Sip Your Way Through Cava Country

Posted on June 6, 2016

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Sip Your Way through Cava Country

by AnneLise Sorensen

Note: This is an updated version of my article that originally published in New York Magazine.

Cava Country

Spain’s famous bubbly has a reputation as a pauper’s champagne. But a wave of high-quality small-batch wineries just west of Barcelona is changing that.

The Penedès region, just 30 miles west of Barcelona, produces over 95% of the world’s cava, but some of the best stuff never makes it to the U.S. Sample it at the source, clomping through family-owned vineyards with a grape farmer who has a day’s work of dirt under his fingernails.

Penedes

(Courtesy of D.O. Penedès)

The Vineyards

Bypass the cava giants – Codorníu and Freixenet, both headquartered here – and go to Mas Candi, a new-generation, eco-friendly winery run by four young oenophile pagesos (farmers) – Ramón, Ramón, Toni, and Mercé. They recently began doing something unique: planting historic Catalan grape varieties that hadn’t been harvested since the 1800s. Top off the tour on the sun-warmed terrace, sipping a Mas Candi Brut Nature cava so bright and tart it’ll make your eyes water.

Sample organic cava while standing in the middle of its vineyard of origin at the family-owned Parés Baltà, run by two women winemakers, Maria Elena and Marta. Bump along on a four-wheel-drive guided tour across the winery’s five estates, and see firsthand the organic methods, like the flocks of grazing sheep that help fertilize the vineyards. In some parts, the vineyards grow in wild parkland – Parés Baltà is one of the few in Spain with vineyards in a natural park, the Parc del Foix. Pick up a bottle (or five) of Parés Baltà Ros de Pacs, voted best Spanish rosé by the NY Times in 2011 or splurge on the organic cava Rosa Cusine 2007, which gets its distinctive pink notes from Garnatxa grapes. Buy now: Only 500 bottles were produced.

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(Courtesy of Spain Tourism)

Be the first to explore the new Vinseum in Vilafranca de Penedès, which went through a five-year makeover – from provincial museum to sparkling multimedia center – and reopened in 2012. As the first museum dedicated to the wine of Spain, the collection is impressive: Look for porrons, a traditional Catalan wine pitcher with a thin spout, designed to pour wine in a stream directly into your mouth, so that it can be shared around a table. (Dip into George Orwell’s “Homage to Catalonia,” which details a humorous experience in drinking from one.) The museum building itself is worth a visit – a 13th-century royal palace that was once the seat of the Catalan-Aragon crown.

Sleep Off the Wine

Bring back a couple of bottles and throw a DIY wine tasting in the dining room of your 1879 farmhouse Ca La Laia (from $80/room, or $990/week for the house), in the small stone village of Torrelles de Foix (population: 800, wine-lovers all). This is country living: beamed ceilings, flower bedspreads, a wine barrel as a table, and a wood-burning fireplace.

Survey the medieval center of Vilafranca del Pendedès from your tiny but beautifully restored wrought-iron balcony at the boutique hotel Casa Torner i Güell (from $175), housed in graceful 1884 building. The region is known for its modernist architecture – the Codorníu winery is a particularly fine example, and Gaudí himself was born in Reus, 30km southwest – but few of the historic structures have been converted into hotels, like this one. The sleek interior has glass walls made from recycled bottles of cava and original stone foundations glowing under recessed lights.

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(Photo by AnneLise Sorensen)

Go from drinking your spirits to communing with them. Sleep like a monk at the Hostatgeria del Monasterio de Poblet (from $50), on the grounds of the 11th-century Poblet monastery in the neighboring region of Tarragona, a 45-minute drive west of Penedès. Designed by the renowned Spanish architect Mariano Bayón as a blend of modern and ancient, this isn’t just another fancy hotel in a monastery – here, it’s about the simple life, with no TVs in the basic rooms, and nightly Gregorian chanting in the chapel.

Catalan Cuisine

Follow the local winemakers to Cal Xim, in Sant Pau d’Ordal, which excels at grilled meats. Try the blood sausage with mongetes del Gantxet, white Catalan heirloom beans; cap i pota, stewed head and hoof of pig with chickpeas from L’Anoia; and duck with candied pears. The owner, Santi, maintains a superb cava list that spotlights small Penedès wineries; try a bottle of Guilera.

