Tucked away between the coastal hills to the south-west of Barcelona is the Penedès wine making region which is one of Europe’s oldest wine-producing regions. The Catalan Wine Cultures Museum in Vilafranca del Penedès exhibits evidence of vines being cultivated in the region as far back as the 6th century BC under the Phoenicians.
Wine production continued under the Ancient Greeks and was expanded under the Romans who established clearly defined vineyards. These Penedès wines were exported along the Via Augusta to many corners of the Roman Empire. Under Moorish occupation the industry stood still for centuries in spite of a significant demand for Catalan wines from the region’s monasteries.
In the early 19th century most of the vineyards of the Penedès region were predominantly growing red grapes. However, the arrival of the phylloxera parasite in the French region of Languedoc on vines imported from America had massive repercussions for Europe’s wine industry. In France around half of the country’s vineyards were destroyed by this tiny parasite and many other parts of the continent were severely affected.
The phylloxera plague also destroyed harvests in the Penedès region which forced producers to seek alternative grape types. Vineyards which had previously grown red grapes replaced them with white ones and soon learned how to produce a new form of sparkling wine thanks to the work of Josep Raventos from the Codorníu Winery.
Birth of the Cava Industry
Whilst sparkling wines were produced in Catalonia as early as 1851 it wasn’t until 1872 that Josep Raventós produced the first Cava using the Champagne Method which he learned on his visits to France in the 1860s. In the aftermath of the phylloxera plague, white vines would largely replace red ones in Penedès and the Cava industry was born.
Today the majority of vineyards in Penedès grow white grapes which produce sparkling Cava wines and some high-quality whites. The remaining red vines which account for around 10% of the land are used to produce oak-aged reds.
The two main Cava producers are Codorniu whose history dates back to 1551 and Freixenet who only began production in 1915. Although domestic sales within Spain are very similar, Freixenet accounts for 67% of the export market.
Although cava is produced in the same way as champagne, representaives of the industry in France persuaded the European Commission to prevent Spanish producers using the phrase “Méthode champenoise” on their wine labels which effectively led to cava becoming a household name. Interestingly it also reduced the market share of French champagne producers considerably.
Penedès Wine Tourism
The Penedès Wine Region is divided into three sub-zones with distinct climatic conditions. The warmest of these is Baix Penedès (Lower Penedès) where cultivation takes place near the coast at altitudes below 250m. this is where red grapes are harvested to produce full-bodied red wines such as Torres’ Sangre de Toro. Inland is Mitja-Penedès (Middle Penedès) where most of the region’s wine is produced from vineyards located at altitudes between 250 and 500 metres.
However, it is the Alt-Penedès (High Penedès) which is the main destination for wine tours and tastings as it is home to Sant Sadurní d’Anoia which is the region’s main Cava producing town. Nearby is the village of Vilafranca del Penedès which is the regional capital and home to the Catalan Wine Cultures Museum (VINSEUM). Another major attraction is Bodegas Torres in Pacs del Penedès which is Spain’s largest winery. Many of the region’s finest white wines are produced in the vineyards of Alt-Penedès which are amongst the highest in Europe at between 500 and 800 metres above sea level.
Getting to Penedès from Barcelona
For the purpose of wine tourism the main destination is Sant Sadurní d’Anoia which lies in the Alt-Penedès some 50km west of Barcelona.
Penedès By Train: There are regional trains to both Vilafranca del Penedès and Sant Sadurní d’Anoia from Arc de Triomf, Plaza Catalunya and Sants train stations in Barcelona. The journey takes approximately 60 minutes.
Penedès By Car: The 55km drive from Barcelona via the AP-7 motorway takes just 45 minutes.
Penedès By Bus: There are frequent bus services to Vilafranca del Penedès from Barcelona’s Maria Cristina bus station which also take less than an hour.
Penedès Wine Tours and Tastings
There are hundreds of wine producers in the Penedès region which include internationally renowned Cava producers such as Freixenet, Codorníu and Juvé y Camps. In addition, there famous bodegas which sell their wines around the world such as Bodegas Torres whose bestsellers include Sangre de Toro, Viña Sol and Viña Esmeralda. Pinord and Jean León and two other well-known wineries.
As well as the large scale producers there are many smaller, family-run bodegas in Penedès which produce relatively low yields but high quality. These include the likes of Parés Baltà, Llopart, Gramona and Albet i Noya.
Most wine tours and tastings take place in and around Sant Sadurní d’Anoia, Vilafranca del Penedès and Pacs del Penedès in the Alt Penedès. The main wineries engaged in wine tourism include the following: