Catalonia calls with modernista architecture, sun-kissed beaches and wines that sparkle from within. Tucked away between Barcelona and Tarragona and spread on gentle hills along the Mediterranean Sea, are two DO’s that get almost as much attention as the Rioja region. Penedès is one of the oldest wine-producing regions in Europe. And Cava, “the Champagne of Spain,” bubbles over with toast-worthy taste.
History Through the Grapevine
Winemaking in this region can be dated back to the ancient Romans, and many vestiges of their imbibing have been left here. At a little wine museum in Vilafranca del Penedès, one of Penedès’ principal wine villages, you can see the evidence on display. During the Moorish occupation, wine from this region was exported on a large scale, making its way all the way to South America by the 18th century.
Penedès wasn’t immune to the phylloxera plague, and because of the disease, single handedly changed the course of grape growth from red to white. This began the production of Cava in the 1870s. And although varieties of red wines have picked up some ground, they only play a small role in the viticultural landscape here.
The expectations in Penedès are high as the region tries to best Rioja for Spanish wine dominance. Subdivided into three zones, the terrain is varied and full of microclimates.
Baix-Penedès is comprised of mostly low-lying coastal spots coupled with gorgeous vineyard scenery. At over 2400 feet, Alt Penedès is the most inland and at the highest altitude. Although low yield, the quality of wines is high. Finally, Penedès Central in the southwest is responsible for the majority of the region’s production.
Ninety-five perfect of Spanish Cava comes from the Penedès region. Recognized as its own DO back in 1991, Cava is created by using grapes from other regions as well, and is then blended to bubble-popping perfection. Want to blush? Have a glass of rosé Cava, made with the indigenous grapes of Xarel.lo, Macabeo and Parellada. Delicious “still” whites also reign supreme here: Chardonnay, Muscat and even foreign Riesling and Chenin Blanc.
Penedès is widely acknowledged as the home of the most modern and innovative Spanish grape growers. But who really put the region on the map was trailblazer Miguel Torres for his groundbreaking research on Catalan grape varietals.
The Torres family has been cultivating their own vineyards for the last 300 years. Establishing their bodega in Vilafranca del Penedès more than 130 years ago. However, it wasn’t until the 1970’s when their then most prestigious red wine, Mas La Plana, beat Chateau Latour at the Paris Wine Olympiad that Torres flew onto the world wine scene. You can find their wines in over 100 countries and on wine lists of top restaurants and hotels almost anywhere.
For the best of Cava, most are familiar with the Freixenet label. Along with Codorniu, they are the two largest Cava companies, with exceptionally beautiful cellars dating to the 1800’s. Both are located in the charming town of Sant Sadurní d’Anoia – the wine’s central production hub.
Rome this Way: The Ruins of Tarraco
Catalonia’s cultural capital is beautiful, widely-visited Barcelona. One of the hottest destinations in all of Europe, the nightlife, beaches and language collide to create a sensuous, sublime and surreal city. No wonder the likes of Dali, Miró and Gaudi sought to create their works of wonderment here.
But Catalonia holds much more than Barcelona and Cava. The city of Tarragona was known as Tarraco during Roman times, and was a major administrative and mercantile city in Iberia. Today, you can visit the preserved ruins, which present a vivid picture of Tarraco’s former glory days. They truly trace the development of Roman urban planning and design, and served as a model for provincial capitals elsewhere in the Roman world.
Toast to your Travels
Penedès is in the center of a fascinating region, steeped in history and culture. The efficient Spanish rail system is the ideal way to capture every inch of Catalunya in your heart (and on your camera).
From Barcelona, it’s just 90 minutes to Tarragona. In between, you’ll find smaller towns to explore on a whim, like Cadaqués. This tiny, colorful fishing village was the birthplace of Salvador Dali, and it’s where the artist spent summers perfecting his Surrealist technique. Purchase a point to point ticket for each trip — or, if you plan to add several little stopovers and day trips to your itinerary, maybe try a Eurail Spain Pass instead. This pass will cover the ticket prices of all the trains you’d like to take, and you can travel as many times as you’d like each day. You can reserve the specific trains you’d like to take in advance on our website.
In addition, the pass offers discounts on certain private rail lines and cable journeys in Catalunya, as well as access to the club lounges at certain train stations for those holding first class passes and reservations. You can view a complete list of the bonuses and discounts offered with this pass on this FAQ page on the website.
For a true beach town, hop on the train in Barcelona and be in Sitges in 45 minutes. It’s a world-renowned vacation spot for the gay community and jetsetters, but you won’t feel left out if you are neither. Trains leave from each of the major Barcelona stations (Sants, Franca, and Passeig de Gracia), making it an easy trip no matter where you’re staying in the city.
Come for cava – with a plate of vinegar-y sardines if you dare – and explore a region of Spain that, once visited, will remain persistently in your memory. Hurry, the clocks are melting.