Tucked away between the coastal hills, southwest of Barcelona in Catalonia, Northeast Spain you will find the Penedès wine making region. Considered by many to be a close second to Rioja in the popularity stakes, it is also one of the oldest wine-producing regions in the whole of Europe. In an area of predominant white grape varieties, Penedès is best known for its Cava from Sant Sadurní d’Anoia but let’s not forget the well respected oak aged reds and still white wines produced from this region too.
As far as history goes, Vilafranca del Penedès, the capital of the region where the Denominacio d’ Origen Penedès is centred, displays evidence of an archaeological nature within its wine museum which suggests wine production dates as far back as Phoenician times when Chardonnay wines were introduced. Even throughout the Moorish occupation during the middle ages, wine from this region was exported on a large scale. Spanish wines expanded into South America in the eighteenth century and wines produced from Penedès are still hugely popular today.
Along with other wine producing regions, Penedès suffered the consequences of the phylloxera plague and this was the main reason for the change from red to white grape growth, which resulted in the production of Cava during the 1870s. Although varieties of red wine from this area have since picked up some ground, red wine only plays a small part of the overall wine produced from the Penedès region.
Soil and Grapes of Penedès
The soil in the Penedès region is mostly limestone and perfect for viticulture and the area is known for producing a wide variety of grapes. The main grapes used for white wine and Cava production are Parellada, Macabeo, Xarel.lo and Chardonnay and are required by law to be aged for a minimum of nine months following fermentation. Ninety five percent of Spanish Cava comes from the Penedès region, although many varieties of grapes from other regions are blended to make this sparkling wine, often mistakenly referred to as champagne. The Penedès region is widely acknowledged to be the home of many modern day wine producers such as Torres, Freixenet, Pinord and Jean Leon to name but a few.
Within the Penedès wine region there are three sub divisions. These are Bajo, Medio and Alto which are the Spanish words for lower, middle and upper.
Penedès Bajo: The lower of the areas is located on the coastline where the climate is very hot and with a mix of limestone and clay the soil is best suited for growing the Garnacha and Tempranillo grapes.
Penedès Medio: The middle section expands along the hillsides and has a cooler climate than the Bajo area. This area alone is responsible for around sixty percent of the total harvest of the Penedès region and focuses mainly on varieties of white grapes such as Xarello and Macabeo. Penedès growers have been known to experiment with smaller plantations of German and French grapes and this has helped to increase the range of grapes used for blending when producing Cava.
Penedès Alto The Alto region is, as the name suggests, the highest in altitude and also boasts the most humid temperatures of all of the sub divisions. Light and lemony flavoured white wines such as Parallada dominate the Alto region which has vineyards that are rated the highest in Europe at anything up to 800m above the level of the sea. It has to be said that the huge success of sparkling Cava produced in the Penedès region has provided both the funding for and the improved quality of the still white wines produced in this area.
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.
The two main producers are Codorniu whose production dates back to 1551 and Freixenet who only began production in 1915 in Sant Sadurni D’Noia, the same town as Codorniu. Although sales within Spain are very similar, Freixenet accounts for 67% of the export market.
Penedès Wine Tours from Barcelona
Wine enthusiasts visiting Barcelona should consider a short excursion from the city into the famous wine growing region of Penedès. The local industry is centred on the towns of Vilafranca del Penedès and Sant Sadurní d’Anoia which lie around 50km west of the Catalan capital. The region is best known as the home of cava production but also produces some excellent reds and whites such as those from the Torres winery in Pacs.