Bottom Line: Cava is king, and for good reason. It is a luminous beverage capable of profound dimensions, despite its lackluster reputation in the US. The Penedès region is a must if you're a sparkling enthusiast. But for still wines, particularly reds, this area lacks the consistency and depth of character to make it a wine lover's destination.
|Jean Leon Chapel|
The Rest Of The Story: Of course, as with wine regions the world over, there are exceptions to this. Viladellops makes a Grenache that sings, Jean Leon makes a Chardonnay that makes you swoon, and there are dozens of producers doing incredible things with white grapes you've never heard of, but there's a reason why Rioja's reputation eclipses wines from Penedès. Most of the still wine from here that finds its way to the States tends to be, well, inconsistent.
That's not to say they are completely devoid of commonalities, however. Penedès reds do share a heady perfumed character that's not unlike their Priorat siblings (and many other Mediterranean reds) along with a lean, almost austere body profile. Generally speaking, the red wines lack generosity. As for the exceptions, only a few make their way out of the country.
CavaHowever, if you enjoy bubbly - wow - there is more than just depth and consistency here. There is variety, quality, and value in a class of wines the world is missing out on. Dozens of small, family-run producers are putting out extraordinary Cavas. Castell Sant Antoni is one such example. After meeting the proprietors at a Sunday market in Barcelona's Barri Gòtic, a gate swung open onto a whole new, fascinating world.
Though their entire production is less than two thousand cases per year, Sant Antoni manages to turn out nine different bottlings, four of which they poured at the mercat. Their offerings range from the reasonably priced and refreshing Primus Primum, to the richly colored and flavorful Gran Rosat of Pinot Noir, to the stunning flagship 1999 Torre de l'Homentage. But once again, none of it is imported to the US, a challenge the producers we spoke with attributed to high importers' fees and a US market reluctant to spend even moderately on Cava.
Visiting WineriesSure, the big Cava houses - Frexinet, Segura Viudas, and Codorníu - are very prominent here, but the real jewels are the places dotting the towns of Sant Sadurni d'Anoia and Vilafranca del Penedès. Their charms can only really be experienced by visiting, and visiting wine country here is not the casual drop-in we're accustomed to in the US. Reservations are required virtually everywhere, are only available during very select hours, and can be tough to get. The highly regarded Gramona, for example, was not able to accommodate our request for even a brief visit.
Though dozens of wines were sampled over the course of these trips, a tasting of Celler Pahí's red blend exemplified this incoherence. A lineup of their Gaubana from 2005, 2007, and 2009 shared very little in common, despite being sourced from the same vines, blended by the same hands in similar proportions, and subjected to the same oak regimen. While there's nothing wrong with diversity, I can't help but wonder if the area's reds aren't suffering from an identity crisis.
An hour drive from Barcelona's harrowing traffic, the Penedès region is also easily accessible by train, though ground transport can be tricky if not arranged ahead of time, so, again, it's worth planning ahead.
|El Racó de la Calma|
Ultimately, however, there are two disturbing traditions in Catalan cuisine: bread and salt. Tapas and pintxos make for a fun eating format and efficient sampling, but it doesn't take long for the ubiquitous slices of baguette sitting under prize morsels to turn into obstacles. As for the salt, it's upsetting to it see so heavily used in a part of the world that doesn't need it. The ingredients available here are intense already and need only respect to deliver pure flavor.
Below are brief reviews of some of the more noteworthy wines we sampled.
2006 Jean Leon Merlot Light color and translucent, lovely warm nose, but the fun stops there. Sharp, alcohol attack and the fruit hits a low ceiling. Ouch. $21
|Celler Pahi's Blanc|
|“Le Havre” Vineyard|