Restaurant Ú (Avinyonet del Penedès, 6km north of Vilafranca del Penedès) features a menu rooted in the Catalan Middle Ages. (And no, there’s no Renaissance Faire jousting or wenches.) Owner Raimon Olivella follows two of Catalunya’s most famous medieval cookbooks – the “Libre de Sent Soví” (1324) and the “Libre del Coch” (1520) – to create dishes like roasted eggplant stuffed with egg, and foie gras with a gelatin of Xarel-lo, the region’s best-known white grape used to make cava. Olivella named his restaurant “Ú” because the letter topped with its accent looks like a mortar and pestle; he collects historic mortars and displays them throughout the dining room.

mussels

(Photo by AnneLise Sorensen)

Slice into rabbit cannelloni draped in a truffle béchamel or squid stuffed with Tou dels Tillers, a lightly salted local cow’s cheese, at the small locavore restaurant El Racó de la Calma in Vilafrana del Penedès. Finish off with the crema Catalana, Catalunya’s version of crème brûlée, but here served as an ethereal foam. Come by for the excellent weekday lunch deal – the menú del día for $19.

Cava To Go

The typical wine-tasting trip to Penedès includes a couple of vineyard tours and then a return to Barcelona. What many don’t realize is that the best way to sample and buy, all under the same roof, is at the small bars that double as shops in Vilafranca del Penedès. Coupage (Era Enrajolada, Vilafranca del Penedès, 938 906 404) is the first of these to exclusively sell D.O. Penedès (Denomination of Origin Penedès) wines and cavas. There’s no Freixenet or Codorníu here – co-owners Ana and Jaume specialize in small wineries, which they feature in a new tasting menu each week. This is the place to buy cavas that are not regularly exported to the U.S., like the citrusy 1+1=3 (€3/glass; umesufan3.com) and the dry, bracing Bertha (cavabertha.com).

Sitges

Sitges, Catalunya, Spain (Photo by AnneLise Sorensen)

Road Trip to the Coast

Trade wine for water, and road-trip to the coast for the day, just a half-hour drive east. Observe along the way how swiftly the landscapes change in Catalunya, as you emerge from inland greenery to smell the first salty tang of the sea. Roll into Sitges, a former fishing village turned bohemian gay-friendly beach resort famous for its annual carnival. Though its nickname is “little Ibiza” – and the bar-lined main street is called Calle del Pecado (Street of Sin) – in the off-season, Sitges quietly settles into its small-town self, where la vida cotidiana (daily life) eclipses cocktails.

Start the day with a café con leche and pa amb tomàquet (bread rubbed with tomato) with Serrano ham at Café-Bar Roy (Carrer de les Parellades 9), which is filled with marble tables and vested waiters. In the town center, stride up the hill to the parish Baroque church, known as “La Punta,” to see the lay of the land – the Mediterranean Sea glinting in the distance and the Passeig Maritim boardwalk following the gentle curve of the long beach.

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Sitges, Catalunya, Spain (Photo by AnneLise Sorensen)

Fundació Stämpfli – Art Contemporani, in the former Mercat del Peix (fish market), inspires deep thoughts (hand on chin) with its large-scale Jackson Pollock-style splatters and precarious sculptures made of recycled materials. Swiss artist and longtime Sitges resident Peter Stämpfli founded the center to pay homage to Sitges’s formidable artistic legacy, which was anchored by the famous Catalan artist and writer Santigao Rusiñol who lived here and drew all his artistic pals, including Picasso.

Discover the roots of rum at the well-curated Casa Bacardi museum, in the1890 modernist Mercat Vell (Old Market). The founder of Bacardi rum, Facundo Bacardí Massó, was born and raised in Sitges until his mid-teens, when he emigrated to Cuba in 1830. The tour ends in the Bacardi Lounge, where professional bartenders will teach you how to make a proper mojito or cuba libre.

Ease into the night at the cozy seafood restaurant La Nansa, with a fishnet (nansa) hanging from the ceiling. Dine on xató, a traditional Sitges sauce made with ground almonds, hazelnuts, breadcrumbs, and garlic which is served with cod and tuna, and squid tossed with sweet Malvasia de Sitges wine. Cheers.

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Gegants festival, Sitges, Catalunya, Spain (Photo by AnneLise Sorensen)

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Posted in: Barcelona, Cava, Spain, wine