By Maxine Howard
Over the past few years, my husband and I have combined our two loves, travel and wine, for some delightful experiences. When we plan trips now we try to incorporate local winery visits into our itineraries. So when we decided to see Barcelona and its surrounding towns in Spain, I went in search of nearby wineries.
You have probably heard about different wine regions in Spain — Rioja being the most famous. But Catalonia itself has perhaps ten different DOs including Priorat, Emporda and Alt Penedes which are less familiar to Americans. We tasted wines from these and other local DOs, and they were all spectacular.
We concentrated our winery visits in Alt Penedes, a region about one hour south of Barcelona. Unlike in the U.S., you cannot just drive up and ask for a tasting. You have to reserve a tour and tasting beforehand. Luckily, with the internet, this is simple.
The Alt Penedes is best known as the home of Cava — Spain’s sparkling wine. Fittingly, our first stop was Codorníu, the world’s largest producer of Cava. On our tour of the gorgeous grounds we were introduced to the history of Cava production as well as some of the local grape varieties: Macabeo, Xarel-lo and Parellada. We were driven around the underground cellar in a tram, which dramatized the extent of the caves that hold millions of bottles of bubbly.
Of course, the highlight was tasting two contrasting Cavas. The first, Gran Plus Ultra is a blend of Chardonnay and Parellada. This was a pale yellow color with beautiful small bubbles. It was quite dry and fairly simple. Refreshing, but not exciting. The second, however, was love at first sight. The Pinot Noir Rosé Brut was a beautiful pale apricot color in the glass, with fabulous flavor from the Pinot grapes.
From Codorníu, we went to one of the area’s largest producers of still wines in the Alt Penedes: Torres. The Torres family has been making wine in this region since the 17th century. It has an enormous variety of wines — its catalogue lists 27 different table wines plus a dessert wine and three brandies. We tasted perhaps 10 different wines. Among our favorites was a white wine called Gran Vina Sol. A mix of 85% Chardonnay and 15% Parellada, it was straw-colored and full-bodied with a complex taste of ripe peaches and a hint of vanilla.
Our favorite red was Mas La Plana. This Cabernet Sauvignon was a beautiful dark red in color, with wonderful rich fruit flavors and a smoky finish. We also enjoyed the dessert wine called Floralis. Made from Moscatel, the wine had a wonderful floral scent and fruit flavor without being too sweet.
Our most amazing find though was a small producer I found through an internet search. We had an appointment for a tour in English at Pares Balta, and when we arrived we discovered we were the only ones on this “tour.” Our guide, Marc Pichon, does marketing for the winery and seemed genuinely excited to share the Pares Balta story with us. He took us into the field to explain the philosophy of the winemaker and to make clear that all grapes are organically grown without irrigation. After a brief tour of the facility we were ushered into a small tasting room where Marc opened bottle after bottle to share with us.
We started with a Garnatxa Cavas — a wine that was still a year away from release, but already clearly a pink-tinged, delicious, dry wine. Although we loved all eight wines we tasted, one of the standouts was a 2007 Hisenda Miret. One hundred percent Garnatxa (called Garnacha elsewhere in Spain and Grenache throughout the world), the wine is well integrated with a very smooth taste. Unfortunately, I have not found anywhere to buy the wines of this wonderful producer in the United States.
At the end of our visit Marc brought out a bottle of Gratavinum, the company’s own olive oil. We soaked it up with some wonderful bread and left totally satisfied.