When it comes to sparkling wines, France may have the glitz and grooming of Champagne, but a tour through the winemaking hills of the Penedès region proves that Catalonia’s earthy cavas have an appeal of their own.
By Lara Dunston
Photographs by Terence Carter
On my last trip to Barcelona I met a man, and I fell in love—with cava, that is. The gentleman, dashing in a dark suit and striped tie, was Josep Elías Terns, owner of the Parató winery in Penedès, a wine region some 50 kilometers southwest of the city. As he poured me a glass of the crisp, light, elegant sparkling wine, he told me something I wouldn’t forget. “Ferran Adrià said that cava is the only wine that can match 25 dishes,” he said, citing Spain’s most celebrated chef. “It’s like with music. There’s classical, there’s rock, and then there is the kind of music that goes with everything.”
Four years later and I’m back, trundling through Barcelona’s lackluster suburbs on a train bound for Sant Sadurní d’Anoia, the gateway to Penedès. I’m on my way to meet some oenophile friends and discover just how versatile cava is through five days of wine tastings paired with quintessential Catalan dishes.
Once outside the city, red-brick apartment buildings give way to red-roofed farmhouses and gently undulating hills planted with ancient vines, and before I know it, my train pulls into a station directly opposite Freixenet, the cava producer credited with popularizing the wine internationally in the 1980s. The group I’m meeting includes Oriol Ripoll, the director of online Spanish-wine retailer Decántalo. I ask him what distinguishes a great cava. “A good expression of terroir above all,” Ripoll says. “The wine should have fled all preconceived ideas of cava, as it should have a rich, individual personality built over decades. The differences in latitude, geography, weather, and grape varieties of each winery create great differences between the wines.”
Compared to the picturesque wine regions of northeastern France where vines grow in neat rows surrounded by manicured lawns and perfectly pruned hedges, the terroir of the Penedès is elemental, which I see first during a visit to the vineyards of Vinícola de Nulles, a wine cooperative established in 1917 that produces cavas under the brand Adernats. After scrambling up a stony track, I survey the vineyards, their craggy vines twisting down hills encroached with scrubby bushes, rocky gullies, wild herbs, and groves of walnut and olive trees. The air is perfumed with the scents of pine and rosemary, and as I gaze out at the jagged blue ridges of Montserrat looming over the region, a salty sea breeze wafts over the vines and caresses my cheek. It’s that sort of wild and rugged Mediterranean beauty, the flavors and fragrances of which permeate the wine I taste during the rest of the week.
Back at the Vinícola winery, I sit down for one of Adernats’ monthly pairing dinners and am immediately immersed in a Catalan setting of a different sort. One of seven Modernist “wine cathedrals” built in Catalonia by Gaudí disciple Cèsar Martinell i Brunet in the early 20th century, the winery has high vaulted ceilings, arches of beautiful brickwork, and a nave filled with wine vats instead of pews. Over the course of five dishes, we sample varietals made from xarello, macabeu, and parellada—the three native grapes traditionally used to make cava. The best pairing for me is the starter: a summer soup of tomato-and-watermelon gazpacho with marinated anchovies paired with Adernat’s Essència, a smooth and aromatic cava the color of light gold.
The next morning, we drive an hour east to the village of Puigdàlber and stop at Mas Codina, a hilltop winery dating back to 1681. After ambling through misty vineyards, we settle around an antique table in the cavernous dining room of the estate’s sandstone farmhouse to sample their cavas. We breakfast on a range of bubblies with Catalan cold cuts and cheeses, but it’s the heady Brut Nature Gran Reserva, aged for 42 months in Mas Codina’s cava cellars, that best holds up to the meal: rich and creamy goat cheese from the foothills of the Pyrenees; sweet, oily, melt-in-your-mouth jamón Ibérico; and a spicy chorizo that is too pungent for a Champagne.
For lunch, we continue on to the town of Subirats, where the family-owned Llopart winery has been producing cava for well over a century. The lovely Jeci Llopart, a fifth-generation winemaker who runs the winery with her three siblings, greets us outside before taking us through the property. We sip their crimson Rosé Brut Reserva in the sleek, contemporary tasting rooms; we try the gamut of cava grape varietals that we carefully pluck straight from the vine; we hike up the hill to the original family farmhouse, taking in majestic vistas of the Penedès valley and Montserrat.