Drive an hour south west of Barcelona and you are in the heart of the Penedès, a wine region dating back to Roman times, which today produces over ninety percent of Spain’s Cava.
Fast highways outside Barcelona give way to twisting, winding hillside roads covering three distinct regions that stretch from the Mediterranean coast to Alt Penedès which climbs up to 800m above sea level. I’m in Spain’s Cava country. The region is beguiling, home to olive mills, boutique chocolate factories and many, many wineries. In the higher regions, vineyards are little domestic plots and small scale family holdings; across the lower plains and coastal areas, they stretch out luxuriously, creating a patchwork of vibrant green, interspersed with the golden hue of the earth.
Many wineries have been handed down from generation to generation. A new generation of wine makers mix traditional artisan production methods with contemporary technology and there is an emerging trend of innovative women oenologists.
I meet with Helena Yglesias, the owner of a family run artisanal winery, Capita Vidal in Alt Penedès, 50 kilometres south west of Barcelona, on a sundrenched August morning. She leads me to the edge of the vineyard. For as far as the eye can see are vines planted in a seemingly indiscriminate style, a sharp contrast to the regimented rows of tidy manicured vines I had seen in other areas.
In the Alt Penedès or High Penedès, the air is cooler. Roads cut through forested swathes of hillside, home to wild boars which emerge at dusk and can dart out into road as they forage for food. Alt Penedès lies between 1640ft and 2625ft (500 and 800m) above sea level, making the vineyards some of the highest in Europe. Here, they hug close the hillsides. Vines are planted in the bush style, which seems haphazard, but allows the vine roots to burrow deep into the soil to find water. Vines here yield lower volume, but higher quality grapes producing fresh white wine.
“This is where it all starts - with the soil.” Helena tells me that the Capita Vidal philosophy is to look after the land. Her vines are more than twenty five years old and are planted in the bush style. Viticulture here is practiced with respect for the environment. Vines are cultivated organically, watered by rainfall and maintained by hand.
The Penedès region has been cultivated for wine production since Roman times. Wine museums housing both public and private collections hold items dating back centuries. The Via Augusta, a Roman road, crosses the Penedès from ‘El Puente del Diabolo’ to the Arco de Bera northeast of Tarragona, and during this time, the region had a reputation for red wine. By the 19th century, though, Phylloxera, an epidemic which decimated vines across Europe, almost wiped out the region’s vineyards and changed the direction of wine production.
American vines were brought to Spain and grafted on to local vines to create a species able to withstand other infestations. Vines were replanted and subsequently the focus and the fortunes of the region changed when white wine production began to predominate.
Towards the end of the 19th century, Cava production began to emerge, following the same techniques the French used to produce champagne. A number of families with vineyards near Sant Sadurní d’Anoia, led by Josep Raventos of the Codorniu winery, began to successfully experiment with the technique and consequently, Sant Sadurní d’Anoia became the birthplace of Cava. Cava achieved Denominación de Origen (DO) status in 1969. The region today is made up of around 159 townships, essentially in the provinces of Barcelona and Tarragona but also in Lleida, Girona, la Rioja, Álava, Valencia, Badajoz, Navarra and Zaragoza. Villafranca del Penedès is the capital of the region, but Saint Sadurní d’Anoia is the hub and the heart of Cava production generating 99% of all Cavas produced.
Helena has headed up Capital Vidal for a decade and in that time reinvented it. It now combines traditional artisanal wine making processes with modern technology and limited production. She grew up living and breathing viticulture. It was a natural career choice to study oenology in Tarragona before taking over at the helm of the family business. Her parents were distinguished sailors; her father a round-the-world yachtsman and her mother a navigator and champion skate sailor. In the tasting room of the traditional Catalan farmhouse which houses the winery, photographs, maps and sailing mementos adorn the walls. This family business is firmly rooted in the sea and the mountains.
What characterises Cava is the method of production. The méthode champenoise, where the wine undergoes a second fermentation in the bottle contrasts with German and Italian sparkling wines where the base wine undergoes a second fermentation in large tanks. This gives Cava a superior quality. The first fermentation takes around three to five days and produces the base wine.
In addition to the three native grape varietals - Macabeo, Xarel.lo and Parellada - which are central to the production of Cava, Helena also grows Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Sauvignon Blanc amongst others to add depth. Macabeo provides acidity and produces fruity wine with floral notes. Xarel.lo too provides acidity and aromas of apples, grapefruit and lemons and gives the wine body, strength and length. Parellada produces a crisp wine with fresh fruit flavours adds finesse and softness. At the coupage, or blending stage, Helena will change the coupage in response to the quality and flavour of the harvest and the characteristics of the vintage.
Once the coupage is finalised, a licor de tiraje, a mixture of yeast, sugar and yeast nutrients, is added and the wine undergoes its second fermentation. The yeast works on the sugar to create carbon dioxide which remains in the bottle. Bottles are then aged.
This ageing process is strictly controlled by the D.O.’s Consejo Regulador, or Regulating Authority. Young Cavas are mild, fruity and fresh. They are aged a minimum of nine months and are best drunk within a few years. Reservas are aged a minimum of 15 months and are smooth, complex and full of flavour. Gran Reservas are aged over 30 months and are full bodied with intense flavours and aroma.
Once aged, the yeast and sediment is removed in the disgorgement process. The bottles are stored at angles to allow the yeast to collect in the neck of the bottle. The cork is removed and the yeast expelled. Wine lost during this process is replaced and sugar added. This is the dosage and determines the sweetness of the end product. A Brut Nature will contains between 0-3 grams of sugar, Extra Brut 0-6, Brut 0-12, Extra Dry 12-17, Dry 17-32, Medium Dry 32-50 and Sweet over 50.
In the upstairs tasting room, Helena offers a glass of Fuchs Vidal Special Cuvee, a Brut Nature Reserva. It is aged for an average of 24 months. It is full bodied, complex, fresh with citrus notes and delicate at the same time. It is her best seller and in addition to selling to the local market, Helena is beginning to garner an increasing export market as far away as California. Since the Crisis in Spain, consumers are demanding more for their money and in order to survive, Helena needs to look for new markets.
On returning to the UK, the lasting impressions I retain from my time in the Penedès are that vineyards are the essence of the Penedès: its people, its landscapes, its gastronomy, its tradition and architecture. Many of the wineries have been designed by Catalan architects Cadalfach and Domenech i Montaner, contemporaries of Antonio Gaudi, and are powerful examples of Modernist architecture. Many classify themselves as cathedrals of wine, exalting the status of winemaking to a religious or ritualistic activity.
The region is romantic, steeped in history but blending traditional winemaking practices, with contemporary technology. It is also a stunning lesson in resilience and adaptability.