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Destinations: Why Penedes? Part One

Barcelona, capital of Catalunya and Spain’s most vibrant city hardly needs a lengthy introduction. There probably isn’t anyone on the planet who hasn’t heard of, or visited, this Mediterranean metropolis, a seductive party town that mixes the cerebral and the sensual in good measure. But Penedes, Catalunya’s wine stalwart that is found just south of this world renowned city. You would hear a pin drop in the winery for the uncomfortable silence!

Perhaps it’s a good thing that Penedes is not yet globally well known, because as I discovered two weeks ago it is one of Spain’s most fascinating, diverse, and beautiful wine region’s that holds many surprises, least of all the quality of the wines. The region has long been associated with producing broad quantities of serviceable red, white and sparkling wine, most famously Cava. Yet delve a little deeper and the quality comes shining through, many of the locals are on a mission to change the image of Penedes once and for all!

I was, very kindly, invited to tour the wine region in September by Pablo Chamorro, founder of Ecomundis, a Spanish sustainability and environmental consultancy group. Something of a wine lover, last year Pablo published an extensive guide to Spain’s organic wine producers–Vinum Nature. Published annually and now in its second year, it is a fantastic overview of the countries premium organic producers. Always willing to share his passion for organic wine production, Pablo had organized a great itinerary of Penedes’ premium wineries with a commitment to organic viticulture. And what better way to start the tour than with a day or two in Barcelona, not exactly a terrible ordeal!

I have always had a soft spot for Barca, its magical combination of bustling, hedonistic urban life, wonderful and varied cultural scene, endless good restaurants, and, of course, the beach. If Barcelona were up for sale it would pull in a fortune on location alone. You are never more than few hours drive from the stunning Costa Brava, the Pyrenees, medieval centers like Tarragon and vineyards! The climate is benign too, unlike its more southern cousins. True to form, a gorgeous sunny September afternoon greeted me as Pablo met me at the airport and we sped off to my hotel for three days–the Hilton Diagonal Mar.

The city has a wealth of hotels to suit all budgets and tastes, everything from hostels to cutting edge boutique hotels and massive corporate behemoths, offering every amenity know to man. So, why therefore, did I plump for the Hilton? Well, as much as I love Barcelona’s boutique hotel selection, someone has neglected to tell the owners that inflation in Spain is not running at over 500%. In the last 5 years prices at some establishments have become ridiculous, yes I know Barcelona is the flavor of the month but still! The Hilton Diagonal Mar offers some great deals, even in peak season and has a great location minutes from the Waterfront. That, and the usually high standards of the hotel chain made it the first choice of pit-stop on this tour.

I literally threw my suitcase into my room and left for lunch with Pablo. Ask for a sea view room if you can, they are worth it! We took a stroll along Barcelona’s post Olympics revitalized waterfront and had lunch at Bestial, part of the Grupo Tragaluz chain. This top-end restaurant chain in Barcelona has an impressive portfolio of some of the city’s finest eateries. Bestial has a wonderful, shaded terrace, the perfect spot for a long lunch. The lunch menu is extremely reasonable so hardly surprising that the place was packed.

After lunch a siesta was required. When in Rome and all that. Actually, its a big myth that the Spanish close down every afternoon, today this only applies to small family business, mainly in the south of Spain. Locals in Barcelona laugh when tourists ask what time they will be taking their afternoon nap! Still, I had been up since 4:00am so I didn’t feel too guilty!

That evening we headed to Eixample, Barcelona’s central nucleus of wide streets and small plazas. It has always been inhabited by the city’s middle classes, most of whom would not even contemplate leaving. Along its grid of straight streets you can find the majority of Barcelona’s best restaurants, tapas bars and plushest hotels. It would be fair to say that Catalans aren’t as addicted to tapas as their more southern neighbors, but the city still has a smattering of good establishments. We checked out Monvinic, possibly the best wine bar in Spain, if not Europe!

Monvinic inhabits a cool, minimalist (but not overly clinical) industrial space where the wine lists are displayed on electronic tablets and the lighting is extra soft. The place was full of couples and groups savoring the various delights that Catalunya offers, the domestic and international list is impressive to say the least. We did the honorable thing and stuck to local offerings, including a very good Priorat imitation called Acustic, from the rising star Montsant and a glass of expensive Bordeaux a la Penedes. There is a well stocked library and an award winning restaurant too. It is pretty much an essential first stop of any wine lover visiting Barcelona.

