Why Penedes? Part Two

Barely time for 20 minutes siesta, (Barcelona’s inhabitants aren’t big on this tradition) before heading out to experience the city’s supposedly top restaurant, Moo. It was the second day of what would be a memorable trip–Barcelona, Penedes, and some angry Cava growers all rolled into one!

The food scene in Barcelona had changed considerably since my first visit in 1998. In fact, the entire countries culinary revolution continues apace, the staple of tapas, Paella and Calamares is long gone. The famous restaurant El Bulli has undoubtedly shaped the top-end restaurant scene in Barcelona, main of the city’s top chefs trained under the legendary Ferran Adria. There are of course, plenty of traditional restaurants that existed prior to the tourist invasion but these have been joined by a bevy of modern European joints that specialize in Mediterranean creativity, experiment cooking and hefty price tags! If you fancy a break from the Catalan then plenty of international restaurants are dotted around, Asian seems to be currently in vogue.

Tonight I was due to sample the wares of Moo, a sexy and urban restaurant houses in the hotel Omm just off the Passeig De Gracia. The reviews I read were very positive and apparently locals and tourists alike flock to this establishment. One of the best features is the lobby bar facing the restaurant; think very soft lighting and inviting sofas. I was met by the head Sommelier, Xavi Ayala and we chatted over a class of Cava.

Xavi Ayala is one of the city’s rising Sommelier stars and a passionate advocate of Penedes. He also looks further afield for inspiration, which is unusual, even in Barcelona. The Spanish are notoriously bad are sampling wines outside their own country or even region, although Xavi feels this is slowly changing. Then, when a country is as arguably as self-sufficient as Spain, you can see why. I could happily survive on Sherry, Rioja, Priorat, Rueda, and Vega Sicilia!

My host had prepared a tasting menu for me tonight; Moo turns out inventive, Mediterranean inspiring cooking, which is overlooked by the famous Roca Brothers and prepared by head chef Felip Llufriu. Everything is designed as half portions so diners can experience the full range so expect plenty of courses. Xavi will suggest wines for every course and I can guarantee that you’ll be in safe hands.

So, first thing’s first: the décor. While the elegant, wide dining room is quite simply and perhaps sparsely decorated, the main attraction is the large windows and ‘garden’ at the back and the atmosphere, soft, low lighting. If I have to find fault, then the surroundings are somewhat clinical; don’t expect a vibrant buzz, rather a restrained elegance. It’s a great romantic venue; you don’t have to shout over other patrons.

There is no criticizing the food; however, we sampled a host of delicious and inventive combinations, including Smoked pigeon carpaccio with juniper ice cream, red mullet with tomato comfit and pepper broth and Lamb shoulder with garlic purée and Manchego cheese. Every course was flawlessly executed, inventive but not over wrought. Chef Felip Llufriu likes to focuses on precise, imaginative cooking, without the tricky, over clinical approach of some of his peers. The wine pairings were uniformly excellent and well chosen by Xavi, the Viña Tondonia 92 Reserva. White Rioja has to be tasted to be believed. So not all white Rioja is flat and oxidize after all.

Moo comes highly recommended, unless you just fancy something quick and easy, dining here is a leisurely, tranquil experience. The service is superb and the best I have experienced in Barcelona. It is by no means cheap but definitely worth it for a chance to sample some of the best cooking in Spain. The Basques are being given some serious competition it seems.

A new day and a great chance to catch up with good friends. On Wednesday I had breakfast with Pepe Raventos, future heir of the Cava estate Raventos I Blanc. We met at a conference in Italy in 2010, and I had been keen to visit the property ever since I tried their impressive range of Cavas. A quick coffee and croissant later, we set of to Sant Sadurni in Penedes.

The vineyards of Penedes can be found just inland from the coast and south-west of Barcelona. The region has long been associated with producing broad quantities of serviceable red, white and sparkling wine, most famously Cava. I have always been slightly skeptical about the quality potential of Cava, although admittedly my views have been colored by the big brands of Cordorniu and Freixenet. Both these companies churn out massive quantities of cheap and cheerful basic range Cava that supermarkets in the UK sell for £five to six. It’s cheap but many of the quality conscious growers in Cava feel that this has dumbed down the image of the region, i.e. it represents nothing more than good value. It’s an image that they are keen to dispel–Pepe is on a mission to prove that it can rival the best sparkling wines in the world.

With that mission in mind, we arrived at the estate and I toured the impressive winery and various vineyard sites. The stand out sight is a 500 year old oak tree, which is majestically housed alongside their winery. Quite an entrance to this grand estate!

The Raventos vineyards, 90 hectares in total, are sub divided into five areas: Plana, llac, Clos del Serral, Barbera, and Serral. The most prized is the Clos del Serral, their ‘Grand Cru’ and responsible for providing the fruit for the top tier wines. These five vineyards are further subdivided into 46 plots each with an apparent distinct identity from its neighbors. The soil is largely a mix of Clay, Silt and Sand, and as I discovered offer great views of the Penedes region.

Unlike their neighbors, Raventos are resolutely against oak aging their wines and use the classic blend of Xarel-lo, Macabeo (Rioja’s Viura) and Parellada grapes in their wines. Pepe and his father Manuel make a small concession for Chardonnay and Pinot; small quantities are used in the top wines. I personally think Cava benefits enormously from some Chardonnay in the blend; it adds structure, weight and complexity. Pepe begrudging agrees it adds flavor but some growers refuse to use it at all. In fact, its mere suggestion will get you thrown out the winery.

The friendly export manager Francesc organized a tasting of their Cavas with some visiting buyers from Croatia, no less. All the Raventos wines, both still and sparkling impress but it’s the top flight Cavas that really got me excited. The La Finca Gran Reserva and premium selection Elisabet Racentos 2006 were some of the best Cavas I had ever sampled. Rich, ripe and creamy, the Raventos top tier wines are given considerable aging on the lees, (yeasty sediment that forms after fermentation) and the wines clearly benefit from it. There was a finesse, balance and elegance to these wines that you rarely find. Cava can be very complex but often leaded footed and slightly heavy as well.

Not so for the Cavas of this company, as the owner Manuel Raventos was keen to emphasize over lunch. He proudly related the history of the property; amazingly the Raventos family has owned this land since 1497. It’s incredible to think that 18 generations have cultivated the same estate, over 500 years under the same ownership. It turned out that the recent history of Raventos began as recently as 1986, when Manuel’s father Josep decided to found the winery on their historic estate.

Financial difficulties in the early years forced Manuel to sell his beloved house but since then the property is firmly on track, the basic Cavas are evidence enough. I was astounded by the quality of the top cuvee–Enoteca Personal Manuel Raventos. We sampled a bottle of the 1999 and 2000; the 1999 in particular had a wonderful brioche creaminess that defies the non-existent oak aging. The palate was rich and complex; it demonstrates finesse and ‘breeding’ that is rarely encountered. They were special wines; proof that oak is not essential to make memorable sparkling and proof also of the heights that Cava can reach in the right hands.

A fantastic day and eye-opening experience! Pepe and his family were moving to New York the following week to promote Raventos, so I paid a final visit to their flat to say good luck, before returning to the hotel. As I got into bed it occurred to me that if every producer could follow their example, I think we would all be sold on Cava.

Catch Part Three next week: The best and worst of Penedes and final farewell in Sitges.

Hotel Omm
Restuarant Moo
Rosselló 265
08008 Barcelona
T +34 93 445 40 00

Raventos I Blanc
Pl. del Roure, s/n 08770
Sant Sadurní d’Anoia
T.+34 93 818 32 62

James Lawrence

James 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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