Penedes to the south of Barcelona there was a lot of grapes growing, but they weren’t known for quality wines. The indigenous grapes were macabeu, xerello and parellada, grown for their yields and ability to ripen but provide plenty of acidity. In 1872 after a visit to Champagne, Josep Raventos Fatjo returned to his estate in Penedes and had the revolutionary idea to begin producing traditional method sparkling wine, from the indigenous grape varieties which as I mentioned had plenty of acids ideal for the wine. This proved to be a wise decision and changed the entire wine industry in the region. His son then wanted to protect the reputation they were gaining for high quality sparkling wine, and thus created one of the first DO classifications in Spain to protect the name and area of production. As the Spanish government weren’t particularly interested they went to Brussels to get the protection, but the problem was that they couldn’t agree with the area of production, only that it must be made in the traditional method. The Denominacion de Origen area covers Penedes, areas to the south near Valencia, and even as far west as Rioja, however 95% of the cava produced comes from the Penedes region.
Traditional method bottle of cava

Torreblanca is a name that has been associated with wine for many centuries, and was with the same family for much of it. I met with the daughter of the family who purchased it in the 90s, Montse Nicholas, who gladly left a career in law to help run the winery when her father bought the winery. The wines are made only from estate fruit, which surrounds the property. The focus is on cava, which is made in the traditional method and kept on the lees after the bottle fermentation for at least 12 months. Compared to most producers of cava in the region, they are pretty small-scale and only produce about 100,000 bottles per year. The house dates back to the 14th century, but the name Torreblanca has been associated with the place and with wine since the 11th century. When I visited they were setting up for a private event, in a fantastic function space next to the pool which overlooks the vineyards. I envy whoever the group was, as I couldn’t imagine anything nicer than a lovely poolside party, sipping delicious Torreblanca cava, eating local food and watching the sun set over the vineyards. Over some nibbles Montse showed me many of the wines, which are all exemplary for the price and style, and I see there is a lot more potential with them as they improve their understanding of the vineyards and the process. Click here to read my tasting notes.

Torreblanca house

The Torreblanca winery is located in the middle Penedes area, but for my second appointment of the day I drove into the upper Penedes area, about 400m above sea level. This is the coolest part of the region, and is quite different to the middle and lower parts which tend to be a little warmer and have soils connected to the geological period when it was a seabed. The appointment was with Joan Huguet, whose family own the Can Feixas winery. Not unlike the Torreblanca story, for 15 generations a family owned and ran the Can Feixas property, and were the most important in the area. They were awarded the land by the local nobility, under the provision that they must pass it down to sons and could never sell it. The line was unfortunately broken and they were allowed to sell it to the Huguet family who were given the same instruction, and it has now been in their family for three generations. Today it is run by three brothers; Joan handles the vineyards, and his brothers handle the winemaking and operations respectively. The property is pretty big, covering 340 hectares, and they are running it in a very traditional estate model of a mixture of viticulture, agriculture and natural forests. In addition to grapes they also grow olives and almonds, and with the natural vegetation they encourage biodiversity and therefore natural pest and disease control, and the added bonus of healthy soils that don’t require any additional irrigation. They also plant cereals in areas where they are trying to regenerate the soils after long periods of vine growing, in an effort to refresh and open the soils and encourage nutrients which may have become deficient in such a monoculture.

Very old barrel of fortified wine

Joan took me into the estate to see how they work with nature to grow the best fruit that reflects their unique place. Examining the soils, micro-climates and expositions, they plant different varieties both native and introduced, to account for such issues as drainage, minerality, exposure to sun and wind, and also issues of hail which sometimes occurs. Across the 90 hectares planted to vines there are some different soil types, so vine stress is something that is considered very closely. Joan and his brothers are constantly thinking about the future, and in preparation for climate change he has planted other later ripening varieties like petit verdot. I told him that we are doing similar things in Australia, but are in fact diversifying into more Spanish and Italian varieties to compensate for warmer and drier conditions, as well as establishing new areas for viticulture that were previously too cold. As we drove through the vineyard a team were doing some heavy shoot thinning on some parellada vines, which in the next few weeks will start to ripen and the leaves will grow to create natural shade. The family have made a lot of investment in the cellars, which are modest and unpretentious, but do their job perfectly. One of the coolest things is the cellar where three vintages of cava and red wine are kept, which has a huge ceiling only just smaller than the deepest under Reims. They don’t make monovarietal wines, instead blending to best express the vintage and the terroir. Joan took me through most of the wines, which were all excellent, but I was most impressed with the wines made mostly from indigenous grapes, as the parellada here is exceptional. The cava was also outstanding and I couldn’t believe the price. Click here to read my tasting notes.

Joan Huguet inside a press that needs a new airbag

One of the most important names in terms of cava is Raventos, as they not only created the cava DO, they also were the first to make cava in the traditional method. Just outside the village of Sant Sadurni d’Anoia – the heart of cava – is the Raventos i Blanc winery, which in spite of its recent construction is in a very elegant modern style, is actually backed by a lot of history. The Raventos family have been here growing grapes in Penedes on this 90 hectare property since 1497, but not always to make wine. Previously they were producing mistelle, which is fortified grape juice that was being sold to the colonies. By 1984 the business had changed and was producing four million bottles per year, and was compromising on quality by reducing margins and producing volume wine. Josep Maria Raventos was unhappy with this, and decided to break away from his extended family on the board, and establish his own business. With the Spanish system of inheritance, the oldest son takes over the holdings of the father, and so he owned the 90 hectares of vineyards and the historic family home, which was sold in 1992 to Cordoniu to help provide a cash injection but also as it didn’t make sense being on the Cordoniu property. Josep Maria Raventos wanted to produce wine as his forefathers had, where quality was of the utmost importance, but he died not long afterwards and was succeeded by his son Manuel who has run the winery since then. Like the other two producers I visited but unlike all of the large producers in the region, they make wine only from their own vineyards.

Arnau Roca next to some clarification tanks

Arnau Roca who works in export, gave me one of the warmest welcomes I have had on my entire trip. We started by looking through the winery and cellars, where they produce up to 500,000 bottles per year, but age the wines on lees for a lot longer than the average. Subsequently there are over one million bottles sitting on lees in the cellars, including some that have been on lees for 14 years. The process in the winery is exactly the same as the champagne process, with gentle whole-bunch pressing to extract the juice, a cold temperature filtration before base wine fermentation, and a very careful blending process to express the vintage and style. We then took the oldest 4WD in the world through the vineyards, and examined the three soil types on the estate which are almost completely different. Next to the winery the soils are quite dark and calcareous, to the west there is a large pocket of sandy loams with pebbles on the surface, and on the southern part there are more calcareous clay soils. There are some pretty old vines here which contribute to great concentration of fruit and minerality. A tasting through most of the wines showed how serious they are in creating authentic cava that represents the place and exquisite style, rivalling the sort of quality you get in Champagne. The hospitality then extended to a casual dinner by the pool and a bed in the guest house. Click here to read my notes on the tasting.

The Intrepid Wino in the vineyards of Raventos

Click here to see more photos from Day One in Penedes, Spain. The following day I will spend in Penedes, before driving to San Sebastian for the weekend.

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