Monday nights in Barcelona are not conducive to a 5am finish, so I headed back to the hotel fairly early (Madrid is a different matter!) Tuesday morning saw a visit to Torres, arguably Spain’s most important wine brand and rapidly expanding empire. So began my exploration of Penedes. These less than famous vineyards, established in a global sense by the efforts of Miguel Torres, can be found just inland from the coast and south-west of Barcelona. As I would discover, some very fine reds and whites are produced, again from a mix of local and international varieties. There is, however, still far too much pedestrian output, a fact that some local winemakers are keenly aware of!

Founded in 1870 by Jaime Torres, Torres is today a global producer with overseas interest in Chile and California’s Sonoma Green Valley. Outside of Catalunya they own vineyards in 6 appellations, including Rioja , Ribera Del Duero and Priorat. They also sell brandy under a range of different bands. Not bad for what was formerly a small family concern. The current head honcho is Miguel A Torres, company president and fourth generation of the family. His great grandfather’s brother, Jamie Torres, emigrated to Cuba in the mid 19th century and returned to Spain a much richer man thanks to a flourishing oil trade. He went into business with his brother. a wine grower and the rest they say is history. During the Spanish Civil War the winery was completely destroyed and rebuilt in 1940 by, yes you guess it, Miguel Torres, the current owners grandfather. Confused by now? Don’t worry so was I but the wines are good and that’s all that really matters!

Today’s highlight would undoubtedly be lunch with Miguel at the private restaurant, prior to that Torres organized an impressive tour around the facilities. Wine tour experiences vary enormously, often a surly PR or bored export manger quickly shows you around the winery, offers you the latest vintage and then smiles sweetly and tells you to sod off. Torres visitors, however, are showed a film, given an extensive tour of the winemaking facilities and vineyards and then offered a tasting of the Torres flagship wines. There is even a sample vineyards showing every variety and the various means of training and trellising vines. Various exhibits highlight how much Torres are committed to sustainability and eco-friendly practices, in 2011 they were awarded a Lifetime Achievement award for their environmentally friendly practices. Not tree-huggers, but definitely an examples for others to follow.

By now very eager to taste, we sampled a broad range of wines, of which the highlights were the Milmanda Chardonnay and Torres Rioja, which at under 10 euros is a steal. The Torres portfolio is very extensive, look out for Atrium, a plummy, ripe Merlot, Fransola, a good Sauvignon blanc and Gran Coronas, a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Tempranillo, Spain’s signature red grape variety.

After the tasting, I enjoyed a fantastic lunch with the Export managers Toni and Miguel, a softly spoken charming man who dresses like an English country gentleman, who was obviously very accustomed to being interrogated by a journalist. The conversation and wine flowed, Miguel may be one of Spain’s most famous wine entrepreneurs but he has a relaxed, almost child-like manner and insatiable curiosity–fluent in German and has now taken up Japanese. Positive about the firm future, he nonetheless was anxious about that ever present topic of conversation, climate change.

Torres have recently purchased vineyards in an area known as Tremp, high altitude sites that offer cooler growing conditions in the wake of scorching 2011 vintage. He admits with a candour that is very much the mark of this man, that eventually many sites in Penedes may be unsuitable for grape growing and typically has thought ahead. A considerable portion of the fruit for his Pinot Noir, Mas Borras actually comes from high altitude vineyards in the Costers del Segre region despite being labelled as Penedes Pinot Noir–global warming strikes again.

As a final treat, he opened several vintages of the famed Mas La Plana Cabernet Sauvignon, the 1982 was astonishing in its complexity. I thanked my hosts for a great couple of hours and returned to my hotel in Barcelona only slightly drunk. Must learn to spit and not swallow!

Catch Part Two next week–possibly Barcelona’s best restaurant and paying a visit to the King of Cava.

Editor's Note: Have a question or comment? Leave a message in the comments below.

James LawrenceJames Lawrence is a self confessed wine obsessive, passionate about discovering and promoting the lesser known wines and wine regions of the world. He is a frequent contributor to decanter.com and runs an interactive, community led wine forum, thewineremedy.com In 2004, he went to study in Bilbao, Northern Spain. Luckily for him, the famous wine region of Rioja was just over an hour away by car. He began to spend a great deal of time there, visiting the wineries in Rioja and speaking to local wine makers. Their passion for the subject and their pride in the wines was infectious. He began to realise what an amazing subject wine is and how wide and complex the world of wine could be. Subsequently James moved into wine retail while finishing his degree, and was hooked. James also enjoys food and travel writing - he lives for Italian and Thai cuisine!

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